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.      


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