Maury Z. Levy

The Going Price of Speed: Roger Penske’s Indy 500

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm


ROGER PENSKE STEPPED OUT On the balcony before it came on. There were a lot of people in the suite and it was as good a time as any for some fresh air. There were some bigshots from Sun Oil and some diehards from Sears and some of Roger Penske’s friends from his several different lives in several different states. And there was Mark Donohue, Gary Bettenhausen and Bobby Allison.

Donohue sat right next to the set. It was a very bad angle, much too close to watch color television. The picture seemed like it was going to jump out at him. The station ran the tape over and over from every camera angle they had. It got worse each time. The room was silent now and only the faces spoke.

Art Pollard had pulled out of the pits at 9:37 that morning. He started to drive his car through the first turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car was an Eagle, very sleek, very low-slung, the same car Mark Donohue was driving. As the car came out of turn one, at about 180 miles an hour, Art Pollard lost the groove. The car made a quick veer to the right and hit the concrete wall. The right wheels were ripped off. The car bounced off the wall and skidded all the way down to turn two, 1,450 feet away, first onto the grass of the infield and then back on the track, where it started flipping end over end with a lot of the parts breaking off and flying away. It came to rest like a pancake on the last flip to the griddle. Art Pollard, who was 46 years old and had a lot of family and friends, was still in the car. He was as good as dead. When the car blew up, the flames shot back and Pollard swallowed them. You couldn’t see that on television. The flames are invisible and odorless and tasteless.

Nobody in the suite said a word. Mark Donohue took his clenched right fist and banged it on the sofa. His face was very red. Bobby Allison turned away and dropped his head low and said a prayer to himself. Gary Bettenhausen tilted the tip of his Goodyear hat over his eyes so you couldn’t see him crying. Roger Penske walked back in from the balcony, sensing it was all over. The balcony of his suite overlooked the exact spot where Art Pollard died. Penske walked in and looked at his three drivers. There was nothing he could say. It was going to be one of those months.

THERE ARE TWO KINDS of people at Indy. There are Penske’s people and there is everybody else. The other 400,000 drink beer and yell and get very greasy. Penske’s people are different.

Earlier that morning, Gary Bettenhausen stood inside his green and white wooden garage very much alone. It was the first day of time trials, a series of races against the clock to see who would end up where in the descending position order of cars for the start of the race two weeks away. The talk around Gasoline Alley, the legendary name for the garage area, echoed the stories in the papers. This could be the day, the first day in history, that a car and driver would average over 200 miles an hour turning the two-and-a-half­mile oval.

That’s not what Gary Bettenhausen was thinking. Deep inside, he was remembering an anniversary. “It was 12 years ago today,” he said. “My dad died here.”

Gary was only 19 then. He had just started racing modified Go-Karts. His father, Tony Bettenhausen, was 44 and an old pro at Indy. He was a cautious man. He had promised himself and his family he would never ride in a car that wasn’t his, a car he wasn’t sure of. He kept the promise until 12 years ago today. A friend who had helped Tony Bettenhausen build a silo on his Illinois farm the past winter asked him if he’d take his car out on the Indy track on a shakedown run, just to test it out for him. He couldn’t refuse. Anyway, it was only for one lap.

You can buy a good cotter pin for a few pennies at your local hardware store. They say it was a bad cotter pin that began the end to Tony Bettenhausen’s life. An axle broke and the car hit the wall and turned end over end.  

Late this May, Gary Bettenhausen walked out of the garage to go to his car, which was already in the pits. Somebody stopped him to say his friend Art Pollard had just been in an accident and had been taken to the hospital in pretty bad shape.

“What happened?” Bettenhausen asked.

“He hit the wall and turned end over end,” he was told.

Gary Bettenhausen didn’t say another word to anybody. He walked over and got into his car and drove out and turned the fastest qualifying time in the history of Indy. The crowd roared. He drove back into the pits and was interviewed over the public address system with a quarter million people in the stands listening. He sounded very happy, for the first time that day. He finished talking and there were more cheers as he walked away from his car. Then they announced it. Art Pollard had just died in Methodist Hospital. He was the 35th driver killed in the 57 years of the 500. There was total silence in the stands. Gary Bettenhausen broke down and cried.

LAST YEAR, GARY BETTENHAUSEN almost won this race. He led for a very long time. And when his car faltered, Mark Donohue came on to finish first. Either way, Roger Penske was a winner. This year he had added stock car superstar Bobby Allison to his racing stable. The writers were starting to call it the Super Team. They had come a long way in a short time at Indy.

