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500 facts: the '70s

Snakepits and bell-bottoms



323. Al Unser, Sr, started his run to four in 1970.

The car's name: Johnny Lightning.

324. Big Al won his second the following year, 1971.

Back to back for Johnny.

325. A local auto dealer wrecked the pace car in '71.

The 1971 pace car story is also a great example of how home-grown the Indianapolis 500 can be. When none of the Big Three automobile manufacturers offered to supply a pace car, four Indianapolis-area Dodge car dealers stepped up. 

The group, spearheaded by Eldon Palmer picked the Dodge Challenger 383-4V (heck yes, it's a Hemi!) and supplied a fleet for the month of May. They chose Eldon to drive the official pace car at the start of the race. 

The day before the 500, while practicing for the race, as the story goes, Eldon set up an orange flag (or an orange traffic cone, depending on which version of the events you're reading) in the pit lane to give himself with a reference point on when to start braking. During the parade and pace lap, Tony Hulman, ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel, and John Glenn rode as passengers in the car.

As the field came down the main stretch for the start, Eldon pulled into the pits and accelerated down pit land. He continued to accelerate, under the impression he was required to cross the start/finish line in the pit area prior to the race cars doing so out on the track. His reference flag (or cone) had been removed and he missed his planned braking spot. Moving upwards of 125 mph, Eldon realized he was going too fast, and chose to stand on the brakes, rather than dangerously veering back on to the track, and into the traffic of the 33 cars. 

He lost control of the car and it swerved and skidded to the end of the pit area and into a temporary stand full of photographers. 

The stand collapsed, injuring 29 (or 22 or more or less, depending on the story) people. Thankfully, no one was killed. Tony Hulman suffered a sprained ankle, and a shaken Chris Schenkel sat out the remainder of the ABC broadcast.

This ushered the era of the pace car drivers selected from the pool of former Indy drivers or people with racing experience.

— Nora Spitznogle

326. 1972 saw the addition of wings to the cars to create downforce.

Prior to '72, USAC disallowed any form of aerodynamic modifications to their cars that weren't "integral" parts of the car's body. When the sanctioning body lifted that restriction, wings appeared on the cars and speeds jumped dramatically.

327. Two qualifying speed barriers were broken in 1972.

"Billy" Vukovich, son of the late Bill Vukovich, shattered the 180 mph barrier in qualifications (making the field at over 185), only to see Bobby Unser's Offy engine obliterate the 190 mark shortly thereafter (196.678).

328. Pole Day in 1973 saw a driver perish.

Art Pollard died in practice on May 12, setting the tone for a 500 filled with tragedy later that month.

  • Courtesy of the Fasig family
  • Salt Walther in '79.

329. The 1973 race opened with disaster.

After a four-hour rain delay, the green flag dropped at around 3 p.m. on Monday, May 28. On the front stretch of the first lap, "Salt" Walther made contact with Jerry Grant, and the tire-to-tire contact lifted Walther's car into the catch fence — which slung the ride back onto the track upside down. Spinning like a burning top — and spraying fuel "like a sprinkler," according to Jim McKay, the crash ultimately involved 11 cars and red-flagged the race. Eleven spectators were injured, too; nine seriously. Amazingly, no one was killed — and the return of rain wound up postponing the race until Tuesday.

330. The 1973 Lap One results were scrapped.

The decision was made to start the race "from scratch" on Tuesday, but rain once again delayed the 500. By Wednesday, the infield had become so contaminated with garbage and mud that there was serious talk about cancelling the event should the rains return.

331. To date, Swede Savage is the last driver to perish as a result of a wreck during the Indianapolis 500.

Savage, running second to Al Unser on lap 59 in the 1973 500, seemed poised to lead the race as Unser began to move toward the pits. As he began to exit turn four, Savage's car got loose and skittered across the track and into the infield retaining wall, where the vehicle exploded and disintegrated, sending one tire easily 100 feet into the air. Savage could be seen moving inside a portion of the flaming debris after it slid back across the track. Jim McKay, calling the race for ABC, called the Savage wreck "the worst thing I've ever seen at a race course anywhere." Savage would linger for a little more than a month, finally dying on July 2, 1973. While it's been claimed that Swede ultimately died as a result of contaminated blood he'd received during a transfusion, Savage's daughter Angela claims he perished from lung failure.

332. A second man died as a result of the Savage wreck.

As ABC's cameras were focused on the wreck that red-flagged the '73 500, one can hear the crowd react in abject horror — many of them have just seen a man thrown violently into the air as a result of a secondary accident. Armando Teran, a crewman for Savage's teammate Graham McRae, had been running toward Swede's wreck when he was struck by a fire truck that had been racing north up pit lane. McKay had erroneously noted that driver and safety worker Jerry Flake had been traveling the wrong way in pit lane; Flake was following orders from the Speedway Fire Chief.

