1970:(Winner: Al Unser Sr)
1970 would hold significance for my family – as it would be Jack’s final attempt at the Brickyard. He gave it a good crack and got to within 25 laps of recording a finish when a piston failed. He was classified 13th. Once more, he was the only international driver.
It was a special year for another racing family dynasty – the Unsers. After his broken leg fiasco the previous year, Al Unser made the race his own in 1970 and led 190 laps. He joined his brother Bobby as the first duo of brothers to win the Indianapolis 500. It was the first of four victories for Al at Indianapolis. Car owner Parnelli Jones, who won the race as a driver in 1963, became the second individual (after Pete DePaolo) to win separately as both a driver and as an owner.
Unser took home $US271,697 out of a record $1,000,002 purse. For the first time in Indy history, the total prize fund topped $1 million. All 33 cars in the field were turbocharged for the first time. This would be the final 500 in which the winner celebrated in the old victory lane at the south end of the pits.
For the Brabhams, we’d have to wait another 11 years until we turned a new page in our history at the Speedway…
1971: (Winner: Al Unser Sr)
Indianapolis Dodge dealer Eldon Palmer achieved notoriety by crashing the Dodge Challenger pace car into a pit-row photo stand at the start of the 1971 race, injuring 29 people, a couple seriously.
Al Unser Sr won back-to-back events and became the first and only driver to win the race on his birthday, May 29. This was the first year that there were also 500-mile races at Ontario and Pocono giving IndyCar racing its own “triple crown.”
1972: (Winner: Mark Donohue)
1972 saw another name rise at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Roger Penske won his first 500 as a team owner in 1972. Mark Donohue led the last 13 laps, breaking the Unser dominance. It didn’t look that way though, as Al Unser Sr was well on his way to be the first driver to three-peat, but had to settle for second in a race which featured “All American” drivers – the first since 1962 (Mario Andretti, who was born in Italy, was a naturalized citizen).
On the morning of the race, track owner Tony Hulman asked Jim Nabors to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” during the pre-race ceremonies. Nabors accepted and performed, without rehearsal. It was the beginning of a 36-year tradition, where Nabors performed nearly every year from 1972 to 2014. It is one of those ‘moments’ in the leadup to the race that I remember most fondly…
1973: (Winner: Gordon Johncock)
The 1973 race will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The race was run over three days and Gordon Johncock was finally declared the winner when rain again halted the race after 133 laps on day three.
Accidents through the month of May took the lives of three competitors. Art Pollard, Swede Savage and the pitboard man for Kiwi Graham McRae all lost their lives. McRae’s pitboard man’s loss was probably the most bizarre – he was hit by a fire truck in pit lane while rushing to the scene of an accident to help drivers. Several spectators were also injured by burning fuel and debris.
1974: (Winner: Johnny Rutherford)
Thankfully, the tragedy of the previous year saw sweeping rule and safety changes in 1974 to both the track and the cars. Wings were reduced in size and pop-off valves were added to the turbocharger to reduce the amount of horsepower and limit speeds. The great Johnny Rutherford won the race in his 11th attempt from 25th on the grid – the farthest back since Louis Meyer in 1936.
For the first time the race was run on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, ending the “never on a Sunday” policy. AJ Foyt broke the all-time starting record with his 17th consecutive race and would go on to qualify another 18 consecutive times. The track also completed its first VIP suites outside of Turn two.
1975: (Winner: Bobby Unser)
The legendary Dan Gurney won his first and only Indy 500 as a car owner in this year with the great Bobby Unser. Gurney – another of the real innovators of the era – had finished second as a driver in 1968 and 1969. Unser was leading the race when it was red flagged 26 laps from home because of rain.
Johnny Rutherford was second and pole sitter AJ Foyt third – that’s a cool podium, right? In just his second start, Tom Sneva walked away from a spectacular crash in turn two on lap 125 which ripped his car apart. On the morning of the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was designated to the National Register of Historic Places and the Hulman family celebrated 30 years of ownership of the facility.
1976: (Winner: Johnny Rutherford)
In 1976, polesitter Johnny Rutherford took the lead on lap 80 and was leading when rain halted the race on lap 103. Two hours later, the race was about to be resumed, but rain fell again. USAC officials called the race at that point, reverted the scoring back to the completion of lap 102, and Rutherford was declared the winner and famously walked to Victory Lane having completed only 255 miles (410 km), the shortest official race on record.
The victory would be the 27th and last win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Offenhauser engine. The year also saw the opening of the the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. Located in the track infield, the new museum replaced a much smaller facility on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
1977 (Winner: AJ Foyt)
AJ Foyt won a record fourth 500 in the last car and engine package to be totally built in the US.
Meanwhile, after becoming the first woman to pass rookie orientation the year prior, Janet Guthrie was able to qualify for the race in 1977. She qualified 28th and was classified 29th despite a timing gear issue early in the race.
Tom Sneva became the first driver to break the 200mph (320kph) barrier on his way to the pole and finished second to Foyt. Sadly, this would be the last race for track owner Tony Hulman who died of heart failure five months later – but the legacy he left continues to this day.
1977 was also the year that Belgian driver, Teddy Pilette tried to become the first grandchild of a former Indy 500 starter to qualify for the race (I will know how he felt soon!). Jim and James McElreath Jr also tried to become the first father-son combination in the show. The two youngsters failed to qualify.
1978: (Winner: Al Unser Sr)
In 1978, Tom Sneva took the pole for the second year in a row, averaging 202.2 mph (323.5kph) he was also second again in the race, this time to Al Unser. Unser damaged his front wing in his last stop, but managed to hang on by eight seconds to win his third Indy 500. He would also go on to win the Pocono 500 and the California 500 and become the only driver to clinch the “Triple Crown” in the one year.
The Indy win was the first of 10 consecutive titles for Cosworth with their DFX V8 engine. Female Janet Guthrie finished ninth and it was later revealed she did it with a broken wrist – that’s incredible! The race was the last before the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the first “split” in US open wheel racing.
1979: (Winner: Rick Mears)
The 1979 race was sanctioned by USAC, but many of the teams from the newly-formed SCCA/CART Indy Car Series ran the race as a one-off. The month of May was full of controversy and court appearances. The fallout saw two more starting spots added to the grid and 35 cars started the race, the most since 1933.
In the end Rick Mears won the first of his four 500s for Roger Penske. Former President, Gerald Ford attended the race and was the Grand Marshal for the 500 Festival parade. This was the first year that the pace car was used during caution periods.