Friday, May 4, 2018

Remembering Dan Gurney's "Mystery Eagle"

Jerry Grant after qualifying "The Mystery Eagle" for the 1972 Indianapolis 500.

This May, we’ll likely see several tributes to Dan Gurney recounting his achievements and contributions to the Indianapolis 500 (and to auto racing in general) as a driver, car designer and team manager. And rightly so, because the Big Eagle was a key figure in IndyCar racing starting in the early 1960s.

His first All American Racers Eagle appeared at the Speedway in 1966, and the marque was a serious contender for victory in the 500 for the next decade-plus. Much like A.J. Foyt did with No. 14, Gurney made the No. 48 famous, and his name and team always will be associated with that number – at least among us Indy old-timers.

In 1972, All American Racers brought a new Eagle that outclassed everything but the new McLarens by a wide margin. Lead driver Bobby Unser upped the pole speed by more than 17 mph, a feat unlikely to ever be matched.

The driver of the Mystery Eagle is a mystery.
Unser’s teammate was Jerry Grant, whose association with Gurney dated to 1965 when he co-drove with him in the Daytona Continental. While Gurney might have had Grant in mind for the assignment at Indianapolis, it wasn’t official until well into the month – Grant wasn’t listed as the nominated driver in either the program or the “names and numbers” list you used to be able to buy at the track for one thin dime.
Still a mystery. Parnelli Jones is entered?

Grant quickly made up for lost time. As a second-weekend qualifier, he started 15th, but his overall speed rank was an impressive fourth. The Mystery Eagle, with its purple livery, was as striking as it was fast. You didn’t see many purple cars at the Speedway, but then again, this was the 1970s. (Incidentally, the color worked out just fine for Buddy Lazier in 1996.)

Part of the reason Gurney ran a second car was because he had backing from a fellow named Chris Vallo and his CV Enterprises. (Apparently, that is. More on that later.)

The 1972 500, when Jim Nabors first sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” saw Unser jump to a commanding lead before falling out with mechanical failure after 31 laps. His 30th-place finish was by far the worst finish for the pole-sitter in the 1970s.

Gary Bettenhausen led most of the race before being sidelined in the late stages with ignition woes.This opened the door for Grant, who led for 16 laps. On Lap 188, Grant made a surprise pit stop, motioning at his right front wheel.

Directed into Unser’s pit stall, the crew hooked up the fuel hose from Unser’s tank. Oops. Grant seemingly trailed Mark Donohue to the checkered to take second place, but officials later determined that taking on fuel from another tank was illegal. So Grant’s final 12 laps were discounted, dropping him from second to 12th.

This decision cost All American Racers about $72,000 in prize money. Gurney’s wallet then took another hit as Vallo disappeared soon after the race. My good friend Bill LaDow has graciously allowed me to link to a couple of stories related to Vallo’s skullduggery. You can read more on his site “Speedway Sightings.” The links are here and here.

For Grant, despite the sour ending, the 1972 Indianapolis 500 in many ways represented his best performance at the Brickyard. He competed in the next four 500s, but never led again and his best finish in that span was 10th.

He was, however, the first IndyCar driver to officially turn a lap above 200 mph – 201.414 mph in qualifying for the 1972 500-mile race at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway.

After his driving career, Grant was often seen at the Speedway as a representative for Champion Spark Plugs. He died Aug. 13, 2012, at 77.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bourdais Fastest Before Rain Hits

Sebastien Bourdais during practice earlier this week. Photo by Chris Jones/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS – Storms have interrupted Fast Friday, the last practice day before qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Rain hit about an hour and a half into the session. Sebastien Bourdais, a top competitor on road and street courses but not usually a contender on super speedways, had the best lap in the abbreviated practice period at 233.116 mph in his Dallara-Honda.

Next were Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato, also with Honda power, at 232.132 mph and 231.969 mph, respectively.

