Monday, August 1, 2016

The racing life and times of Jerry Grant
Part seven – the 1974 season

Early in 1974, Jerry Grant signed to drive for Phoenix Arizona tire magnate Robert L. “Bob” Fletcher for the 1974 United States Auto Club season (USAC) as a teammate to sophomore driver Jimmy Caruthers and rookie Duane “Pancho” Carter.

Caruthers was the Cobre Firestone Tire team’s primary 1974 USAC national championship trail driver, while Carter ran an abbreviated schedule of eight championship races as he (successfully) chased the 1974 USAC National Sprint Car title, and Grant ran just five races during the 1974 USAC season.  

Both Caruthers and Carter  both sons of famous racers came up the USAC open-wheel ranks, having driven midget and sprint cars. Caruthers won the 1970 USAC National Midget Championship and finished runner-up in 1971 to his brother Danny, while Carter won the 1972 USAC national midget championship.   

Among the three drivers, the Cobre team had four cars - one updated 1972 All-American Racing  (AAR) Eagle, one updated 1973 AAR Eagle, and at least two 1974-spec AAR Eagles chassis, all powered by turbocharged Offenhauser engines.  Racing historians have been unable to determine conclusively which Fletcher Eagle was assigned to an individual driver at a specific race. 

Operating out of the team’s shop on 32nd Avenue in northwest Phoenix, for 1974 the Cobre team had three chief mechanics; Jim McGee, who had started out in racing working for Clint Brawner was assigned to work with Jimmy Caruthers, while Mike Devin worked with rookie “Pancho” Carter, and Ron Falk, who had worked for the STP Racing team from 1963 through 1973, was assigned to work with Jerry Grant. 

Fletcher, whose Cobre Tires chain in the American Southwest was at the time the largest Firestone tire distributor in the United States, fielded his teams with major financial support from the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.  Fletcher entered USAC racing as a car owner in 1973, but at the team’s third race, Art Pollard crashed fatally at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the morning of the first day of ‘500’ time trials.

The Pollard crash destroyed one of the Fletcher 1972 Eagles, so the Cobre team operated for much of the 1973 USAC season as a single car team with Clint Brawner as the chief mechanic for Jimmy Caruthers. In September after the Cobre team received a replacement Eagle chassis to replace the car destroyed in the Pollard crash, Bob Fletcher hired Ron Falk with work with newly hired driver Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg Iowa beginning with the 1973 ‘California 500.’

Lee Kunzman in 1970
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
 IUPUI University Library Center for Digital studies.
Lee Kunzman’s blossoming career had been interrupted by a serious accident at I-70 Speedway in Odessa Missouri on June 5 1970 when the throttle of his sprint car hung open. The car tumbled over the wall and Lee received severe burns over 20% of his body as well as a broken neck and broken arm. 10 months later, Kunzman triumphantly returned to racing as he won a 40-lap sprint car race at I-70 Speedway. In 1972, Kunzman made his first Indianapolis ‘500’ start as he drove Myron Caves’s turbocharged Offenhauser powered Gerhardt chassis.

Kunzman joined forces with Coca-Cola millionaire Lindsey Hopkins for the first Milwaukee race in 1972 and completed that season and the first part of the 1973 USAC season with Hopkins. Lee was hired away by Bob Fletcher for the Cobre Firestone team beginning with the 1973 California ‘500.’ After a successful 1973 season which ended with two top five finishes, Fletcher, Kunzman, and Falk looked forward to the 1974 season.

On December 11 1973, during an off-season Firestone tire test at Ontario Motor Speedway, Kunzman crashed into the second turn concrete wall at an estimated 190 MPH, which destroyed the Cobre Tire 1973 Eagle and left Kunzman seriously injured for the second time in career. Initial news reports immediately after the accident indicated that Kunzman was in a coma with severe head injuries and paralysis of his left side. By Christmas, newspapers reported that Kunzman was awake and had moved his arms, but doctors thought he faced a long rehabilitation. 

