Note from Paul: In 1954, my father, David Dalbey, attended his first Indianapolis 500 with his father and aunt. Several years later, he started recording his experiences in detailed, handwritten journals. He has continued this practice all the way through the current year. Several of the earliest years were written many years later and may contain some errors in information. He was not a wordsmith, but nonetheless, I am pleased to present these journals in their original form without attempt to edit or correct any mistakes.
My silver anniversary year at the Speedway was highlighted by increasing controversy during the practice and qualifying periods, my first time seeing time trials on Sunday, almost not being able to see the time trials in person, the first new race champion in five years, and a precarious gasoline situation.
On Friday, May 4th, Dixie was operated on for a ruptured disk in her back. This had been unscheduled until the day before when she had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, and the doctor decided to operate the following day. She was not released from the hospital until the following Friday morning, my scheduled leaving time for the Speedway. My parents brought her home from the hospital, and after I made arrangements with them to check on her while I was gone, she told me everything would be okay and to go on my way.
It was between 10:30 and 10:45 when I left home. I traveled old Route 36 all the way to its intersection with the new Route 36 a few miles west of Decatur and then followed the old route to the Colonial Kitchen at Chrisman. It was 1:00 when I stopped for a cup of coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich. As usual, there were some farmers sitting at a table and drinking coffee plus a few other customers.
I left shortly before 1:30, and about 10-15 minutes later I was in Indiana. When I reached the Route 63 intersection, I had to detour south for a few miles and then east. The detour signs were few and far between, and several times I got upset thinking I might have gotten off the road. Luckily, I stayed on the route, and it finally ended at the US 231 intersection. From there, I stayed on Route 36 until I stopped at the Amoco Service Station at Lynhurst Drive.
I had the gasoline tank refilled and then drove to 16th Street and turned right. The further I drove, the heavier the traffic was. Traffic rules prohibited me from turning left into the tunnel, so I went to the Speedway Motel and turned around and went back west, paid my $1.00, and went through the tunnel and then to the museum parking lot. It was 4:00 when I turned off the engine and locked the doors.
My first stop was the gift shop where I spent a few minutes browsing, and then I walked to the Tower Terrace Area via the hospital and garage area.
Several drivers were participating in the last two hours of practice including A.J. Foyt, Janet Guthrie, Johnny Rutherford, Pancho Carter, Tom Sneva, and several others. Several hundred persons were in the Tower Terrace seats taking in the action.
When the 6:00 gun went off, I left the grounds and stopped at the fried chicken place a half block west of Georgetown Road on 16th Street. They didn’t have what I wanted, so I drove over to the Speedway Shopping Center.
My first stop was the MCL Cafeteria. The line of waiting customers stretched almost to the door but it moved quickly, and in a short time I was going through the serving line. When I reached the cashier my tray was full, but I was hungry and it cost less than $5.00, so I didn’t mind.
With supper out of the way, I did some window-shopping in the shopping center. I was trying to get some ideas about what to get Dixie for Mother’s Day. I finally stopped at a bakery which had many delicious-looking items on display.
It was hard trying to choose just one item, but I finally decided on a long cake with white icing and the words “Happy Mother’s Day” and three roses in pink icing. Roses are Dixie’s favorite flower, so I thought it would be appropriate. For safekeeping I put the cake in the car trunk and then went to the Kroger grocery store and bought my box of friend chicken for eating at the Speedway on Saturday.
By now it was almost 8:00, so I thought I’d better be on my way to the motel. I took I-465 north to the I-65 intersection and followed it to the Holiday Inn at Lebanon. My registration at the motel was easy because I had paid for my room at the Holiday Inn East in Springfield in January and the desk clerk was waiting for me.
My room was on the south side of the motel and was one of the best I’ve ever had. It had two double beds and was very clean throughout. I unpacked some of my belongings and then watched TV for a couple minutes to see how the set worked.
With everything okay in my room, I decided to take a little walk and see what was going on elsewhere in the motel. Business at the Holidome was good with several people using the swimming pool, slide, shuffleboard, ping pong, and refreshment area. The restaurant, bar, and lobby were also busy.
At 10:00, I watched the news to see what had happened at the Speedway and what kind of weather was predicted for tomorrow. After the news, I watched a few minutes of the Tonight Show and a movie and then did some reading. About 11:00, I got ready for bed, set the alarm clock, turned off the lights, and retired for the night.
