Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The racing life and times of Jerry Grant

Part six –1973 season

USAC opened the 1973 race season embroiled in another dispute with the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS) the umbrella organization of United States auto racing sanctioning bodies to the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). USAC’s complaint was about the number of “Full International” events set aside for the other ACCUS members. The increasing number of “Full International” races eroded USAC’s control over its drivers and led to USAC’s threat to withdraw from ACCUS in 1974

Specifically, the USAC organization was irritated over the number of Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events classified as “Full International,” which enabled drivers from ACCUS one club that held an FIA license to freely race with another ACCUS club.  The entire 1973 SCCA L&M Continental Series was classified as ‘Full International” if that event was listed as “Full International."

USAC then decided to refuse to allow driver interchange between USAC and SCCA during 1973, which led to Jerry Grant and Mark Donohue not renewing their USAC licenses, and in effect resigning from the USAC. In his April letter to USAC, Grant pointed out that he only had a ride for the three USAC “Crown Jewel” 500-mile races, and he had chances to race elsewhere and get paid.

Jerry Grant planned to compete in the opening round of the SCCA L&M Continental Series formula car series race at Riverside for car owners Chuck Jones and Jerry Eisert. Although it was one race deal, Dan Gurney and Grant planned to compete in the 1974 L&M series with a new All American Racing (AAR) Eagle creation.

Mark Donohue was scheduled to compete in the entire 1973 SCCA Canadian-American (Can-Am) Challenge series in the Penske Porsche turbocharged 917-10. Grant’s and Donohue’s resignation meant they could still race in the USAC FIA internationally-sanctioned 500-mile races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway.  Despite the negative publicity generated by the defending Indianapolis ‘500’ winner, Donohue, and the first man to turn a lap at 200 MPH in a USAC championship car, Grant, quitting the organization, USAC officials remained intransigent.

Photo of Jerry Grant in 1973 courtesy INDYCAR

Grant was entered for the 1973 Indianapolis ‘500’ as the driver of Oscar ‘Ozzie” Olson’s #48 “Olsonite Eagle” as a teammate to Bobby Unser, with a third Eagle entered with no driver named. Practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened early on April 28, but Grant was at Riverside International Raceway in California for the L & M SCCA Formula 5000 race on April 29th.

Grant qualified ninth at Riverside but suffered unspecified mechanical problems during his qualifying heat but he still started the feature on a sponsor’s provisional. Grant’s ‘KBIG’ Lola T330 then fell out of the feature race after nine laps when the 475-horsepower Chevrolet V8 engine overheated and Jerry finished in the 24th position. 

On May 12, for the second year in a row practice prior to the first day of Indianapolis ‘500’ qualifying brought tragedy to an Eagle driver. Art Pollard in Bob Fletcher’s ‘Cobre Firestone Special’ customer Eagle crashed in the south short chute during morning warm-ups and Art died an hour later at Methodist Hospital.

Grant was the third car out on track from trials and qualified his white #48 car with orange and blue trim for his seventh Indianapolis 500 start with an average of 190.235 MPH, which would place him on the outside of the sixth row in the field of 33 cars.  As time trials progressed, Bobby Unser saw his year-old track one and four-lap track records smashed but he qualified his Olsonite Eagle in the second starting position behind Johnny Rutherford. Before qualifying was completed, the third Olsonite Eagle driven by Wally Dallenbach made the starting field. 

Race Day, Monday May 28 1973 dawned cloudy and cool with showers that delayed the scheduled start over four hours.  As the field of 33 cars accelerated and took the green flag from starter Pat Vidan, the McLaren of David “Salt” Walther who started alongside Grant in the middle of the sixth row, climbed the left front wheel of Grant’s Eagle. Walther’s car pin wheeled in the air over the top of Dallenbach’s Eagle and flew into the outer catch fencing.

Two of the support posts of the catch fencing were torn out as the front of Walther’s car was sheared off and burning methanol fuel and parts flew into the trackside folding chair seating area located just a few feet away. With a total of ten cars involved in the horrific crash, starter Vidan immediately displayed the red flag to stop the race.  

Salt Walther suffered third-degree burns over 25% of his body and nine spectators were hospitalized, two in critical condition. Before the clean-up of debris and track repairs could be completed, it began to rain again. The 1973 Indianapolis 500-mile race would completely restart on Tuesday May 29.

Overnight, all the damaged cars except Walther’s were repaired. On Tuesday morning it rained again which delayed the scheduled 9 AM start. During the delay there reportedly there was a stormy drivers meeting during which several drivers criticized race officials for the decisions which the drivers claimed led to the previous day’s conflagration.

After the track dried, the cars were started again to another start, but at the beginning of the second parade lap, John Martin in his own unsponsored McLaren pulled into the pit area and signaled to officials that it was raining on the course. Soon after, heavy showers settled in and by 2 PM, officials announced that the start of the 500-mile race was moved to 9 AM Wednesday morning. 

The small crowd present at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday saw a clean start as Bobby Unser in his Olsonite Eagle took the lead and held on for the first 39 laps, while many of his expected competitors, including AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, and Peter Revson retired. On lap 48, the #62 Olsonite Eagle of Dallenbach retired with a broken connecting rod in its Offenhauser engine.

The red flag was again displayed on lap 57 due to Swede Savage’s horrific crash on the main straightaway, and during the delay, a clearly unnerved Jerry Grant was interviewed by ABC Sports. Grant, who had brought his Eagle to a stop just short of the Savage accident debris field, complained that he needed to run a different line to avoid driving through the oil on the track. Grant responded to the interviewer’s follow-up question about the safety of the track by replying “it’s making an old man out of me.”  Not surprisingly, Bobby Unser interviewed moments later by ABC Sports refused to agree with Grant’s assessment of track conditions.  

After one hour and ten minutes the race resumed. Grant’s Olsonite Eagle retired with the same malady as Dallenbach’s, a broken connecting rod on lap 77, and then Bobby Unser made it a hat trick when his car’s Offenhauser engine broke one of its four connecting rods at the halfway point. Mechanical attrition in 1973 ‘500’ was extremely high with just twelve cars still running with several of those cars more than seven laps down, when showers began to fall on the leader’s 129th lap.

