American Comment



The most interesting event on the American scene in the past month has been the opening of Ontario Motor Speedway, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and the running of its first race, the California 500 for USAC Championship cars. The speedway itself is an entirely new concept in racing circuits and reflects the builders’ belief that in order for motor racing to compete effectively with all the myriad other forms of entertainment available, the spectator must be given the very best of everything. Built at a cost of $25 million, the Speedway certainly achieves its objective. It actually contains two courses : a 2-1/2-mile oval track (or more correctly a rectangle with rounded corners) that is patterned very closely after that at Indianapolis, and an infield road circuit which utilises the same start/finish straight and pits as the oval track. The back stretch of the oval is approximately 30 feet higher than the front stretch and as a result every one of the 140,000 spectator seats has an unobstructed view of the entire track (or road circuit, as the case may be). Two further steps have been taken to please spectators. The public address system has a power of 28,000 watts – 8,000 watts more than the Cape Kennedy space complex in Florida and double that at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In addition, $5 million is being spent on a completely computerised scoring system that will provide almost instantaneous information on virtually any aspect of the race (lap rundowns, corner and straightaway speeds, length of pit stops, the speed at which one car is catching another, etc.) and all this information will be visible to spectators on huge, lighted scoreboards.

Because the two short straights are banked four degrees (unlike Indianapolis) the Ontario track is noticeably faster, and this was shown in practice when Joe Leonard, in one of Parnelli Jones’ turboFord-powered Colts, lapped the track at 177.2 m.p.h.—over 5-1/2 m.p.h. faster than his own existing lap record at Indy, which was set in 1968 in a Lotus turbine car. However, although Leonard and his team-mate, Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, dominated practice, it was the hard-luck king of Indy, Lloyd Ruby, who put his turbo-Offy-powered Mongoose on the pole with an average speed for the four-lap, I0-mile run of 177.567 m.p.h. Dan Gurney’s 1970 turbo-Offy Eagle and Johnny Rutherford’s 1966 turbo-Offy Eagle joined him on the front row. Al Unser and Leonard occupied the second row on either side of Gary Bettenhausen, with A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and stock car veteran Lee Roy Yarbrough on the third row. Yarbrough took over Jack Brabham’s turbo-Offy Brabham at short notice when Brabham decided to compete in the Italian Grand Prix instead. In the fourth row were Peter Revson in the works turbo-0ffy McLaren, Gordon Johncock in his similar ex-works car, and Bobby Unser in his turbo-Ford 1967 Eagle, while Mark Donohue could only make the fifth row in his turbo-Ford Lola.

The first 90% of the race was very much a procession as Al Unser appeared well on his way to repeating his overwhelming victory at lndianapolis. He took the lead from Ruby on the ninth lap and then stayed solidly in command as Ruby fell back (and later retired) with piston trouble, leaving Gurney second, Leonard third, Bobby Unser fourth, Revson fifth and Yarbrough sixth. For 166 of the first 186 laps Al Unser kept his Colt in front as Leonard fell back as the result of a brief refuelling fire, Bobby Unser retired with a blown piston and Gurney crashed near the half-way mark when a tyre was punctured by debris on the track. Revson did get the lead briefly during Al Unser’s third refuelling stop, but only briefly, and with 30 laps to go Unser had over a lap lead on the McLaren, with Yarbrough third. Revson’s chances died on the 175th lap when he, Unser and Yarbrough all made a quick “insurance” stop for fuel under a yellow light brought out when Leonard crashed. The McLaren’s engine stalled and refused to restart, and nine crucial minutes, were lost replacing the ignition transformer. This moved Yarbrough up to second and on the 187th lap the race was suddenly thrown wide open when Unser’s engine quit and the blue Brabham was in the lead, two laps ahead of Art Pollard’s turbo-Ford Scorpion and Jim McElreath’s turbo-Ford Coyote. It would have been fascinating if a stock car veteran, driving a road racer’s car, had won one of USAC’s major races, but it was not to be for on the 192nd lap, with just eight laps to go, the Brabham’s turbo-Offy engine expired in a cloud of smoke as a piston let go. Pollard, the second slowest qualifier, then took over the lead but on the 196th lap he was passed by McElreath. The positions reversed briefly the 198th lap but at the chequered flag it was the veteran McElreath by just two seconds over Pollard, with road-racing driver Dick Simon third in his turbo-Ford Vollstedt. Johncock and Revson in their McLarens were fourth and fifth and were the only other drivers to go the full 500 miles. (Only McElreath and Pollard were on the same lap at the finish but, as at Indianapolis, the race continued for five minutes after the winner took the chequered flag.) A crowd of over 170,000 watched this dramatic finish and first impressions are that Ontario Motor Speedway will have no difficulty attracting even larger crowds for future races.