It was 5:30 when the alarm sounded and awoke me from my sleep. I got cleaned up and then dressed and walked to the motel restaurant for breakfast. It was shortly after 6:00 when I arrived. The hostess seated me and gave me a menu, and a few minutes later the waitress took my order. I didn’t know it, but the next hour or so was to be quite upsetting for me. I ordered French toast, bacon, coffee, and orange juice, and thought I would be eating in 15 minutes or so. As it turned out, it was almost an hour before I received my food. I was almost ready to take some action, but the waitress apologized and was quite upset herself. I had my Readers Digest with me, so that helped pass the time.
Feeling better physically but not emotionally, I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, and got ready to leave for the Speedway. It was about 7:30 when I left the motel and 8:00 when I arrived at the Lions Club parking lot at Lynhurst Drive and Crawfordsville Road.
As I was walking to the Speedway, I felt something terrible hit me — rain. I increased my pace and dashed into the White Castle for some shelter and a filling of my Thermos bottle with coffee.
There weren’t many people walking around the Speedway grounds. It wasn’t a heavy rain but certainly enough to prevent any cars from getting on the track. The rain was a blessing for the gift shop and other vendors. The gift shop could hardly keep up with the business.
I sat in the Paddock area and read my newspapers and Readers Digest, listened to the radio, ate chicken, and visited with some of the fans around me. As the afternoon wore on, the rain eventually stopped and the track dried out enough to be used. The crowd was getting restless for some action, and at 4:19 it was announced that the track was open for one and a half hours of practice.
Shortly thereafter, Danny Ongais lost control coming out of the fourth turn and crashed into the inside wall twice before stopping. It took 22 minutes to extract him from the car, and by the time the debris was cleaned up and the practice period finished, there was no time for qualifying.
It was 6:30 when I arrived back at the parking lot, and a few minutes after that I was at the MCL Cafeteria. I ate a big supper and then took a little ride through the residential area of Speedway. It was a real quiet and well-maintained neighborhood, and it was the first time I had seen that particular area.
When I arrived at my hotel room, I sat down for a couple minutes to glance at my newspapers. While I was doing so, the telephone rang. I answered and, to my surprise, Dixie was on the other end. She had heard on television that the time trials had been washed out and urged me to stay over and see Sunday’s time trials. Since she wasn’t going to work on Monday, I could stay another day and come home Monday morning. I told her I would think about it.
I went down to the front desk to see if I could get a room on Sunday night at the Holiday Inn in Danville, IL. When I got that confirmed, I went back to my room and called Dixie to tell her my plans.
With that important job done, I walked around to see what was happening around the motel. The Holidome, bar, and restaurant were all doing a good business. I returned to my room in time to see the 10:00 news and then watched a few minutes of a couple movies, did some reading, and around 12:00 I turned in for the night.
Because the time trials didn’t start until 12:00 and I didn’t think a huge crowd would be present, I didn’t set my alarm clock. It was about 6:30 when I woke up, after which I took a bath, brushed my teeth, shaved, and combed my hair. Feeling ready to face the world now, I left about 7:15 for the motel restaurant. For breakfast I had pancakes, bacon, toast, coffee, and orange juice. The service was much better than it was Saturday morning, and that made a better beginning of my day.
I returned to my room to brush my teeth and to pick up my equipment and then drove to the Standard Service Station about a half-mile north of the motel just off I-65. I was real happy to find the station open and not limiting the amount of gasoline sales to their customers. The gasoline situation throughout the United States was quite precarious at this time with some stations closing at night and/or Saturday and/or Sunday, or all three. The ominous feeling this situation caused me dissipated when the attendant filled the tank and I saw the needle go to the right side of F. I felt I had enough to drive all the way back home if necessary.
I had already decided to park in the same place I did Saturday, but I was quite surprised when I arrived and found no cars or people there. I asked a State Policeman if the place was open for business. He said he didn’t know but then added I could park there if I wanted to because he would be on duty all day and would watch my car for me.
I stopped at the White Castle to have my Thermos bottle filled with coffee and then proceeded through the main gate.
The size of the crowd was considerably smaller than I had expected, although it was almost three hours before qualifying started. For a change, I sat in the lower deck of Grandstand E and watched most of the practice period from there. The view is somewhat different than that from the Tower Terrace area. You can see the entire front straightaway and south chute plus all or part of the first, second, and fourth turns. Also, the cars are only a few yards from you as they go through the first turn.
