I was told to turn the wheel with my wrists. I had to, because there was no elbow room to move my arms. I couldn’t even reach the pedals.
Walter Goodwin, the man responsible for maintaining Mark Donohue’s 1972 Indy 500 winning McLaren/Offy, informed me that when Parnelli Jones finishes his session on track, he’ll lend me his race suit to use as a booster seat, given that we can’t find any foam padding to do the job. The 80-year-old Hall of Famer is still pounding around in vintage race cars, but more to the point, he’s letting me borrow his clothes.
My hands are wrapped around the rubber-padded steering wheel. It’s comfortable to touch, and fits neatly within my palms. I can't see the six gauges behind it, however, which I determine is OK because I don't really know what they mean. I periodically wiggle the wooden ball on the gearshift to ensure that I’m in neutral, all the while assessing my bizarre surrounding in the staging area outside of Gasoline Alley.
After a short while, a faded blue suit with the vague outline of “Parnelli Jones” stitched across the belt arrives and is folded tidily behind my back. It makes just enough of a difference where at a calf-cramping stretch I can fully depress the pedals.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway “yellow shirts” feverishly blow their whistles at the gathering crowd, while Goodwin signals a mechanic to fire up the engine: “I’ve not started this motor in forever,” the mechanic says, but all 1,000 horses fire to life as if Jim Nabors has just finished singing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” something he did for the first time at Indy on that same Saturday in 1972.
Bobby Unser, the three-time Indy 500 winner and his blue-and-white 1981 Penske/Cosworth — a car he took to victory lane during the 65th running of the 500 — roars down Gasoline Alley, with my instructions to follow in his wheel tracks. I reach for the heavy clutch, engage first gear, blip the throttle and head out in pursuit to the beatific song of the turbocharged 2.65-liter Offenhauser straight four. I get goosebumps. And then onto the famed 2.5-mile oval I go, with one goal: Keep that Unser guy in sight.
Roger Penske’s relationship with McLaren began with a visit to the British manufacturer’s headquarters in late 1970. Penske was expecting to ink a deal with Lola, but the wedge-shaped McLaren M16, designed by Gordon Coppuck, impressed him so much that he purchased two cars, qualifying on pole for the 1971 Indy 500 before a mechanical breakdown thwarted their chance of victory.
For 1972, Coppuck had developed the M16/B. For the first time, USAC allowed bolt-on wings to be affixed to the cars, rather than mandating that they remain integral parts of the bodywork. This led to huge increases in downforce. Bobby Unser qualified on pole in his Eagle 72 with a record 195.940 mph four-lap average – almost 17 mph quicker than the 1971 pole-winning McLaren M16. In fact all 33 cars qualified faster than the previous pole speed.
Donohue, in his deep-blue #66 Sunoco racer, lined up on the outside of the front row. At the time, the cars were pushing 1,150 hp (I’ve heard figures as much as 1,400 hp) in qualifying trim, with race setups still approaching 1,000 hp. Penske, however, decided to detune Donohue’s M16/B even further, understanding that to finish first, you must first finish.
That proved to be a shrewd move by “The Captain,” as Unser retired after just 30 laps with a broken ignition rotor. Gary Bettenhausen then took over at the front. By the 400-mile mark, 18 cars had succumbed to the frantic pace, and with just 25 laps to go, Bettenhausen made it 19. Jerry Grant now led from Donohue, but after Grant pitted on lap 188 for a bad tire, Donohue inherited the lead, gifting Roger Penske his first of what is now 15 Indy 500 victories. The race was the fastest 500 in history, with Donohue completing all 200 laps at an average speed of 162.962 mph – a record that would stand until 1984.
Despite conquering the mythical Speedway, Donohue, from Haddon Township, N.J., retired from racing the following year after the death of his close friend Swede Savage. But by the end of ’74, Penske had lured him back out of retirement and into Formula One. During practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue lost control of his March F1 car, crashing hard into the catch-fencing. A marshal was killed in the wreckage, and by the following day, so was Donohue. He was just 38 years old.
As I careen into turn one at 9,000 rpm – roughly 180 mph – my mind wanders to Donohue and the inherent dangers faced during this era. Having raced in four Indy 500s myself, I’m accustomed to what a modern IndyCar feels like. The cramped driving position and lack of elbow room makes for an odd sensation (I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to turn sharply into your pit box). However, the direct steering and high grip from that pterodactyl-like rear wing feels somewhat familiar. As I exit turn one, with the wall just a few feet to my right and my head feeling perilously exposed, I find that I can, in fact, relate to what I’m experiencing; I drove Mario Andretti’s pole winning 1966 car in 2006, and that felt totally foreign – how vastly things changed in just a handful of years.
