Controversy is perhaps the nature of the beast known as the Indianapolis 500. In order to maintain reasonable safety and fairness, limits must be placed on engine power, and establishing these limits can be as tricky as holding a corner at 180 m.p.h.
Frankly, not too many drivers were happy with the restraints placed on horsepower (achieved through reduced manifold pressure) at this year's Indy 500 Not even Johnny Rutherford, who won the classic for the third time in seven years. The affable Texan, in fact, had rather prophetically hinted there might be problems before the green flag ever dropped.
"Forcing us down to a 48-inch boost has stripped us of the necessary power needed to cope with emergency situations," he observed. "We'll have to pay a lot of unnecessary attention in passing situations and sometimes this can put into your concentration."
here were no major mishaps during Sunday's 64th running, but a succession of spinouts and breakdowns brought the caution flag out with inordinate regularity. Altogether, the field was signaled to put the brakes on 13 times, resulting in 60 of 200 laps being run at reduced speed.
Is it any wonder, then, that this was the slowest Indy since Rodger Ward's victory in 1962? Ward averaged little better than 140 m.p.h. that year,while Rutherford's official speed was 142.862 m.p.h. Mark Donohue set the tract record of 162.962 m.p.h. in 1972.
Some drivers were less outspoken than others on the slowdown. Not one to mince words,though, was four-time winner A. J. Foyt, who summed things up rather bluntly when he said, "The cars were running like turtles with 48-inch boots. This is ridiculous. You call this racing?"
Some observers, of course, might have classified Foyt's remarks as sour grapes since A. J. finished a disappointing 14th, completing 173 laps before a broken valve sent him to the pits.
Actually, in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing, this Indy had more than any in recent memory. Much of it, however, occurred because the ears kept regrouping behind the pace car every time the yellow flag came out. Then once the green was waved, the faster drivers dueled each other or dodged the slower-moving traffic.
Although Rutherford's bright yellow Chaparral was the dominant car on the tract, all the psuedo restarts made for some bizarre adjustments on the leader board. Nine different drivers led at one stage or another, including Tom Sneva, who began at the back of the 33- car field and finished second. Gary Bettenhausen, another veteran who played his "hand" almost flawlessly, made a similarly startling leap, from 32nd to third.
Sneva and Bettenhausen may not have had the best machines, but unlike the many new faces at the famed oval this year (there were 10 rookies) they are wise in the ways of Indy's war of mechanical attrition.
Of course, experience is not the only factor in holding together a snarling engine. Drivers with a real chance at winning aren't going to back off, so some will see their dreams shattered by the smallest of malfunctions.
Two vets who gave chase to the pole-sitting Rutherford for while were Jonny's companions on the first row, former winners Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser. Andretti, trying to break out of a slump, led for 10 laps, but dropped out after 71 laps with a blown engine. Unser made 126 loops before ignition problems sent his machine crawling back to the pits.
Rick Mears, last year's winner, mounted the most serious challenge late in the race, yet a long pit stop ended his hopes of repeating his 1979 triumph.
The day, as many expected, belonged to the "Yellow Submarine," the ground-effect car Rutherford had piloted to victory at California's Ontario 200 in this season's first championship race. The revolutionary design of his Chaparral utilizes air suction to keep the car hugging the ground.
Superior stability was certainly a virtue in this year's Indy, since everybody was running virtually flat out at all times. In other years, the more powerful cars would hit speeds well above 200 m.p.h. through the straightaways, then have to slow down in the curves.The manifold regulations this time made it a race of steering and cornering, and that's where Rutherford's car excelled.