About 11:00, I walked over to the Tower Terrace area. My seat was south of the Tower and a few feet north of the photographers’ stand. Practice ended at 11:30, and at 12:00 the engine of Joe Saldana’s car was fired up and he was pushed away to try to become the first qualifier for this year’s race. The lady sitting next to me was by herself, and a half hour or so later we started talking to each other. I discovered she knew quite a bit about racing and eventually found out that she was the wife of Bobby Grim, who drove at the Speedway for several years beginning in 1959. She made a real interesting companion as she told me about many drivers, mechanics, car owners, and Speedway officials, both present and from many years back. Although Bobby doesn’t drive at the Speedway anymore, she still maintains her interest in the race because her son-in-law is driver Sheldon Kinser. When Sheldon qualified his car, she excused herself and left to join Sheldon and her daughter, Susan. She seemed to be a real affable and unpretentious person, and I was glad to have been able to talk to her.
The weather was ideal. It was sunny and pleasant, warm but not hot, with little wind. It was just as beautiful as Saturday was ugly.
There were 16 first-day qualifiers, and the front row provided the most excitement. Shortly before 1:00, Al Unser qualified his Pennzoil Chaparral “ground effects” car at 192.503 mph, which was the fastest time until 4:00 when Tom Sneva pleasantly surprised everyone with a 192.998 mph run in his Sugaripe Prune Special.
For half an hour, it seemed that he would be the first man in Speedway history to have the pole position three years in a row, but his dream ended when the last first-day qualifier, Rick Mears, went out in his Gould Charge. His first and fastest lap was a crowd pleasing 194.847 mph, and his four-lap average was 193.736 mph.
Pancho Carter was the only second-day qualifier, and his 185.806 average was faster than the slowest three first-day qualifiers. During the last hour or so, there was little activity on the track, and at 6:00 the gun sounded ending the first weekend of qualifying.
I had thought about eating supper at the MCL Cafeteria, but knowing they’re closed on race-day night, I didn’t know whether they would be open tonight or not. I was most happy when I arrived at the shopping center and saw it was open. I ate a big supper and then left right away for Danville. I arrived there about 8:45.
My motel room was a letdown after my two nights at Lebanon. The condition of the room, particularly the bathroom facilities, was considerably poorer. I took a bath, shaved, watched TV for a few minutes, and then went to bed.
As I reviewed the day’s activities in my head, I decided I had been a most lucky fellow for several reasons: 1.) I had been able to get a full tank of gasoline at the first station I tried; 2.) I didn’t have to pay to park my car; 3.) I didn’t have to pay to get into the Speedway because yesterday’s tickets were accepted; 4.) I sat next to a former driver’s wife who was a good racing conversationalist; and 5.) I was able to eat supper at the MCL Cafeteria.
I woke up about 6:30 Monday morning, checked out of the motel, ate breakfast at the Colonial Kitchen, and then drove home. My trip turned out to be quite different than what I had planned when I left Friday morning.
The period between May 13th and race day was one of the most controversial ever at the Speedway. It actually started several months earlier when a group of unhappy USAC car owners broke away and formed their own organization called Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Before the track opened for practice on May 5th, USAC rejected CART’s race entries because they were “not in good standing with USAC.” CART took its complaint to Federal Court, where the presiding Judge said USAC was wrong and ordered it to accept the CART entries.
On May 19th, the qualification attempts by Dick Ferguson (a rookie), Tom Bigelow, and Steve Krisiloff were disallowed because their turbochargers had been illegally altered. The following day, rookie Bill Alsup’s qualification run was disallowed because his engine actually belonged in the car of his teammate, Bobby Unser. Seven drivers who were bumped from the 33-car starting field filed protests saying they were not given a fair chance at qualifying. At first, USAC denied the requests, but on Friday, May 25th, it changed its mind and announced that the 33 already-qualified cars wouldn’t be bumped, but the following day the protesting drivers would be given one last chance to make the field. Roger McCluskey’s speed of 183.908 mph was the slowest in the field, and anybody qualifying faster than that would start the race behind the other 33 cars. The affected drivers were Alsup, Bill Vukovich II, George Snider, Al Loquasto, Jerry Karl, Larry Cannon, John Martin, and Duane Carter.
On Saturday, May 26th, the day before the race, the unusual qualifying session took place. When it was over, only two of the drivers, Vukovich and Snider, had qualified, and so, for the first time since 1933, more than 33 cars would start the race.
During the morning of this same day, I put all my equipment into my suitcase, said goodbye to Dixie and the boys, and at 11:33 I left and started my two-day trip. I ran into light rain shortly after starting out, but it had stopped when I reached Illiopolis. I took old Route 36 all the way to Decatur and arrived there at 12:30. The drive from here to Chrisman was real pleasant as it usually is, and at 2:05 I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen. I had a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, and at 2:28 I left for Danville, where I arrived about 3:00.
