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.