Field of dreams
This year’s American Grand Prix at Indianapolis is not the first time Formula One cars have raced on oval-cum-road course. Adam Cooper recalls the 1971 Questor GP
During a visit to a NASCAR race at Riverside back in 1987, I decided to track down another famous southern Californian venue. I was aware that Ontario Motor Speedway had been closed for seven years, but I nevertheless expected to find some signs of its former glory; perhaps a dilapidated race control building, or a grandstand with weeds poking out of cracks in the concrete.
The guy at the gas station gave me a funny look, but pointed me in the right direction. When I arrived at what I presumed was the right place, I clambered up a slope and found — nothing. Absolutely zilch. The place had been so successfully erased, all that remained was a ploughed field. A wasted trip. Twenty-nine years ago, Ontario was the site of one of the most unusual non-championship Formula One events ever seen. You might assume that Bernie Ecclestone’s decision to run a grand prix on a road course within an American oval represents a bold piece of original thinking. It’s not. The Questor Grand Prix of 1971 was an experiment that was never repeated, and yet could so easily have been a roaring success.
Forty miles inland from LA’s golden beaches, Ontario was conceived as the West Coast’s answer to The Brickyard: its 2.5mile rectangular design was a virtual clone. Three entrepreneurs had raised $25m — quite a sum in 1968 — from bond issues to finance its construction and managed to bring the project in at $ 17m. That useful surplus seemed to bode well for the future, and when the new venue opened with a 500-mile USAC race in September 1970, it was an immediate hit with competitors. ‘The oval was somewhat similar to Indy,” recalls Mario Andretti, who took part in that first race. “However, it wasn’t really, and it drove totally differently. The effect of the wind was different, for some reason or other. Also, at Indy the normal line and the apron were banked the same, but at Ontario the apron was flat. It was very tempting to use the apron for overtaking, because it was pretty wide, but you couldn’t touch it because, if you put the left front on there, it would suck you right round. However, I would use it sometimes when I had an understeering car — but you had – to really, really watch it.”
USAC and NASCAR were an obvious fit for the oval, but the ambitious owners also planned to host a US Grand Prix on the infield road course. An integral part of the original design rather than an afterthought, it was said to have been approved by Jim Clark shortly before his death. As a first step, they announced a non-championship race for March 71. However, to their dismay, the FIA was loathe to sanction a date in an already overcrowded calendar. So instead it became a Formula A event, for America’s fuelinjected version of F5000. Conveniently, these rules allowed 3-litre Formula One cars to run, too. Problem solved.
The grand prix teams were less worried than the administrators about the calendar, mainly because a prize fund of nearly $300,000 had been put up by the race sponsor, whose name had allegedly been devised by computer.
“Questor was a very big corporation that made everything from golf clubs to I don’t know what,” says Jackie Stewart, who became involved in the pre-race publicity. “It was one of the new, modem conglomerates.” A second Gold Rush began. Not surprisingly, the entry was almost as good as for a world championship race, consisting of Scuderia Ferrari (Jacky Ickx and Andrea* Lotus (Emerson Fittipaldi and Reine Wisell), BRM (Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez and Howden Ganley), Brabham (Graham Hill and Tim Schenken), McLaren (Denny Hulme and Peter Gethin), Tyrrell (Stewart), Matra (Chris Amon), March (Ronnie Peterson), plus two privateer Marches from Frank Williams (Henri Pescarolo and Derek Bell). “I was looking forward to it,” Frank says. “I thought there was a chance for us to be a bit more competitive because of the unusual circumstances. It was a strange track.” To this line-up was added a field of Formula As, including the likes of Peter Revson, Mark Donohue, George Follmer and Bob Bondurant, while seats were found for guesting USAC legends AJ Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser. Some saw it as a rerun of Monza’s Race of the Two Worlds.
For many of the visitors — including future CART star Fittipaldi — this was the first sight of an oval. Everyone was knocked out by the facilities at the state-of-the-art venue. The race control buildings and paddock garages were impressive, the awesome grandstands had room for 180,000, and the well-appointed executive suites were reached in lifts attended by smiling fellows in uniforms. F1 had never seen such lavish corporate entertainment.
“It was very colourful,” says Stewart. “‘They had cocktail parties in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there was a Hollywood razzmatazz.” But not everything had been properly thought-out. Andretti: “It was very modem — everything was done superbly, better than at Indy. But they were so starstauck. They had this very expensive club, and they were selling yearly memberships, but the club was full of Hollywood starlets who were invited for free, and they and their entourages took over everything so that the patrons who were paying were second-class citizens. It was a bizarre way of screwing up something that was very good.”
