Lloyd Ruby stood there in the Indiana rain with Rodger Ward, in front of a television camera, and a million or so people in TV land watched them. Roger Ward had won the Indianapolis 500 twice, and then, with a tearful speech, retired in 1966. Now he was back as the resident racer on ABC's Wide World of Sports, interviewing Ruby following the first day of qualifications for this year's edition of the race.
"And folks, this is Lloyd Ruby, whose car was in line to qualify when the rain caused qualifications to end early today." said Ward peering into the TV camera. "I know that it's a big disappointment for you, Lloyd, not being able to get a shot at the pole position." There are two weekends of qualifications for the 500. The pole position, on the inside of the first row, goes to the fastest qualifier on the first Saturday of qualifications. In pre-qualifying practice sessions Ruby's had been among the fastest cars, and he was a favorite for the $20,000 that accompanies the pole. The order that cars go out to qualify is decided by lot, and Ruby had drawn a number well down on the list. The rains came late in the afternoon, and Ruby never had a chance to qualify his red, white and blue machine. So Lloyd Ruby, a stocky middle aged Texan, prone to one syllable replies, shifted uncomfortably under his Stetson, and looked off camera.
Ward continued. "But, I know that you'll be back tomorrow, running as fast as you can, to get the best qualifying position that you can." With that Ward poked the microphone under Ruby's face. In three out of the past four 500's Ruby had had victory in sight, only to fall victim to some unlikely mechanical failure. His luck at Indy has been on the under side of average. He just stood there, scuffing his foot on the asphalt. Finally, he turned to face Ward. "It just doesn't matter, now," he said softly. "We're going to be way back in the pack anyway. Our luck just seems to be bad here. You know, Ward," he said in a very tired drawl. "I'm bout as old as you are, and that's pretty old. I jes don't know how long I can keep going." Ward made a half-hearted attempt at a recovery, and then smiled a PR man smile until the engineer n the booth mercifully switched back to Jim McKay. The next day Ruby ran very fast, but blew up two engines without completing the four qualifying laps. His crew toiled diligently through the week, and Ruby eventually qualified the team's backup car during the second weekend. He made the sixth best qualifying time over-all, but due to the peculiar qualifying system at Indianapolis, he was placed on the inside of the ninth three-man row. Ruby is in his early forties, and he'd like to win the 500 and retire. He's on his second car and sixth engine of the month. It looks like he may be one of the thirty-two drivers waiting until next year.
Lloyd Ruby was one of the first Indy men to do any road racing. Back in the early sixties he raced in the SCCA's fall pro series on the West Coast. In those days, Indy drivers drove at Indianapolis and the fairground ovals that made up the USAC circuit. SCCA, the sanctioning body that was road-racing oriented, had a circuit composed mostly of amateur races. NASCAR, the Southern stock car group, had nothing to do with either of them. Today, half of the USAC races are on road tracks rather than ovals. NASCAR runs some road races, and SCCA runs three different pro series, including the Can-Am challenge for large engine sports cars, which is just about the equal of Formula One in international stature. But the biggest race of the year is the 500. It has fantastic drawing power. Any SCCA driver who can get a ride shows up on the first of May, and more NASCAR drivers come north in the spring every year. The foreign draw has tapered off in the past couple of years, but a couple of European teams still make the race.
For a couple of years in the mid sixties, the race was dominated by European teams, who had had a great deal of experience with the rear-engine configuration just coming into use at the Speedway. Most of the Grand Prix circus showed up for the race, and Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill won in consecutive years. This year Jack Brabham, who started it all in 1961, is the only foreign driver in the race. Bruce McLaren, another Grand Prix builder/driver, has cars entered, but they are being driven by Americans.
Indianapolis is unique in the racing calendar. It towers over all the other individual races. It offers over $800,000 in prize money, more than three times that of the second richest race. And it monopolizes an entire month. No other race uses more than two weeks including practice, and most only three or four days. Indianapolis is really two races; qualifications, where the thirty-three fastest cars are selected from the seventy-five or eighty that are entered, and then the 500 mile race itself. For qualifications, the cars are set up to run around a two-and-a-half mile rectangular track as fast as they possibly can. Chassis are set up for optimum handling with a small fuel load and no regard for tire wear. Oxygen-bearing nitromethane is added in large quantities to the alcohol fuel, producing increased power and decreased engine life. No car could hope to finish the race in this condition, and after a car has qualified, the crew reworks the chassis to provide a good compromise of tire wear and handling with a full fuel load, and the fuel system is calibrated for a safer fuel mixture. The speed differential may be anywhere from two to five miles per hour, depending on the individual car.
