Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The racing life and times of Jerry Grant

Part nine – 1977 and retirement

Courtesy of Hemmings


In a May 1977 interview with Bob Gallas a sportswriter for the Chicago area Arlington Heights Daily Herald Grant revealed that he had been bothered by a fever all during the previous summer which he treated with aspirin. Grant shared that he had raced to a tenth place finish in the 1976 “California 500” at Ontario Motor Speedway while suffering with a fever of 102 degrees.

Grant said after he got home after he finished the race in Fred Carrillo’s American Motor Corporation (AMC) 209 cubic inch turbocharged “stock block”-powered Eagle, he slept for two days. When he awoke he said he had a 106 degree temperature so he drove himself to the hospital.

While in the hospital Grant nearly died twice before doctors diagnosed a severe gall bladder infection which had spread to his liver and lungs. Once he recovered and was released Grant rehabilitated and rebuilt his stamina by riding his off-road trail motorcycle for hours each day.  Unfortunately he was ill during the time of the year that car owners sign up their drivers for next year, so Grant said “I’m lucky to have a ride at all.”  Grant mused “I’ve always been religious… my recovery brought home the fact that the man upstairs has more for me to do down here. I look forward to winning the ‘500’ and getting paid for it this time, all my bill collectors are counting on that.”

Jerry Grant was entered as the driver for the “Hoffman Trucking Special,” a turbocharged Offenhauser powered 1973 Eagle chassis, a far cry from the top-flight equipment he had commanded just a few years earlier. According to fellow historian Allen Brown, the Eagle owned Richard and August “Gus” Hoffman carried All-American Racers (AAR) chassis tag # 7223 had been driven in the 1973 Indianapolis 500 by David Hobbs for car owner Roy Woods.

The Hoffman family, involved in racing since 1929, purchased the car from Woods in 1976 and fielded the “American Financial Special” Eagle for John Mahler in seven races during the 1976 United States Auto Club (USAC) championship season, including the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

In his 1977 interview with Bob Gallas, Grant admitted that it was “tough competing against these new entries with a five year old car,” but added “our engine is reliable.” Grant counted on the track getting oily on race day as then “the difference in horsepower won’t mean as much.”  In practice early in May, Grant posted a best lap speed of 187.797 miles per hour (MPH) which was considered marginal by the “railbirds,” but in fact would have easily been fast enough to make the 33-car starting field.

Grant made two attempts on the first day of time trials, May 14, but waved off each attempt after just one lap had been completed. In practice late on Friday afternoon, May 20, Grant’s Eagle hit the third turn wall with the right side of the tub, and tore both wheels away. The wounded Eagle then slid 1000 feet across the north short chute and hit the wall again with the right side of the tub before it came to rest in the middle of turn 4.

Grant climbed out of the wreckage of the Eagle and was transported to the infield hospital where he was checked and released. USAC officials reported that the right side of the Eagle was “extensive damaged” and the Hoffman team deemed the car as “not repairable” particularly since the crash came on the eve of the final weekend of qualifying.

Grant picked up a ride in the Alex Foods #75 1974 turbocharged Offenhauser powered Eagle, car originally driven by Mario Andretti during the 1975 season for the Vel’s- Parnelli Jones Racing Viceroy sponsored team. Purchased by Alex Morales after season’s end, the Eagle served as Billy Vukovich’s primary car during the 1976 season, and served as the Morales  team’s backup car for the 1977 Indianapolis 500-mile race. 

Grant took practice laps in the #75 on Saturday May 21, and took the green flag for his first qualifying attempt but pulled into the pits before he completed a lap. On a busy “bump day” on Sunday, May 22, Grant was one of two drivers, along with Daniel “Spike” Gehlhausen eliminated by an accident as Jerry crashed the Alex Foods Eagle on the second lap of his second qualifying attempt.

After Indianapolis, the Hoffman team bought a 1973 Eagle, chassis tag number 7221, originally a Leader Card Racing team car primarily driven by Mike Mosley for two seasons. The Hoffman team bought it from car owner Patrick Santello, and this Eagle became Jerry Grant’s entry for the balance of the 1977 USAC season. Hoffman Racing fielded a championship car beginning with the 1973 Indianapolis 500 for Larry Cannon, and would start seven Indianapolis 500-mile races, but the 1973 season was not a good one for the Cincinnati area team. 

