Video: When Indycars went to England 1978
This year’s Centennial Indianapolis 500 has garnered a lot of ink already in the build-up to what is always one of the season’s biggest events. There is a lot history to be retold, but let’s go a little leftfield in the build-up to this year’s 500…
A fan poll by Indianapolis Motor Speedway was created to determine the best 33 drivers from the history of the event, and the top three are all legends at Indy. The fans’ ‘front row’ would be four-time winners AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. The second row included three-time winners Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford. That’s some list of names…
So what do those five, plus Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva, have in common?
In 1978, USAC brought the Indycars to Europe for the first time with races on consecutive weekends at Silverstone and Brands Hatch. These weren’t exhibition races, they were the penultimate two races of the championship season, and all of those named above were part of the entry that travelled across the pond. Between the seven of them they eventually totalled 21 Indy 500 wins before and since those races 1978. That’s over a fifth of the 94 Indy 500s run before the 2011 race.
It was dubbed the “American Invasion – The Indy Cars are Coming.” The British public loved it, and the chance to watch these weird 1500lb cars and their stars first-hand.
Foyt was already a four-time 500 winner, and the undoubted star of the era. Al Unser had notched up three Brickyard wins with his fourth coming nine years later.
In the European races, the new kids on the block were Danny Ongais, 1977 Rookie-of-the-Year and 26-year old rookie Rick Mears. But it was a whole new culture for the race fans in Europe. Refuelling? That was a first, as was having a Pace Car – and rolling starts were rare.
The first race at Silverstone was blighted by rain, so the Pace Car was already put to use. Hawaiian Ongais blitzed the field in practice, lapping at Formula 1 speeds, which impressed the British fans. He sped off in the race lead too, until mechanical failure ended his day, and when the rain set in the front of the field was full of past and future Indy 500 winners. The final top five was Foyt, Mears, Sneva, Johncock and Rutherford…
As a brief aside, the support races included British Formula 3, and among the entry those weekends were future World Champion Nelson Piquet, but interestingly a young Australian called Barry Green, who would later form the Team Green Indycar team, which in itself made it to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 three times, with Jacques Villeneuve in 1994, Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.
Back to 1978, A few days after the Silverstone race, the teams re-emerged at Brands Hatch, the uphill and down-dale track in Kent. This time the Indycars were let loose not on the Grand Prix circuit but the 1.24-mile short circuit, which since that weekend has been known as the “Indy Circuit.”
Al Unser Sr took pole on the demanding track, but his clutch failed at the start, ending a miserable European tour for him as he also failed to finish at Silverstone the previous week.
So once again Ongais led. And once again he was light-years faster than his chasers in the beautiful black Interscope Parnelli-Cosworth. By the time of the fuel stops, he had lapped most of the field, and very soon he had lapped them all. Mears gave vain chase, but just as at Silverstone, mechanical failure robbed Ongais of a famous win, when almost two laps ahead of everyone. The crowd appreciated his drive, and he got a great reception as he trudged back to the pits.
Mears took over the lead and went on to win. “It’s a short course, and there is no room to rest,” he said after. “But today, I couldn’t have done anything about Danny.”
Dan Gurney, who raced his final Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, was one of the commentators for American TV, and as ever with an eye for talent, summed up the race. “I think we’ve seen a future champion in Rick Mears.” How right he was.
Images: John M47