On February 15 1974, Bob Fletcher hired Jerry Grant to replace Kunzman on the Cobre Firestone team for the California ‘500,’ as news articles at the time were optimistic about Kunzman’s return in time the 1974 Indianapolis ‘500.’ In fact, Lee Kunzman’s recovery from his head injuries took up the entire 1974 season. In August 1974 Lee had only regained 70% of the use of his left side, and suffered blurred vision. Jerry Grant was considered Kunzman’s replacement driver as Jerry drove the 1974 season with Kunzman’s previous car number, #55.    

The 1974 USAC championship car rules package reduced the size of the rear wings to a maximum width of 43 inches, and the wing could not extend more than 42 inches behind the center lines of the rear wheels and centered between the rear wheels.  For the first time USAC regulated the maximum “boost” level (turbocharger pressure) for Offenhauser engines to 80 inches of mercury (slightly more than 39 pounds per square inch) through the use of a pressure relief “pop off valve” mounted on the intake plenum. Additionally, to lower race speeds, the total fuel allowed to be used by each car to complete a 500-mile race was reduced to 280 gallons.

As outlined in a previous chapter, the financially troubled Ontario Motor Speedway and shifted the date of the ‘California 500’ which became 1974 season opening race but it came amid a nationwide crisis. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) instituted an oil embargo beginning in October 1973. The price of oil rose from $3 per barrel to $12, gasoline stations rationed their supplies, and the oil shortage triggered one of the worst economic downturns in modern history.

In response to the oil crisis, in January 1974, USAC announced a “fuel allocation formula” that also restricted the amount of methanol fuel that could be used in practice for Ontario to 200 gallons, 35 gallons for qualifying, and 55 gallons for the 100-mile qualifying heat races. It didn’t seem to matter to USAC that the race cars ran on methanol, not gasoline, their move made it appear to the general public that the club’s board was doing something.
In accordance with the recommendations of the National Motorsports Committee to reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent during the “energy crisis,” Ontario Motor Speedway for its part, cut back to four days of practice beginning February 26 with each practice session to last seven hours instead of the previous nine hours daily.  

After the completion of the March 3 qualifying heat races, teams would only have three hours of running time before the California 500 on March 10 1974. All these changes reportedly would reduce the California ‘500’ methanol use from 30,000 gallons to 23,000 gallons. “We feel this will make the race (the California 500) more competitive than it’s ever been before," Ontario General Manager Jim Cook told the Associated Press. “There will be less strain on the engines and combined with the milder March temperatures should keep more cars running longer.” 

Jerry Grant's official 1974 Indy 500 qualifying photo
courtesy of INDYCAR

During the final day of practice on Friday March 1, Grant lost control of the “Cobre Firestone Special” turquoise and copper colored #55 Eagle as he exited the fourth turn, executed a partial spin, brushed the inside retaining wall, and slightly damaged the left side suspension.  Grant was uninjured and the car promptly repaired for the next day’s qualifying session.

The start of qualifying for the 1974 California ‘500’ on March 2 was delayed five hours by rain, and lap speeds were indeed down as AJ Foyt won the pole position with a two-lap average speed of 190.617 MPH.  Foyt was the only car over 190 MPH, as second fastest qualifier Johnny Rutherford posted a 185.989 MPH average. Grant qualified tenth out of the twenty-nine qualifiers with a 183.150 MPH average speed. 

Grant was forced to run the 100-mile “heat race,” unlike 1973, when his front-row starting position allowed him the opportunity to sit out and preserve his equipment. On the positive side, whereas in 1973 the qualifying races paid no money, just USAC points, in 1974 the qualifying races offered a purse of $25,000 each, although the total purse for the California ‘500’ and the preliminary races remained at $300,000.

Grant started the second March 3 qualifying heat race from the fifth position but failed to finish the 40 laps, as the Offenhauser engine’s magneto failed on lap 14. That finish meant that Grant would start seventeenth in the middle of the sixth row between Gary Bettenhausen in the Penske Products McLaren and Gordon Johncock in the Patrick Racing Eagle.