Grant’s next USAC race appearance came at the end of June in the “Schaefer 500” at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond Pennsylvania. Grant started the race 29th in an admittedly weak 33-cars starting field after he qualified for a four-lap average of 173.160 MPH compared to pole winner AJ Foyt’s average of 189.474 MPH.  

Foyt was in rare form that weekend in Pennsylvania. An unnamed source close to the race organizers told some newspaper reporters that Foyt had demanded “appearance money,” which Foyt denied – he termed it as “expense money” to reimburse his travel expenses. When the money went unpaid, Foyt became uncooperative and did not practice his Gilmore Coyote at all on Wednesday, and told reporters that the car was entered for a rookie named “Sam Houston” and went so far as to add yellow rookie stripes on the rear wing.  

On Thursday Foyt delayed his qualifying run then he won the pole position with a run in the last half-hour of time trials. After his run Foyt refused to be interviewed on the public address system, and as the crowd continued to boo Foyt, the hot-tempered Texan responded by showing the crowd an obscene gesture.  Foyt refused to pose for a “front row” photograph with Rutherford and Mario Andretti, and then skipped the pole winner’s banquet which 250 fans had paid $60 a head to attend.

Foyt’s behavior brought to a head a controversy that had been brewing all season long between Foyt, the reigning four-time Indianapolis ‘500’ winner and Fred Stecher, the President and self-appointed Director of Racing of Citicorp Services, Inc., at the time the title sponsor of the USAC Championship Trail.  The dispute between the two strong-willed men presented a crisis for USAC officials.  

USAC's biggest star exchanged barbed comments with the series title sponsor for which they searched in vain for several years. The USAC national championship trail had gone without a title series sponsor since the end of the1971 season when Marlboro cigarettes terminated their sponsorship program after just two seasons when USAC allowed the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team to sign Viceroy Cigarettes as the main sponsor on two of the team’s entries.

The loss of Marlboro combined with the Energy Crisis brought about a financial crisis in late December 1973 that led to the layoffs of USAC series directors Shim Malone and Bob Stroud. The USAC Board of Directors then forced out Executive Director Bill Smyth in January 1974 in an awkward situation that day before the club’s annual banquet. The Indianapolis Star quoted USAC president Reynold C. MacDonald’s statement as “the board is appreciative of the effort and contribution Bill has made to USAC and will prepare a letter of commendation for his services." When the Star reporter asked if Smyth felt that he was forced to resign, he replied with a terse "no comment."

The sponsorship search went on for two years before on the eve of the 1976 Indianapolis ‘500,’ USAC Executive Director Dick King and James A. Melvin, assistant vice-president of Citicorp Services, Inc. announced that First National City Travelers Checks would be the official sponsor for the championship division trail with $35,000 added to division point fund for 1976 while King said the two groups were “still working out the details for 1977.”

At the end of the 1976 USAC season, the Citicorp Services contract with USAC called for the national champion (Gordon Johncock) to receive $20,000 from Citicorp, the second place finisher (Johnny Rutherford) $10,000, and third place driver (Wally Dallenbach) would get Citicorp check for $5000.

While now they are largely obsolete, from the nineteen fifties through the nineteen eighties, traveler’s checks were a safer way to travel with money versus carrying large amounts of cash. If the checks were lost or stolen, the issuer replaced them for free. The issuer standard fee was one to three percent of the check value plus one to three percent when the check was cashed. In the late nineteen seventies the $20+ billion-a-year traveler's check industry consisted of multiple giant banks who each spent millions of dollars annually on advertising. 

The second largest player in the field with 22 percent of the market was First National City Bank, whose holding company was named Citicorp. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc. a wholly owned division, provided travelers checks processing, marketing and distribution services for Citicorp. In 1976 Citicorp began a major drive for international growth which included motorsports sponsorships.

First National City Travelers Checks first appeared as a race cars sponsor at Indianapolis in May 1976 as the sponsor of Tassi Vatis’s Eagle driven by Steve Krisiloff. Like many sponsors through the years, Citicorp expanded from car sponsorship to series sponsorship which carried the potential of more visibility.

For the 1977 season, Citicorp increased its USAC participation and rewarded top finishers in each race on the First National City Travelers Checks Championship Trail with cash for race qualifiers and then points for their finish towards the Citicorp Cup and a $20,000 season ending award.  Citicorp also established a rookie program that paid the top-finishing rookie of each race $500, and the season’s rookie of year $10,000, and $1000 in appearance money at each race they appeared in the following season.

