The following article is republished here with permission from the author. I found it posted at the Bruce McLaren Trust website while generally reading about Formula One drivers of the 1960’s and ’70’s.
Mr. Eoin Young is a distinguished and celebrated auto sports writer, and his heart lies squarely in open wheel racing – and primarily Formula One, so he has my attention.
As a New Zealander and Formula One expert, Mr. Young encapsulates in this piece the historical and social experience – the phenomenon – of Indy, from a well-informed and knowledgeable outsider’s perspective.
In 1970 he went to Indy as a writer, but cheered on the teams and drivers of the cars bearing the name of one of his best friends, Bruce McLaren.
He wrote with the eye of a highly experienced, professional journalist, of course, which he is, but also from the multi-faceted perspective of a Formula One aficionado and more impressively, a founding director and teammate, but most importantly, close friend to his fellow New Zealander.
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McLaren initially hired in 1963 him as his personal secretary. When Young asked him what a secretary was to do, McLaren didn’t know exactly; he just knew the other drivers had one, so he should, too.
Today the name McLaren not only permeates all F-1 history, but continues to dominate the sport (notwithstanding the powerhouse team Red Bull and the resurging Mercedes). Until the beginning of the 2013 season the formidable and attractive team of Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton regularly took turns streaking their way to the podium in the flashy and unique silver livery of the McLaren MP4-27 chassis.
So far, as Lewis has removed to Mercedes and begun a renewed upward trend (most notably with a fourth win in Hungary, tying another legend there, Michael Schumacher) 2013 has seen Jensen, his new teammate Sergio Perez and McLaren struggle to continue their top-shelf performances, now an automatic expectation of the storied team. What is so significant in this is that after so many years after McLaren’s death his name and legacy – his team, in the form of the McLaren Group – are one that others still aspire to be like. Simply remarkable.
Eoin Young is a living legend himself, having not only written about, but lived, worked, played, and essentially raced with so many of the greatest.
Insert sales pitch here: Another of those greats was the Brit James Hunt.
It is one of my personal habits (and faults, perhaps): I like to recommend movies. Ron Howard’s soon-to-be released production, Rush.
Young wrote a biography on James Hunt, and while he states he was not so much a fan of the driver Hunt, he was very fond of him personally. Consider reading his book, James Hunt – Against All Odds, after you see the movie.
Even if you’re not an F-1 fan, you’ll find a quite dramatic and compelling human story. It’s what we find in so many stories: Ultimately it’s not really about Formula One or racing. It’s about people and their relationships – tragic, amazing, inspiring, heart-rending, redeeming. It’s about the power – and fragility – of life itself.
Now, on to the reason we’re here. The following story is Eoin Young’s account of the 1970 Indianapolis 500, the first he attended. It is his view of a piece of history, of the Brickyard during some of its greatest days.
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I was a Rookie at Indianapolis
By Eoin Young
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I was a rookie at Indianapolis, journalistically speaking, and before I arrived in the Hoosier capital the picture people had painted for me was anything but encouraging.
It had been abdominally described to me as the culinary armpit of the United States. I was assured that as the plane began its final approach to Weir Cook Field the pilot would crackle the following message over the speaker system: “We are now approaching Indianapolis, please set your watches back 15 years…” In fact he didn’t actually say that, but after a fortnight in or around the Speedway I began to form the impression that all the descriptions bore more than just a grain of truth.
You may be interested to know that the place for good steaks and antiquated race atmosphere is St. Elmo’s in a sleazy area downtown, that the night life swings at the Holiday Inn Northwest and doesn’t at Howard Johnson’s across the freeway. HoJo’s room service didn’t even extend to a pot of coffee. And their barman figured he was doing you a favor just standing there.
In Indiana they don’t encourage moving drinkers. Signs caution you to drink sitting down. Don’t move your drink to another table, buddy, the barkeep will handle that tricky operation. In the garage area at the track a sign warns against attempting to smuggle in girls, shorts, or beer. Bruce Walkup fought a losing battle with the gateman because he was wearing Bermuda shorts. Would you believe these guys take their vacations to work at the track?