This year's practice and qualifications have been dominated by Al Unser, the youngest brother of the 1968 winner. Unser broke his leg in a motorcycle accident last spring, and missed Indy, and many of the following races on the USAC championship trail. He won several races late in the season, and finally finished second to 500 winner Mario Andretti in the National Championship. His car, owned by the 1963 500 winner Parnelli Jones, has been the fastest car at the track all this month. His four-lap, pole winning average of 170.221 was not quite fast enough to eclipse the track record, set two years ago by his current teammate. Joe Leonard, in one of the now-banned turbine cars. With the turbines effectively banished from the Speedway by air inlet restrictions, some of the technical interest has gone out of the race. All of this year's qualifiers are in rear engined, two wheel drive vehicles, powered by turbocharged versions of eight cylinder Fords or four cylinder offys. But even though the cars are all basically similar, all of the car and driver combinations are not equal. Barring a recurrence of the 1966 race, where one third of the field was eliminated before they reached the first turn in the first lap, there are only about ten cars with any hope of winning the race, and only half that number have a really good shot.
Qualifications are used most often to predict the probable outcome of the race. A general rule is that the winner will come from the first two rows in qualifying. The reasoning is that unless a crew has good enough control to qualify the car with a fast time on the first weekend of trials, they won't be able to field a car that is capable of lasting 500 miles at racing speeds. Fast qualifiers on the second weekend usually don't finish, even if they lead the race at some point. The past decade at Indy bears this out. 1966 was the only race in which the winner wasn't in the first or second row. Graham Hill led home a field that was decimated by a big crash on the main straightaway as the green flag dropped. Hill won from the middle of the field, after all of the hotshots dropped out. Still, there are people back in the pack who have to be considered possibilities to win, on the basis of their qualifying times, and the speed they posted in Wednesday's carburation tests. The track always is closed from the last qualifying session until the race itself a week later, except for a three-hour period on Wednesday. The cars will have been converted from qualifying trim, to the state of tune. The carburation tests are the only opportunity for the crews to try the cars out with the new suspension settings, with the tanks full of fuel. The times recorded in this session give a good indication of how fast each car will actually be able to run during the race itself.
Lloyd Ruby finally qualified at 168.895 miles per hour, the sixth fastest time for the whole month. But he's starting way back in the field. He has a lot of cars to pass before he can catch the other fast runners. That's asking a lot from an engine, and Ruby's hardly been averaging a hundred miles per engine. He could win, and may very well lead a portion of the race, but he's got to be rated a long shot for a win.
Roger McCluskey has been racing at Indianapolis since the early 1960's. He's never finished the race, though he's often run well. This year he was the fourth fastest qualifier in a turbocharged Ford. Clint Brawner and Jim McGee, mechanics for Andretti's winning STP Oil Treatment Special last year, built and maintain McClusky's Quickick Special this year. The combination sounds good, but the only money McCluskey's made this year has been for laundry detergent commercials on TV with his wife. If the car would last. McCluskey could win, but neither seems very likely.
Art Pollard drives a car called The Art Pollard Car Wash Special. His sponsor hopes that Pollard will win, and everyone will flock to the car washes bearing his name. He qualified on the outside of the second row, but his carburation test speeds weren't outstanding. He doesn't look any better than a third or fourth place finish if the car goes the distance.
Peter Revson was a rookie at Indy last year. He qualified last in the field of thirty-three, but drove a heady race to finish fifth. This year he took over the McLaren car intended for Denis Hulme, who was forced to withdraw from the race when his hands were burned in a mishap during practice. The McLaren team has had personnel difficulties all month, and the cars haven't run as fast as they did in preliminary tests last fall. Still, the mechanical preparation of the McLarens is immaculate, and Revson has a good shot at another good finish, if not a win.
Mark Donohue was the rookie of the year at Indianapolis last year. He was the fourth fastest qualifier and the pick of the motorsports writers to win the race. Quite a feat for a driver with no previous experience there. Like Revson, Donohue is primarily a road racer. In fact, they are teammates on Roger Penske's Javelin team in SCCA Trans Am racing. Donohue, who holds an engineering degree from Brown, was the fifth fastest qualifier this year. The Penske team is McLaren's only competitor when it comes to preparation. But Donohue is hard on cars. Last year he was running third until mechanical difficulties dropped him to seventh. This year Donohue has a chance for the win, but only if some of the faster cars drop out.
Bobby Unser won at Indianapolis in 1968 after Joe Leonard's turbine failed with about twenty miles to go. He won the national championship that year. Last year he was third in the 500, and in the championship. He doesn't have the look if a winner this year, but a high finish is quite likely.
Mario Andretti is the compleat race driver. Five foot six inches high, he drives every type of car. He won Indianapolis last year, has been national champion three times, has won the Sebring sports car enduro twice, including this year. He won the Daytona 500, premier event for stock cars in 1967, and qualified for the pole position in the first Grand Prix he ever raced in. This year he is competing in six Grand Prix in an STP-March Ford, as well as running the whole USAC championship circuit. He was one of the fastest drivers in practice early this month, but a severe crash prior to qualifying forced his team to spend several sleepless nights fitting salvaged parts to a spare hull. Andretti qualified on the first day, next to Bobby Unser in the third row. By now most of the bugs should be out of the car. If so, he is a solid threat to repeat. But the car is really somewhat of an unknown quantity, at least to outside observers. Andretti has the uncanny ability to drive a car at the fastest speed he can without breaking it. If the car is up to it tomorrow, he could win it all. Otherwise Andretti may have to content himself with second or third place money this year.