JR: I can only imagine what four times would be like. A.J. and I have been friends for a long time, you know, Texas buddies. And, of course, Al Sr. was three years after I started at the Speedway, but we're all in that same group. And then there's Rick Mears, a tremendous race driver: he's smart, he thinks and he's very smooth. He did it anywhere he raced, and I don't know why he hasn't had the same recognition as Unser and A.J. He's a four-time winner, but Rick's stayed kind of in the shadows of his accomplishments and I've always wondered why. He's got a great personality, and he's a super guy to be around and work with.
On aerodynamic development at the Speedway…
JR: Al Unser's Lola that won in '70 and '71, the Johnny Lightning car, was kind of flat on top and it started guys thinking about that. So, we designed one, the Patrick Petroleum car (BELOW), which was a Dan Gurney-built Eagle chassis. We had flat, flat bodywork with sidepods that were flat and it had a turbo Offy in it. We got to the Speedway with it in '70 and went out and started running and, by Thursday in the first week of practice, we were down at 161mph; I just could not get it to stop pushing. It pushed like a pig.
Mike Evan was my crew chief and he went away and thought about it a little bit and came back and took some aluminum and made a chin spoiler for the front of the car, right on the bottom of the nose. By the end of the day Friday, Parnelli, who had been timing everybody and seen that we were just a tick faster than they were, came down to us and was looking at the car. He said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”
So, anyway, we had qualifying and that was the closest run for pole position in the history of the Speedway and it still stands: one one-thousandth of a mile an hour difference between Al and I! They plotted it and said if we had started our four-lap runs at the start-finish line together and gone for four laps, the nose of Al's car would have been two and a half feet ahead of mine at the finish line. So that boosted my stock, at least, because this was 1970, and since I'd gotten those broken arms at Eldora in '66, I had lost a lot of that period getting back into shape and recovering fully. It was hard getting owners to say, “OK, we'll hire you for this one.” So to get on the front row and only miss pole by the narrowest of margins was a thrill.
And then the wings started coming along. Basically, the cars were made sleek and then you'd just put a wing on the back. I can remember in '73 at McLaren when I set the track record, we had a wing on the back as big as that door there – I'm not kidding you! When I went to test the McLaren for the first time at the Speedway, we again just couldn't get it to stop pushing, just flat-out with that big rear wing pulling the front end away from the apex. But Roger Bailey built us an engine – he was a McLaren engine builder – and he says to this day that he hasn't figured out how much horsepower it put out, but it was well over 1000 and it became a treat to drive. I set a new track record at Indianapolis and started on the pole in ‘73, my first year with McLaren.
Then in '74, USAC said, “Oh, you guys are going too fast” so they made the rear wing a little bit smaller and now the balance was perfect for us. The car became so good. We did a lot of Goodyear tire testing at that time, and had picked the tire for the 500, and that, too, was perfect. And then my race with A.J., in the middle of the race we had a hammer-and-tong duel, he had the Ford and I had the Offy, and I could just get up to him and then I'd have to back out. But I kept doing it and kept doing it, and stayed right in his rear-view mirror and even the pit stops, we went in and out together. I knew that if I kept the pressure on him, I'd run him out of right-rear tire or engine and in the end, I ran him out of engine. It started blowing smoke and oil all over me and I had to back off, so then they black-flagged him and I went on for the win.
During that period of change there were pretty graphic leaps in speed. That's what kept USAC on its toes trying to cut back on horsepower or cut back on aerodynamics to keep the cars from going ballistic. But it was a futile effort; it was going to happen, period.
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