Because of the gasoline situation, I decided to get my tank filled before I did anything else. This didn’t happen, however, without my experiencing some anxiety. The Standard station about three blocks north of the motel was closed because they were out of gas. The same was true for the second and third Standard stations I tried. Time was passing quickly and I was getting uneasy, so I finally stopped at an ARCO station and inquired about the station’s gasoline supply. The attendant said they were having no problem getting fuel, so I told him to fill the tank. With a feeling of relief, I drove to the Holiday Inn and checked in. It was about 4:30 now.
I took a bath and then shaved, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair. Now I was ready for supper at the motel cafeteria. The cafeteria was almost empty when I arrived. The waitress took my order right away, and while I waited for it to be cooked, I partook of some selections from the salad bar. The main course consisted of hamburger steak, baked potato, salad, and bean soup. The steak was tender and tasty, and the potato was large enough to cover the length of the plate. It was about 6:00 when I finished eating. When I left, the size of the crowd had increased, although there were several tables still empty.
With supper out of the way and feeling better because of it, I drove to the Famous Recipe chicken place a few blocks from the motel and bought my box of chicken for eating at the Speedway tomorrow. I then returned to my room and caught up on some of the reading material I had brought from home. My period of reading was broken by intermittent TV viewing.
Earlier in the evening, it started raining while I was taking a bath and cleaning up and continued through most of the evening. While it didn’t cancel any of my plans for the evening, I was more concerned about it affecting my plans for tomorrow.
At 10:00, I watched the news, which included a report of the day’s time trials, the drivers’ meeting, and a few other items of interest about the race. When that was over, I made sure I had everything packed and ready to go in the morning and then set my alarm clock for 4:30, turned off the lights, and retired for the night.
When the alarm went off, I lay in bed about a minute and got up and shaved, combed my hair, and then dressed. It was a couple minutes before 5:00 when I left my room, and the sun had just risen to start another race day. The cafeteria was just opening for business when I arrived, but there were already about a dozen customers ready to eat breakfast and get on their way to the race. My breakfast included pancakes, hash brown potatoes, orange juice, and two cups of coffee. It was a good breakfast, and when I finished I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, and then got my equipment and went to the car. Several of the people I saw in the cafeteria were also leaving. It was 5:38 when I left the motel parking lot.
I drove south about a mile, took the Indianapolis turnoff, and a few seconds later was on I-74 and driving to the race. Almost every car I met looked as if its passengers had the same destination I did. As I drove, I listened to an Indianapolis radio station whose entire program pertained to the race. It included several weather and traffic reports.
It was 7:00 when the traffic slowed down, and it was bumper to bumper then. This started just before reaching the I-465 interchange. The traffic moved slowly, but there were no long, irritating waits, and at 7:33 I ended my trip at the Lions Club parking lot on the northwest corner of Crawfordsville Road and Lynhurst Drive, the same place I parked for the time trials. I paid my $6 fee, made sure I had everything and that the car was locked, and then started my walk to the main gate.
Before going to the Speedway, I stopped at White Castle and had my Thermos bottle filled with coffee and then stopped at Rosner’s Drug Store for a couple minutes. I looked at my pocket watch, and it was 8:15 when I went through the turnstiles. Just a few feet inside the gate, I bought a newspaper and four souvenir programs. Then I took the long walk to the Gate 6 underpass, and a few minutes later I was on the infield.
I stopped briefly at the gift shop, used the men’s room for the last time until after the race, and then started walking to my seat. The traffic was elbow to elbow in places now. When I reached the far north end of the Tower Terrace seats, I handed my ticket to the gateman. He tore off one of the stubs, and I proceeded in. It was 8:50 when I arrived at my seat, the same one I’ve had since 1967 — section 47, row J, seat 5.
It felt good to sit down and get off my feet for a few minutes and to take in the panorama of sights and sounds around me. After a few minutes’ rest, I took a walk along the pit area fence to see what was happening. There were famous people walking through the pit area and being interviewed on the PA system while the pit crews made last-minute checks on their cars. Because there was little for the drivers to do now, almost all the personnel working on the cars were pit crews and car owners. All of this pit activity, plus the sound and color of the numerous marching bands, provided fans on the main straightaway with plenty of action and excitement.
It was 9:40 when I arrived back at my seat. Five minutes later, PA announcer Tom Carnegie directed the pit crews to push their cars onto the track and into starting positions as the Purdue University Band played On the Banks of the Wabash.