When the rain intensified the race was stopped with the 1973 500-mile race’s fourth and final red flag on lap 133 with Gordon Johncock in the lead.  Moments later Johncock was declared the joyless winner of the 1973 Indianapolis ‘500.’  There was no Victory Banquet held, and though preliminary results listed Grant in seventeenth place, he was credited with a nineteenth place finish in the final official results and earned $16,675.

The public fallout from the circumstances of the 1973 Indianapolis 500-mile race, with the senseless death of pit worker Armando Teran, the injuries to nine spectators and the critical burns to two drivers (one of whom, Swede Savage would later die) was immediate.
STP Corporation President Andy Granatelli the sponsor of Savage’s and Johncock’s Eagles, stated that “all of us in racing must face the fact that we are simply going faster than our tracks and drivers can safely handle these flying missiles.” If changes were made promptly, Granatelli threatened to pull out of racing "This is not a demand for reform, but a sincere and sad plea to all of my fellow members of the racing community to assist me in obtaining this kind of reform," Granatelli said.

On Saturday June 2 1973, the USAC Board of Directors met in a special emergency session, and the Rules Committee and the Board quickly voted to make immediate rules changes. The allowable width of the rear wing on the championship cars was reduced from 64 inches to 55 inches. The allowable fuel capacity of all cars was slashed from 75 gallons to 40 gallons, with fuel bladders only allowed to be installed on the left side of the cars. To further reduce speeds, the total amount of fuel allotted for a 500-mile race was reduced from 375 gallons to 340 gallons.

Jerry Grant did not race again on the 1973 USAC championship trail until late August at the Ontario Motor Speedway for the fourth annual ‘California 500.’  In one year, the atmosphere at Ontario had changed dramatically, as the track was under new management but there were still serious long-term financial concerns.   

Originally envisioned in 1963, with ground broken in September 1968, the Ontario Motor Speedway was built at a total cost of $25.5 million. The completed project designed by Benham-Kite and Associates and built in 22 months by the Stolte Company Inc. featured a 2-1/2 mile oval modeled after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but one lane (10 feet) wider, and more banking in the two short chutes with a flat infield road course.
The track had a unique public funding structure: the track owner, the Ontario Motor Speedway Corporation (OMS Corporation) was a non-profit entity created and controlled by the City of Ontario to issue the bonds for the purpose of raising the money required to purchase the 800 acres adjacent to the San Bernardino Freeway (also known as the “10”) and construct the facility.  

The Ontario Motor Speedway Incorporated (OMS Inc.) a for-profit company initially headed David Lockton and later by Ray Smartis, had a seven-year contract to oversee the construction and operation of the Speedway. A 1968 Market Support and Economic Evaluation Study by Economics Research Associates Inc. anticipated that over one million persons would attend events at the Speedway each year. The $20,000 study concluded that with that level of attendance, the Speedway would easily generate sufficient income for the track operator to pay the OMS Corporation rent, which would be used service the 7.5% interest payments on the bonds.  
A postcard drawing of the back side of the OMS main grandstand

The track opened in 1970 with 140,000 permanent grandstand seats and a five-story control tower building that featured a private “Victory Circle” VIP club with suites, restaurants, bars, and air-conditioned seating. Membership to the “Victory Circle Club” cost $250 annually and tickets to the inaugural California ‘500’ USAC race in 1970 ranged from $5 to $25. That first USAC race drew 178,000 fans, but then attendance dropped to a reported 130,000 for the 1972 running of the California ‘500.’

On November 29 1972, after just over two years of operation, the Ontario track was padlocked because the operator, OMS Inc. failed to make the annual rent payment of $2 million to the OMS Corporation to be used to cover the interest payments to bondholders. OMS Inc. claimed that it was impossible to pay the $2 million annual rent, which it said represented 60% of the Speedway’s annual gross revenue.

The track operator, OMS Inc., reported that it lost over $9.7 million since the track opened and took the position that the bondholders should accept a percentage of profits, rather than a fixed payment.  The OMS Inc. counter-proposal was rejected, and with the Speedway operator in default, the original agreement was terminated in December and the OMS Corporation began a search for a new track operator.

After a couple months of negotiation, a potential savior was identified - Western Racing Associates (WRA), which had offered a proposal to run the Speedway in 1968 agreed to lease the Speedway for 12 months. Allegedly backed by razor fortune heir William Gillette, the publicly identified officials of the company were Conrad Sprenger, the president of an Ontario radio station, Orange County contractor/developer Kent B. Rogers and as a recent addition to the group, former OMS Inc. general manager Ray Smartis.  

On Thursday January 4 1973, the five-member governing board of the OMS Corporation unanimously accepted the WRA proposal. However, a few days later just before the deal was set to be signed, WRA backed out of the deal. The Speedway remained shuttered as the OMS Corporation was forced to renew its search for a new track operator. For this third search round there were three leading groups in competition to run Ontario Motor Speedway. One group headed by Ray Smartis, another group was a reportedly a coalition of local labor unions, and then there was the Ontario Motor Speedway Operation Company Limited (OMSOC).

The principals of OMSOC were racing industry heavyweights- Anton Hulman and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, 1963 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner and USAC racing team owner Parnelli Jones, Jones’ racing team partner and Southern California car dealer Vel Miletich, Jones and Miletich’s public relations/business manager Jim Cook, and the pair’s lawyer a man named Dudley Gray.

Other partners in the OMSOC included Peter Firestone, grandson of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company founder Harvey Firestone, Mike Slater the president of Commander Motor Homes and a USAC car owner, and Arthur D Hale, the founder and president of US Mag Wheels. Parnelli Jones was President and Vice-Chairman of the group, while Tony Hulman, who held the majority of the shares, was OMSOC Chairman.  Gray was the General Counsel, Miletich the group’s Secretary-Treasurer. IMS President and long-time Hulman confidant Joseph Cloutier was a Vice-President with Jim Cook named the OMSOC General Manager.