What I couldn’t relate to, however, was what happens when things go wrong: with fuel tanks that empty their contents over the hot engine during a crash, the cars are like moving bombs; and the twisty aluminum chassis is a far cry from today’s carbon-fiber tubs. I spoke to Bobby Unser about this after our drive: “In those days, we didn’t know any better,” Unser tells me. “To us, we had the best, safest technology available at the time.”
“So that gave you confidence?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We didn’t know carbon fiber was stronger. We didn’t know that bias ply tires weren’t as good as radial, because we didn’t have radials. We didn’t know any of those things because they weren’t around back then.”
With the pair of us sat on cheap metals chairs in front of his gleaming ’81 winner, leaning in to hear each other over the deafening sound of circulating stock cars, Unser tells me how he would spin his wheels coming out of turn 4 during qualifying, laying thick black lines of rubber that he could see the next time by.
As I come around turn 4, I can’t imagine that level of commitment. These guys were gladiators, with attachments the size of an Offy’s turbocharger. Unser, however, thinks today’s Indy drivers are no less heroic: “They just know better than we did back then.”
One thing current Indy 500 racers don’t have to deal with is excessive turbo lag. I slow the McLaren below 4,500 rpm to pass another car, and it takes half a straight before the power returns. Genuinely I’d be faster in a Prius. Of course I could simply shift down a gear, but due to the difficulty I have reaching the clutch pedal, I decide it best to just leave it alone. Once back at 4,500 clicks or higher, the turbo finally spools up, and my neck lurches back with great force. Parnelli’s vintage overalls are getting crushed, and for a brief moment, I feel bad about using his prized race suit as a form of padding. But by the time I finish that thought, I’m back to 180 mph and lack the wherewithal to care; when that turbo kicks in, you’re greeted with more power than you know what to do with.
So how did I get this chance of a lifetime? Well, I had been at my daughter’s fifth birthday party when my phone rang earlier that morning: “Remember you drove Mario’s ’66 for us?” a voice said.
“Yes, how could I forget,” I replied.
“Fancy nipping to the Speedway in a few hours to drive Donohue’s ’72-winning McLaren?”
That was a good phone call to get. My time in Mario’s ’66 Brawner Hawk arrived eight years earlier, only because at 5-foot-7, I could fit in the car and Goodwin couldn’t. It was my first laps around the fabled 2.5-mile Speedway, aboard a decades-old Indy 500 pole winner, no less. Nothing felt familiar, and nothing felt safe. I knew that if I had been a racer in the ‘60s, well, I wouldn’t have been a racer in the ‘60s. I am simply not brave enough.
Back in the ’72 M16/B, I feel much braver – mainly because the car is so well balanced and comfortable to drive at speed. Visibility is excellent due to the clear windscreen, although my rearward vision out of the wing mirrors was precisely nothing. The steering rack is fast, the brakes have great feel and the throttle response is easy to modulate – crucial for when that turbo kicks in. I don’t shift the 4-speed, “H” pattern gearbox much, and when I do it’s quite clunky (much of that is likely due to the car’s age).
The buffeting on my helmet isn’t as violent as it is in a modern IndyCar, thanks to the massive wind-deflector surrounding me and the lower speeds traveled. But it still shakes me constantly, and my neck starts to ache with the g-forces; modern IndyCars have head pads to ease the driver’s discomfort. A glance at the people watching in the stands reveals nothing but a blur; even at 180 mph, you have plenty time to burn on the long straights at Indy. The Offenhauser four is not as loud as I expected, proving that an increase in decibels does not necessarily equate to a more evocative driving experience.
I feel lured into pushing the M16/B harder, despite my session merely being an “exhibition” during America’s largest ever gathering of race cars for competition, the inaugural Brickyard Invitational. I start passing other cars around the outside, oblivious to the term “parade.” Bobby Unser’s searing pace right out of the gate eradicates any thoughts of that.
Of course I’m not going crazy. 180 mph on the straight may seem fast, but in reality, the car is capable of much more. I pull back into pit lane after around 20 minutes of track time knowing that I’ve experienced something special. I’ve relived history, and reaffirmed my passion for the Brickyard.
What a place it is, too: Le Mans, Monaco, Nurburgring, Spa – they’re all great, but to me, Indy is king. It’s almost magical; I can still hear Tom Carnegie’s booming voice – “IT’S A NEW TRACK RECORD.” And that McLaren. On that track. It truly is a ferocious beast – and yet a beautiful one with a soft soul and a heart that still beats strong 42 years later.
After squeezing out of the narrow cockpit (the steering wheel didn’t detach in those days), and enduring some weird muscle spasm in my right arm (check the video at 7:31), Goodwin says to me: “Thanks, Alex. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”
And so here I am, by the phone. Hoping it will ring within the next eight years.