Wednesday, November 15, 2017

1000 Words: The 1967 USAC Championship Battle

IndyCar no longer races into autumn but this November marks the 50th anniversary of one greatest championship battles between the two of the greatest race car drivers to ever walk this Earth.

A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti ended up in a championship battle that went to the wire. The 1967 USAC National Championship season featured 21 races including one 500-mile race, the Pikes Peak International Climb, the shortest race circuit race in IndyCar history, four dirt ovals, two doubleheaders and a championship decider that will never be seen again.

Andretti found himself in a hole early in the season. He won the second race of the year at Trenton but practice accidents kept him from starting the season opener at Phoenix and the fourth round of the season at Milwaukee and his day in the Indianapolis 500 ended just after 50 laps. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 after Parnelli Jones' famed turbine failed while dominating the race. However, neither driver would win another race before the Fourth of July. Foyt led the championship with 1,370 points, 215 points ahead of Al Unser and Andretti found himself tenth, 910 points behind Foyt.

Through the first eight races, Andretti had only scored points in three races while Foyt scored in five of the first eight races; one of the races he didn't score in was Pike Peak, which Foyt did not enter.

However, Andretti would go on a tear by winning four consecutive races, including sweeping the doubleheader at Mont-Tremblant. Foyt continued to lead the championship with 1,780 points and Al Unser remained second, 185 points back but Andretti had moved up to third and trailed by 220 points.

Foyt responded with a victory at Springfield but the next day Andretti won at Milwaukee but Milwaukee was 200 miles and paid 400 points for victory while Springfield was half the distance and 200 points were awarded to the winner. That difference brought Andretti within 60 points of Foyt heading into the final two races of the summer.

Foyt and Andretti traded victories again with Foyt winning at DuQuoin with Andretti in second and Andretti winning the Hooiser Hundred with Foyt finishing second. Foyt retook the championship lead with a victory at Trenton after Andretti had an accident with Lloyd Ruby and Foyt extended his championship lead to 500 points over Andretti with a victory at Sacramento and Andretti finishing second. After Foyt and Andretti combined to win ten consecutive races, Gordon Johncock won at Hanford while Foyt finished fourth and Andretti got caught up in another accident, this time with Al Unser.

Foyt could have clinched the championship at Phoenix but a suspension failure forced him to retire after nine consecutive finishes in the points. Andretti passed Bobby Unser with 20 laps to go and won the race, narrowing the gap to Foyt to 240 points with 600 points available at the season finale at Riverside. Johncock also had a slim shot at the title with him trailing Foyt by 580 points and needing to win at Riverside to have any shot at the title.

The season finale was a 300-mile affair at Riverside International Raceway held on November 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Dan Gurney returned for his first start since Indianapolis and he won pole position at what his home racetrack. Gurney pulled away from the start while Andretti ran in third ahead of Foyt.

The championship was thrown into disarray when Foyt hit the spinning Al Miller ending his race. Foyt ran back to the pits to get into Jim Hurtubise's car because USAC rules allowed relief drivers to score points based on the percentage of the race that relief driver completed. Unfortunately for Foyt, Hurtubise's car had to be retired because of an oil leak the lap prior to Foyt's accident.

Roger McCluskey took the lead from Gurney during the pit stop cycle but McCluskey was one of three possible cars Foyt could have taken over for because they were both Goodyear drivers. The other two options were Bobby Unser and Jerry Grant. Foyt returned to the pit lane after running from the scene of the accident and McCluskey was signaled into the pits for a driver swap. Foyt got in the car with 53 laps to go and he exited in fifth position and on the lead lap. However, he had to pit immediately after getting into the car because the fuel cap had not been closed on the initial pit stop.

Dan Gurney led and Andretti got ahead of Bobby Unser for second during the pit cycle. Just 12 laps after a caution for an accident by Joe Leonard, Gurney was forced to stop because of a right rear tire puncture. This allowed Andretti to take the lead and in turn provisionally putting him in position to win his third consecutive championship as Foyt remained in fifth and Foyt would only get a fraction of the 300 points awarded for a fifth place finish.

When it appeared the title had been lost for Foyt, another twist came as Andretti was forced to pit from the lead with six laps to go for fuel. Unser took the lead with Gurney closing on him. Andretti returned to the track in third but with Foyt a lap down in fifth Andretti would not win the championship after surrendering 180 points by dropping to third.

Gurney passed Unser on the inside of the final corner coming to the white flag and he would complete the comeback, taking the checkered flag the next time by comfortably ahead of Unser. Andretti rounded out the podium ahead of Lloyd Ruby and Foyt finishing fifth in his relief drive was enough to take the championship by 80 points over Andretti.