In the beginning, Mark Donohue was a sports car racer. To a large extent he still is. Sports cars like Porches and Lolas are run in road races on roads that turn and twist and do interesting things. The Indianapolis 500 is basically a very stupid race. It’s 33 specially-built cars running counterclockwise around a two-and-a-half-mile oval 200 times. Whoever finishes first and fastest wins. It’s a very dangerous race. Roger Penske, who at 36 is the same age as Mark Donohue, used to be a pretty good race driver himself. But he, too, preferred the sports car circuit, because Indianapolis was too dangerous and too dumb. Penske and Donohue went along thinking like that for a couple of years, making pretty big names for themselves. But they finally realized that if they really wanted to get to the top, they had to go to Indy.

They used to call this course “The Brickyard” because it used to be paved with bricks—over a million of them. That’s changed. Little else has. There’s only one yard of bricks left now, right at the start-finish line. The rest is concrete.

The Indy 500, the world’s longest continuous left hand turn, is probably the most famous race in the world. It’s got a lot of things going for it. It’s got tradition, it’s got danger, but most of all it’s got money. Over a million bucks in the prize purse. The winner now gets about a quarter of that. Not to mention all the prestige, residuals and bargaining power with sponsors.

It’s a very simple race. Thirty-three cars are lined up in 11 rows of three, in the basic order of their qualifying speeds. They zoom and roar and cough and sputter, most trying to win, some just trying to finish. There are always mechanical failures that knock cars out of the race. And there are accidents. Detractors of the sport tend to play up the accidents. They say the crowd is bloodthirsty and the drivers are crazy. Some of that is true. Something will have to be done about the speed. That became very clear this year. Indy just wasn’t built to handle those grounded airplanes on A-frames with the thick, slick tires. It challenges every part of man and machine. And Roger Penske was never one to duck a challenge.

PENSKE IS A QUIET GENIUS. Under pressure, he’s one of the coolest people you’ll ever see. And the pressure is always there. This year, on the day before qualifications, Mark Donohue’s car blew an engine. Forget the $40,000 it costs to replace it. The Penske organization is never one to pinch pennies. They go first class all the way. It was mostly a problem of getting a new engine into the car on time and seeing that it worked right. It was an all-night job that had to be ready first thing in the morning. Anybody else might have panicked. Penske plotted things out and then left it in the hands of his chief engineer, Don Cox, the guy who fixes cars with a slide rule instead of a monkey wrench.

A calm and collected Penske returned to the suite to help his fiancée, Kathy Holbert, a very classy looking brown-haired girl, fill out the envelopes for the over $8,000 in race tickets he’d bought to send to sponsors and friends. Some representatives from those sponsors were in the suite at the time.

One of them cornered Penske the minute he walked in. “Listen, Roger,” he said, “I want you to make sure my kids get seats right in back of the pits. It’s very important to me.”

“And don’t forget those tickets for my nieces and nephews,” another money man said.

Anybody else would have told them to shove it. Certainly any man of nor­mal temper would have politely explained to them that his top driver, the defending champion of the Indy 500, just blew his car’s entire engine, and maybe that was a little more important than making sure somebody’s nephew had a seat for the race.

But Penske kept his cool. He thumbed through the pile of 400 tick­ets and managed to find one for everybody’s niece and nephew and second cousin. “You’ve got to stay cool,” he said later. “You’ve got to be proper.”

Penske likes to be proper about everything. It’s obvious by the way he looks. He’s a handsome, almost perfect-looking man. He’s slender because he doesn’t eat that much. He’s too busy. He eats as a function, and only when his stomach reminds him to. His hair has grayed quickly and distinctively over the past few years. It’s full and always in place. He wears a seemingly endless supply of pastel V-neck sweaters, with either an oxford cloth buttondown or a thin turtleneck underneath. He has a paranoia about cleanliness, about himself, his cars and everybody who works for him. In racing circles, he’s called Mister Clean, while Mark Donohue, his first and foremost employee, is called Captain Nice. The people who work closest with Penske wince when they hear that. There’s a slight role reversal there. Roger Penske is the captain. Make no mistake about that.

PENSKE CAME TO PHILADELPHIA in the mid ’60s. His racing days were just about over and he was looking for a solid investment. He got a piece of McKean Chevrolet in West Philly. He eventually took the place over, and it’s now run by his brother David. Roger went on to bigger and better things. A racing garage in Newtown Square, a whole line of auto products marketed through Sears, more car dealerships, car rental franchises, a tire distribution business, an insurance agency, a truck leasing company, and even his own speedway in Michigan.

Michigan International Speedway is near Penske’s third home in Southfield, near Detroit, where he spends much of his time now. The second home, of course, is Philadelphia, and the first is Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Roger Penske was born.