At 10:00, the parade of celebrities around the track began. Among some of the celebrities this year were Peter Marshall, Kent McChord, and Loni Anderson. While this was happening, my two race companions, Barbara and Malcolm McKean from church, arrived to occupy their seats. We exchanged greetings and talked about the race, etc., and then watched the activity on the track.
At 10:30, USAC officials made an inspection trip of the track and said it was ready for racing. This was especially important this year since it had rained the night before and didn’t stop until 5:00. Luckily, the sun came out and stayed out to evaporate the moisture.
At 10:45, the huge crowd rose in unison as The Star-Spangled Banner was played. It remained standing for the pronouncement of the invocation and the playing of Taps in keeping with the theme of Memorial Day. It was now time for the last familiar song, as the pre-race excitement was reaching its peak. About a minute later, the band played Back Home Again in Indiana as the spectacle of balloons was released behind the Control Tower and rose skyward to the pleasure of the crowd.
Now it was time for the big moment. Tom Carnegie excitedly introduced Mary Hulman, who gave her deceased husband’s famous command, “Lady and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”
The roar of the engines filled the air as thousands of spectators, including Malcolm and me, cheered and applauded their approval. One member of each pit crew raised an arm to indicate his car was ready to go. About two minutes later, the black and silver Ford Mustang pace car, driven by former world racing champion Jackie Stewart, slowly pulled away followed by two additional pace cars which ran side by side behind Jackie to create a V-formation. Jim McElreath’s car was the only one that didn’t start, and it was still in the pits. It finally started, and Jim sped through the pit area to try to catch up with the field. All eyes were on the fourth turn, and a loud cheer came from the crowd as the cars went by us to finish the warm-up lap and start the parade lap. As the pace car came through the fourth turn, the two secondary pace cars came through the pit area and left the one car to pace the last lap.
With the parade lap completed, the official pace lap began. The 35 cars lined up in their 11 2/3 rows provided a spectacular sight for the fans to see. Malcolm and I nervously cuffed our hands and tapped our feet as we waited out the last few seconds. Another huge cheer came from the crowd as the pace car came though the fourth turn and sped through the pit area. Row by row, the cars came out of the turn and slowly started picking up speed as everybody looked at starter Pat Vidan to see what would happen. When the front row was within a few feet of the start-finish line, Pat waved the green flag and the race was on!
The front row of Mears, Sneva, and Al Unser stayed that way almost all the way to the first turn before Unser swung across to beat the other two there. Sneva was second and Mears third. As they came down to complete the first lap, Al had increased his lead to almost a full second over Sneva. Mears was third and was followed by A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Parsons, Wally Dallenbach, and Lee Kunzman.
Al increased his speed by about a second on the second lap as the crowd let out a moan. Janet Guthrie was going real slow and was the last car across the starting line. The next time around, she pulled into her pit and was done for the day. The cause of her departure was a broken piston. It was a most stunned and disappointed crowd and pit crew that saw her pushed back to the garage area after only three laps.
Four laps later, George Snider was out with valve trouble. This was George’s 15th race, and he was in the race only because there was a fifth qualifying day. Now, after having so much trouble getting in, he was finished after only seven laps.
At 10 laps, Al Unser was still leading, and his 187.688 mph average was a new record for that distance. Behind Al were Mears, Sneva, Rutherford, Johncock, Foyt, Bobby Unser, Dallenbach, Parsons, and Kunzman. Johnny Parsons made his first pit stop on lap 15 but ran only two more laps. His car had a burned piston. Also out of the race after 17 laps with a burned piston was Jerry Sneva.
As 20 laps went by, Al Unser was still leading. In fact, his lead over Mears had increased to six seconds. The rest of the top 10 behind Al and Rick were Sneva, Johncock, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Foyt, Dallenbach, Sheldon Kinser, and Mike Mosley.
Al pitted on his 25th lap and had hardly gotten back on the track when the first yellow light of the race came out. Cliff Hucul’s car had stalled on the track and needed a tow-in. This yellow period initiated a new race procedure. For the first time ever, a pace car would be used to police the “pack-up” rule in which all drivers must close up in single file behind the leader. The pace car was driven by 1960 race winner Jim Rathmann with USAC registrar Bob Cassidy as his passenger. He waved each car past him until the lead car was directly behind him. Then, the other cars followed in single file.
At 30 laps, the top 10 were Al Unser, Mears, Sneva, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Foyt, Johncock, Dallenbach, and Kinser. After three laps, the pace car pulled off the track and the green flag was displayed again.