Wearing this patch on the drivers uniform
was required to get Citicorp's money

All this money came provided the drivers and their cars carried the required First National City Travelers Checks stickers and the driver’s suit sported the company logo. The exact amount of the 1977 deal was never released but in an interview Stecher said that “$350,000 to $400,000 would not be inaccurate,” although some of the awards required matching funds from the race promoters. In addition to the series sponsorship, First National City Traveler’s checks provide race car sponsorship for Roger McCluskey in Lindsay Hopkins’ entry and Johnny Rutherford in the Team McLaren entry.

Foyt had earned the ire of Fred Stecher at the second race of the year, the Jimmy Bryan 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, when Foyt engaged in a post-race physical confrontation with McLaren team boss Tyler Alexander. On national television Foyt grabbed Alexander’s collar and shook him as he claimed that Alexander had used the team radio to instruct race winner Johnny Rutherford in the Citcorp-sponsored McLaren to block second-place Foyt in the final laps of the race.

Stecher called USAC President Dick King after the Phoenix race and told King that Foyt should be penalized. Stecher later claimed King agreed to do so, but USAC did not penalize their most famous driver.  Foyt retaliated against Stecher at Indianapolis and refused to carry First National City Travelers Checks stickers on his #14 car or wear the uniform patches. Stecher told the press “that’s not the way we intended this to work when we became involved,” so despite scoring his historic fourth Indy win, Foyt did not earn the 1000 “Citicorp Cup” points for the victory.  Foyt told Roger Jaynes of the Milwaukee Journal. “I’m not required to carry stickers; they say that I need to use stickers to be eligible but I don’t care.”

After the Pocono incident the dispute between Foyt and Stecher further escalated and the two men went to war in the press.  After USAC declined to reprimand Foyt, Stecher threatened to file a lawsuit against USAC and Foyt for breach of contract. “Foyt behaved in a manner detrimental to the sport of auto racing. Foyt is a leader and hero in sports and that presupposes he’ll behave in a gentlemanly manner,” said Stecher. He then blasted USAC President Dick King "Foyt’s actions Thursday and USAC’s inability or unwillingness to the take action was the last straw.”

Foyt fired back “The man’s a damn fool and a liar. I’m an independent contractor and have nothing to do with his (Stecher’s) contract agreement with USAC. I resent him telling me how to act without the facts. If Fred is looking to get out of sponsoring USAC, then I’m the goat.”  As an aside, Foyt was correct: in 1977, USAC did not have a rule that tied the drivers to any series or sponsor requirements.

After all the pre-race fireworks, the “Schaefer 500” itself was fairly exciting.  Foyt and Johncock dominated the first sixty laps, and then six drivers took turns leading until Foyt’s turbocharged Foyt engine burned a piston on lap 1118 and retired. After Foyt’s retirement, the race fell to the two Penske Racing drivers Tom Sneva and Mario Andretti who between them led 73 of the race’s final 75 laps, as they both held a lap lead over the third and fourth place Patrick Racing cars driven by Johncock and Dallenbach.   After he started 29th, Jerry Grant and the Hoffman Racing Eagle finished 13th, the last car running 55 laps behind Sneva, mainly due to the remarkable high attrition rate that saw 22 of the 33 starters fall aside with mechanical failure.     

The whole ugly Pocono affair was reported in detail in an article written by Sam Moses in the July 4 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. Stecher was quoted on his threatened cancellation of the First National City Traveler’s Checks series sponsorship. "I don't think that it is in the best interest of Citicorp to be identified as a sponsor with a professional sports series where the conduct of the participants and the tolerance of that conduct isn't governed by rules within the sanctioning organization. I'm in no position to dictate to USAC, but on the other hand I don't have to sit down at a riot and pay the bills, either."

Grant made an uncharacteristic appearance at a USAC road course event, his first in over seven years, with the Hoffman Eagle at the Mosport Park Road Course in Canada. Grant qualified seventeenth in the puny 19-car field for the “Molson Diamond Indy” race, and finished in fifth place, three laps behind Foyt after 75 laps over the 2.46 mile road course on July 3.

Two weeks later at Roger Penske’s 2-mile high banked Michigan International Speedway, Grant and the #69 Hoffman Eagle were too slow to make the 22 car field for the “Norton 200.” The week following that race, won by rookie Danny Ongais in his benefactor Ted Field’s Cosworth-powered Parnelli chassis, Citicorp Services Inc. announced its surprising decision about sponsorship of the USAC national championship trail for 1978. 

