1972 INDIANAPOLIS 500
says Andretti of the wicker bill. “I
remember thinking to myself, ‘How did
they think of that, and why didn’t we…?’”
Revson and Bettenhausen had both
practiced at 191mph, but nobody had
been in Unser’s air space and nobody was
prepared for his four laps of 194.9, 196.0,
196.6 and 195.9 in the Olsonite Eagle.
“I knew I was going to be on the pole
so I took it easy that first lap,” Unser
recalls. “I had a different groove and I
could drive that car any place I wanted,
but I also had the Gurney flap, a special
turbo nobody else had, big power from
John and a super racecar.”
Unser’s 195.940 average was 3mph
faster than Revson and 4mph quicker than
Donohue – his front-row mates in McLarens.
In the race he ran away and hid for the first
30 laps, lapping Big Al in 27 laps, before
an ignition rotor failed and sent him to the
sidelines. “Would have been the easiest win
of my career,” he laments 45 years later.
Bettenhausen led 130 laps and was
long gone before his McLaren succumbed
to ignition failure 18 laps from Victory
Lane, leaving teammate Donohue to
inherit The Captain’s first Indy 500 win.
The following May, after Grant had
broken 200mph at Ontario in Sept. ’ 72 (see
sidebar), the speed wars resumed, led by
Rutherford and a new McLaren M16-C.
“The needle on Roger Bailey’s dyno
was pegged because we were running
120lbs of manifold pressure, so he
couldn’t even get an accurate number,
but he figured maybe 1,500 horsepower,”
says Rutherford, who won the pole at
198.413mph and had one lap over 199.
But 1973 was deadly, as Art Pollard
and Swede Savage both lost their lives
and several fans were burned by spraying
fuel in a first-lap accident that stopped a
race eventually won by Johncock.
By the time 1974 dawned, USAC had
changed the rules and replaced unlimited
power with a device called a pop-off valve,
and it only took 191mph for Foyt to earn
the pole at Indianapolis.
“It was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to
reduce speeds and we were never
consulted, but I don’t think I’ve ever known
a driver who said, ‘We’re going too fast,’”
says Rutherford, who’d stormed from 25th
to first that month for the first of his three
Indy wins. “But the speeds had gotten
USAC’s attention and they wanted to do
something before it got out of hand.”
It wasn’t until 1977 that Tom Sneva
finally broke the 200mph mark at Indy,
but in the final analysis, the month of May
in ’ 72 had launched a specter of
innovation that lasted three decades.
“It was such a gratifying feeling for our
team to do something that was so
innovative and rewarding,” says Gurney,
who would finally conquer Indy in 1975
with Unser, but recalls AAR’s ’ 72 assault
on the record books with pride and awe.
Penske, who now has 16 Indy 500
victories, has been on the cutting edge of
just about every breakthrough during the
past 50 years. “We know all about wings,
aerodynamics and downforce today; hell,
we’re running wide open at Indy and
Pocono,” says The Captain. “But 1972
really was a new frontier.”
pegged in 1974, it took
a while for Indy speeds
to approach 200mph
again. The first official
200-plus laps came in
’ 77, Tom Sneva (ABOVE)
200.535 laps on the
way to a 198.884mph
pole. He finished
second in 1977, ’ 78
(BELOW) and ’ 80,
before winning in ’ 83.
200 AT INDY
(LEFT) Reset for
Indy 500 winner
and McLaren’s Tyler
life with reduced power
and downforce at the
(BELOW LEFT) A.J.
Foyt’s ’ 74 Indy pole
was almost 7mph
down on the previous
year. A contender until
“Super Tex” would bow
out with an oil leak.
“The Gurney Flap was a big
step. I remember thinking,
‘How did they think of that,
and why didn’t we...?’”