In a local newspaper interview printed two days before the race, Grant told a reporter "we’re thinking that maybe things will swing around this time. The last two times I started from the front row, this time it’s the middle of the pack. Maybe we’ll break this spell I seem to be under.”  Grant said “I think we’re among the few cars that have enough mileage to finish the 500 miles. At the end of the race you’re likely to see a lot of people running out of gas.”

Drivers generally were critical of the USAC fuel cuts, as Al Unser told Bloys Britt of the Associated Press “they have finally cut the racing out of the race. All we do is go out and watch the fuel gauge.”  Eight cars ran out of fuel during the 100-mile qualifying heats, including Unser, Gordon Johncock, and Mario Andretti.

1974 California 500 race day program cover

The 1974 California ‘500’ featured seven yellow flag periods for a total of 39 laps, so fuel consumption proved not to be an issue. Pole position starter Foyt was out of lap 20 with a punctured oil tank, while Johncock and two-time USAC National Champion Joe Leonard were each eliminated in separate crashes. Leonard, who crashed after a left front tire failed, suffered a compound fracture of his lower left leg with his ankle was crushed and his foot nearly severed. It reportedly took rescuers nearly half an hour to extract him from the destroyed Vel’s Parnelli Eagle.  

At the finish of the 500 mile grind, Grant had moved up fourteen places from his starting position to finish third, one lap behind the brothers Unser, with his former teammate Bobby claiming the win. Grant’s new teammate Caruthers finished fourth a lap behind Grant who won $21,534 in prize money. The bad news was the reported attendance for the 1974 ‘California 500‘ was just 100,000 fans.

Joe Leonard missed the rest of the 1974 USAC racing season as he recovered from his injuries, and after eight months in a full-length cast, he attempted a comeback in March 1975 at age 41.  Before practice for the 1975 ‘California 500,’ USAC officials tested Leonard’s fitness and found that his left foot was not sufficiently healed as he could not fully depress the brake pedal of AJ Foyt’s backup car.  

Joe’s failed physical brought a sad end to his brilliant racing career that included three American Motorcycle Association (AMA) and two USAC national championships. Later in March 1975, Leonard’s attorneys James Boccardo and Bob Bohn announced to the Indianapolis Star newspaper writer Robin Miller that they had filed $1 million negligence suits against Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Ontario Motor Speedway, Leonard’s physician, and Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, his car owner and employer at the time of the accident.    

Grant next raced in the ‘Trentonian 200’ at the New Jersey kidney-bean shaped one mile track nearly a month after the Ontario race. After he qualified twelfth, he officially finished in fifth place although the gearbox in his Eagle had broken and knocked him out of the race on lap 117 of the scheduled 134 lap race. Attrition was so high that April day at Trenton that only four of the original nineteen race starters were still running at the drop of the checkered flag.

As part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s effort to address the nationwide fuel crisis the track did not open for practice until Monday May 6. The compressed schedule left teams with just five (5) scheduled 6-hour days of practice before “Pole Day” on May 11. Rather than the traditional four days of time trials, the 1974 schedule was reduced to two days on successive Saturdays.

In addition to the previously discussed changes to the cars, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway facility had changed. No longer was starter Pat Vidan stationed on a platform atop the wall that divided the racing surface from pit lane, instead Vidan was stationed on a platform attached to a new control tower perched high above the start/finish line on the outside of the track. The entry lane from the racing surface onto pit lane and the pit lane itself had been widened, the retaining walls around the track had been raised, and most importantly, the trackside seating on the outside of the main straightway had been removed.  

Jerry Grant’s #55 “Cobre Firestone Special” was scheduled to roll out fourteenth in the qualifying order on “Pole Day,” but after the typical scrambling with some cars pulled out of line, Grant’s Eagle was the eighth car out and he posted a conservative 181.781 MPH four-lap average. Shortly after Grant’s run, rain halted activity for three hours as the track dried. Five more cars qualified before rain fell again and closed the track for the day with 11 cars still guaranteed runs for the pole position. When the rain-shortened qualifying period was completed the following Saturday the 18th, Jerry Grant was slotted into the 17th starting position in the 33-car field, the middle of row six.