Shaker Heights is an affluent suburb of Cleveland. Penske always traveled on the right side of the tracks. His father worked his way up to become vice president of a firm that distributes steel. Roger Penske got interested in cars very early. His father brought him to Indy when he was 11. Now Roger brings his father.

Father Penske is a calm, thin man with shock-white hair. He is what Roger Penske will look like in 30 years. He came to Indy this year only for the time trials. He’s been having some heart problems and he didn’t think he could take the excitement of the race. He spent most of his time sitting in the sun of the 30-chair balcony off the suite—technically, room 164 of the Speedway Motel, little more than a living room with half a bath and half a kitchen and a view that costs $10,000 a year.

“Roger used to hang around gas stations all the time,” the elder Penske says. “One summer he got a paying job at one of them. He had his heart set on the old MG sports car parked out behind the station. I promised him if he earned the money, he could buy it. Well, he came up $100 short, but I gave him the difference. It was probably the best investment I ever made. He rebuilt that thing from scratch. And as soon as he fixed it all up, he sold it and traded up to a better car. He must have done that some 30 times before he ended up with his racing Corvette. I don’t know that we were too thrilled about that. It’s not that his mother and I discouraged him from racing. We just felt a lot better every Sunday night when he came walking in the door in one piece.”

From the Corvette, Penske moved up to a Porsche. He still likes that car. His team races it today in the better road races. Of course the car has changed a lot since then. Penske held off on serious racing long enough to graduate from Lehigh, get married and find a job as a sales engineer with an aluminum company in Cleveland. But he just couldn’t take all that sitting still. He quit his job and started racing full time. He became a very hot driver. In the early ’60s Roger Penske was one of the biggest names in road racing.

But he was more than just a race driver. He was a businessman with tremendous ability to package and sell himself. By now, that ability has been honed to an art. Roger Penske probably handles sponsors better than anyone else in the racing business. Penske is the supreme salesman. E. R. Bradley knows that probably better than anyone else.

Bradley, among the most polished brass at Sun Oil, came into what was then McKean-Penske Chevrolet on Chestnut Street to buy a car from Roger Penske. The two of them started talking about racing. Then Penske shifted the charm into high gear. He convinced Bradley that Sun Oil should be sponsoring a racing program. Bradley bounced it off his board and came back with a conditional okay. Sun wanted a team with the cleanest-cut image around. Roger Penske already filled the bill. All he needed now was a driver.

MARK DONOHUE GOT THE RACING bug the year after he got his mechanical engineering degree from Brown. He raced for five years as an amateur. He did very well, but was still very unknown. Donohue was always a very intense and introspectively emotional man. Which means he thought too much for a race driver. In 1966, he thought he would quit. A good friend of his was killed in a crash at LeMans. It was an end and a beginning. Donohue met Penske at the funeral. They had a long talk. Donohue was sold on Penske racing. He was the first employee, soon to become a partner in the corporation.

After a few rough races, the Penske-Donohue team started spending a lot of time in Victory Lane. Donohue drove a lot of different cars in a lot of different races. Camaros in short stock car races, and very exotic Lolas in marathon road races. Mark Donohue was considered one of the top drivers in the country. In 49 states, anyway. He had never been to Indiana. But in 1969 Roger Penske decided he had to go. There was only one race left and it was the big one.

At age 32, Mark Donohue was a rookie in the Indy 500. A promising rookie, but a rookie. To get to Indy, though, you need money. That’s where Penske came in. He managed to get $150,000 out of Goodyear and Sunoco. With lesser amounts thrown in from minor sponsors, they had enough to field one car.

In four years, things have certainly changed. The Penske racing sponsorship commitment is ten times what it was the first year at Indy. Penske has become a master at getting other people’s money and giving them a good promotional return on it. That’s the whole idea behind sponsorship. A company pays for you to use its product and display its trademark on your car. The car then becomes a 190-mile­an-hour billboard. And Roger Penske fields some of the best billboards in the business.

“The main thing,” he says, “is to go to a company and make a sponsorship proposal. But you can’t sign them up for just one year. That’s not long enough for either party because you don’t know if you’re going to have a poor year. If you do, the chances of them continuing are not so good. And if you’ve had a great year, the sponsor gets worried you might jack him up on the price.

“So I’ve got to get three-year commitments from our sponsors on the basis that we would produce for them. We’ve had excellent relations with our big sponsors like Sun Oil and Goodyear and Sears, mostly because of the way we’ve approached the relationship.

“You have to lay the groundwork with the big companies yourself. And I don’t have somebody go and do the groundwork for me. I do it myself. If I go in and there have to be some changes, I can make them on the spot.

“You notice our cars aren’t cluttered with a lot of product decals like the other cars. We’re not interested in the sponsors who’ll give you $5,000 after you’ve done something.

