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Year-by-Year Indy 500 Race Recaps: 1970s


A major milestone was reached when the total purse topped $1 million for the first time, the actual amount being $1,000,002. Running under the threat of rain throughout, the highly favored Al Unser started from the pole position and led all but 10 of the 200 laps on his way to the win.

Johnny Rutherford succeeded in beating him to the first turn from the middle of the front row, but Al was solidly in command by the end of the opening lap. The most spectacular run of the day was that of Lloyd Ruby, who moved all the way from 25th starting position to the lead in 50 laps, only to have the flames from a failed transmission resemble a blowtorch as he flew down the main straight under leaden skies at almost 200 mph.

A.J. Foyt ran second for almost the entire second half but dropped out with a transmission failure right at the finish, while Rutherford, Art Pollard and Joe Leonard were others who fell by the wayside after having run up near the front.


Al Unser became the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 for a second year in succession. 

New rule interpretations on acceptable aerodynamic devices had resulted in the latest McLaren chassis being able to obtain considerably more downforce than before, with the result that the one driven by Mark Donohue was lapping in pre-qualification practice at an amazing 10 mph above the official track record. When it came to qualifying, however, Peter Revson of the McLaren team caused one of the greatest upsets in the history of the track by topping Donohue’s disappointing official qualifying speeds and sitting on the pole with a four-lap average speed of 178.696 mph.

After Donohue’s equally surprising exit from the race at lap 66, Unser went on to win, with Revson second.


Speeds skyrocketed during practice and qualifications due to the fact that bolt-on rear wings were now permitted. Bobby Unser sat on the pole with a four-lap average speed of 195.940 mph, breaking Peter Revson’s one-year-old record by an astonishing 17 mph.

Once again, the driver leading the most laps was not the winner. This time it was Gary Bettenhausen, the new hire on the Penske team, who led for 138 of the first 175 laps only to slow with a mechanical problem and finally pull off into the infield grass at 182 laps.

Teammate Mark Donohue went on to win, but not before a battle with Dan Gurney driver Jerry Grant, who had to stop for a tire change while leading at lap 188. Unfortunately, officials disallowed Grant’s final 12 laps for taking on a splash of fuel from the tank of his teammate, Bobby Unser, who had retired early, dropping Grant from second at the checker to 12th.


A month of dreadful weather and a series of serious accidents forced the running of the 1973 race into a third day, and even then it had to be called to a halt after only 332.5 miles.

The subsequent victory by Gordon Johncock was bittersweet for several reasons, not the least of which being that his own teammate, Swede Savage, suffered terrible injuries in an accident and was to succumb 33 days later.

Huge bolt-on rear wings had enabled speeds to skyrocket by an unbelievable 30 mph over a period of just three years, and pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford came within a blink of an eye of recording the Speedway’s first-ever 200-mph lap, with one at 199.071 mph during qualifying. 


Starting 25th in spite of being the second-fastest qualifier, McLaren’s Johnny Rutherford made an amazing charge to the front and was up to third in only 11 laps. He battled for many laps with pole winner A.J. Foyt, who was leading by just a few car lengths when spits of oil led to Foyt being black-flagged and finally forced out with a damaged oil fitting at lap 142. 

Rutherford’s win came in his 11th start. A number of changes were made to the schedule in compliance with the government’s request for fuel conservation during this period of the so-called “energy crunch.” An entire week of practice was eliminated (and has never been restored), the starting time for daily practice was moved from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., and Sunday qualifying, for this one year only, was eliminated, with all runs being packed into two Saturdays.


The highly competitive 1975 “500” was within 20 minutes of being concluded when a torrential downpour swept through like a monsoon. Visibility was reduced to almost zero and cars were spinning all over the place as starter Pat Vidan waved the checkered along with the red flag at lap 175.

It was obvious the track never would have dried in time for a restart before the end of the day. The frustrating thing was that a potentially phenomenal finish was shaping up, with defending winner Johnny Rutherford catching race leader Bobby Unser and third-place-running A.J. Foyt catching both of them.

While other cars were spinning left, right and center, these three legendary champions demonstrated their superior skills by remaining under control and making it safely to the line.


Rainfall brought an end to what could well have been one of the greatest finishes in history, no fewer than six former winners running within the top ten when it was called.

Pole winner Johnny Rutherford was leading when rain began to fall, halting the event at 255 miles. Second-placed A.J. Foyt, attempting to become the first to win for a fourth time (which he would accomplish the following year), discovered during the delay that he had been running with a broken sway bar. This was repaired and he and the fans eagerly awaited the restart.

It never came. The track was dried, the engines were fired … and it rained again. Several minutes later, the race was called and Rutherford’s McLaren was pushed from the south end of the pits, up the pit lane, backward, toward Victory Lane. By the time it arrived, Johnny was already standing there. He had walked to Victory Lane.


There was plenty of drama in the late stages when 1973 winner Gordon Johncock (who had led 129 laps) had his crankshaft fail while leading at lap 184. Into the lead swept A. J. Foyt, who now placed himself above all others by becoming the first to win the "500" for a fourth time.

It was a year of many dramatic "firsts," laps one and two of Tom Sneva's pole-winning run being the first ever recorded officially in excess of 200 mph. The fastest qualifier of the entire second weekend (and 18th overall) was Janet Guthrie, the first female ever to qualify for a "500." While unable to land a starting position, Belgian driver Teddy Pilette and young James McElreath both made history as well. James (son of veteran Jim) was the first driver ever to be entered in the same "500" as his father, while Pilette was the first third-generation pilot, his grandfather, Theodore Pilette, having finished fifth in 1913.

One of the truly great moments in the entire history of the track took place after the race, when Foyt invited track owner Tony Hulman to accompany him on the traditional lap of honor in the pace car. It was the last time most fans would see the beloved Tony. He would pass away five months later at the age of 76.


Just one year after A.J. Foyt became the first four-time winner, Al Unser moved up to join Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose as yet another triple victor.

Tom Sneva, the first to officially exceed 200 mph on a qualifying lap (in 1977), now registered a full four-lap “time trial” above that speed in winning the pole for a the second straight year.

Danny Ongais, starting second, also at over 200, led 71 laps but was out with a broken piston at 145 laps, leaving Unser to control the balance. Unser did have a “moment” on his final stop, however, when he slightly overshot the mark coming in. His right front wing slid into a wheel which was parked on the pit lane in readiness for possible placement on the car and, while there was some concern over how the car’s handling might be affected, Al cagely slowed anyway to end up with an eight-second advantage over Sneva at the checker.

Female driver Janet Guthrie finished ninth by driving virtually single-handed. She had cracked her wrist upon falling during a charity tennis match a couple of days before and, not wanting to be “benched,” kept it to herself and refused to seek medical help until after the race was over.


After leading for almost the entire second half of the race, a transmission problem caused Bobby Unser to slow down, enabling his young Penske teammate, Rick Mears, to take over and win.

Competing in the “500” for only the second time, Mears had started from the pole by thwarting the attempt of former teammate Tom Sneva at becoming the first ever to win the pole for a third consecutive year. Sneva started second.

A huge ovation erupted at the finish when four-time winner A.J. Foyt, whose engine had expired on the final lap, managed to roll over the line at a bare crawl to salvage second by less than three seconds over Mike Mosley.

For the first time in over 45 years, a field of greater than 33 cars lined up, 35 being permitted to start following a dispute over technical interpretations during qualifications. And use of the pace car for the purpose of “packing up the field” during caution periods, long since employed at other tracks, was put into practice during an Indianapolis 500 for the first time.

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