Leading the Chevrolet charge was Juan Pablo Montoya with a lap at 231.682 mph. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner lost his full-time ride with Team Penske after last season in favor of Josef Newgarden, but is back competing for The Captain this May.

Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso was fifth on the speed charts at 231.549 mph. Alonso is driving a Dallara-Honda out of the Andretti stable. 

Penske Welcomes Back Old Friend McLaren

Roger Penske (kneeling) and the crew of Mark Donohue's Sunoco McLaren in 1971. Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo. 

One of the big storylines for this year’s Indianapolis 500 is the return of McLaren in the Indianapolis 500 with Fernando Alonso. The two-time Formula One world champion will pass up Monaco, the most famous and glamorous race on the Grand Prix circuit to try his skill at oval racing.

Further, it’s the first appearance in the 500 for the storied marque, founded by Bruce McLaren, since 1979.

Although the term probably didn’t exist, Roger Penske was an “early adopter” of McLaren cars in his quest to win the Indianapolis 500.

Penske first came to Indianapolis in 1969 with Mark Donohue. In 1970, the first McLaren, with its now-familiar papaya orange livery, was entered at Indy. Then in 1971 Donohue dominated practice in a revolutionary McLaren, developed after the founder was killed in a testing crash.

“Bruce McLaren and I were great friends,” Penske said. “When we came here the first time with McLaren in 1971, Peter Revson was driving their car, and it was great to see on the track the past week the McLaren orange because that was the way they came to the track back in ’71.”

Donohue was the first to top 180 mph in practice, a speed considered extraordinary for the times.

“We didn’t have (180) on our sheets,” Penske said.

In one of the great upsets in qualifying history, Revson edged Donohue for the pole. Donohue then dominated the race before falling out with a transmission failure after 66 laps.

Penske and Donohue stayed with McLaren for 1972. Compared to the previous year, the combination was relatively low-key during practice, qualifying and the race itself before Donohue climbed to the top spot late, leading the last 12 laps to notch the first of Penske’s 16 Indianapolis 500 wins.

Penske continued to use McLarens through 1977 before constructing his own cars starting with the 1978 Indianapolis 500. During that same time frame, Team McLaren won two Indianapolis 500s with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and ’76 before shutting down its Indy team after 1979 to focus on Formula One.

Now McLaren is back, in a sense, with Alonso driving the spec Dallara chassis out of the Andretti stable.

“Having McLaren back … it’s an honor for all of us to race against that car,” Penske said. “This an international race and this is what it’s all about. You want to win here against the best.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Remembering Joe Leonard and the Super Team

Joe Leonard in 1972. 

Fantasy sports makes it possible to assemble a great team to see how It performs.

The 1972 Indianapolis 500 saw a real “Super Team” that boasted accomplishments unmatched before or since. The three-driver lineup consisted of Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard. Entering the 1972 season, they accounted for the last three Indianapolis 500 wins (Andretti in 1969, Unser in 1970 and ‘71) as well as the last three national champions (Andretti in 1969, Unser in 1970 and Leonard in 1971).

The chief mechanic was George Bignotti, mastermind behind five 500 victories to that point. And the owner (along with Vel Miletich) was Parnelli Jones, the 1963 500 champion, almost winner in 1967 and considered by some the most naturally talented American driver of all time.

This group arrived at a time when advances in Indy racing technology were made on an almost-daily basis. Aerodynamic wings, better tires, unrestricted engines and a crop of skilled drivers combined to push speeds much higher than what might be normally expected in a given year.

The pole speed, for example, generally increased a couple of mph year to year. Bobby Unser, in his Olsonite Eagle, jumped it more than 17 mph to claim the top spot.

In fact, each car that qualified for the 1972 race beat Peter Revson’s pole mark of 1971 of 178-plus mph.

What’s more, a wide diversity of chassis was available. In addition to Unser’s Eagle, there were new McLarens plus several other marques, including Atlanta, Lola, Kingfish and Coyote, as well as older McLarens and Eagles and others that were updated to be competitive.