A lot of companies will only offer contingency money. If you happen to win and you’ve got their sticker on the car, they give you some money. To me, it’s not worth the few thousand dollars to junk up the car.

“Our sponsorship involvements this year will total about a million and a half dollars. That’s what we eat off of. If we ever had to worry about prize money to sustain our business, we’d be in serious trouble.

“But the one thing you’ve got to realize is that if I didn’t have any sponsors at all, I’d still be involved in racing, because it’s in my blood. I’d be into it just as far as I could financially afford myself.

“At the present time, we’re running a racing team just like we’d run a business. We try to control costs, which is very difficult, sometimes, when you have a run of bad luck. But we’ve had a profitable racing company for the past four years, and we expect to remain so in the future. It’s the toughest business I’ve been involved in. There’s no plateau in racing. Either you’re on the top or you’re on the bottom. And you can go up so fast and down so fast. Any one of those 33 cars could win at Indy. On the other hand, it can be disastrous, like it was for Pollard.

“Part of our success is picking the right people. All three of our drivers are good, clean-cut guys, which is good from a PR standpoint. When I do something, I want to do it the best we can. When I put a car on the track, I want to put the very best race car out there. From the crew to the drivers right on down to the paint job.”

Penske is a fanatic about that. During practice, every time a Penske car pulled into the pits, there was an extra man on the crew. Besides the regular guys to check the tires and the fuel, there was one man who carried nothing but a can of paste wax and a rag. His job was to polish the car.

Penske prides himself on having the best looking cars on the track. They are shining visions in navy blue and yellow—the Sunoco colors. He uses an epoxy base paint that won’t scratch. It’s cost him as much as $10,000 just to paint a car. He figures it’s worth it because people notice. And when they notice the car, they notice the sponsor stickers. And the sponsors like that. If they’re backing a $100,000 car, it can at least look washed and waxed.

That clean-cut, well-scrubbed look carries through the whole Penske team. Mark Donohue gave up his crew cut a couple of years back. But he still doesn’t fit in with a lot of the other drivers, especially at Indy. His hair isn’t slicked back with axle grease, and he shares Roger Penske’s V-neck sweater collection. He usually looks like he just walked in from an Ivy League fraternity meeting. He speaks very softly in a somewhat high-pitched, very boyish voice. He shrugs his shoulders and dips his head a lot. He’s a bad interview for most of the working press, the guys who are out after that one snappy, colorful quote to carry a story. Every time there’s an accident, the other drivers are always good for one-liners. “Yeah, we’re goin’ too fast” or “Man, we gotta do something about that.” Not Mark Donohue. He thinks too much.

THE NIGHT AFTER Art Pollard died, Donohue was flying back to Philadelphia in Roger Penske’s Lear jet. He was sitting next to Bobby Allison talking about differences and dangers. Allison was a little upset. He’s a proven veteran of the stock car circuit. But stock cars weigh around 4,000 pounds, which makes them look like tanks next to the 1,500-pound winged tubs at Indy. And Allison had been feeling some other pressures. The day before, his wife Judy walked into the Penske suite. It was her first time at Indy, too. She was invited out on the balcony to watch the cars go around. The first car she saw was Art Pollard’s, going around on its back.

Donohue help set Bobby Allison at ease. He went down the list of qualifiers and gave him the book on each man. “This guy takes chances, watch him.” “Don’t try to pass so-and-so on the outside, he’ll drive you into the wall.” But Allison’s main concern was the safety of the cars. He was used to cars that had things like roofs and roll bars and fenders.

“Racing cars today are nowhere near as dangerous as they’ve been in the past,” Donohue told him. “Especially at Indy, where you get the most publicity when someone’s killed or injured. Some years ago, when the old front end roadsters were the cars to run at Indy, the basic design concept there was to have a car that would be very strong in the suspension and not too strong in the chassis. That way they could run into things without achieving too much damage.

But when they crashed very hard into something, the suspension would come back through the chassis and generally injure the driver quite badly. The modern chassis design of the rear-engine cars is exactly the opposite. Any time the car has contact with something very hard, it shears all the wheels off. And with no wheels, the car won’t go very far. It’ll stop very fast.”

There are those who would tell you from all outward appearances that Mark Donohue is really Charlie Brown, still the little round-faced kid who thinks too much. But for Roger Penske, Mark Donohue does more than think. Back in those early days, back when it was a two-man operation out in Newtown Square, Mark Donohue did everything from engineering and putting the cars together to cleaning up afterwards. Now that the Penske race crew has grown to over 40 people and Mark Donohue has made an international name for himself, things really haven’t changed.

