Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Andretti vs Foyt, Parnelli and the Unsers

by Gordon Kirby
This week, we traverse the years 1966-1970 as Indy car racing's rear engine revolution opened the way to huge strides in aerodynamics, tire technology and turbocharging. It was a spectacular era, witnessing substantial increases in power, grip and overall performance. And the superstars of the sport were some of the biggest names in the 100-plus years of Indy car racing's great history: A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Bobby and Al Unser.

The 1966 USAC Championship season opened at Phoenix in March and Andretti qualified his Brawner/Hawk on the pole, setting a new track record. In the race, he came under intense pressure from arch-rival Foyt. After a ferocious duel they side-swiped each other while lapping a slower car on either side. The collision brought an end to the race for both of them, although Foyt was able to limp along a little further.

"I guess both of us were a little stupid," Andretti says. "It was one of those racing accidents that happen when you're running hard like that. Nobody was to blame."

At Trenton for the next race, Andretti was again on the pole with a new track record, and led more than half the race before cutting a tire on some debris. A pitstop to change the damaged tire dropped him down the field and he worked his way back to fourth before the race was stopped by rain.

© Racemaker/Knox ~ Andretti in 1967
To Indianapolis next for the month of May where Andretti and the second-year Brawner/Hawk-Ford, now completely sorted-out, dominated practice and qualifying, taking their third straight pole of the year. Andretti set a new record of 165.899 mph on his four-lap qualifying run and was challenged only by Jim Clark who was almost two mph slower. Nobody else was even close. Foyt and Dan Gurney were the fastest second-day qualifiers, so they were back on the seventh row.

The month seemed too good to be true for Andretti and, sure enough, things turned sour on raceday. First, there was a sensational accident at the start. As Andretti and Clark accelerated away from the green flag, Mario's friend Billy Foster lost control when his car's nose cone fell off. The ensuing melee involved half the field, eliminating eleven of the thirty-three starters, including Foyt, Gurney and Don Branson, and resulting in a red flag for an hour and a half. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

When the race was finally restarted, Andretti knew from the moment he stood on the gas that he was in trouble. His engine was running on only seven cylinders. He was able to stay ahead of Clark and the rest for a handful of laps, but then the engine started smoking and he was soon into the pits to retire from the race.

The 1966 500 was highlighted by a great battle between Clark and Lloyd Ruby's Eagle, but Clark spun twice, without hitting the wall, and Ruby ran into refueling problems before dropping out with engine trouble in the closing stages. Indy 500 rookie Jackie Stewart led the race for 40 laps but his engine failed with ten laps to go, handing victory to teammate Graham Hill in John Mecom's Lola-Ford prepared by George Bignotti. Many people, Colin Chapman included, believed Clark had actually won the race for the second year in a row, but Chapman's protest was denied by USAC and Hill was declared the official winner.

Andretti's luck began to turn around at Milwaukee the next weekend. In Wisconsin, he took his fourth pole and track record in a row, but unlike the first three Championship races of that year, he motored to the finish without any trouble to score his first win of 1966. Andretti repeated the trick--pole, new track record, and victory--at Langhorne the next weekend and did it again on the high-banked Atlanta superspeedway at the end of June. During this trio of victories he led more than 500 consecutive laps.

© Racemaker/IMS ~ Foyt in 1967
Andretti's string of six straight poles was broken by Lloyd Ruby at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July. Ruby, one of the true all-'rounders of that era, had been sidelined for a month after being injured in the crash of a small 'plane. Trying to pass Ruby on the start, Mario spun at the first turn and fell to last. He then performed a dazzling comeback drive to win the race for the second year in a row.

Next came Langhorne in August, the year's second race at the track. Andretti admits he was too cocky in qualifying. On his first qualifying lap he set a new track record, but tried too hard on his second lap and crashed heavily.

"That was one time I was just a little too brave," he admits. "I did a 29.07 (seconds) on my first lap and I was sure I could break twenty-nine seconds. I just drove it in too deep. I was lucky to get out of that one without any damage."

He was uninjured and was able to jump into Billy Foster's spare car for the race, getting up to seventh place before the engine burned a bearing.

Two weeks later at Springfield for the first of the that year's four Championship dirt races, Andretti drove Brawner's dirt car to finish second behind Don Branson. Back at the wheel of the rear-engined Brawner/Hawk at Milwaukee the following weekend, he again won from pole, beating Gordon Johncock after a racelong battle.

