The Indy Racing League tries to get all the promotional hay it can out of legendary former driver A.J. Foyt's 50th year in Indy Car racing. Three women will start today's Indianapolis 500. A new Pole Day format injected excitement into what had become a low-wattage event.
How symmetrical that all this swirls about exactly 30 years after the most historic victory in Foyt's racing career; Janet Guthrie becoming the race's first female qualifier; and a Pole Day that crackled with Tom Sneva breaking the 200-mph barrier.
Few Indianapolis Mays have been so landmark-packed as May 1977. The record-book rewrites started early.
The gas man and 200
In 1962, Parnelli Jones ran the first 150-mph lap, circling the track in 60 seconds. In 1971 and 1972, engineering innovations helped jack the track record up from 171 mph to 196 mph and started talk of a 45-second lap, 200 mph.
Various rules changes kept 200 at Indianapolis a vain hope until 1977. More innovations, new engines and a resurfaced track made 200 possible again. During practice, Rutherford, Foyt and Mario Andretti clocked laps over the mark.
"Andretti, Rutherford and Foyt were running late in the day, when the track was cooler," Sneva said by phone from his Phoenix home. "I was running in the middle of the day and doing 196, 197, so we weren't getting much attention."
Actually, Sneva did get some attention. Pole Day found him pictured on the front page of that morning's Indianapolis Star, kissing the Turn 4 wall with which he so often flirted.
"Because Mario had been running faster, Roger [car owner Penske] decided to put his setup on my car," Sneva said. "On the first hot lap, they had me at 201 mph in the fourth turn. Problem was, I didn't come out of Turn 4. I told them Mario's setup might be quicker, but I think I can make it four laps with my setup."
The team worked all night to put the car back together for Pole Day. Sneva then talked his team into changes in the left rear spring and front wing.
Lap 1: 200.401 mph. Lap 2: 200.535. A final two laps in the 197 range put Sneva's average at 198.884 mph.
Sneva knew the first couple of laps had been good because of how much throttle he had used. He didn't quite know how good until the cool-down lap.
"I could see the safety guys on the inside of the track were pretty excited," Sneva said. "As I came down pit road, a lot of the other teams had "200 mph" on their sign boards and were looking at me."
The Gas Man was born.
Woman Sunday driver
Janet Guthrie jokes, you didn't have to know car numbers or colors to find her car in 1976. Just look for the mob of media and cameras.
Guthrie didn't qualify in 1976. Those looking with an unchauvinistic eye knew it was less the longtime sports car driver's shortcomings and more her car, owned and built by Rolla Vollstedt, an enthusiastic, if often underfinanced, car owner. Bryant came up with more money the next year, allowing Vollstedt to buy a year-old Lightning chassis that front-runner Roger McCluskey had run in 1976.
Guthrie qualified on the last day, although she finished with almost zero oil pressure and with an engine threatening to go ka-boom.
"Then, once you've climbed Everest, you realize what you really wanted to do was to win the thing," Guthrie said.
Everyone wondered how Speedway owner Tony Hulman would alter his beloved "Gentlemen, start your engines." At an event earlier in the month, Guthrie heard a Monroe executive say Hulman wouldn't change a thing because the mechanics started the cars, not the drivers.
Kay Bignotti, wife of the great chief mechanic George Bignotti, was furious.
"Kay came over to me and said, 'We can't let him get away with this,' " Guthrie said. "I said, 'Well, first I have to make the field.' Kay said, 'I'm not worried about that.' "
Mrs. Bignotti started Guthrie's car on Race Day. Hulman, informed before that his loophole would be closed, shouted, "In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines."
Problems in the electrical system took Guthrie out after 27 laps, finishing 29th.
Four times a king
From 1974-1976, Foyt seemed to catch the Indy ill-luck identified with rival Andretti. Two poles and 102 laps led added up to only a second, a third and a DNF in 1974. He was especially frustrated by the rain-shortened 1976 race, in which he was second when it was called.
Foyt's problem on Race Day in 1977 wasn't weather, but whether he could catch Gordon Johncock. Johncock's STP Wildcat led 129 laps with Foyt in second by varying distances. It seemed he had staved off Foyt's last big charge. He finished his 184th lap with a six-second lead.
Suddenly, a puff of smoke belched from Johncock's engine and he darted to the inside. Engine: gone.
The Speedway exploded as Foyt assumed the lead. Most stood and waved their hats over the last 16 laps while the epitome of the tough Texan began tearing up inside his helmet.
In March, Foyt listed the win among his top three ever because his mother and father, Tony Foyt, were able to see him become a four-time Indy 500 winner.
Winners get interviewed over the Speedway address system while taking a congratulatory lap in the pace car. This time, Hulman rode with Foyt, with whom he had become close over the years.
That was Hulman's last lap around the Speedway. The Terre Haute, Ind., businessman who bought the Speedway against the advice of many after it fell into disrepair during World War II, then rebuilt the Speedway and the Indy 500 into institutions, died the next October at 76.