OMSOC quickly emerged as the frontrunner, but before the OMSOC proposal was submitted, some tough behind the scenes negotiating was done with USAC. After weeks of conferences between the IMS Corporation and USAC, a deal was finally signed at the first USAC race of the year at Bryan Texas. USAC agreed to sanction the 1973 California ‘500’ for a $500,000 combined sanctioning fee and purse, which was a reduction of $200,000 from 1972.

At the April 10 deadline, OMSOC submitted its proposal, which called for the group for the group to immediately pay all the outstanding debts incurred by OMS Inc., and pay the OMS Corporation $150,000 in rent at the end of the first year on March 31, 1974. OMSOC would pay $200,000 rent for the second year, $250,000 at the end of the third year, $400,000 for the fourth year and $512,000 the fifth year.

To supplement the sharply reduced rent payment amounts, OMSOC would also pay the OMS Corporation a 50% share of the Speedway profits. The two other competing groups which had submitted proposals withdrew their proposals after the details of the OMSOC proposal were revealed.

The OMSOC offer was unanimously accepted by the OMS Corporation Board, and after the signing the one year agreement with a five-year option, OMSOC President Parnelli Jones accepted the keys to the plant on April 22 1973. “We have a year to find out if the track can be operated successfully," Jones said at the signing. "We honestly don't know yet. We do know that it will take all the cooperation of the community, the drivers, car owners, manufacturers, racing fans, and sanctioning bodies to make it happen."

Planning for the fourth annual 1973 California ‘500’ began immediately, with changes in the format from the previous three years. Qualifying would be just two laps, not four laps and the day after qualifying there would be two 100-mile “qualifying heats” held with the finishing order of the races to set the 33-car field behind the front row.

The shorter “qualifying heats” would not pay individual purses but would award USAC championship points. USAC formally issued the sanctioning agreement for the 1973 “California 500” on April 20, 1973.  OMSOC announced for the first time at Ontario, camper parking would be allowed in the infield, which would not create sightline problems as the backstretch at Ontario was several feet higher in elevation than the front straightaway.  

During practice for the 1973 “California 500” Jerry Grant and the ‘Olsonite Eagle #48 turned in a practice lap speed of 190.645 MPH which put him near the top of the speed charts. After qualifying was completed on August 25, the same three drivers made up the front row of the starting grid for the 1973 “California 500” as the 1972 race; Grant, Peter Revson and Gordon Johncock.

But unlike 1972, Grant did not win the pole position as he qualified second fastest with a two-lap average of 198.873 MPH, while pole-sitter Revson broke the magic 200 MPH barrier, but did not approach Bobby Unser’s year-old track record with a two-lap average of 200.089 MPH.

Grant, Revson, Bobby Unser, Jerry Karl in Smokey Yunick’s turbocharged Chevrolet-powered Eagle,  AJ Foyt and Foyt’s teammate George Snider chose to save the wear and tear on their equipment and did not race in either of the twin 100-mile “qualifying heat” races on run August 26. Technically, Grant, Johncock, and Revson by qualifying on the front row were not required to run either 100-mile races.   

The twin 40-lap races were won by Johnny Rutherford and Wally Dallenbach, so they would start in fourth and fifth positions respectively for the 500-mile race on Sunday September 2. The day before the California ‘500,’ a group of car owners met in a closed-door session to discuss what was described as “upgrading the design, performance, safety, and finances of the USAC championship circuit” while at the same time a closed-door drivers meeting was held.

The next day, Grant’s #48 Olsonite Eagle was the first car out of the California ‘500,’ for the second year in a row, as he crashed in the second turn on lap two after second place driver Gordon Johncock’s “STP Double Oil Filter” Eagle blew its Offenhauser engine and laid a slick mixture of oil and STP Oil Treatment on the track surface.

Dallenbach, the eventual California ‘500’ winner was behind Grant and while his “STP Oil Treatment” Eagle also slid in the oil, Dallenbach somehow saved it from crashing.  Johncock’s crippled Eagle coasted around to his pit area and by crossing the start/finish line; Gordon was credited with a 32nd place finish. Jerry Grant in last place earned just $2,305 out of the total purse of $370,000.  

Grant tested the early development Formula 5000 Eagles in late 1973, and while AAR built Eagle chassis for the 1974 and 1975 SCCA/USAC Formula 500 championships seasons, Jerry Grant was not the AAR team’s driver. After the 1973 “California 500,” Grant never drove again for All American Racers Inc., although he drove nothing but Eagles for the rest of his USAC racing career.

Postscript – the USAC/SCCA battle resolved (for awhile)
Author's copy of an SCCA/USAC F5000 program

USAC’s threatened 1974 withdrawal from ACCUS over the “Full International” status of SCCA races never occurred. Instead a series of meetings between USAC and SCCA officials commenced in January 1974 with an agreement was reached in May 1974 for the Formula 5000 series to be jointly sanctioned by the SCCA and USAC. The eighth season of the open wheel formula car road racing series, known as the 1974 “SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 Championship” began June 2 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with "Buckeye Cup."  

Beginning immediately, the Formula 5000 championship was open to not only SCCA legal cars but also to USAC cars powered by either 161 cubic inch turbocharged, 255 cubic-inch double overhead camshaft or 305 cubic inch "stock block" engines. The USAC cars would run on methanol, with a required pit stop for turbocharged cars.

Over the next few years, there were a number of USAC stars that competed in the Formula 5000 series; the roster included Mario Andretti, Mike Mosely Johnny Rutherford, as well as Bobby and Al Unser, but there were only three turbocharged Offenhauser powered entries that ever tried to run the Formula 5000 series.

In a press release that announced the agreement worked out with USAC President Reynold McDonald, SCCA President Cameron Argetsinger was quoted that “joint sanction is an important step, but more importantly, USAC and the SCCA have agreed to direct their best efforts of a long-range plan for a common open-wheel car and engine formula and a single championship to be run on both road courses and ovals.” The timetable called for the two groups to formulate a detailed plan for approval by each governing board by January 1975 with the common formula put into effect in January 1976.

Alas, this plan never came to pass as the SCCA and USAC were unable to agree on a common formula. Nearly a year after the planned target, on October 11 1976, the USAC announced its withdrawal from the joint sanction of the Formula 5000 series. Frankie DelRoy, USAC’s Technical Director told Milwaukee Journal writer Roger Jaynes “for a while it looked like we could work out a common formula. But every time we tried to work out a compromise the SCCA wanted everything their way. Fuel, tire sizes, type of engine- everything.”