Andretti failed to finish the dirt race the next day at DuQuion, but at the Indiana Fairgrounds five days later he won the Hoosier 100 and took the point lead from Johncock. Foyt was on the pole for the Hoosier 100 and led most of the way, but with three laps to go the Texan's brake pedal broke, allowing Andretti to win.

Two weeks later Andretti scored a dominant victory at Trenton in the Brawner/Hawk. He qualified on the pole and led all the way despite a few anxious moments when he ran out of fuel and had to pit with eight laps to go.

The following month Andretti wrapped-up his second USAC title at Sacramento even though he didn't finish the race. Driving Brawner's Offy-powered dirt car he led most of the way only to have his transmission fail with just four laps to go. He was classified in tenth place, earning enough points to make it impossible with only one race remaining for either Jim McElreath or Johncock to beat him.

© Racemaker/Knox ~ Parnelli's STP turbine in 1967
Andretti finished the year with a pair of wins in Phoenix. At the end of November he drove the Brawner/Hawk to victory in the season's final USAC Championship race at the one-mile Phoenix Int'l Raceway after a serious duel with Parnelli Jones and seven days later he won the season-closing USAC sprint race on the half-mile Manzanita dirt track with Wally Meskowski's Chevy-powered sprinter. He was USAC Champion for the second year in a row and also finished second to Roger McCluskey in USAC's Sprint car series.

Meanwhile, Parnelli and J.C. Agajanian asked Ted Halibrand to design and build their own rear-engine car for 1966 called a Shrike. Parnelli qualified the Shrike fourth at Indianapolis and ran well before a wheel bearing failed after two hundred miles.

But Parnelli's fortunes took a turn for the better when he agreed to race Andy Granatelli's STP turbine car in the 1967 Indy 500. It took Jones and Granatelli's team a little while to figure-out the best gearing and 4WD split to achieve the optimum lap time from the turbine, but once they found the right combination Parnelli was in a class of his own.

"Nobody wanted to give the car any credit for its handling," he says. "It was a four-wheel drive car and we had worked out the chassis. I had to go through some phases with it. At one point it wanted to skate, like a push, coming off the corner, so I kept loosening it up and pretty soon I couldn't get into the corner.

"I found out it was trying to break the front wheels loose coming off the corner. So we went to a 70/30 torque split, or 60/40--whatever it was--and that cured that problem. The car handled good. It just didn't run very good down at the end of the straightaway."

He quietly refutes suggestions that he sand-bagged throughout practice and qualifying.

"I had no reason to not run as fast as I could, and I did," Parnelli remarks. "In the seven years I ran at Indianapolis I was always in the first two rows and I was outside in the second row that year which was my worse starting spot I ever had at Indianapolis. If I could have sat on the pole I would have.

"I didn't know the car was going to be that good. Foyt, Gurney and Mario were all running fifteen percent nitro in qualifying as well as light fuel loads. Remember, this was when we were carrying seventy-five gallons of fuel."

© Racemaker/Knox ~ Bobby Unser in 1968
Parnelli says his competitors fooled themselves with their qualifying set-ups.

"I figured on raceday when those guys put on seventy-five gallons of fuel and took out that ten or fifteen percent nitro they might not have enough speed to get back by me at the end of the straightaway. I knew how much those cars slowed-down when you put on all that fuel and took the nitro mixture out of the fuel."

Parnelli and the turbine were ready for the race and at the start he brazenly drove around the outside of Andretti, Gurney and Johncock on the front row and whistled away into the distance despite spinning one time early in the race while lapping NASCAR star Lee Roy Yarbrough. But four laps from the end the turbine lost drive and Foyt came through from being almost a lap down to win his third 500. Parnelli blames himself for pushing the car too hard when he was leaving the pits.

"It was heart-breaking to come that close and be that dominant and not win the race," Parnelli remarks. "When you know you've got a car that can win the race, it's hard to take away that hundred and ten, or hundred and twenty percent effort, and have some common sense. I look back at several races I could've won if I had a little bit more smarts.

"Obviously, the biggest one was when I drove the turbine car at Indianapolis. Just accelerating out of the pits too hard was enough to make the difference between whether I won or lost. I criticize myself personally for not winning that race, but it's only one of several."

