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. 

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