Al Unser gradually increased his lead to 14 seconds at 42 laps, but then the yellow flag came out again. Sheldon Kinser had stalled on the track, which brought out the yellow. A couple laps later, Wally Dallenbach came bouncing through the pit area with his right rear tire missing. His remarkable job of keeping the car under control evoked a large applause from the crowd.
At 50 laps, a quarter of the race, nine cars were out of the race. The first 10 positions were held by Al Unser, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Sneva, Foyt, Mears, Johncock, Mosley, Danny Ongais, and Vern Schuppan. The only change in positions during the next 10 laps came when Ongais passed Mosley for eighth place. Al Unser made his third pit stop on his 69th lap and was away in 14 seconds. Bobby Unser was the leader for four laps and then Mears for three laps until he pitted and Al took the lead again.
With 80 laps gone, Al had set a new record for that distance with a 164.131 mph average. Brother Bobby was second, and they were followed by Rutherford, Mears, Foyt, Sneva, Ongais, Mosley, Schuppan, and Johncock. Shortly past the 90-lap mark, the third yellow light of the day came on when Larry Dickson stalled on the track and required a tow-in. This brought on a real busy period in the pit area. Among those who came in was Foyt. He killed his engine, and by the time his crew got it started again and pushed him out, he had fallen from third to sixth position.
Meanwhile, after 66 laps, John Mahler was done for the day. John was the last qualifier on the last regularly scheduled day of qualifying, but his hopes were ended now.
Larry Dickson’s stall was caused by a broken fuel pump belt, and he was credited with 86 laps for 24th position.
On his 90th lap, Eldon Rasmussen had to retire because of a broken exhaust header. Eldon started last among the original 33 starters and was in last place when he retired.
It was about this time that one of the most dramatic events of the race occurred. Al Unser made a routine pit stop, but two laps later he returned to his pit. Smoke was coming from the right corner of the rear of his car. A couple laps later, a small fire could be seen as he came down the straightaway. The crowd came to its feet and moaned in disbelief as Al’s speed dropped remarkably. Starter Pat Vidan waved the black flag, and a couple laps later he came back to his pit. He sat in the car about a minute and then was told the car was done for the day. A transmission seal had broken and ignited because of the heat. It was a bitter disappointment to the man who had led almost every lap except when he was in the pits.
At 100 laps or half the race, the first 10 were Bobby Unser, Mears, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, A.J. Foyt, Ongais, Mosley, Johncock, Howdy Holmes, and Pancho Carter.
While Al Unser was still in his pit, the yellow light had come on again. Phil Threshie had stalled on the track and had to be towed in. The green light came on again on lap 107, and Bobby Unser was now the leader. At 110 laps, Bobby was first with Mears second and Sneva four seconds behind him.
As the 300-mile mark approached, Phil Threshie was able to get back into competition after a new magneto was put into his car. The standings were now Bobby Unser, Mears, Sneva, Foyt, Ongais, Mosley, Johncock, Holmes, Carter, and Vukovich II. There was some good racing at the front of the pack, and the close competition made the race interesting for the spectators.
Another series of pit stops took place during laps 120-129. Sneva made a real boneheaded move and waited too long to come in. He ran out of fuel and had to coast to his pit. This cost him valuable time, and he was in sixth position when he returned to the track.
Bobby Unser remained ahead, but Mears stayed within a couple seconds of him, thus giving Bobby no time to slow down a little bit.
Meanwhile, in the pit area, Vern Schuppan was forced out of the race after 111 laps with a broken transmission and Pancho Carter had a wheel bearing go bad after 129 laps, ending his hopes for the day.
Unser and Mears continued one-two, but Mosley, Ongais, and Foyt were putting on a good fight for third. At the 150-lap mark or 375 miles, Unser was still leading with a new track record of 163.135 mph. He was followed by Mears, Sneva, Ongais, Foyt, Mosley, Johncock, Holmes, Bagley, and Vukovich.
All of the front runners were making pit stops now, but Unser and Mears were the last ones to do so. Just as they were coming into their pits, the yellow light came on, thus preventing anybody from gaining on them. The yellow was caused by Larry Rice who, while in the second turn, had his car spin into the infield and then spun again and crashed into the wall. Larry was unhurt, but his car was damaged too much to continue. The green light came on again on Unser’s 163rd lap.
At 170 laps, Unser was still leading, but Mears was only 1.8 seconds behind him. Foyt was third ahead of Ongais and Mosley. The remainder of the top 10 included Sneva, Johncock, Holmes, Bagley, and Vukovich.