Given the recent controversy, few would have expected Citicorp to expand its involvement, but that’s just what it proposed- but with stipulations. Citicorp proposed a nine-fold increase over 1977 to half a million dollars, with prize fund enhancements at fifteen races, a $275,000 appearance fund, and the continuation of the rookie incentive program provided the USAC board accepted the stipulations. “We feel our association with USAC is very beneficial,” said Fred Stecher, “we want to take a step to protect our investment.”

The previous year's Citicorp Cup champion (in 1977 Tom Sneva) was scheduled to receive $1,500 per race, while the defending Indianapolis ‘500’ winner would get $1,000 a race while the Pocono and Ontario winners $500 each. Interestingly, all other past series champions or USAC “Triple Crown” race winners were scheduled to $250 per race for each honor.  This meant that in 1978, six-time USAC titlist, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, two-time Pocono victor and single-time Ontario winner A.J. Foyt was guaranteed $3,250 every time he rolled his Coyote through the pit gate.

At the end of July, Grant and the Hoffman team appeared at the Texas World Speedway in College Station Texas for the “American Parts 200” a race sponsored the Houston based   American parts system Inc. the distributor of auto parts, licensed and sold under the "Big A" brand. The track record at the two-mile high-banked oval billed by track president RC Conole as the “Indy of the Southwest” of 214.158 MPH was set by Mario Andretti in 1973. Grant did not make a qualifying run either on July 30 or the pre-race session held the morning of the race on July 31 but Ongais won the pole with a lap of 205.141 MPH.

Three weeks later at the ‘Milwaukee Mile’ for the “Tony Bettenhausen 200,” Jerry Grant and the Hoffman #69 Eagle edged out USAC sprint car regulars James McElreath and Todd Gibson to start dead last in the 22-car field. After Johnny Rutherford took the checkered flag, Grant was the last car running and was flagged home in sixteenth 35 laps down.

Grant showed up at Ontario Motor Speedway over Labor Day weekend in search of a ride but was unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, Grant a long time member of the Champion Spark Plug Highway Safety team that toured schools around the country retired as a driver and accepted a full-time position with Toledo-based Champion as a field representative for the 1978 season.  

In a 1980 interview with Bob Longwith of the Kokomo Tribune newspaper, Grant reflected on his final USAC racing season after his recovery from the near gall bladder infection in 1976. “When I came back there were no equipment around, so I drove cars that were also-rans. There is no way you can be competitive in an also-ran car no matter how good a driver you are. There is no enjoyment in being an also-ran”’

Later in the month of September 1977, the USAC Board of Directors accepted the Citicorp contract and adopted a new rule known as the “Foyt Rule.” Beginning with the 1978 season, USAC officials had the authority to withhold points in any USAC division if a driver failed to comply with the requirements of the series and its sponsor. 

For the 1978 racing season, First National City Travelers Checks dramatically expanded its motorsports activities. In addition the USAC series sponsorship, the firm continued to sponsor the entries of McLaren and Lindsey Hopkins and added Jim Hall’s Chaparral entry driven by Al Unser. Citicorp also sponsored three cars on the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) circuit driven by Benny Parsons, Caleb “Cale” Yarbrough and Ricky Rudd as well as support of the NASCAR rookie program. Citicorp’s diverse sponsorship included Doug Caruthers’ USAC midget and a 45-foot offshore racing boat.

For sports car racing, the company sponsored the SCCA Citicorp Economy Challenge series, the revitalized SCCA Canadian-American Challenge (Can-Am) series and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) competitor David Hobbs BMW race cars. In Europe after previously sponsoring Roger Penske’s entries, in 1978 Citicorp supported Ken Tyrell’s two-car team.

In short, the red-white and blue colors of First National and their logo appeared in some form in virtually every professional racing series in 1977 and 1978. Fred Stecher was no longer involved in racing, as the Citicorp has a triumvirate in charge of racing - Ralph McEldowney, Don Porter, and Rich Lewis.      
Unfortunately at the end of the 1978 USAC season, Citicorp did not renew its sponsorship of the USAC national championship trail and also withdrew race team sponsorship. Dropping USAC was a precursor as over the next few years, Citicorp withdrew from all motorsports involvement.

Left without a major series sponsor, no national television contract, and the organization still reeling from the death of seven of USAC’s leaders in an April 1978 plane crash, the stage was set for USAC’s loss of control over championship-car racing with the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) in late 1978.  