He can be found at all hours of the day and night somewhere around the little white bungalow at the intersection of West Chester Pike and Route 252, tinkering around with something. If it’s not one of his cars, it’s his boat. Donohue keeps a nice-size boat there. When he wants to get away from it all, he hitches it to a trailer and rides it up to the North Jersey shore, near his original hometown of Summit. He gets as many kicks out of the boat as he does out of the cars. And it was just a few months ago that the boat almost messed up his racing career.

He was working late at the shop on one of the cars. It was after midnight. He decided to turn in for a few hours. On his way out of the garage, the immaculate garage, the one with no dirt on the floor, the one with everything in its proper place, on the way out of the greaseless garage, he decided to check the hitch on the boat trailer. The boat was sitting a little loose. He tried to fix it. It didn’t work. The whole thing came down on his thumb, smashing it to blood. Donohue screamed like a cat.

Luckily, he wasn’t the only Penske person dedicated enough to be burning the midnight oil. A few yards away, in the little white bungalow, communications director Dan Luginbuhl heard the screams over the pounding of his typewriter. He ran out to help. Luginbuhl, who used to do some race driving himself, set a new world’s land speed record getting Donohue to the hospital, where his thumb was put back together again, minus only a few minor pieces.

THE PENSKE PLACE in Newtown Square has changed a lot since the first solo trip to Indy in 1969. Obviously, there are more people working there. The operation has gotten so big that it will soon be moved to a much larger site near Reading. Besides the Indy car, Donohue is now driving an American Motors Matador in stock car races and a highly-tooled Porsche in road races. They’re also working on something even more sophisticated for Formula 5000 racing.

Gary Bettenhausen was added to the team last year. He’s mostly an Indy car driver. At 31, he already had five 500s to his credit going into this year. Last year, his first driving for Roger Penske, he led the pack for most of the race. And when his car faltered, Mark Donohue came on to win.

And this year they’ve added stock car champion Bobby Allison to the Indy team, to keep the guys in the garage as busy as ever. But there are other machines besides race cars there, and that’s where Don Cox comes in. Cox, also in his early 30s, is director of engineering for Penske. His machine is a computer. He uses it for everything from setting up suspension systems to timing pit stops. Cox feeds in all the variables—the driver, the car, the racetrack—and comes out with a program, what the racing people call the hot setup.

Cox graduated from the General Motors Institute and did a lot of ex­perimental planning work with the Chevrolet racing people before joining Penske. He’s now considered one of the best chassis designers in the business. Some of the older mechanical men for the other race teams scoff at Cox’s slide rule approach. They’d rather stick to common sense and monkey wrenches. What’s the difference, they figure, as long as you win? Don Cox figures there’s a very big difference.

“Of course, our major objective is to win the race,” he says, “but the race is usually the last thing you do. Our initial objective when we get to the track is to show up with a properly prepared car that’s worth the tag, ‘Penske Racing.’ And there’s a good reason for that. Last year we went to Indy with what I thought was a beautifully prepared car. And so for the whole month of May, we got a lot of attention because it was such n attractive car.

“Now this is the kind of thing the sponsors are looking for. They want to win the race too, but they’re looking for attention. That’s why they give us the money. That’s why we’re in the business.

“You have to be organized like that. You know what’s got to be done that day, who’s going to handle what, when to make the pit stops. All that has to be done before the race. The race is just the thing at the end.

“We set our race strategy before­hand and try to stick to it. Each driver is different, each car gets a different setup. There’s no room for confusion. If we go organized and prepared and lose the race, that’s all right. But if we’re not prepared and we lose, it’s inexcusable.”

Penske’s people are always prepared. They’ve got this little seven-P motto: Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. Mark Donohue’s preparation has always paid off. He’s won a lot of road racing championships and he’s done well at Indy. He was Rookie of the Year in 1969, finished seventh. The next year he moved up to second. A bad transmission in 1971 forced him out of the race early. But he made up for it last year, winning it all and automatically becoming the hottest property in racing. On his return to Indy, he was greeted like royalty.

MARK DONOHUE’S PICTURE was pasted all over Indianapolis. You could pull into any Sunoco station in town and buy an official Mark Donohue drinking glass with his picture and car on it. You could buy posters and pictures and blowup toys and T-shirts and just about anything else you could put a man’s name on. It was very impressive, returning as defending champion, impressive to everybody but Mark Donohue.

“We just can’t go out there and throw our press clippings on the ground and expect the other drivers to slide all over them,” Donohue said. “Each year we’re back to zero, just like everyone else.”

And 1973 promised to be the best 500 ever. It promised to be the year that someone would turn the oval at over 200 miles an hour. It probably got a bigger buildup than any 500 before it. The quarter of a million grandstand seats were sold out months in advance. People from all over the Midwest came weeks early just to be first in line for a parking spot in the infield. It was going to be a very big year.