During the race the boozers, carousers, and sleepers in the Indianapolis infield probably have something. I was sitting on the grass just through the fence from the human zoo down at Turn 1, and I couldn’t follow the progress of the world’s most famous contest of speed, skill, and ballyhoo any better than the soberest of them could. And they looked as though they were having a lot more fun than I was.
Mrs. Unser Sr. went down to the victory circle for the second time in two years to collect the rent money from youngest son AI. In 1968 it had been Bobby. Al won the 500 at a reasonably leisurely pace slowed with a quarter-hour yellow light to 155.749 mph in his Johnny Lightning Special for sponsors Topper Toys and Firestone, and Ford, and Parnelli Jones and George Bignotti.
Statistics also gave the chance of rain on race day as 30 percent, and at 11:20 a.m. 40 minutes before the start umbrellas started sprouting like mushrooms all round the oval. It looked like being a tomorrow race but the humid gray skies were just teasing. The start was delayed half an hour and then it was delayed a further half hour when Jim Malloy’s racer dragged a radius arm out of the monocoque and walloped the wall on the pace lap which played hen with the grouping of the field which was hardly military in ranks of three to begin with.
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The race really started at HoJo’s at 5:30 a.m. when the alarm call came through and we set out for the track. We could have eased the haste until after the all-night waiters had been swallowed up. When the gates opened at 6 a.m. there was a fair amount of action. At one gate a gridful of motorcyclists were waiting with revs wound on and the charge down into the tunnel was really something. Especially when the lead rider laid it down in the darkness. The all-night waiters were generally less than sober when the track opened and the continued supping throughout the night had turned most of them into either lovers, fighters or sleepers. Steve Krisiloff, who qualified on the first day and was first to be bumped, got bumped again when he walked into a fist and collected a 15-stitch cut above one eye. His assailant relieved the dizzy driver of his wallet as well.
Denny Hulme arrived out at the track early with his hands bandaged for his second day out of the hospital and sat himself on the pit wall to watch the endless stream of wall-to-wall marching girls and bands. And celebrities. And don’t forget the biggest drum in the world. It was carried on the back of a pick-up truck with a hefty drummer on either side swinging alternately with giant bats that threatened to turn the truck over.
Two and a half million people waiting for action and the spitting rain didn’t fill the drivers with great confidence. Graham Hill was all dapper in his role as non-combative commentator for closed circuit TV, with arch-rival Jackie Stewart joining him from up in the tower. He took time out to assist Denny in the appraisal of some of the better suspension characteristics in the parade.
Down at Turn 1 the zoo was getting restless. The half hour delay from rain had only partly dampened spirits and with the second delay with the pace lap crash, other diversions were arranged. Blanket tossing earned a lot of attention and applause until the law arrived. A respected protector of law and order in Indiana is known as a Billy Bad-Ass for some reason.
James Garner, film star and sometime race driver, received instant recognition from the caged section of the community when he wandered down with Larry (“Big T”) Truesdale, boss of Goodyear’s racing activities. Mr. Garner conducted one vocal group through the opening lines of “Back Home Again in Indiana” to wild applause.
The excitement as track owner Tony Hulman did his piece about starting the engines neared hysteria. Everybody waved and shouted to the drivers on the pace lap as though they honestly believed the drivers heard or cared.
Johnny Rutherford led into the first turn, courtesy of A. Unser, Esq., who didn’t feel like taking his line on the inside if it was going to trigger a shunt. That’s already been done. It reminded me of Bruce McLaren’s story of the 1966 fiasco. He had been watching down at Turn 1 and when he saw a car arrive into the corner without any front wheels, he was about to turn to Chris Amon and say, “that’s a funny way to start a motor race!” when he realized he was alone on the bank. Chris had seen the wheels in the air and departed. As it turned out he was one of the few casualties in the crash because he tripped over somebody’s wheelchair and gashed his leg!