The “Super Team” had its own chassis – the Phillippe (also called the Parnelli), created by noted designer Maurice Phillippe. They originally debuted at Indianapolis with dihedral wings sprouting from the middle of the chassis.

In theory, they were to provide increased stability in the corners. In practice, they didn’t work quite right and were discarded in favor of a more conventional setup.

In qualifying, Leonard and then Andretti set new one- and four-lap records that were surpassed first by Gary Bettenhausen and then Bobby Unser.

On Race Day, the Super Team didn’t have the outright speed of Bobby Unser, who sped away before being sidelined early with a broken distributor, or Bettenhausen, who led 138 laps before also falling victim to mechanical failure.

The final results, however, were praiseworthy. Al Unser was elevated to second after Jerry Grant was dropped to 12th after being penalized for taking fuel from teammate Bobby Unser’s tank during a confusing late pit stop. Leonard was third and Andretti wound up eighth after running out of fuel in the closing laps.
Leonard won his second consecutive national championship on the strength of three straight wins – Michigan, Pocono and Milwaukee.

Joe Leonard's car for the 1973 Indianapolis 500.
The Super Team remained intact for 1973 with a new Phillippe that again was as beautiful as it was temperamental – at least for Leonard. At Indianapolis, Andretti and Unser made the field easily while Leonard struggled mightily. For a while it appeared he might be bumped after qualifying on his third and final attempt.

The 1973 race was one of the most troubled and tragic ever, taking three days to complete. At that, it didn’t even go 500 miles. Andretti was an early out, Leonard was never competitive and Unser was sidelined after leading. Gordon Johncock won for Bignotti, who had moved to the Patrick team.

In terms of the season, after a promising start with Unser winning the season-opener at Texas and Andretti winning at Trenton, the race before Indianapolis, things went downhill. Leonard’s best finish was a fifth in the Trenton race that Andretti won. He wound up a disappointing 15th in the final point standings in his bid for three straight national driving championships.

Looking to rebound for 1974, another Phillippe chassis was created, but wound up largely unused as the team switched to Eagles early on. Andretti put the new Phillippe on the pole at Trenton, but that proved to be the high point.

The California 500 at Ontario was the season-opener – the first time a 500-mile race had been held before Indianapolis. Leonard crashed violently, due in part to a blown tire, suffering severe, painful injuries to his feet and lower legs. The damage was so debilitating that it abruptly ended his career with six wins and two poles in 98 starts over 10 years.

Leonard passed away on April 27, with the many tributes noting how he was such an underappreciated, though very formidable, competitor.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Remembering the Ayr-Way/WNAP "Buzzard"

Johnny Parsons Jr. in the Ayr-Way/WNAP "Buzzard" for the 1975 Indianapolis 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo. 
Cars entered in the Indianapolis 500 certainly have had interesting, colorful names.

One of my favorites was the Ayr-Way/WNAP “Buzzard” from 1975. This name may not make sense today – especially if you’re not from Indianapolis – but it was definitely a product of the times.

Ayr-Way was a department store spun off L.S. Ayres, one of the top fashion stores in Indianapolis. Ayr-Way was similar to Target – in fact, many of the locations in Indianapolis became Target stores after Ayr-Way folded in the late 1970s.

We often went to the Ayr-Way at 30th and Lafayette Road because it had just about everything – even a garden center.

WNAP was a hard-rock station teeming with many interesting personalities; the buzzard was the station mascot. It was at 93.1 on the FM dial, so that’s why it was Car 93.

Because I was only 7 years old, I didn’t listen to WNAP. Besides, my family was strictly WIBC (1070 AM), which was fine because WIBC covered qualifications and broadcast updates from the track throughout the day.

This was very much an Indianapolis-centric team. In addition to the two local sponsors, driver Johnny Parsons lived in central Indiana for many years (perhaps even Speedway itself). He’s the son of 1950 winner Johnnie Parsons (note the different spellings) and originally was from California, but moved to Indiana to jump-start his racing career.