The Penske suite seemed to be the hub of pre-race activity. It was a constant jam of corporate presidents and beautiful people. Linda Vaughn, the Hurst Shifter girl with the big boobs who figured largely in one of the Penn Central executive scandals, was a constant visitor. So were the president and chairman of the hoard of Sun Oil. So were some of the bigger journalists, like Bob Jones from Sports Illustrated, who wears a racing jacket that says BOB JONES, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, just in case you weren’t sure.

Kathy Holbert was constantly answering the phone. There were always requests for interviews and pictures. Penske and his people tried to oblige, but it got kind of unwieldy. They finally had to lock themselves in the garage area to get away from it all.

They would be in Indianapolis over a month, preparing for a race that would probably take about three hours. There were all kinds of tests to run. They had to check the tires and the engines and the chassis and anything else you could think of. Indy is run by a bunch of old men and, because of it, is very much steeped in tradition. There is still something called Carburetion Day, even though none of the cars have carburetors any more. There’s a very simple formula at Indy. If it was good in 1911, it’s got to be good today. There is an outcry for change every year at Indy from the younger folks, but the change never comes. This year a lot of those younger folks were saying, well beforehand, that this year’s cars were too fast for the track, that something had to be done or somebody was going to get very badly hurt. The old men didn’t listen.

The second best-attended sports event in this country is the time trials for the first best-attended sports event in this country, the Indy 500. The time trials consist of one car going out on the track by itself and running four laps, or ten miles, as fast as the driver can push it. At the end of four days of qualifying, the fastest 33 cars are set for the race.

ROGER PENSKE HAD a definite program for time trials. “I want to qualify our three cars in the first four rows,” he said. And his drivers proceeded to go out and do it. Mark Donohue ended up on the outside of row one, Gary Bettenhausen was in the middle of row two and Bobby Allison was on the outside of row four. It was all almost too easy to be true. Mark Donohue even came close to breaking the 200-mile-an-hour mark. Two others came closer, but nobody did. That set up even more anticipation for the race itself.

In the two weeks between the time trials and the 500, everybody had a pretty good time. The Holiday Inn Northwest was the hot spot in town, and on any given night you could find anybody who mattered drinking up and shooting off. Everybody but Penske’s people, that is.

It’s not that Roger requires an oath of abstinence or anything, even though he prefers orange juice to an occasional Manhattan. It’s just that he takes racing seriously. And so do the people who work for him. In Gasoline Alley, the lights hardly ever went out in the Penske garage area. There was always more work to do on these thousand-horsepower monsters.

Meanwhile, Andy Granatelli was going around pasting STP stickers on any blank space left in town. Peter Revson, the Revlon heir and race driver, was passing out free samples of a soon-to-be-marketed product called “Rev-Up,” vitamins for men. There was a picture of Revson on the back of each package with a nifty little quote: “Unlike your car, you can’t trade your body in for a new one.”

The commercialism was everywhere. A driver never talked about his helmet. It was always his Bell Helmet. And as each driver pulled in from a good practice run, he made sure to step up to the public address mike and tell the crowd what gave him that extra little push. “Those Champion spark plugs didn’t miss once and the Goodyear tires really held on the curves,” said veteran Gerry Grant.

But there was always something to balance out a commercial plug. “The Lord rode with me,” Mel Kenyon said. “I came into that last turn and I asked the Lord to give me a little push. And the Lord came through.”

You’ve got to remember, this is Indiana. That’s why most of the couple hundred thousand people who flooded the infield for the race were young. It looked like a Midwestern Woodstock. Could it be that so many young kids were interested in auto racing? No, there’s just nothing else to do in Indiana.

The 500 has always been a circus. The prices just keep getting higher. This year, the good seats went for $20 and $40. It was either that or sit on the top of your car. A lot of people did. The crowd was estimated at well over 400,000. They lined up all through the rainy night before, waiting for the bombs to go off at 5 a.m., signaling the opening of the gates.

While they waited, many of them read newspapers to get the latest dope on the race. A banner headline announced that a poll of racing writers had picked Gary Bettenhausen and Mark Donohue as the two favorites to win the race, and Bobby Allison was predicted for Rookie of the Year. That night the Penske suite was more crowded than ever.


It rained like a son of a bitch. This race had only been called off once before because of rain. That was in 1915. The crowd sat this one out. By mid-afternoon, there was a break in the clouds and they got the cars onto the track and ready to run. The celebrities paraded in Cadillac cars. The Purdue band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again In Indiana.” Thousands of helium balloons were let loose. Tony Hulman, the man who owns the Speedway and half of Indianapolis, cranked his hand into an imaginary starter and cried, “GENTLE­MENNNNN, STAAAAART YOUR ENNNJUNNNS!”