After the race, Foyt said McCluskey told him before the race that Foyt could use his car if Foyt needed it. McCluskey was commended for what Chris Economaki called a great sporting gesture and there was no ill will toward Foyt for what occurred.

If this were to happen today people would lose their minds. Team orders cause enough people to have their blood boil over into a state of rage but this wasn't team orders. This was sponsorship orders. Imagine if Sébastien Bourdais was told to get out of his car because he and Scott Dixon were both sponsored by the same wrist watch company and Dixon had a shot at the championship but his car broke down and Bourdais was in the top five. There is still a group of people that are upset Ed Jones won the Indy Lights championship in 2016 because he needed to make up one position on the racetrack and Carlin teammate Félix Serrallés moved out of the way. This makes what Serrallés did look tame.

It goes to show team orders have always been around and the golden era when sex was safe and racing was dangerous is no different from the modern era. Sponsorship talks and the one with the most backing get preferential treatment.

Of course, the series has changed. Points cannot be split. Heck, in race driver changes have been banned in the rulebook. This scenario will not play out in 2018 or any time in the near future.

I will have to say this is probably one of the most forgotten races in IndyCar history and it is a doozy of a race. You had three drivers enter with a shot at the championship. The championship leader, Foyt, was taken out prior to halfway but he got a second bite at the apple by getting into the car that belonged to a competitor. Then you had the race leader, Gurney, who clearly had the best car be forced to pit for a punctured tire and that gave the lead of the race and potentially the championship to the driver who entered second in the championship, Andretti. Just when everything appeared to be settled, Andretti had to pit for fuel with six laps to go and loses the lead and in turn the championship. Meanwhile, Gurney was in sight of Bobby Unser and he made a lunge up the inside of a hairpin to take the lead and ultimately the victory with a little over a lap to go. Sonoma could not produce a championship decider half as good as the one that occurred on November 26, 1967.

The 1967 season finale was not only a race that featured one of the quirkier championship finishes in IndyCar history but it featured a few notable differences from modern motorsports. The Formula One season had ended a month earlier in Mexico City and two Brits found themselves on the grid at Riverside.

The 1964 World Drivers' Champion John Surtees made his one and only IndyCar start. He started fourth and retired after 31 laps due to a mechanical failure. Surtees wasn't the only Formula One regular in the field. Jim Clark returned for his second start of the season after he made his fifth Indianapolis 500 start earlier that year. Clark started next to Gurney on the front row driving a year old car but a broken value ended his race after 25 laps, just after he took the lead from Gurney. It would be Clark's ninth and final IndyCar race and his final competitive race in the United States. He would lose his life in a fatal accident during a Formula Two race at Hockenheim over four months later.

This was IndyCar's first trip to Riverside and I have to say I am surprised IndyCar was not a regular visitor to the famed Southern California road course. While NASCAR went to the track for over 30 seasons with many years featuring two races, some as long as 500 miles, IndyCar would only return to the track five more times and there would be a 12-year hiatus between appearances in 1969 and 1981. While the 1968 and 1969 races were in December, the final three races held there from 1981 to 1983 all took place the final weekend of August.

It would be Foyt's fifth championship in eight seasons. In the three years he didn't win the championship he finished second, second and 15th. Andretti would go on his own stellar run of form. He would finished second to Bobby Unser in the championship the following year but he would take his third title in five years in 1969. It was the second and final time Foyt and Andretti finished first and second in the championship after Andretti beat Foyt for the title in 1965 despite Andretti only winning one race to Foyt's five victories that season.

As much as we talk about motorsports rivalries, very few are head-to-head year after year and few go to the wire. Foyt-Andretti was no different. The 1965 and 1967 seasons were the only two years they both finished in the top five of the championship and Andretti clinched the 1965 championship with two races to spare. The only time the two drivers finished in the top five in the same Indianapolis 500 was in 1989 when Andretti finished fourth and Foyt finished fifth and both drivers finished seven laps down.

Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna may have been the only head-to-head rivalry that lasted for an extended period. They each finished in the top five in the championship for seven consecutive seasons and in eight of nine seasons because of Prost's sabbatical in 1992. They were 1-2 in the champion for four out of five seasons in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have both been in Formula One for 11 seasons and despite both drivers having four world championships and 62 and 47 victories respectively this will be the first time they finished 1-2 in the championship. This is only the second time the two drivers have both finished in the top three of the championship.

The seasons where two all-time greats go head-to-head only come around so often. Fifty years have passed and IndyCar might not see another championship battle between the caliber of drivers of Foyt and Andretti in the next 50 years.