The chief mechanic (remember those?) was Bill Finley, who basically built race cars out of his garage in Eagledale, a subdivision within earshot of the track. (My first house was in Eagledale on Fuller Drive. Carl Wilde School 79!)

The team also had a second entry: Car 94, driven by Mike Hiss.

Race day wasn’t the greatest for the team. Hiss spun out on Lap 39 and finished 29th. Parsons ran as high as fifth before transmission woes sidelined him after 140 laps. He finished 19th.

Ayr-Way heavily promoted its involvement with the 500. In addition to the button (shown), there were posters, large ads in the Indianapolis papers (there were two of them back then) and even a timing and scoring chart with Parsons.
Found on eBay!

Today, interestingly, WNAP’s old FM spot is occupied by WIBC. And many of the old Ayr-Way locations in Indianapolis are Targets. Squint hard enough and maybe you can see the old Ayr-Way flower where a Target bull’s-eye is now.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tribute to the Fuson Form Chart

The 1976 Indianapolis 500 souvenir section produced by the Indianapolis News.
Something I always looked forward to each May was the Fuson Form Chart. This page of analysis was penned by Wayne Fuson, sports editor of the Indianapolis News, which was the afternoon paper in Indianapolis.

It was included in the souvenir preview section and was a staple of pre-race coverage. He had an engaging, unique style patterned off horse racing forms that was eminently readable and entertaining. It rated the jockey (driver), horse (car) and stable (team), advising readers how and where to place their bets in a good-natured, humorous manner.

Wayne Fuson's predictions for 1976. 
Mr. Fuson died in 1996. I had hoped his contributions would have been recognized during all the hoopla surrounding the 100th Indianapolis 500, but, sadly, I did not see anything about him and his Form Chart.

So consider the following a bit of a tribute to Mr. Fuson:

Car 3 Helio Castroneves 3-1
Jockey out of classy Team Penske stable looks to be the fourth four-time winner in 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Horse looked a bit lame in qualifying, but bet the rent money to see if the Yellow Submarine surfaces in Victory Lane.

Car 9 Scott Dixon 3-1
Jockey is reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion and former 500 winner (2008). The Chip Ganassi stable has been underwhelming this month, but never count him out. Dig deep in your shopping cart for a big bet.

Car 22 Simon Pagenaud 4-1
No mistaking this jockey’s mount – it’s the familiar fluorescent yellow of Menards cars of the past, though it’s out of the Team Penske stable. Jockey has been the hottest in the Verizon IndyCar Series with three consecutive wins entering the 500. As the young people might say, go big or go home.

Car 2 Juan Pablo Montoya 4-1
Jockey knows his way around the venerable oval with two wins in three starts, including last year. Another strong contender out of the Team Penske stable, the classy Colombian is a strong bet across the board.

Car 5 James Hinchcliffe 4-1
Canadian jockey made triumphant comeback after near-fatal crash last year to claim first Indy pole. Never mind the exchange rates; wager high.

Car 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 5-1
Jockey delivered ultimate prize for Andretti Autosport two years ago after thrilling duel with Helio Castroneves. His car is yellow, but you shouldn’t be when it comes to placing your bet.

Car 12 Will Power 5-1
Jockey had to settle for Place in last year’s race and has his sights firmly set on Win. Go Down Under your mattress if you need to find the cash to place on this determined Australian.

Car 21 Josef Newgarden 5-1
Young jockey was ousted from pole spot by James Hinchcliffe at the end of qualifying. Chevrolet mount has been quick all month. Bet the mortgage money today, and maybe you’ll burn your mortgage after the race.

Car 15 Graham Rahal 8-1
Son of 1986 champ Bobby would love to add to the family legacy.  Goes to the post 26th, not an ideal spot but not impossible, either – Johnny Rutherford won his first 500 from 25th. It’s only money.