Later that year USAC essentially banned turbines by restricting the inlet annulus to an impossibly small dimension. Meanwhile, the turbine's driveshaft bearing failure allowed Foyt to score his third Indy 500 win at the wheel of his own Ford-powered Coyote. The first Coyote was built in Texas and was essentially a stronger, better version of Chapman's successful Lotus design.

"The turbine car and I lapped the field," Foyt says. "Parnelli and me chased each other all day, but he spun-out in the short chute one time and had to make another pitstop. I don't know if I could have beat him, but I wasn't that far behind him. After he broke, I went on and won it. I felt like we ran a strong race."

Foyt went on to win his fifth championship, scoring wins at Springfield, DuQuoin, Trenton and Sacramento, plus a pair of seconds at the twin 100-mile races on the St. Jovite road course in Quebec, and another second in the Hoosier 100. Andretti won eight races in 1967, but Foyt beat him to the championship by 80 points with 3,440 points to Andretti's 3,360 and Bobby Unser's 3,020.

© Racemaker/Friedman ~ Andretti in the Lotus 64 in 1969
The Unsers made their names at Colorado's Pike's Peak where Bobby won no fewer than thirteen times and the family's record embraces 24 wins over three generations. Bobby arrived at Indianapolis in 1963 and drove a series of Novi-powered cars for Andy Granatelli through 1965. Bobby hit the winning combination at Indianapolis in 1968 after joining Bob Wilke's Leader Card team with A.J. Watson and Jud Phillips as chief mechanics.

Unser started the season in Watson's car then moved to Phillips' side of the team. He finished fifth in the season-opener at Hanford before winning four races in a row. The first of these came on a new road course in Las Vegas followed by two more wins at Phoenix and Trenton. Unser then won the Indy 500 after leading most of the race driving a second-generation Leader Card Eagle powered by a turbocharged Offy.

Bobby had to fight with Lloyd Ruby's Gene White Mongoose-Offy and Joe Leonard's STP Lotus turbine but both ran into trouble late in the race so Unser led an Eagle one-two with Dan Gurney finishing second in AAR's own Eagle-Ford/Weslake.

"The '68 Eagle was really good at the Speedway," Unser grins. "I had a couple of little tricks that made that car fast at the Speedway, but it wasn't super good anyplace else. We kept our secrets to ourselves and none of the other Eagle teams, Dan included, could figure out what we were doing, and we whipped them at the Speedway that year.

"Bob Wilke was a good owner," Unser adds. "He wasn't the big spender but he was the Roger Penske of that era. We had some clutch trouble in the race, but the car worked really good. We had 75 gallons on board in those days and you ran a long time between pitstops. Those were the days you got blisters on your hands."

Unser drove Wilke's Eagle-Offy in that year's oval races. On the road courses he ran a Ford-powered Eagle and in the dirt races he drove a Watson-Offy dirt car. At Pike's Peak, Bobby drove his own Chevy-powered car to score his ninth overall win on the Colorado mountain and become the first man to break twelve minutes, but it proved to be his last win of the year. Nevertheless, with the help of four second places Unser won that year's USAC championship, narrowly beating Mario Andretti by just eleven points (4,330 to 4,319) with younger brother Al finishing third.

Andretti had been compelled to buy Al Dean's team in 1968 after Dean passed away unexpectedly. He didn't enjoy being a team owner and as 1969 began he learned that Firestone was cutting back. They would continue to supply and develop tires, but there wasn't any more sponsorship money for its teams. Consequently, Andretti sold his team to Andy Granatelli and raced in STP's colors in 1969.

For the new year Andretti convinced Colin Chapman to supply him with a brand new wedge-shaped, four-wheel drive Lotus 64 by brokering a deal for the Lotus team to use turbo Ford engines. Chapman had turned his back on Ford in 1968 to build and race his wedge-shaped turbine cars but Andretti was able to bring Lotus together with Ford's fast-developing turbo four-cam V8. Chapman planned to race two of the new cars at Indianapolis in 1969 with Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt while Andretti would run his own STP Lotus.

© McGee collection ~ Andretti wins in 1969
Andretti's plan was to begin the year with a much-modified version of the previous year's Hawk, then switch to the Lotus at Indianapolis. The USAC Championship got underway at Phoenix at the end of March, but a broken clutch stopped Andretti during his first pitstop. Next was a 200-mile race at the Hanford, California oval where he scored a dominant win aboard the Brawner/Hawk.