Like the 2000 Indianapolis track, the 3.1-mile road course utilised the main straight in the opposite direction to normal use. But there was one major difference; Ontario used Turn Four of the oval as the challenging first corner of the road course, whereas at Indy, Turn One forms the final corner. Much thought had gone into safety. Wide run-offs and concrete walls topped with debris fencing were something new. The layout was tight and twisty, and in that respect too, Ontario was ahead of its time, a precursor of the likes of Magny-Cours.
“When I went up to the suites it looked a little bit like Scalextric,” says Stewart, “because everybody was so far away from it. But the racetrack itself was quite nice.”
Andretti agrees: “The road course wasn’t bad, not as Mickey Mouse as some of these infield courses. You could stretch your legs just a bit more than normal, and it had a couple of hairpins that you had to really negotiate properly. But like all the dual-purpose facilities I’ve seen, Daytona included, it just didn’t appeal to road racing fans, even though they could see all the way around.”
The race was divided into two heats, because of the small fuel tankage of the Formula A cars, with an overall result determined on aggregate points. Stewart and Amon shared the front row, ahead of Ickx and Hulme, while Donohue was the quickest local, beating many of the Fl cars in an encouraging seventh with his Penske-run Lola.
After a crash in practice, Andretti started 12th. However, Mario was the star on Sunday. He knew better than most how to take advantage of a rolling start, and after pace car driver James Garner had peeled off, Andretti battled his way through to the front and won the first heat from Stewart In the second race he again chased and passed JYS. “I led that heat quite comfortably,” says Jackie, “but unfortunately my tyres went off.”
The fans appreciated Andretti’s drive, although lacklustre performances from Foyt and the Unser brothers were a disappointment. So was the crowd of 68,000, which looked lost in the huge stands, but the teams still got their money. “I could afford to pay the hotel bills on the spot!” says Williams. That week it was announced that Ontario would definitely host a second US Grand Prix in 1972, but somewhere along the line, the plan was quietly forgotten. However, the concept of a GP on the west coast was revived by Long Beach promoter Chris Pook four years later.
For the next decade, Ontario continued to host two annual Indycar races, plus the prestigious Winston Cup finale. However, the huge initial profit made when the place was built encouraged financial excesses, which eventually led to ruin. The money ran out in 1980.
‘They started defaulting on paying the interest back on the bonds,” says Andretti, “and finally the city foreclosed them for non-payment of taxes.”
It was also a sign of the times. The CART/U SAC war created uncertainty in Indycar racing, and the success of Long Beach triggered a stampede to street circuits and other temporary venues. Nobody was building super-speedways in 1980. Twenty years on, the story is very different. Ovals have sprung up all over the US in the last six or seven years, and
Germany and Britain will join the club with CART events in 2001. Ironically the most lauded recent oval project is just a few miles away from the old Ontario site, although the track itself is half a mile shorter. “I don’t know how much it cost to build Fontana,” says Mario, “but it’s not even close to what Ontario was. It was the crime of the century that the place had to be ripped up. A crying shame.”
Mario Andretti on the questor GP
“I have great memories of that race,especially because earlier I’d won the South African GP which was my first F I victory. Any race you won over Jackie Stewart would be a memorable one, and what made this race important was exactly that I was able to beat him in both heats, and to me that was really, really big.
“Early in practice I tried to pass someone; he put me onto the sand and I went into the wall and did some front-end damage. Then I had to race at Phoenix on the Saturday, so I missed most of qualifying and started well back. “I passed a lot of people in the first heat and won.The first turn, that was a pukka factor — that’s where I had a leg-up on the rest I was definitely quicker through there, I had a better feel for it.Then in the second heat I started on pole, but Jackie passed me early on. I dogged him for a while and then I passed him back, and that was it.
The Ferrari was phenomenal — I couldn’t believe how well-balanced it was. It was totally neutral and the brakes were good. I fell in love with that car at that race. I could hold such tidy lines; I had good front grip and good turn-in which was extremely important. I really loved that car and enjoyed that drive tremendously.The car had to be good to beat Stewart, obviously.
“Socially, it was a great event Everything was extravagantYou could have bathed a child in the trophy!The actor Robert Stack and his wife were there in victory lane. She was biting my car, and I remember my wife saying, ‘One more bite, and she’s going to wear this trophy!”