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Al baby took the lead, kept it and cooled it, while Rutherford rode shotgun and all the other hot dogs tried to be third. My little lap chart was progressing in a surprisingly accurate manner as Lloyd Ruby marched up through the field from his lowly 9th row grid spot, but my mistake was in checking figures with the tower. Apparently instant electronic lap scoring isn’t a feature of the Speedway yet. The electric eye was watching a race already ten minutes old. So I gave up and sat in the sun fighting off a doze. So much for the electric excitement. Peter Revson parked his McLaren not far away with magneto failure. Again. So I was able to do something constructive and ask him what had happened. He didn’t know. It just stopped.
Jack Brabham had arrived late for qualifying because his crated car was delayed with truck strikes. He put his Offy-¬powered car on the 9th row with Lloyd Ruby, and then set about sorting it out.
Some doubters in Gasoline Alley wondered whether Jack would make the field, but the general opinion was that if Jack couldn’t make the grid with the car he was quite capable of qualifying the crate the car came in.
His Offy was really pouring out the horsepower and Mark Donohue reported after the race that the Brabham had him out-gunned on the straight with his new Lola-Ford. Sorry, Sunoco Special. “If Jack hadn’t waved me through, I’d have had difficulty getting by,” reported Captain Nice to team boss Penske.
Jack’s race ended with a Goodyear-smoking slide through the chaos surrounding Roger McClusky’s wreckage at Turn 3. Jack came into the pits with square tires, some down to the canvas, and took on fresh rubber as is mandatory at the Speedway. He went back into the bunched field creeping round under the yellow and being herded through Turn 3 on the grass to dodge the safety workers cleaning up the muck on the track. When the green came on, Jack turned the wick up and passed several cars but then the fire went out and he pitted with number one piston in pieces. Bobby Unser also went sad in the down paced yellow running while he headed the pack which also included brother Al and hot-to-charge A.J. Foyt nigh on a lap down and unable to improve because the Unser family had him surrounded.
Bobby’s engine lost manifold pressure and he trickled round to the finish with what was then a 2.4-liter normally aspirated Ford V-8. Foyt dived out of the pack on the green, unlapped himself and set out to try and catch Al but then the Coyote’s 2-speed box had a seizure and the top cog went up the slot. This left SuperTex in low running that TurboFord mutha just as high as it would go. Eleven-four made the Ford really wail as he crept along below the pit wall. It finally expired and AJ was given 10th place three laps down on the leaders.
The Foyt crew had done quite a job getting four cars in the lineup, but when it came to pit work on the boss’s car they weren’t so razor sharp. Fighting fractions of seconds on the track in his pursuit of Unser, AJ arrived for his pit stop to find the lot so cluttered with Coyotes that he couldn’t find a place to park. He made another hurried lap by which time a space had been cleared. In his haste to get out on the last pit stop he departed before the last wheel jack had been removed. When the power came on, the wheel dropped to the road flinging the jack over the wheel and coming close to beaning Mr. Foyt.
Donohue came in second with the immaculate Sunoco Lola. Penske certainly does the job right. I think he plans on winning next year. He has to keep that Lear in the air and pay for the groceries somehow, although I believe American Motors have taken care of that for the next few years.
Mario didn’t star. The McNamara started out just fine, but after four or five laps the handling went sour and by his own admission in the papers the next morning he was an accident looking for a place to happen. Oddly enough Mario took to the grass in the place where the accident did happen and clanked over something that rectified the handling problems.
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It was a bad year for road racers, except for Donohue and Gurney. Bruce McLaren had made up his mind beforehand that he wasn’t going to drive anyway, Denny Hulme fell victim to nasty fuel burns on his hands when a breather cap snapped open during practice and he watched the race with bandaged hands, while Chris Amon called his attack off after (a) seeing the extent of Denny’s burns, (b) seeing Bobby Unser run four laps in the Amon McLaren for a pair at 166 when the best Chris had managed all month was 163, and (c) he was generally unhappy with the whole operation. He was fighting a losing battle and he knew it, so he went home. Hulme tried to persuade him to at least have a try at qualifying but Amon left Denny’s hospital room saying, “no way I’m going out there again. If I do, I’ll probably wind up in the room next to you.” We pondered on the chances of them getting a twin room if this should happen.