In the end, said DelRoy, “it was a case of us helping out the SCCA and them not helping us.  They got our name drivers - Mario Andretti, Al Unser and the rest to strengthen their series, but they didn’t want to help us one bit.” The Formula 5000 series came to an end at the close of the 1976 season, and most of the teams enclosed their Formula 5000 chassis in full bodywork to compete in the “new” SCCA Can-Am series for 1977.  

Postscript- the slow death of the Ontario Motor Speedway

After attendance dropped again for the 1973 “California 500,” the new operators, the Ontario Motor Speedway Operation Company Limited (OMSOC) moved the 500-mile USAC race date to March for 1974. The original one-year operation agreement between OMSOC and OMS Corporation was renewed with amendments reducing the rent payments in 1974.

The March 9 1975 USAC California ‘500’ attracted just 52,000 spectators, and after the race it was revealed that OMSOC owed $119,000 in back taxes, $7,000 in penalties and $75,000 in rent due on March 31 1975. On March 27 1975 OMSOC President Parnelli Jones president terminated the lease saying that OMSOC had lost too much money.

George Mim Mack, chairman of the non-profit OMS Corporation which issued the bonds was asked in a 1975 newspaper interview if the Ontario Motor Speedway would ever be profitable. His response was “you’d have to say since the first operators were knowledgeable and the current group is very knowledgeable that it may be unrealistic for that to happen in the immediate future.”

OMSOC closed their offices on March 31, 1975 and the City of Ontario assigned ten City employees to care for the facility with Ray Smartis returning as General Manager later in 1975. Smartis moved the 1976 California ‘500’ date back to Labor Day, and the Ontario Motor Speedway continued to struggle along as it hosted Spring and Fall USAC race dates beginning in 1977 but it still lost money. Beginning in 1978, the threat of foreclosure hung over the track daily and that possibility had to be reflected in every contract for track use.

By 1980 the latest management group was bankrupt, and Ontario Motor Speedway bonds were nearly worthless, while the value of 800-acre property had skyrocketed. In December 1980, the City of Ontario sold the bonds, and in effect the property and facility, to the Chevron Land Management Company for $10 million. By February 1981 the track was deserted. 
During 1981, Chevron demolished the track facilities and in the summer of1986 moved the 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt that formed the earthen berms. With the last vestiges of the track Chevron developed the area for commercial and residential uses.

There are no landmarks of the “Big O” left, although there is a multi-use public park in the City of Ontario California named in honor of the Speedway and several streets in the area of the park are named after automobiles such as Duesenberg Drive and Porsche Way.  

In the next installment of the Jerry Grant story in 1974, Grant moves onto another team as a replacement for an injured colleague. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

The racing life and times of Jerry Grant

Part five –1972 after the Indianapolis ‘500’

While car owner Dan Gurney’s appeal of the 1972 Indianapolis ‘500’ penalty of ten finishing positions and over $71,000 by United States Auto Club (USAC) officials for a pit violation was being addressed, the “Mystery Eagle” team moved to Milwaukee for the 150-mile ‘Rex Mays Classic’ on June 4. Grant’s teammate, Bobby Unser qualified his 1972 All American Racers (AAR) Eagle #6 for the pole position with Grant alongside in the purple and white #48.

Bobby Unser led the first 45 circuits on the flat Wisconsin State Fair Park one-mile oval before he pitted and yielded the race lead to Grant for one lap while the field ran under the caution flag. While Unser went on to lead the last ninety laps and win the race, the turbocharger on the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine in Grant’s car failed and the “Mystery Eagle” retired on lap 86.

Three days after the Milwaukee race, Gurney and Grant learned that their appeal of the Indianapolis penalty had been rejected, and rather than a minimal fine which they had hoped for, Grant was awarded twelfth place. Around that same time, Grant and Gurney discovered that their Indianapolis sponsor, Chris Vallo of CV Enterprises, rather than being a millionaire as he claimed was a scam artist who had dropped of sight owing the AAR team and Grant tens of thousands of dollars.

Grant’s promising 1972 USAC season ground to a halt for lack of sponsorship with the purple and white #48 AAR Eagle grounded for three months. In mid-August, Gurney’s primary sponsor Oscar L “Ozzie” Olson of the Olsonite Corporation, manufacturer of molded one-piece plastic toilet seats, announced that he had purchased the “Mystery Eagle.” Olson announced that Jerry Grant would run the final three USAC races on the 1972 schedule, starting with the third leg of the USAC ”Triple Crown” at the 2-1/2 mile “Indianapolis of the West,” Ontario Motor Speedway.

Practice at Ontario California began on August 22 and both the Eagles of Grant and teammate Bobby Unser soon posted practice lap speeds of over 200 miles per hour (MPH). Experts calculated that the turbocharged Offenhauser engines in the AAR Eagles had to produce nearly 1,100 horsepower in order to accomplish the 200 MPH feat.

That huge amount of horsepower from 159 cubic inches of engine displacement came at a price as the high level of boost pressure put a tremendous strain of the engine’s internal components.  Unser experienced two engine failures in practice and then in pre-qualifying practice on the morning of August 26, Unser’s car suffered another engine failure, which opened the door for Grant.

Jerry Grant’s first lap around the Ontario Motor Speedway in the purple and white #48 “Olsonite Eagle” lap was completed in 44.7 seconds, or 201.414 MPH. Jerry Grant was the first man to officially turn a lap in an Indianapolis-type championship race car at over 200 MPH. Grant’s lap broke Peter Revson’s day-old Ontario track record of 194.470 MPH and set a new world’s closed course speed record and took the two-year old "world’s closed course speed record" away from NASCAR stock car racer Bobby Issac.

Grant’s last three laps of his 10-mile time trial run were progressively slower, but he would start the ‘California 500’ from the pole position with a four-lap average of 199.600 MPH. In a post-qualifying interview, Grant explained “I didn’t want to push it so I backed off a little after that first lap. The track is slick and I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake.”

