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.

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