The cars started. The crowd roared. The cars took a parade lap of the course. Then they sped up for a pace lap. They came out of the fourth turn and got the green flag. The race was under way. And before the public address announcer could get those words out, the race was over, some 70 yards later. At 150 miles an hour, there was some bumping in the middle of the field. One car touched wheels with another, one car hit the wall. There was a giant explosion like a bomb dropping. A sky-high ball of orange flame rolled down the course. People in the stands across from the pits were doused with fuel. No one died immediately. Ten cars were involved in the crash. Driver Salt Walther was really messed up badly. He was taken to the hospital with terrible burns and breaks. So were a dozen spectators. Some of them were released. The cleanup operation looked like something out of My Lai. And just when things started to get back into order and it looked like they might start the race again, it poured. It was almost enough to make you believe in God. The race was put off until the next day.


It was a bright, sunny morning, but the stands were hardly full. A lot of people had to go back home and back to work. Track officials stalled for a little over an hour to let more of the crowd in. As they waited, the clouds moved in. The cars took a parade lap, then a pace lap, then a red flag. The race was stopped before it started. There was rain on the course. The rain never stopped. They waited about three hours and called the race off again. The forecast for the next day said rain. Some of the drivers used the time to bitch. Gary Bettenhausen, an official drivers’ representative, complained that the cars weren’t allowed to have roll bars over the open cockpits. He said that was an easy way to kill people. There was a simple answer to his request. They didn’t have roll bars in 1911. It continued to rain.


It was a dark and rainy day. What else was new? The people at the weather bureau said there might be a break for a few hours. So they lined the cars up and in mid-afternoon, they sent them off again. It was stupid. Everybody knew they couldn’t get 500 miles in. But under the rules of the race, you only needed one lap over 250 miles to make it official. And that’s what they were aiming for, just to get a race in, any race, just to get the damn thing over with already. It was getting so that nobody cared who won anymore.

Most of the drivers anticipated a short race. Many of their mechanics turned the screw—tightened the engine up to make it go faster over a shorter distance. Now it was a race against the rain.

Roger Penske put on one of his several sets of $10,000 headphones, each tuned to a private radio band to keep in contact with the drivers in the cockpit and with different spotters around the track.

Bobby Allison’s car was late getting to the grid. Some last-minute minor changes in the garage area. A little bit of the old Penske perfectionism that almost backfired. All the other drivers were in their cars when Allison came running, right at the introduction to the national anthem. Being the patriotic Southern gentlemen he is, Allison refused to move while the anthem was being played. Because of that, the car didn’t have a chance to warm up. He went out with a cold engine with the oil pressure building.

On the second lap, Bobby Allison was headed home. It was a catastrophic failure for both him and Penske. A bolt broke and a rod went through the side of the engine block. The thing that hurt the most was that there was no control over it. The engines are built by a firm in California. They do all the building and all the testing. Somehow, Bobby Allison’s defective engine just got past them. Months of work were down the drain in less than a minute.

Allison got out of the car, ripped off his helmet and kicked the ground. “I’m disgusted with the whole thing,” he mumbled. “I didn’t even have a chance.”

Meanwhile, Mark Donohue was running well, in second place, right behind Bobby Unser. His first pit stop went off Penske perfect. At 16 seconds, it was the fastest of the day.

Then things started to cloud up again. A car spun out on the backstretch. The yellow flag was put out. Everyone had to maintain position and go no faster than 80 miles an hour. Roger Penske thought it was a good time to bring Donohue in for another stop. He flashed an “IN” on the signboard and Donohue came in for another fill-up. This time, though, he got caught with his fuel hose dangling. The yellow flag was only momentary. While Donohue was still in the pits, the green flag went out and the race was back on, minus one defending champion. Donohue hurried out, but it was too late to regain his position. Penske didn’t consider it a mistake. He had to bring him in sometime. In the end, it didn’t matter.

The clouds got heavier. Some of the bigger names had already dropped out with engine problems. Revson, Andretti, Ruby, Foyt. Swede Savage, one of the fastest qualifiers, was running as well as anybody. Until the fourth turn. Savage’s car, with a full 75-gallon tank of fuel, had something go wrong. It stopped going forward and started sliding across the track and hit the wall and went up in flames and disintegrated. A wheel shot 100 feet straight up in the air. Pieces of the car were all over the track. It was terrible. Everybody started running to help. In the pits, a running crewman was hit by a speeding rescue truck. He was killed.