Grant seemed a bit underwhelmed by his accomplishment. “Going 200 MPH to say you’ve gone 200 MPH is not the object. I want to get a good starting position in the race and any of the three in the front will be fine with me.”    

Meanwhile, the AAR crew replaced the engine in Unser’s car in time for him to make his time trial run later on Saturday, but rain showers in the area kept Unser off the track and therefore he was ineligible to make a run for the pole position. 

The next day, Sunday August 27, Unser’s Eagle blazed to a new track and world’s record with a lap of 201.965 MPH and a four-lap average of 201.374 MPH but because his run came a day too late, Unser started the 1972 ‘California 500’ from the twenty-third starting position.

If there was any question of the level of animosity between Grant and Unser, it was answered by Grant’s quote printed by the Associated Press after Unser’s record-setting run. “Isn’t it ironic?” said Grant, “the B team is sitting on the pole and the A team is back in 23rd?”  Unser later told Preston Lerner "that record should have been mine.  Letting Jerry get the record irks me like hell because I did all the development work on the car.”

In pre-race publicity, AJ Foyt predicted race laps would be in the 175-180 MPH range with engine turbocharger boost levels reduced and the cars carrying full fuel loads . In final practice on September 1, Grant ran a lap with full tanks at 190.779 MPH, and Unser practiced at 192.028 MPH. In an article published the day before the race the Long Beach Press-Telegram ranked Grant as a 10-1 favorite to win the race to be held on September 3 1972.  

Jerry Grant’s “Mystery Eagle” failed to complete the first parade lap of the third annual $700,000 “California 500” before a rod bolt in the Offenhauser engine broke. In an interview days later with Ohio sportswriter Rick Yocum, Grant revealed “I never felt more confident about a race in my life than I did about Ontario. Usually we change the engine after qualifying, but mine was running good, and you hate to fool with something that’s working so well. We changed pistons, valves and bearings, but not the bolts.”

Grant struggled with engine problems at the “Trenton 300” held on the 1-1/2 mile dog-leg oval Trenton (New Jersey) Speedway; he qualified eighteenth and finished 21st after the engine failed on lap 53. At the season-ending ‘Best Western 150’ at Phoenix International Raceway, Grant qualified tenth and finished eighth, 11 laps behind his teammate Unser who won his second consecutive USAC championship race.

Next time we will tell the story of Jerry Grant's shortened 1973 season and his struggles against  the USAC hierarchy. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The racing life and times of Jerry Grant

Part four - the 1972 Indianapolis '500'

Jerry Grant began the month of May 1972 without a ride for the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but campaigned for the seat in the second Eagle for Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers (AAR) team. 

Gurney and Grant had a long relationship which dated back to 1965, when Grant first co-drove with Gurney in a Lotus 19 in the Daytona 2000-kilometer race. Grant had also driven for All-American Racers in 1966 in the ill-fated Gurney-Weslake Ford engine powered Lola T70 sports car in the USRRC and SCCA Can-Am series.
Grant might have been considered an ideal candidate for the highly sought after ride in second AAR Eagle, the there was a problem: Gurney had a fast machine but not sponsorship.

Gurney retired as an active driver at the end of September 1970 and signed 1968 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner Bobby Unser as the AAR team’s lead driver for the 1971 season. 

During 1971, the AAR team raced an updated 1970 Eagle chassis and finished second in the United States Auto Club (USAC) Marlboro Championship Trail  points. During 1971, back at the team’s Santa Ana California the team led by designer Roman Slobodynski built a new car that borrowed concepts from the ground-breaking 1971 McLaren M16.

Prior to the M16’s introduction IndyCar chassis designs placed the radiator in the nose of the car, but McLaren designers Gordon Coppock and John Barnard placed the radiators in pods alongside the driver which allowed a wedge-shaped design with a low dart-like nose.

The three McLaren M16 chassis entered for the 1971 Indianapolis 500 captured three of the four top spots in the starting grid. Peter Revson won the pole position in his McLaren M16 for the 1971 Indianapolis ‘500’with a four-lap qualifying average more than six miles an hour faster than the previous track record set in 1968.  In the race itself, Mark Donohue in the Penske M16 led the first 50 laps, and Revson finished second. 

In testing at Ontario Motor Speedway during December 1971, the new AAR side radiator dart-like Eagle outfitted with the giant wings to generate down force allowed for the 1972 USAC season, ran laps which topped 196 MPH. There were six new Eagles entered for the 1972 Indianapolis 500-mile and all were fast upon arrival at the Brickyard.

Jim Malloy in Fred and Don Gerhardt’s 1972 Eagle became the first man to break the 180 miles per hour (MPH) Indianapolis lap speed barrier on the third day of practice with an unofficial lap of 181.415 MPH. Malloy set fast time of the day three days in an row each time earning a free steak dinner  at Sider's Charcol Steak House on Millersville Road.    which he later pushed to 188 MPH. Gary Bettenhausen  then shockingly  broke through the magical 190 MPH barrier in practice on May 7, with the month's top speed later raised by Bobby Unser to 194 MPH

The first day of the 1972 Indianapolis ‘500’ time trials was rained out, and in practice on Sunday morning May 14, Malloy’s Eagle inexplicably crashed nearly head-on into the north short chute wall, and Malloy suffered multiple critical injuries from which he would die four days later. 

The AAR crew pored over the wreckage of the Thermo-King Eagle but was unable to find a mechanical fault, so the cause of the Malloy crash has always been attributed to a gust of wind of wind that caught the car as Malloy turned into turn three.

Six hours after Malloy’s crash, after showers postponed the start of qualifying, Bobby Unser in the Olsonite sponsored 1972 Eagle made his qualifying run and smashed the Speedway one and four-lap speed records by over 17 MPH. At the close of time trials at 6 PM on Sunday, Unser’s four-lap average of 195.94 MPH was the fastest recorded but technically not yet the pole winning speed, as there were still five of drivers, which included Donohue and Revson, yet to make their guaranteed  “first day” runs.