Car 27 Marco Andretti 8-1
It’s been 10 years since jockey was pipped in the final few hundred yards by Sam Hornish Jr. in his first 500. The Andretti Curse doesn’t date back to the first Indianapolis 500 – it only seems that way. Dig up that can of money in the backyard if you must. You might be drinking something more than Snapple after the race.

Car 20 Ed Carpenter 10-1
Jockey, a two-time pole winner, has had a quiet month out of his own stable. Stepson of Tony George could keep some of the winnings in the house, so to speak, if he can pull off a victory. Don’t imbibe too much Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka before deciding how much to wager.

Car 29 Townsend Bell 10-1
Jockey runs only the Indianapolis 500, with a fourth in 2009 and a ninth in 2012. Part of resurgent Andretti Autosport stable.

Car 26 Carlos Munoz 10-1
Consistent jockey at Indianapolis. Probably not the winner, but if you can get a bet down for a top 10, take it.

Car 42 Charlie Kimball 10-1
Mount has new look and number for jockey out of Chip Ganassi stable. Underwhelming month, which may mean something or nothing – he finished third last year. Bet on a top 10.

Car 7 Mikhail Aleshin 12-1
New version of the Mad Russian executed (got away with?) some incredible lines in qualifying. Comes out of easy-to-root-for Schmidt Peterson stable. Put down a ruble or two. Can’t hurt.

Car 6 J.R. Hildebrand 15-1
Jockey was one turn away from glory as a rookie in 2011. If you believe in redemption, redeem a few cans and bottles and place your bet.

Car 10 Tony Kanaan 15-1
The 2013 500 champ seems to be rounding into form after lackluster month – and season. Put a few bucks on his nose for old time’s sake.

Car 14 Takuma Sato 18-1
Nearly won in 2012, winding up in the wall in the closing laps after duel with Dario Franchitti. His A.J. Foyt stable has struggled mightily this May, though this Japanese jockey has been a bright spot. If you have a yen for nostalgia, bet him across the board.

Car 11 Sebastien Bourdais 20-1
Frenchman out of KV stable won the Champ Car Series title four years in a row, but has been less than spectacular on ovals. Only if you have a spare franc or two.

Car 77 Oriol Servia 20-1
Capable jockey part of Schmidt Peterson stable, which features Hinchcliffe. Place a top 10 bet if you can.

Car 18 Conor Daly 20-1
Like Ed Carpenter, jockey has a connection to Brickyard royalty – he’s the stepson of IMS prez Doug Boles. Bacon-sponsored car went up in smoke before the green flag last year, so this year has to be better, right? Go easy.

Car 98 Alexander Rossi 20-1
Rookie Jockey has one of the most beautiful cars in the field, and his number (98) has proud winning heritage (Troy Ruttman, Parnelli Jones, Dan Wheldon). Bet on him for Rookie of the Year, but save the heavy stuff for the future.

Car 24 Sage Karam 20-1
Promising young jockey on the comeback trail after losing his ride at the end of last season. Give him time.

Car 61 Matt Brabham 25-1
Rookie jockey has fine bloodlines – granddad Sir Jack ignited rear-engine revolution in the 1960s while dad Geoff was an Indy regular for more than a decade. Someday, maybe.

Car 19 Gabby Chaves 30-1
Scout’s honor: second-year jockey could surprise. If you like long shots, Gabby might be your guy.

Car 41 Jack Hawksworth 33-1
Owner A.J. Foyt certainly knows the way to Victory Lane. Put a bob or two down on the young Englishman if you like because of A.J.

Car 4 Buddy Lazier 33-1
1996 champ has been saddled with subpar mount the past few years. If you’re the nostalgic type, take some of the money you would’ve used for that new Delta Faucet and put it on Buddy to Show.

Car 63 Pippa Mann 33-1
Lone female jockey racing for very worthy Susan G. Komen Foundation. Perhaps you should use your money for that instead.

Car 8 Max Chilton 33-1
Rookie jockey out of Chip Ganassi stable made a few waves after the Phoenix race by questioning the intelligence of his fellow competitors. Then he said hello to the walls at IMS on first day of qualifying. Easy does it.