The close battles among the leaders continued as they neared the 180-lap mark. With less than 20 laps to go, the crowd came to life again when it was noticed that Unser was slowing down. On the 182nd lap, Mears took the lead as Unser lost fourth gear in his car, which caused him to lose about six seconds per lap.
Foyt was averaging almost 190 mph, and on the 185th lap he was 23 seconds behind Unser as Mears increased his lead to 25 seconds. The three front-runners all pitted on the 187th lap, and as 190 laps became history, Foyt passed Unser to take second place.
Then a strange, almost unbelievable event occurred. Foyt started having car trouble. He slowed down considerably going into the first turn as white smoke seemed to be coming from under the rear of the car. Just as this happened, the yellow light came on. On his 189th lap and in sixth position, Tom Sneva lost the rear wing on his Sugaripe Prune Special as he was going through the third turn. The car spun and crashed into the wall. He was stunned by the impact but wasn’t injured, although the car was badly damaged. Jim Rathmann took the pace car out again, and the cars lined up behind it. Four laps later, the track had been cleared enough for the green light to come on. The pace car pulled in with five laps to go.
Because of the bunch-up procedure, Foyt was only six seconds behind Mears. His car still wasn’t running properly, and as Mears took the white flag, he had fallen to 12 seconds behind. About 45 seconds later, Mears came down the straightaway to receive the checkered flag and become the first new race champion since Johnny Rutherford in 1974. As the remaining cars crossed the finish line, they were also given the checkered flag, which ended the race for them.
A few seconds later, everybody started wondering what happened to Foyt. Pretty soon, he came through the fourth turn and was hardly moving. As he continued, there was increasing doubt as to whether he would make it to the finish line. When he finally got there, the crowd gave him a tremendous ovation. As he waved in response, Mosley was speeding toward the finish line and arrived there only 2.34 seconds after Foyt. Mears took an extra lap around the track and then came slowly through the pit area on his way to Victory Lane, all the time waving to the fans as they gave him a warm applause.
For the first time in five years, since Johnny Rutherford won his first race in 1974, there was a new face in Victory Lane, and everyone including me was most happy about it. He was only the fourth driver in the last 50 years to win the big race on either his first or second attempt.
As the pit crews gather up their equipment and took it back to their garages, the huge crowd started its exit from the Speedway. Since I had eaten hardly anything during the race, I took out my chicken, coffee, and napkin and enjoyed a late dinner. Barbara and Malcolm had brought some food too, and they likewise enjoyed their late dinner. For the first time since the start of the race, we could relax and enjoy our food and converse with each other without being interrupted by some race action or the roar of the engines.
It was about 2:30 when Barbara and Malcolm decided to leave. We exchanged farewells, and then I finished my dinner and put all my equipment into my tote bag. I took one last look at the racetrack, the pit area, the Control Tower, and the thousands of spectator seats and then left. The mob of people heading for the tunnel was almost elbow to elbow, but it moved quickly through the tunnel and then thinned out somewhat when it reached the back of the grandstands.
When I went through the main gate, I crossed the street and stopped at the White Castle. The place was doing a good business, but I only had to wait a few minutes to receive my order of two hamburgers and a small Coca-Cola. The cold Coca-Cola really felt good. As usual, I had to be careful while walking along Crawfordsville Road to avoid being hit by impatient drivers, stepping on or tripping over beer cans, and slipping on the rocks.
It was between 4:00 and 4:15 when I arrived at the car. Most of the cars were gone, but a few hadn’t left yet. I opened all the windows so that the hot air could escape and some new air could circulate. I waited a few more minutes, and then at 4:26 I drove onto Lynhurst Drive and joined the crowd waiting to get to the intersection.
The traffic was bumper to bumper for several blocks on both streets, but the policemen finally let the southbound traffic go, and it took only a few seconds to get onto Crawfordsville Road. From there, the traffic moved pretty well, and in a few minutes I was on I-74 and heading for Danville. I turned on the air conditioning, and in a couple minutes I was feeling better as I drove along and listened to the radio. It was a couple minutes before 6:00 when I crossed the state line, and at 6:10 my trip ended at the door of my room.
I took my equipment in with me, and then I took off my shirt and shoes and lay on my bed for a few minutes. It really felt good to be on the bed in the cool room after being outside almost all day. About 7:00, I walked to the Eisner store and bought some macaroni salad, potato salad, and baked beans from the delicatessen section, and some milk. When I arrived back at my room, I turned on the TV set and watched it as I ate my supper. One of the Indianapolis stations had a program about the 500 Festival Parade, which I found real interesting and watched until 8:00. I wanted to watch the ABC-TV same day telecast of the race, but it wouldn’t come in, so I rushed over to the bar room and watched it there. I had to stand all the time and I couldn’t hear real well because of the talking and laughing, but I enjoyed it enough to make it worth watching.