Grant in the Mystery Eagle 
courtesy  of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection 

On Thursday, May 18, Jerry Grant was formally announced as the driver of the second AAR 1972 Eagle painted purple and white and dubbed “the Mystery Eagle.” The car appeared to outsiders to be unsponsored, as aside from contingency decals, there was only the logo of CV Enterprises on the rear wing and the company logo “You Name it” emblazoned across the nose of the car and on the rear wing end plates.  

CV Enterprises was a company operated by the mysterious Christopher A Vallo Junior a self-described millionaire from the Chicago suburb of Highland Indiana who also owned property and a restaurant in Minnesota.  Vallo, a Korean War veteran of Greek descent, had been convicted in 1965 of passing counterfeit currency and was sentenced to three years of probation.

In late 1970, the 265-pound Vallo approached stock car builder and racer Ray Nichels and his son Terry with a check for $1 million for the Nichels’ to build Vallo a team of winning Pontiac stock cars. 

The contract that Vallo and Nichels finally agreed upon called for a $500,000 down payment and a payment of $200,000 each month thereafter to fund the operation for a three year period. Vallo then signed former Holman-Moody Ford factory stock car driver David Pearson to a similar length contract. Behind the scenes, speculation among the racing fraternity about Vallo’s role ranged from his being a secret conduit for Pontiac corporate money to alleged organized crime ties, but no one could be sure. 
While the Pontiac stock car were being built, Vallo and Nichels went United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car racing with a pair of purple and white 1971 Plymouth Roadrunners for drivers AJ Foyt, (for two races) and Bobby Unser (for eight races). Chris Vallo even was the subject of an article in the September 1971 Milwaukee Mile USAC stock car race program. The article, which contained a photograph that only showed the heavy-set Vallo from the back, described him as “racing’s mystery man,” a “multi-millionaire” and claimed that he “owned many companies.”


After competing in just six 1971 National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) races with Pearson behind the wheel of a purple and white 1971 Pontiac GTO, Nichels filed an $8 million lawsuit against Vallo in November 1971 that alleged non-payment per their contract terms. Pearson bailed out of the Vallo contract at the end of 1971 and picked up a ride for the 1972 NASCAR season in the Wood Brothers Mercury which returned his career to great heights.

According to fellow historian and writer William LaDow, the contact for the 1972 Indianapolis ‘500’ CV Enterprises sponsorship came through Bobby Unser, who introduced Vallo to Gurney during the month of May when Gurney was desperately searching for sponsorship for a second Indianapolis entry. In hindsight, given the nationwide publicity given to Nichels’ lawsuit, one wonders why (or if) Gurney was not wary of Chris Vallo, or perhaps he was that desperate for sponsorship.  

The terms of the agreement between the pair was never revealed, but Grant got the ride on May 18 over Unser’s objections, as Unser reportedly wanted a sprint car driver as his teammate according to Gordon Kirby. On Friday May 19, 1972, Grant took his first laps in the #48 “Mystery Eagle” and after just 20 or so laps of practice, posted a best lap of 186.881 MPH.

The following day, after the remaining “first day” qualifiers failed to knock Unser from the pole position, Grant qualified for the 1972 Indianapolis 500, his sixth Indianapolis start, in the 15th position. Grant’s four-lap average speed of 189.294 MPH with the last lap run at 191.164 MPH, was the fourth fastest run overall, and the fastest qualifier of the third day non-pole position eligible cars.

In a post-qualifying interview with the Associated Press, Grant commented on such a fast run after so few practice laps. “Sure I’m excited. But it’s easy to explain. I have the world’s best former driver (Gurney) as a car owner and the world’s best current driver (Unser) as a teammate.” According to Gordon Kirby, however, there was tension behind the scenes, as Unser who had done all the testing and development work, resented Grant’s immediate success. 

The 1972 Indianapolis 500 featured a new rule that required that, a car take on fuel during at least four mandatory pit stops during the 500-mile race. The rule further stated that “approved procedures under this supplementary regulation will be covered in bulletin form.”  The total amount of fuel allowed for each car to complete the 500 miles was 325 gallons, the same as 1971 but with one additional stop required.

Each car was allowed to start the race with 75 gallons of methanol fuel on board, and the pit tank limited to 250 gallons. While a total of 325 gallons seems like a lot of fuel today with contemporary electronic engine controls, it was going to be close for many teams in 1972 to average better than 1-1/2 miles to the gallon with their mechanical fuel injected turbocharged engines. 

At the start of the 1972 Indianapolis ‘500’ on Saturday May 27, pole-sitter Bobby Unser took the lead at the drop of the green flag and led the first 30 laps until his car retired on lap 31 with ignition problems. Gary Bettenhausen, in Roger Penske’s McLaren then took control of the race.  

Grant battled with Bettenhausen and took the race lead of lap 162 when Gary pitted and then held it for three laps until he pitted and Bettenhausen resumed the lead. On lap 175, Grant retook the lead and held on while Bettenhausen’s car retired on lap 182 with ignition problems. Bettenhausen’s teammate Mark Donohue inherited second place, but was nearly a lap in arrears.   

While in the lead, Grant’s Eagle began to vibrate and “push” or understeer entering the turns with what Grant thought was a bad right front tire, so with just thirteen laps to go, Grant was forced to pit a fifth time. Without working team radio communications since early in the race, with only hand signals from the driver, Gurney and the crew surmised that Grant’s Eagle was running out of fuel. With the “Mystery Eagle’s” 250 gallon pit side fuel tank empty, the crew stopped Grant in teammate Unser’s stall.  

In a chaotic situation, the crew connected the fuel hoses, and then Gurney realized the problem was not fuel and ordered the crew to disconnect the hoses. The AAR crew changed the right front tire before they realized the problem was with the left front tire. 

By the time the disastrous pit stop was over, Grant’s car had been stationary for 38 seconds and Mark Donohue in the Sunoco DX- sponsored McLaren had swept past into the lead. Over the final 12 laps, Grant could not close the gap and crossed the finish line nearly a lap behind Donohue.

To finish second after he led the ‘500’ with thirteen laps to go must have been a crushing disappointment to Grant and the AAR team, but the worst was yet to come. When questioned initially about Grant’s car being connected to Unser’s fuel supply during his last unscheduled pit stop, Frankie DelRoy, chairman of the Technical Committee, stated that there would be no penalty for Grant pitting in the wrong stall as he incorrectly stated that no fuel had flowed into the Grant’s car while the hose were connected.