John Cannon was thwarted at every move in the Bryant Heating and Cooling Volstedt. He hung one on the wall in practice, but the engine in the other car just didn’t want to go, and it wasn’t until it finally blew and had to be changed that they discovered a crack in the intake manifold. Tony Adamowicz was robbed by his own Indy inexperience as well as that of his crew. The yellow was flashed at him by mistake during his first lap and he slowed to 160.829. He picked up for two at 166 and one at 164 but the damage had been done and he was bumped by Billy Vukovich on the last day. His crew should have hauled him in earlier. The Adamowicz tale became worse.
Having another try in a Gerhardt-Offy he was trying to summon up the boost pressure in one of the turns when it suddenly came on strong and kicked the tail out. He spun twice (deliberately, he said) and to retard his progress up to the wall again he slammed his foot on the brake. Hard. Harder. CRASH. The problem was that the good Tony hadn’t driven the car before and the pedal he was pumping to the floor just happened to be the clutch which was in the center where the sprint car drivers prefer it. “It was in the center, and I knew it was in the center,” bemoaned Adamowicz at dinner that night. His natural reactions had overpowered his recently attained knowledge. Sam Posey lost three Offy engines with burned pistons and then walloped the wall because, at his own admission he had come into the turn at twelve-tenths and locked up the back brakes.
The three McLarens circulating in line astern on the first day in May really shook up the establishment. Nobody did things like that on the first day, let alone funny-car road racers. The funny cars were awarded a certificate “of recognition in the field of car design for the Indianapolis 500” by the Indiana section of the Society of Automotive Engineers. And just about everybody remarked at the high standard of construction and preparation. Chief Engineer Tyler Alexander (now a director of the McLaren team) enjoyed the compliments to begin with but finally started to smoulder as the month dragged on and he thought the plaudits were being premature and laid on a bit thick. But they were certainly deserved.
Peter Revson was the logical choice to replace Denny because Peter had done a good job for Brabham last year finishing fifth after starting from 33rd and last place on the grid. He had also driven Formula Junior cars with the Mayer brothers way back when, and Teddy was pleased to have him in the team. Peter was hopefully trying to inject some life into the story about Floyd Davis who qualified 33rd in 1940 and the following year started from 17th position and won. Revson fulfilled the first part by starting 33rd last year and at one stage in the proceedings he was 17th in the line-up although he spoiled his statistical chances by moving up to 16th when Krisiloff was bumped.
Carl Williams replaced Amon and he was a driver I had personally never heard of, however in the last couple of seasons he had driven back-up cars for Granatelli and Foyt and so obviously knew his way round in USAC circles. After a minimum amount of practice in the car he qualified at 166.590, and the demanding Mr. Mayer was well pleased with his choice of a number two driver. Mr. Williams also won favor with McLaren by turning out a very tasty barbecue steak at his apartment.
I liked the story about Amon who had been battling time, the walls and the track in general but being totally unable to raise a competitive time. Harlan Fengler came down the pits and cautioned Christopher to keep low out of the groove if he couldn’t go any faster. “Keep low?” Chrissy is reported to have replied, “Hell, if I run any lower I’ll be driving round the golf course!”
Pursuing the driver statistics we were told that Jack Brabham was the oldest at 44, and Mike Mosley youngest at 23. Dan Gurney was tallest at 6 ft. 2 in., and Mario Andretti shortest at 5 ft. 6 in. Mario was also lightest at 138lb and Jerry Grant heaviest at 200lb. The average age of the 33 starters was 33.7 years, the average height 5 ft. 8 1/2 in., and the average weight 171.5 lb. There were 31 married drivers and only two bachelors: Peter Revson and Art Pollard.
I’ve decided that Indianapolis is a twin race to Le Mans. The race is a dead bore, an anti-climax to the enormous build-up during qualifying, and the day after it I already decided I won’t be back again. But I’m sure I will be.
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You may read Mr. Young’s biography and more at the Contributing Writers page.