There were several controversies throughout and following time trials, the first of which concerned turbochargers and the boost limit. Patrick Racing team crew chief George Bignotti fitted the Offenhauser engines in his team’s cars with larger diameter turbochargers for qualifying, and intended to replace the larger turbochargers with smaller unit after qualifying.  
However, new Chief Steward Thomas Binford ruled that Wally Dallenbach’s and Gordon Johncock’s “STP” Eagles would have to race with the same turbocharger with which they qualified. Throughout the month many of teams publicly complained that the USAC-supplied “pop-off valves” opened before the 80 inches of Mercury pressure level was reached, and there were also numerous accusations of some teams “cheating” their pop-off valves.

As a result of the rain-shortened qualifying periods which further impacted the compressed schedule there eleven cars were left in line that had an opportunity to make a qualifying attempt when the final gun went off. Those teams were outraged as it had always been implied that everyone who wanted to make a run would at least just get a chance. Six of the wronged car owners threatened to file a lawsuit and in response, Binford offered to re-open time trials if the drivers of all 33 qualified cars agreed.  Binford’s compromise plan fell apart when Larry Cannon, driver of the Hoffman Racing “American Financial Special” the field’s slowest qualified car refused to sign the agreement.  

The lawsuit was filed which requested an injunction that will stop the 500-mile race from being held as scheduled. After a hearing held on Carburation Day, May 23, the following day Judge Frank A. Symmes of Marion County Superior Court threw out the suit and request for an injunction on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not exhausted all the available avenues in the USAC appeals process before they filed their lawsuit.

On Race Day, May 26, Grant and the Cobre Firestone Eagle, with injured teammate Lee Kunzman working behind the pit wall signaling on the signboard, struggled to a tenth place finish 25 laps behind winner Johnny Rutherford. Years later, it’s unclear what delayed Grant during the race, but the 1974 ‘500’ clearly was a race of attrition with a total of seven yellow flags displayed for 34 minutes and only twelve cars still running at the finish. Only second place finisher Bobby Unser was on the leader’s lap at the finish, 22 seconds in arrears.

To illustrate just how strange the 1974 ‘500’ was, the ninth place finisher, Lloyd Ruby, ran out of fuel on lap 187, and eleventh place finisher John Martin in the “Sea Snack Shrimp Cocktail Special” McLaren was six laps behind Grant, while the fourteenth place finisher Mike Hiss, the last car running, was flagged with just 158 laps completed.  At the ‘500’ Victory Banquet the next evening, Grant picked up a check for $21,266.06.

Two weeks after the Indianapolis ‘500,’ Grant and the #55 Cobre Firestone Eagle appeared in the Rex Mays Classic held on the Mile at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. In time trials, Grant circulated around the flat one-mile in 30.27-seconds which slotted him in eighteenth place in the starting field, while his teammate Caruthers qualified thirteenth.  AJ Foyt qualified for his second straight pole position start with a 27.91 second lap and then led the first eleven laps, but Johnny Rutherford, who spun on the seventh lap, dominated the later stages of the 150-lap race to score his second consecutive win. Jerry Grant finished nine laps behind Rutherford in thirteenth place and won $1375.00.   

Two weeks later, Jerry Grant was one of five drivers who failed to qualify for the ‘Schafer 500’ at the triangular 2-1/2 mile Pocono Raceway. Qualifications were disrupted by rain with the second day of time trials on June 23 was washed out and somehow, Grant did not make the 33-car starting field. Though his USAC season was over, Grant stayed busy as a member of the Champion Spark Plug Company Highway Safety Team that toured the county speaking to high schools on driving safety and in the light of the energy crisis, Grant also offered tips on economical driving. 

Any chance that Grant had to re-sign with Bob Fletcher for another season evaporated in August 1974 when Firestone Tire and Rubber Company abruptly announced that it was quitting racing at the end of the 1974 season. Firestone’s decision ended the 10-year “tire war” with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company which had led to a massive increase in USAC racing teams’ budgets and expenses.