In retrospect DelRoy, a veteran of the Indianapolis Speedway since 1931 as a riding mechanic and later a chief mechanic, had spoken out of turn, as the technical committee was responsible for enforcement of USAC Rules and Regulations regarding the construction of the cars, while the enforcement of rules during the running of the race fell to the observers and stewards.

George Bignotti, crew chief for Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, owner of third-place finisher Al Unser’s ‘Viceroy Special’ filed a post-race protest which claimed that Grant’s car should have been “automatically disqualified “after it took fuel from Unser’s fueling tank.

Bignotti’s protest was reviewed by the stewards overnight, and meanwhile, the AAR team studied videotape as they suspected that the USAC scoring was wrong and that Grant had actually won the 1972 Indianapolis ‘500.’

When the official race results were posted at 8 AM on Sunday morning, Jerry Grant and the “Mystery Eagle” were placed twelfth in the finishing order. Chief Steward Harlan Fengler, Referee Don Cummins, and Steward Walt Myers had upheld Bignotti’s protest and that Grant was not credited any laps after the pit violation, just as if the car had retired at that point.  

Harlan Fengler, 72 years old, was a mercurial coarse personality who frequently referred to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as “my track.” Fengler first entered racing as a riding mechanic with Harry Hartz during the 1922 racing season, then became a driver himself and built a reputation on the high-speed board tracks as a 20 year old dubbed “the boy wonder.”  

After he retired from driving a chassis of his construction in 1927, Fengler unsuccessfully promoted Ascot and Dayton Speedways, and worked for Ford and Packard Motor Companies as an engineer. Fengler worked at the Speedway annually as a steward, as a daily participant in car owner JC Agajanian’s afternoon Garage Area card game, and then was named to replace USAC championship division director Harry McQuinn as the Chief Steward for the 1958 Indianapolis 500-mile race. Fengler’s first “500’ as Chief Steward was a fiasco, and despite repeated controversies most notably in 1963 and 1966, Fengler hung on to his powerful position.

71-year old Walt Myers was another former riding mechanic and long-time Indianapolis Motor Speedway official. Myers born in 1902 in Evansville Indiana rode as riding mechanic with Mauri Rose in the 1934 ‘500’ and then in 1935 with Elbert “Babe” Stapp.

Myers was appointed the Chief Observer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1957 and he served in that role through 1969, except for 1959 when he missed the race due to commitments with his regular job at the General Motors Corporation. Replaced as Chief Observer by former second-generation unsuccessful Indianapolis ‘500’ qualifier Norm Houser in 1970, Myers became Fengler’s assistant in place of Paul Johnson who had become ill.  

Don Cummins, the younger brother of Clessie Cummins of Cummins Diesel fame, hailed from Columbus Indiana, and was yet another Indianapolis Motor Speedway veteran having first arrived at the track in 1930. In addition to working as a crew member on the 1930 and 1931 Cummins ‘500’ entries, he had spearheaded the 1950 and 1952 Cummins Diesel Indianapolis ‘500’ racing programs.

Through the years, Cummins served in various officiating positions including founding USAC and serving on the USAC Board of Directors. Cummins was named the Indianapolis 500-mile race Referee in 1961 after he retired as the Cummins Diesel Company vice president in charge of engineering. 

In a later interview, Cummins explained how officiating was performed before 1975; “we were on the inside of the track. We had a small telephone box hooked to the observers' line. We couldn't see anyplace around the track. We had to be told what was happening by our observers."

Upon seeing the posted official results, Gurney immediately stated that he would file an appeal.  Due to the pending Gurney appeal the Speedway withheld checks from the drivers who finished in the second through twelfth positions at the 1972 ‘500’ Victory Dinner held on Sunday night. There was a lot at stake to Gurney and Grant, as second place paid $95,257, while twelfth place paid $24,156 a difference of over $71,000, equivalent to over $400,000 in 2016.    

Popular sentiment in the matter ran in favor of Grant and Gurney. During his speech at the Victory Banquet, two-time Indianapolis  ‘500’ winner Al Unser, elevated to second place by the steward’s decision, sheepishly stated “I think it’s bad to take somebody’s place. I don’t feel like we belong up here (in second place). Jerry Grant should be up here talking to you.”   

In his appeal Dan Gurney claimed that when Grant pitted, contrary to popular misconception, the #48 “Mystery Eagle” did not need additional fuel, thus “no competitive advantage resulted from any extra fuel being added, as the car’s tanks contained sufficient fuel to finish the remaining 13 laps.” Gurney’s appeal stated that the penalty was “arbitrarily imposed,” as no penalty was spelled out in the USAC or Indianapolis Motor Speedway rules or bulletins issued prior to the running of the race," and that “a penalty should be clearly defined.”    

After Gurney filed his appeal together with the fee of $515 on May 31, USAC President Charles T. Brockman selected two “non-interested parties, neither race competitors nor race officials,  who would not identified until after the hearing”  to serve with him on the appeal board to study the ruling and Gurney’s appeal. The appeal was heard on Tuesday June 6 1972 at the USAC offices at 4910 West 16th Street, across Georgetown Road from the main gate of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Brockman, a native of Speedway Indiana was yet another member of the USAC “old guard,” having practically grown up at the Brickyard. After he graduated from Purdue University,   Brockman worked as a broadcaster for several local Indianapolis radio stations and the Speedway radio network. After he left local radio, he served as the anchor of the closed-circuit television broadcasts of the ‘500’ and ran a Hallmark greeting card store in a Speedway shopping center.  

Brockman history was USAC was a long one, as he worked with USAC on press releases on an “unofficial basis’ before he was named the USAC Publicity Director in 1958. In 1963, Brockman was elected as Secretary to the USAC Board of Directors. Brockman one of former USAC President Thomas Binford’s original partners in Indianapolis Raceway Park was named Chairman of the USAC rules committee after the death of Rhiman Rotz in a USAC-owned plane crash in September 1967. Brockman had been elected the USAC President in 1969.  