In early 1979, Jerry Grant replaced Don Garner as the Director of Racing for the Champion Spark Plug Company after Garner left to work for the new CART organization as its chief steward.  Grant led Champion's racing division for ten years, during which time he ran the Champion Sparkplug Challenge IMSA series, originally started as the IMSA RS (Radial Sedan) series in 1971. Grant also was involved as Champion took over the NASCAR rookie program from Citicorp.

Factory brochure drawing of  the Jaguar XJ220
In 1993, Grant got a chance to return to the seat of a racing car for the 1993 Fast Masters Championship promoted by ESPN sports network producer Terry Ligner to air as part of the “Saturday Night Thunder” broadcast. The tournament matched a group of over 50 year old drivers in identically prepared $750,000 Jaguar XJ220 mid-mounted twin turbocharged V-6 engine powered sports cars modified for racing by the Tom Walkinshaw Racing shop in Valparaiso Indiana.

Grant, who in pre-race publicity tour admitted this his participation was “all about ego,” raced in the first of the series of five weekly heat races held on the Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) 5/8-mile banked oval on Saturday June 19.  Nine drivers drew for positions in the first ten-lap heat race after the scheduled tenth driver, Gary Bettenhausen, had withdrawn after he crashed and destroyed his assigned Jaguar during practice on Friday afternoon.

As the field completed the second lap Jim McElreath tried to go “three wide” coming out of turn four, but spun and the ensuing crash took out both McElreath and retired NASCAR driver Dick Trickle. Then on lap three, former AAA and USAC roadster driver Troy Ruttman spun and crashed in turn three. Grant started seventh avoided the carnage and finished fifth. The race can be viewed at

Saturday night’s second ten-lap heat race used a majority of the oval with an infield dog-leg to create the quasi “road course.”  Only six cars started less the damaged cars of McElreath, Trickle, and Ruttman. As the field entered the “road course” for the first time, Grant locked up the brakes on his Jaguar, ran into the back of Bobby Allison, and damaged the front end too badly to continue. A video of the second race can be viewed at

After the disastrous first round, with two of the cars damaged beyond repair, the format of the Fast Masters Challenge was completely revamped with eight competitors each week that raced on the so-called IRP “road course.” Grant’s former AAR teammate and rival Bobby Unser won the inaugural Fast Masters championship finale and the $100,000 purse. The series was never repeated.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, Grant contributed to an Associated Press article on the progress of race car engineering. “The cars are so safe it’s beyond my wildest dreams. When I started here, the drivers would limp into the garage and that’s how the crowd knew who they were.” In response to another question, Grant offered his opinion that in 1994 the drivers at Indianapolis were "10 percent responsible for the overall performance of the car," and  then stated that he would "like to see it go back to the other side of 50 percent."

After retirement from Champion Spark Plug Company, Jerry founded his own boutique public relations firm, Motor Sports Unlimited PR and did branding work for Prolong oil treatment and the Honda Motor Company.  Jerry Grant died August 12, 2012 from liver failure and diabetes at St Joseph Orange County Hospital at the age of 77, survived by his wife, sister, two daughters and five grandchildren.

Dan Gurney told Road &Track magazine "Jerry Grant was a natural; he was brave and playful and always could rise to the challenge. Apart from being an excellent racer, he was an accomplished story teller and after dinner speaker, an ability which served him well in his business career after his retirement from active driving. In the middle 60's we shared many adventures on and off the track here in the US and in Europe. We stayed friends ever since and many Sundays went riding our motorcycles in the Southern California countryside. We extend our condolences to his wife Sandy and his family. Farewell Jerry, we will miss you."

As we have traced through the previous eight chapters, Jerry Grant had a varied career in one of the most exciting period of Indianapolis car racing, and came close to grabbing the win on “the greatest racecourse in the world” once in 1972.  Grant was one of eleven drivers that debuted as rookies in the 1965 Indianapolis ‘500,’ along with such familiar names as Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock , Joe Leonard, and George Snider. Combined that august group is responsible for seven Indianapolis ‘500’ wins and seven USAC national championships.

Jerry Grant competed in ten races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and failed to qualify twice- his first year 1964, and his last, 1977.  The official record which does not include the final 12 laps of the 1972 race shows that Grant completed 1,275 laps of which he led 16 with a total of $166,403 in IMS prize money.  Sadly, the versatile Grant never had the opportunity to run for the USAC national championship; the year with his most entries was 1967 when he entered 11 of 20 races for Tom Friedkin.

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