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Although Al Unser did not win at Ontario, he has continued his domination of USAC’s Championship trail by winning virtually everywhere else. He scored his fourth victory in 10 races when he won a I00-mile dirt track race at Springfield; made it five out of 11 by winning a 200-miler at Milwaukee the next day; picked up number six in a 100-mile dirt track race at DuQuoin the day after the California 500; and then made it seven out of 14 when he won another 100-mile dirt track race at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds.

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There have been three more races in the SCCA’s Continental Championship for Formula A cars since George Folliner’s Ford-powered Lotus ended Chevrolet’s virtual monopoly at St. Jovite and at all three David Hobbs has been the dominating factor (though not always the winner). In a two-heat, 150-mile race at Donnybrooke, Hobbs’ Surtees TS5A won both heats from John Cannon’s McLaren M10B and Gus Hutchison’s Lola T190. In the next event, at the short Lime Rock circuit in Connecticut, Hobbs took the pole position, led every lap, and set a new lap record on the way to a comfortable 29-second victory over Follmer’s Lotus 70, with Cannon in third place but about to be lapped. In the next event, at Mosport, near Toronto, a new factor entered the scene in the form of Mark Donohue, who was driving Roger Penske’s long-wheelbase Lola TI92 in his first Continental race of the year. Hobbs was more than two seconds under the Formula A lap record in winning the pole position but his obvious edge was completely wiped out by almost continuous rain throughout the race. Donohue, using a new Goodyear wet weather tyre, had a tremendous advantage over Hobbs’ Firestone-shod car and the Lola led every lap to win comfortably from Canadian racing champion Eppie Wietzes’ Goodyear-shod McLaren M10B and Hobbs’ Firestone-shod Surtees. Despite Hobbs’ recent victories, however, the fact that he missed the first five races of the series makes it impossible for him to catch John Cannon, who has led the points standings since the third race. With only two races remaining, Cannon has 114 points, Hutchison 81 and Hobbs 71.

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In last month’s report on the SCCA’s Trans-Am series it was mentioned that Vic Elford “will be driving for Hall in the remaining three races and a win is by no means out of the question”. It is always nice to be proved right and “Quick Vic”, always an obliging driver, went out and did just that in the very next race, a two-hour event at the Watkins Glen circuit. (The track, incidentally, had been repaved since it broke up so badly during the July Can-Am race and the new aircraft runway-type asphalt mix was more than equal to the heavy pounding of the 3,200-pound Trans-Am cars. Parnelli Jones established himself as a slight favourite when he put his Mustang on the pole with a time of 1 min. 13.7 sec., with Donohue second at I min. 14.0 sec. in his Javelin, Elford third at 1 min. 14.1 sec. in Hall’s Camaro, Sam Posey fourth at 1 min. 14.2 sec. in his Dodge Challenger and Swede Savage fifth at 1 min. 14.3 sec. in his Plymouth Barracuda. For the first one-third of the race it was a battle between Jones and Donohue. with Savage third and Elford, as he was to admit later, quite incapable of running with the leaders. Shortly after that, however, it began to rain and Elford’s great experience was brought to bear as he climbed from fifth place to first in 17 laps. When the rain stopped the Camaro was more than one minute ahead of the field and he was able to make his final refuelling stop without !osing via lead. Elford then eased off and won by 9.8 seconds from Donohue who had caught and passed Follmer’s Mustang on the last lap just as both cars were about to run out of fuel. It was the first victory In one of Hall’s Chaparral Camaros in the nine races this year and with two races remaining the standings are Ford 60 points, American Motors 49 and Chevrolet 39. – D.G.