333. George Snider quit the '73 race after the Savage accident.

Snider gave his ride back to team owner A.J. Foyt, who'd lost his car at lap 37. Foyt's new ride would quit around the halfway mark.

334. Gordon Johncock won the rain-shortened '73 race.

Given all the mayhem of that May, no victory banquet was held. Johncock's "celebratory" meal was reportedly a visit to the Speedway Burger Chef.

335. A.J. Foyt's temper might've proved beneficial for Janet Guthrie.

After she failed to qualify for the '76 500, there was scuttlebutt in the garages that Guthrie didn't make the cut because she was a woman. The story goes: A righteously pissed-off Foyt put Guthrie in his backup car for a practice session that yielded a time that would've put Janet in the field, proving Foyt's point that it was poor funding and not gender that kept Guthrie out of the grid. According to Davidson, though, the event's pretty mysterious: A closed-door meeting resulted in Guthrie running a Foyt car (numbered 1) — and after a total of ten laps, Guthrie and Foyt parted ways without any more mention of Guthrie driving for A.J. No matter what really went down in '76, Guthrie would become the first woman to make the field the following year.

Guthrie and Foyt - PAUL WILLIS
  • Paul Willis
  • Guthrie and Foyt

336. Elmer George died after the 1976 500.

George had been married to Mari Hulman until she filed for divorce earlier that month. After the 500, Elmer drove to the family's farm outside Terre Haute to confront a horse trainer named Guy Trolinger, whom Elmer believed to be having an affair with Mari. That confrontation ended when Trolinger shot George dead. Trolinger was ruled to have acted in self-defense.

337. Janet Guthrie had a vastly better showing than Rick Mears in the '77 quals.

Guthrie became the first woman in the field, starting in the middle of row 9. Mears failed to qualify.

338. Tom Sneva cracked the 200 mph barrier in 1977.

Sneva qualified in Roger Penske's ride on May 14 at 200.535. After several second-place finishes, he'd eventually win the race in 1983. The following year, 1984, Sneva broke the 210 mark in quals.

339. Speedway owner Tony Hulman passed away in 1977.

Mari's dad passed away at age 76, but not before seeing A.J. Foyt win four Indy 500s.

340. 1978 saw the first all 200 mph front row.

Rick Mears, Danny Ongais and Tom Sneva (on the pole) all qualified at over the double-century mark.

341. 1978 marked Big Al's third 500 win.

Unser edged Tom Sneva that year.

342. Also in 1978, Dan Gurney penned a "white paper" that outlined the sanctioning body that would become CART.

Gurney, arguing that USAC was out of touch with the teams racing under their governance, wrote the following prophetic graph nearly two decades before the IndyCar/Champ Car split:

It appears that a "show down" with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is or should be the first target. They are the ones who can afford it. We should re-negotiate the TV contract (our rights — not theirs) and we should double the purse. Other tracks should be negotiated with on the basis of what is a reasonable amount of revenue to come from all sources such as TV, gate receipts, advertising sponsors, etc. The entire picture should be shared from the standpoint of cooperation rather than killing each other.

343. A number of owners wanted a look at USAC's books, too.

Pat Patrick is quoted in The Official History of the Indianapolis 500 that teams were "showing up with multimillion dollar operations racing for $30,000 purses" at markets outside Indy. USAC refused.

  • Paul Willis
  • Sneva!

344. Rick Mears started his legendary series of wins in 1979.

He'd become the third, and so far the last, man to win four 500s.

345. CART teams were given the cold shoulder in 1979.

After a beef with USAC that led to the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (led by Roger Penske, Pat Patrick and a number of other team owners), CART's entries for the '79 500 were rejected by IMS. A judge overruled the IMS decision, which led to the Speedway's insistence that the 500 would be limited to those they invited.

346. The lawsuits eventually led to a 35-car field.

Wrangling over exhaust system rules (as outlined in a lawsuit brought by angry would-be entrants) pressured USAC to give 11 cars another shot at quals. Two entrants — Bill Vukovich II and George Snider — bested Roger McCluskey's bump speed and made the grid.

347. Tom Sneva was denied three poles in a row by Mears.

Sneva's No. 1 car started in the middle of Row One in 1979.

348. Champ Cars became Indy Cars in '79, too.

This came with a sponsorship deal from PPG, which renamed the CART series of races the "PPG Indy Car World Series," the first official use of "Indy Car" to describe the machines.

349. And "ground effects" cars first ran in '79.

Jim Hall's Chaparral 2K — dubbed the "Yellow Submarine" — had tunnels on the underside of the body that created a suction effect and made for much faster cornering.


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