They managed to pull Swede Savage out of the wreckage. He was badly burned and broken. They flew him to the hospital in very critical condition. It was just terrible. Even those vultures who paid good money to see blood had had enough. The people in the stands were still. And it started to rain. Somebody said God was crying again. It lasted for about an hour. The race started again, but nobody really cared. It was all anti­climax from here. It was all a disaster.

Mark Donohue’s next pit stop was only a few hundred yards off. That’s where he ran out of gas and had to coast into the pits because a fuel tank lever bent, locking out a half tank. He lost more ground, but the trouble had just begun. His next pit stop was on lap 89. Gas and tires. Only the engine didn’t sound so good. They couldn’t figure out why. They sent him out. He went by again. This time he was really sputtering. “Get the plugs!” Roger Penske yelled.

On lap 91, Donohue was brought in again. The stop took an outrageous two minutes and 23 seconds. They were hoping to solve the problem.
Only they weren’t sure what it was.

Meanwhile, the field was folding. Al Unser went out, then Gerry Grant and Mike Hiss and Joe Leonard. Five laps later, Donohue came in for an inspection. There were no leaks and no obvious problems. But he was still sputtering. Still running slow. The stop lasted a minute and 21 seconds. Two laps later, they brought him in again. He sat in the car for a few laps while they changed the whole ignition system. Then they fired the car up. It sounded terrible. They shut it off. A disgusted Mark Donohue was out of the race. It was a burned exhaust valve. Another engine failure.

“What can I say,” he said as he left the track. “We’ve only got one consolation. The part failed. The guys didn’t.”

The race fell apart in quick order. Bobby Unser went out, Dick Simon, A. J. Foyt in a backup car, David Hobbs, Mike Mosely, fastest qualifier Johnny Rutherford. The only hope left for the Penske team was Gary Bettenhausen, and he just wasn’t running well. He had been reporting steering problems on his two-way radio. He had to run the car slower. He was afraid to go too fast. Afraid he’d lose control and crash. He made two pitstops while his crew inspected the rear end of the car. They found nothing wrong and sent him back out.

The next time he came in, Penske thought he heard some vibrating in the front. He started yelling for somebody to check under the nose of the car. A pit man slid under. A piece of the chassis was rubbing the winged part of the nose. The piece was quickly cut off. ‘Everything was perfect now, but Bettenhausen had lost several laps to the field making the adjustment.

He pulled back on the track and started driving hard. He was running better than anybody out there, picking up a place or two on every lap. There was some excitement in the Penske pits as Bettenhausen moved from fourteenth to tenth to eighth to seventh to fifth and kept standing on it. Then Roger Penske put out his hand to signal. It got wet. It was raining again. By now, they had enough laps in to make it legal. By now they just wanted to get the race over with before another disaster happened. They put out the yellow flag and then the red. They never even bothered to drop the checkered. In what seemed like almost a kangaroo court proceeding they declared Gordon Johncock, the guy who, by attrition, happened to be leading at the time, the winner, gave him the trophy and quickly left. A half hour later the sun was out again, but everybody had gone home.

“It, was just a matter of who was going to break down or crash next,” Gary Bettenhausen said. “It just wasn’t a race. It was a disaster.”

It was an Indy 500 that would be remembered not for its winner, but for all of its losers. A few days later, the United States Auto Club, the group that governs the race, would partially give in to the cry for safety by cutting the fuel loads almost in half and shortening the allowable limit for the cars’ aerodynamic rear wings. But it was too little too late. It should have been a time for celebration, but there was nothing for anybody to celebrate. You couldn’t even call it the Indy 500. The rain made it the Indy 332-1/2.

Mostly everybody packed up and went home, grimly determined to forget the whole thing. Roger Penske stayed. He locked himself in a garage with Don Cox and they started figuring what went wrong and plotting where to go from here, trying to work on how they could avoid things like this. Roger Penske wasn’t waiting until next May to straighten things out. The racing team was, after all, the most visible part of the multi­million dollar conglomerate called Penske Enterprises Inc. And the cap­tain knew he had to run it right. This wasn’t a time to mope. It was a time to plan ahead. Everybody in the organization knew that.

Back in the suite, the only thing that was left of the crowds of the previous days were some broken plastic cups. There were only half a dozen people left there, all Penske people. There was no one breaking the door down for an interview. The phone didn’t ring. It was a lonely defeat.

Dan Luginbuhl got up and walked over to the closet in the corner where he had hid the four cases of champagne for the victory party that never was. He opened one of the cartons and pulled out a bottle.

“We better drink some of this stuff before it goes flat,” he said. He corked a bottle and poured some of the pink stuff into a paper cup. He lifted it high.

“Here’s to next year,” he said. He gulped some bubbles and walked over to the garage area, where the lights stayed on all night.

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