The new Lotus was delivered to Andretti at Indianapolis in May. Brawner and McGee took a few days to work through the final details of preparing the Lotus and as soon as Andretti took to the track he was on the pace, quickly establishing himself as the man to beat. He was the first driver to lap the track at 170 mph that year and going into the first weekend of qualifying Andretti's 4WD Lotus was quickest at 171.789 mph, followed by Foyt at 170.908 and Foyt's teammate Roger McCluskey at 170.783 mph. Nobody else was in the 170 mph bracket.

However, the first qualifying weekend was rained-out and Andretti set to work on his race set-up. Fuel mileage with the turbo Ford was extremely poor and he discovered he would have to reduce his pace by four or five mph to make the necessary mileage. He was also worried about the overall fragility of the Lotus, particularly the transmission which was mounted back-to-front to drive the 4WD system, and located immediately behind the cockpit rather than at the tail of the car.

But disaster struck in the middle of the next week when the Lotus's right rear hub failed in the Speedway's fourth turn just as Andretti was laying into the throttle for a hot lap. The car spun backwards into the wall and pieces flew in all directions as the car disintegrated, catching fire as it slid along the wall.

Covering his face with one hand, Andretti unbuckled his harness and scrambled out as the wreckage came to a stop. Art Pollard and Roger McCluskey were following him and somehow got through the crash scene undamaged. Both stopped their cars and ran over to Andretti whose face and lips had been burned.

He was taken to the infield hospital where it was determined his facial burns were relatively minor. Otherwise uninjured, Andretti went straight to his garage where the decision was made to revert to the Brawner/Hawk.

"The Lotus was really fast," McGee says. "But it was never going to finish. It had too many problems and the hubs were way under-designed."

It turned out that the wheel hubs had been improperly machined. The Lotus team tried to manufacture new pieces but ran out of time, and Chapman withdrew his two cars for Hill and Rindt. For the incredible Lotus 64 and Team Lotus at Indianapolis, that was the end of the line. The 64s never raced, nor would Chapman ever return to Indianapolis.

© Racemaker/Torres ~ Al Unser in 1970
Back in the Hawk with only two days of practice under his belt Andretti qualified second to Foyt with Bobby Unser on the outside of the front row. Andretti took the lead at the start, but his temperature gauges were soon climbing dangerously high. He backed off a little, and discovered that if he didn't use the last few hundred rpm available, both water and oil temperatures came down to acceptable levels. As he sorted-out the situation, teammates Foyt and McCluskey passed him and he settled into third place, dogging their tracks in relative comfort.

Andretti made a mistake exiting his first pitstop by smoking the tires too much and damaging his clutch. Again, he was forced to reduce his pace, but was relieved to feel the clutch come back to full gripping power and he lost only one place to Lloyd Ruby.

By this time McCluskey had already hit trouble, first running out of fuel, then encountering terminal turbocharger problems. Foyt also ran into engine problems, losing twenty laps in the pits changing a turbocharger.

That left Ruby in front, but the luckless Texan had a disastrous second pitstop. Ruby tried to leave his pit before one of his refueling hoses was removed, flooding his pit with fuel and ending his race.

Andretti also had trouble during his second stop and lost time when Brawner struggled to get all the fuel into the Hawk. Fortunately, he was a lap ahead of anyone else at that stage, and could afford a slow stop. The same thing happened on his third and final stop. This time, as Mario rushed out of his pit, he brushed one of Brawner's legs with a wheel. But that was Andretti's last anxious moment.

The rest of the race was trouble-free, and he was able to cruise home an easy winner, comfortably ahead of Gurney and Bobby Unser. It was the first Indy 500 win for each of Andretti, Brawner, McGee and Granatelli. As he rolled into Victory Lane, Andretti was greeted by the sight of a rollicking Granatelli sweeping in to plant a famous wet kiss on his cheek.

"It was a big thing for both Andy and me to finally win that race," Mario recalls. "If anyone deserved to win that race at the time, it was Andy with all the effort he'd put into it. He created a lot of excitement, first with the Novi, then with the turbines. You had to give him credit.

"I liked the dynamics of being involved with him and his personality. Because of Andy being so visible it was good for me, too, because you knew we were going to get worldwide publicity in the aftermath."