I went back to my room, and at 10:30 one of the Indianapolis stations had a one-half hour program of the day’s activities at the track with Tom Carnegie as the narrator. After the program I did a little reading, and at 11:30, I turned off the lights and got under the covers, ending my race day in the exact spot it had started 19 hours earlier.
Between 6:15 and 6:30 the next morning, I awoke and felt quite refreshed. I got up, took a bath, shaved, and washed my teeth, and that made me feel even better. I checked everything in my room to be sure I hadn’t left anything, turned in my room key, and at 7:28 started my trip home.
I stopped at the first Standard station that was open, which was in Georgetown. The attendant said his supply was tight but didn’t restrict me to a certain amount of gasoline. I felt better with the tank full, knowing for sure I could go all the way home. My next stop was the Colonial Kitchen.
It was 8:12 when I arrived. There were a few other customers there, most of them being farmers having their Monday morning coffee. I ordered pancakes, hashed brown potatoes, orange juice, and coffee. It was a good breakfast, and at 8:45, I left and started the last part of my trip home on Route 36. It was shortly after 10:00 when I reached Decatur, where there were many people making use of Lake Decatur. At 11:28, I pulled into my driveway. My 25th trip to see the big race was over, and like the other 24 before it, it provided me with many memories.
On Monday night at the Victory Banquet, the Speedway distributed a record purse of $1,271,954.54, of which $270,401 went to winner Rick Mears. In only his second year, he had what might be called a perfect year, both starting and finishing first.
For maybe the first time in his racing career, A.J. Foyt was happy to finish second in a race. His spectacular, creeping finish provided the large crowd with one of its most exciting moments of the race. One thing is certain — if the race had been one lap longer, he would have finished lower than second as he was only 2.34 seconds ahead of Mike Mosley when he crossed the finish line.
After 11 disappointing years, Mike Mosley was finally able to finish a race and gave an excellent account of himself in doing so. He is a fine driver but usually had mechanical trouble or crashed, thus preventing him from finishing the race.
Danny Ongais deserves special mention. After his crash on the first scheduled day of time trials, it was with some difficulty that he obtained a medical clearance to qualify the second weekend. When this problem was solved, he qualified on the last scheduled day at 188.099 mph and started 25th. He moved up steadily during the race and finished a fine fourth.
Bobby Unser led 88 of the 200 laps, but like brother Al, this was not the year for another Unser victory. Bobby had the fourth-fastest qualifying time in his Norton Spirit and appeared to be on his way to his third victory, but when trouble struck late in the race, he had to settle for fifth place.
Gordon Johncock finished sixth in his 15th race. He drove the North American Van Lines car with master mechanic George Bignotti as his chief mechanic.
Seventh-place finisher Howdy Holmes was the only rookie in this year’s race, and for doing such a good job he was given the Rookie of the Year award.
Bill Vukovich II deserves special attention as well for starting in 34th position and rising all the way to 8th place when the red flag came out. The veteran chief mechanic A.J. Watson headed the pit crew.
Tom Bagley finished ninth in his second year at the Speedway. He was in that position after 130 laps and remained there for the rest of the race.
Spike Gelhausen finished 10th in his No. 19 Sta-On car. He started in 31st position and gradually increased his position during the race.
The practice and qualifications periods were some of the most controversial in Speedway history. The trouble started a week or so before the Speedway opened when USAC officials rejected the entries of six CART teams involving 19 cars. An Indianapolis Federal Court Judge said USAC couldn’t do this, and the CART entries were reinstated.
During the time trials, it was discovered that several teams had modified their turbocharger assemblies to override the allowable boost. This brought about disallowed qualifying runs, leveling of fines, lawsuits, and an additional qualifying session.
It made everybody unhappy including the fans, whose money keeps racing alive. There were times when I wondered if there would be a 500-mile race this year. The exciting and interesting race made the fans temporarily forget about the pre-race problems; however, the problems remain.
The CART-USAC war shows no signs of easing. Nobody is predicting when, if ever, the two factions will come together again as one group. I hope it is soon. I hope that future races will be much less controversial than this year’s race. In addition to ending the USAC-CART problem, there needs to be a greater application of fair and equal rules to everybody.
The Indianapolis 500 has long been the greatest racing event in the world, and I, along with every other racing fan, hope it continues that way for a long time.
Pace Car — Ford Mustang
500 Festival Queen — Carol Orem