After the two-hour Tuesday June 6 appeal hearing before Brockman, Thomas Binford and USAC National Vice-President Howard S. Wilcox (the two supposedly non-interested parties), Brockman announced to the gathered press representatives that a decision would not handed down until the next day at the earliest or possibly later as “we do not want to make an announcement on the outcome until we are able to write a full report giving our reasons.” On the face of that statement, one could infer that the fate of Gurney’s appeal was already decided.  

In his role as the Chief Judge, Brockman read the decision on Wednesday afternoon June 7 1972.  While Brockman said that the panel agreed with Dan Gurney’s claim that the lap 188 refueling of Grant’s car was a mistake, as the car did not need fuel to complete the race,  Brockman said that Gurney’s  line of testimony is not relevant. The stewards cannot be responsible for the mistake of a contestant. The panel respects Mr. Gurney’s forthright honesty as he admitted that he would have taken the same action and chanced whatever penalty had he positively identified the need for more fuel.”  

The USAC Appeal Panel determined that a violation of the rules had occurred, and cited the 1972 500-mile race Approved Supplementary Regulation #23 which stated that the maximum fuel supply other than that carried in the car was 250 gallons.  

Although Harlan Fengler testified in the hearing that he told drivers prior to qualifying that they could not use fuel from another contestant’s pit, the USAC Appeal Panel agreed with Gurney that the rules did not state specifically that a car couldn’t use fuel from a teammate’s pit, but it “is inescapable that if a car used fuel from the pit of another car, it’s maximum would exceed 250 gallons.”

The USAC Appeal Panel again agreed with Gurney that that while Approved Supplementary Regulation #23 did not state a penalty, “the steward’s reason that car number 48 was legal through lap 188 and therefore should be credited that distance. However, at the point the violation occurred, the car was no longer legal and should not be credited for any laps after that point.”

Brockman closed his prepared remarks by stating that “the Appeal Panel is of the opinion that a rules violation took place and that the stewards ruled properly. The Gurney appeal is unanimously denied.”  In response to questions, Brockman agreed to Gurney’s request to review USAC rules governing such penalties, however, he said “it is difficult to visualize situations in advance.” 

Gurney was out of town for the announcement, but Grant was present and told the press “I’m extremely disappointed in the result.  However we race with USAC and abide by their rules - there is no other way to go.” Grant continued “we feel the punishment or fine was extremely too severe. However, we will return to racing and see if we can change it on the race track. We hold no grudges.”   


On the heels of the stunning loss of more than $71,000 of Indianapolis ‘500’ prize money, Gurney and Grant found that the mysterious Chris Vallo had disappeared. Like Ray Nichels and David Pearson the pair wound being owed a lot of money which they would never collect.  Jerry Grant would show visitors to his home a copy of 1972 check for $10,000 from CV Enterprises stamped twice by the bank “NSF” (Insufficient Funds). 

In March 1976, the law finally caught with Chris Vallo, then 45 years old, as he was convicted on several federal counts: failing to file income tax returns, making false statements to obtain bank loans and firearms and possession of firearms as a convicted felon.  Vallo who had earlier filed for bankruptcy to escape several civil judgments was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Upon his release, Vallo remained out of the public eye and passed away in 2000.

Many of the USAC “old guard” involved in the Grant penalty and appeal were not in racing for too long afterwards. After he completed his four-year terms as USAC president, Charles Brockman retired and was replaced as USAC President in May 1973 by Illinois businessman Reynold C. MacDonald. Brockman passed away in January 2005. 

After nearly a year of rumors and controversy following the disastrous 1973 Indianapolis 500, which included an ugly public confrontation in October 1972 with driver David “Salt” Walther, who had been horribly injured at the start of the 1973 ‘500,’ Harlan Fengler was forced out as Chief Steward in March 1974.  Fengler was replaced by the pragmatic businesslike former USAC president Tom Binford.  Fengler’s body was found in a motor home parked behind his home in New Lebanon Ohio in March 1981 a week after his passing.

With Fengler’s departure, his assistant Walt Myers was named to a new short-lived post of “Assistant Chief Steward.” On the opening day of practice May 6 1974, two minutes before the green light was turned out to open the track, drivers Mike Hiss and Tom Bigelow jockeyed in the annual spectacle to be the first car out.  Myers was either brushed by Hiss’ car or tripped and fell to the ground, and suffered a broken wrist and broken hip. Myers was released after he was hospitalized at Methodist Hospital for six weeks, but Myers never returned to the Speedway as an official before he passed away in 1977 at age 75.    

Don Cummins was replaced as the Indianapolis 500-mile race referee in 1975, but remained active in racing through his seat on the USAC Board of Directors. Frank DelRoy briefly resigned following the 1973 Indianapolis 500 but withdrew his resignation and remained in his post as USAC’s Technical Director until he died in the April 1978 plane crash that claimed the lives of eight USAC officials.

Gurney’s understandable animosity towards USAC officiating and promotion of racing led to his authorship of an early 1978 “White Paper” sent to all the championship team owners and drivers. The paper advocated the creation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), as an advocacy group for the competitors in the USAC Championship Series. Gurney wrote that “it is essential that we continue to support USAC as the sanctioning body for Championship racing.”

Gurney’s letter continued “the only improvement will be that USAC will work for us and support our cause and our policies as well. It should be clearly understood that the purpose of this organization is to make racing better in an overall way. Not just for the car owners and drivers, but also for the track owners and promoters and the sanctioning body and the sponsors and supporters and last but certainly not least, the racing fans and paying spectators”

However, within days after the USAC Board of Directors rejected the proposal for CART representation on the USAC Board in November 1978, CART quickly established itself competing racing group initially with the SCCA as the sanctioning body. Instead of an improvement in racing that Gurney envisioned in 1978, the formation of CART and the splits that followed led to the splintering of the sport of open-wheel championship racing. The lack of a major broadcast partner and the decline in the number of fans, sponsors, and teams that the sport suffered in 1978 still exist over a quarter century after Gurney’s “White Paper.”    

In our next installment we will continue the story of Jerry Grant after the 1972 Indianapolis 500 as he came back strong after another career disappointment.