At Milwaukee the next weekend Andretti qualified on pole and led the race comfortably until his turbocharger lost pressure. He kept going, falling back steadily, only to run out of fuel near the finish. After coasting into the pits, the Hawk was refueled, but Mario couldn't restart his engine and was classified in seventh place.

© Racemaker/Torres ~ Al on the dirt in 1970
He was on the pole again at Langhorne a week later and led most of the rain-delayed race before his right rear tire began to lose air. He hung on to finish fifth.

Next came Pike's Peak. It was Andretti's third and last time on the Colorado mountain and he enjoyed a faultless run in a Chevy-powered Grant King dirt car, winning easily. That was the only time he drove a purpose-built car at Pike's Peak.

At the Castle Rock, Colorado road course the following weekend, Andretti was entirely out of luck. An oil leak forced him into the pits and then USAC officials caught Brawner and McGee adding oil to the engine, which was forbidden, so he was disqualified.

The week concluded with a USAC Championship dirt car race on Saturday night at the Nazareth Speedway in Andretti's hometown. He qualified second and scored a dominant victory and his great season continued at nearby Trenton the next weekend where he scored his fifth win of the year.

Andretti won again the following month on the dirt at Springfield and wrapped up his third USAC Championship by winning the year's second Championship race at Trenton near the end of September.

A very good year was rounded-out with another victory at the Kent, Washington road circuit in October, and his ninth USAC win of the year on the Riverside road course in December. All these wins helped Andretti set a USAC record of 5,025 points. The Unser brothers were a distant second and third, Al accumulating 2,630 points, and Bobby 2,585.

Al Unser won at Pike's Peak in 1964 and '65 and made it to Indianapolis in 1965. He finished second behind A.J. Foyt in 1967 driving Al Retzloff's Lola-Ford with George Bignotti as chief mechanic. At the end of 1968 Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing came to life when Parnelli and Vel Miletich bought Agajanian's team.

Unser missed the 1969 Indy 500 after breaking his leg while fooling around with Jones on a pair of motorcycles. But he bounced back and blew everyone away in 1970, winning the 500 aboard VPJ's own car called a Johnny Lightning Colt which was based on the previous year's Lola. George Bignotti took the team's Lola Indy cars and turned them into VPJ Colts with different suspension and other tweaks.

"George was absolutely a terrific mechanic," Unser remarks. "George hired the right people, put a team together and made it work. George Bignotti made my career. That car was totally capable of winning in 1969 and in 1970 it showed. Through the last of 1969 I won a bunch of races and in 1970 I just dominated everything."

In 1970 Al led all but ten laps at Indianapolis and won the 500 by more than half a minute from Mark Donohue in Penske's Lola-Ford with Dan Gurney finishing third in his AAR Eagle-Offy.

"In 1970 we led 191 of the 200 laps and there wasn't one drop of oil coming out of that car," Parnelli recalls. "It was an absolute beauty."

Al dominated the rest of the season, equaling Foyt's record of ten wins from 1964, including winning all four dirt track races aboard Ford-powered Grant King dirt cars. He won the championship with more than twice as many points as brother Bobby who finished a distant second. But such was the rate of change that Al would find the Colt outpaced and obsoleted in 1971 by new cars from McLaren and Eagle.

"As you know, technology moves on," Al remarks. "Back in the late sixties a car would last five or six years, but from 1970 on they became obsolete overnight because of the pace of technology and the intelligence of the designers."

Through the late sixties it became necessary to have three different cars; a turbocharged car for the ovals, a normally-aspirated version for the road courses; and a front-engine dirt car for the dirt races. The SCCA's success with the Can-Am, Trans-Am and Formula 5000 had prompted USAC to add more road races to its schedule. There was just one road course race in 1965 and '66, but that number jumped to seven in 1967, nine in 1968 and eight in 1969.

But there were just three road courses on the 1970 schedule and at the end of that year USAC, in their wisdom, decided to remove all the dirt tracks and road courses from the championship and focus entirely on paved ovals in 1971. In one fell swoop USAC not only turned its back on road racing but also brought an end to more than forty years of Indy or Championship cars racing on dirt ovals. It was the end of a long era that was unique to American racing.

With neither dirt tracks nor road courses, the USAC Championship would look very different through the seventies, a spectacular, record-setting era beset by increasing economic and political turmoil. Next week, I'll cover the star drivers and great cars of that turbulent decade.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright ~ All Rights Reserved