The withdrawal placed several key USAC players such as team owners Parnelli Jones and Bob Fletcher, as well as leading drivers such as Mario Andretti who owned Firestone tire distributorships in awkward positions. Furthermore it appeared that it would take several years to untangle the mess, as several racing teams and drivers had long-term contracts with Firestone that ran through the 1977 USAC season.  

Firestone which had supplied tires used by Ray Harroun in the inaugural Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1911 stated that their withdrawal was a business decision, as their return on investment in racing tires no longer made sense to the Firestone Board of Directors.  “Costs have skyrocketed in the last few years and there seems to be no end in sight,” said A. E. “Scotty” Brubaker, Firestone's vice president of advertising and public relations.  Bill McCreary, the company's director of racing, told the New York Times writer Michael Katz that Firestone spent $386,000 for tire tests in one sixmonth period from November 1972 to April 1973.

Consider that during tire testing sessions, the tire company had not only the expense of the tires, but also the track rental, safety personnel, and the salaries and travel expenses of its employees. Added to those costs were the travel expenses for the driver and his crew, and the rental cost for the race car which included the provision of the reimbursement to the car owner for any damage during testing. Firestone had an estimated racing budget in 1972 that ranged from $3 million to 8 million a year most of which was funneled to teams, earmarked for driver and crew chief salaries and engine development programs.  

Firestone’s departure along with the nation’s economic problems led to a financial crisis for many USAC teams such as Fletcher’s which without any outside sponsors was dependent on the “tire money.” By 1976, Fletcher’s “Cobre Tire” team shrank to a single car effort. Firestone’s withdrawal affected both Firestone and Goodyear teams, as without competition Goodyear no longer had to provide their teams with stipends.  Through the following years, the entry lists at USAC championship events shrank.

Officials from both the tire companies involved in racing had pressured USAC officials for years to reduce the costs of racing with ideas such as the replacement of the highly-stressed and expensive turbocharged racing engines with cheaper stock block-based engines. As discussed in a previous chapter, USAC officials during this time were negotiating with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) on a joint car/engine rules package. 

Firestone’s departure should have been a red flag to the officials of both clubs, but it apparently was not and eventually those negotiations collapsed in October 1976. If even if an agreement could have been reached it would have come too late for Firestone which remained out of IndyCar racing until 1995.

In 1995, Firestone and Goodyear once again engaged in a battle for supremacy; with Firestone coming out of top in the second albeit shorter war when Goodyear withdrew from IndyCar competition after the 1999 season. Since than Firestone remained the exclusive INDYCAR tire supplier, some of the original “tire warriors,” such as AJ Foyt, still fight the war.

Foyt, who was instrumental in bringing Goodyear to Indianapolis in 1964, went so far as use a black Sharpie® pen to obscure his name on the special edition Firestone tires that listed all the previous winners of the race on Firestone tires used by his team in the 2016 Indianapolis 500. 

In addition to his Champion duties, Jerry Grant closed out his 1974 racing season as he raced Frank Arcerio’s Lola T-332 in the final three west coast rounds of the SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 series. In the 100-mile 1974 “California Grand Prix” event at the 2.9-mile Ontario Motor Speedway on September 1, Grant was one of five Indianapolis drivers entered along with Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Mickey Rupp, and Lloyd Ruby who raced in a turbocharged Offenhauser powered Eagle. Grant qualified 17th, finished ninth in his 17-lap preliminary heat and finished sixth in the feature to earn $1800 before a crowd of just 28,000 on a day when the daytime temperature peaked at 99 degrees.

At the penultimate 1974 SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 round at Laguna Seca Raceway near Salinas California in mid-October, Grant qualified the Arcerio Lola/Chevy 23rd fastest in time trials. Grant finished eighth in the first 27-lap heat race and eleventh in the 50-lap feature, three laps behind back-to-back winner Brian Redman. 

At the end of October Grant raced in the final 1974 SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 race held at the Riverside International Raceway but was the first car out of the feature race on lap four and finished in twenty-second position, scored ahead of two cars that failed to start the race.  Grant wound up scored in a three-way tie for nineteenth place in the 1974 USAC/SCCA Formula 5000 season point standings.

 In our next installment we'll look at Jerry Grant's time with Fred Carrillo's team

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