Car 35 Alex Tagliani 33-1
Former pole winner has had a rough month out of the A.J. Foyt stable. Capable jockey deserves better. Save your money for another year.

Car 16 Spencer Pigot 33-1
Rookie jockey has come through the ranks after winning Indy Lights title last year. Give him time.

Car 88 Bryan Clauson 33-1
A real racer, jockey stays busy on the short tracks. Perhaps you should spend your money at Jonathan Byrd’s instead.

Car 25 Stefan Wilson 33-1
Brother of Justin Wilson making his first 500 start. Englishman has slick-looking car, but save your quid.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Hinchcliffe Fastest After First Day of Qualifying

Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS – Never mind the contrived formula designed to mitigate a lack of entries, Saturday’s qualifying for the 100th Indianapolis 500 was full of redemption, drama and surprise.

The drivers who advanced to today’s Fast Nine shootout that will determine the pole position for the race on May 29 represent a wide variety of storylines.

Start with Saturday’s fastest qualifier, James Hinchcliffe. The popular Canadian nearly died after a crash in practice before last year’s race. He averaged 230.946 mph on his four-lap run.

James Hinchcliffe
“I can’t thank (my crew) enough. What a difference a year makes,” Hinchcliffe said. “It validates all the effort the guys have put in.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay experienced a bit of redemption as well. The 2014 Indianapolis 500 champion was knocked out of the Fast Nine by Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti in the closing minutes of qualifying.

“That was a pretty hairy few laps there – I was holding my breath the whole way,” Hunter-Reay said.

He bumped his way into the Fast Nine in convincing fashion, opening with a scorching lap of 231.315 mph, and wound up with a four-lap average of 230.805 mph to oust Andretti from pole contention.

Third-fastest was Will Power, who also had a stirring run late in the day to average 230.736 mph to lead Team Penske.

“This is the hardest qualifying I’ve ever done at this place,” said last year’s runner-up, who gets to do it all again today. “It was very hairy on the last lap.”

Teammate and three-time 500 champ Helio Castroneves was fourth quick, followed by Townsend Bell, an Indy-only specialist driving for Andretti Autosport, and Josef Newgarden of Ed Carpenter Racing. Bell had the fastest single lap of the day at 231.582 mph.

The final three spots in the Fast Nine went to Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport) and Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske).

Aleshin, who did not compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series last year due to lack of sponsorship, had the last attempt of the day and nudged out rookie Alexander Rossi.

Munoz’ effort means he will start in the first three rows for the third time in four races. Pagenaud, who leads the points and has won the last three races, will go for his first pole in the 500.

The competition between the two engine manufacturers, Honda and Chevrolet, was about as even as possible: Five Hondas and four Chevrolets in the Fast Nine.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that none of Chip Ganassi’s four cars made it into the Fast Nine. Scott Dixon, last year’s pole-sitter, was 13th after Saturday. The best the 2008 500 champ can start is 10th after today’s qualifying.

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won the pole in 2005 and the race in 2013, was 19th on Saturday.

Juan Pablo Montoya, last year’s race winner, also missed the Fast Nine – the only member of Team Penske to miss the cut.

Morning rains, then stubborn “weepers” pushed the start of practice until 12:37 p.m. Because of the delay, qualifications didn’t start until 2:20 p.m. and were extended until 7 p.m., one hour later than normal.

A total of 30 cars qualified Saturday for the 33-car field. Still to qualify are rookie Max Chilton, who crashed during practice; Pippa Mann, who crashed during her qualifying attempt; and Gabby Chaves, who waved off his attempt late in the day.

Neither Chilton nor Mann were hurt and are expected to qualify today.

Today’s qualifying will set the order of the field. Positions 10-33 will be determined from 2:45-4:45 p.m. The Fast Nine Shootout, which will determine the pole position and the rest of the top nine spots, begins at 5 p.m.

Here are the results of Saturday’s qualifying: