Jerry Grant: The First Over 200 MPH

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The last time that I went to the Indianapolis 500 in my childhood was 1972. My father took my two older brothers to the 1964 race, but thought someone not quite six years-old was too young to go. After several well-placed temper-tantrums and pouts, ironically I convinced him that I was mature enough to go in 1965. Except for 1966, when he took his own father and brother – I attended every Indianapolis 500 from 1965 through 1972. Then, inexplicably, my father announced he was giving up our covered seating in Stand A prior to the 1973 race. I never went again until twenty years later in 1992.

I was approaching fourteen years of age when I went to the 1972 race. That’s the age where a lot of kids get weird ideas. I probably wasn’t exempt from that, but when it came to racing – I pretty well thought about things the same way as I do now. Mark Donohue had become one of my favorite drivers. I liked the way he drove and I admired the way he handled himself with the media. As best I could tell, he was a class act. More importantly, I thought he drove one of the prettiest cars on the grid every year. His Penske Sunoco Special just seemed to gleam with the blue and yellow paint job, especially accented with the polished wheels that have become a Penske trademark over the years. To a fourteen year-old, the looks of a car are very important. To a superficial, soon to be fifty-four year-old semi-adult – it’s still very important.

Anyway, suffice it to say that going into the 1972 Indianapolis 500 I was pulling for Mark Donohue. He was probably the favorite to win the previous year, but he was sidelined on Lap sixty-six and had to settle for twenty-fifth. Unlike 1971, Donohue was not the favorite in 1972. He started third; but it was his Penske teammate, Gary Bettenhausen that dominated the first half of the race after Bobby Unser fell out early. Bettenhausen led a total of 138 laps, with Jerry Grant and Mark Donohue closely behind.

I knew very little of Jerry Grant. I knew that he was very tall and had a name similar to actor Cary Grant. I also knew he was driving for one of my childhood racing idols, Dan Gurney. Gurney had recently retired and was now strictly a car owner, fielding cars for Bobby Unser and Grant. Jerry Grant was driving the No. 48 car that had become synonymous with Dan Gurney. It was a garish purple car with a strange name – The Mystery Eagle. I was a curmudgeon even in those days and decided I didn’t like the car and therefore I didn’t care for Grant either.

When Bettenhausen fell out while leading on Lap 175, Grant took the lead with Donohue in second. I did not want this purple car to win, especially at the expense of the driver I had been pulling for all along. Fate stepped in, however. On Lap 188, Grant was forced to pit with a bad tire. He then overshot his pit stall and ended up being serviced in Bobby Unser’s unused pit box, who had retired on Lap 30. He was refueled from Unser’s fuel tank and rejoined the race in second place behind Donohue who drove on to victory, giving Roger Penske his first Indianapolis 500 win.

After the race, USAC officials ruled that Grant was disqualified after his pit stop on Lap 188 for using fuel from another driver’s fuel tank. He was officially dropped in the standings to twelfth. It was later learned that Grant’s own refueling tank was apparently empty.

From that point on, I had to follow the Indianapolis 500 from afar. With no internet or cable TV, that wasn’t easy, but I always managed to keep up with what was going on. Grant would race in the Indianapolis 500 four more times, posting a finish no better than tenth, in 1974. Whenever I heard the name Jerry Grant, I always thought of only the 1972 race, but there was so much more to his career and there was so much more to him.

As it turned out, Jerry Grant and I share 1965 as our first Indianapolis 500. Of course, he was actually in the race and I was a kid sitting low in Stand J. He started seventeenth in that race and fell out after Lap 30 with a bad magneto and finished a forgettable twenty-seventh. He actually tried to qualify in 1964, but failed to make the grid. All in all, Jerry Grant failed to qualify for four Indianapolis 500’s, his last failed attempt coming in 1977. But between 1964 and 1977, Grant raced in ten Indianapolis 500’s. His best finish was seventh, in 1970. If you were to judge Grant’s career by his Indianapolis 500 results, you would give him a mediocre grade.

But Jerry Grant was an accomplished and versatile driver. He drove stock cars, champ cars, GT cars and was an excellent road racer. He never won a major race, but placed third in the 1974 Ontario 500. Instead of the controversy in the 1972 Indianapolis 500, Grant should be best remembered for being the first open-wheel driver to ever turn a lap at over 200 mph. That also occurred at Ontario Motor Speedway –the clone of IMS.

The date was September 3, 1972 – barely three months since his heartbreak at Indianapolis. It was qualifying for the Labor Day Classic – the Ontario 500 on a track almost identical to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In windy conditions, Grant held on for dear life as he willed his 1,100-horesepower Eagle through the four turns in under 44.7 seconds for an average speed of 201.414 mph, as he placed the Mystery Eagle on the pole. It was a harrowing ride, as Grant’s straightaway speeds exceeded 240 mph, while his cornering speeds were as low as 160 mph.

After Grant’s driving days were over, he served as an entertaining guest speaker as well as part of the Champion Spark Plug Safety Program that so many drivers used to take part in. He served as an excellent ambassador to the sport.

As an adult, I have seen many interviews and read several accounts of Jerry Grant and how well-respected he was as a driver and a competitor. He was well thought of and it made me realize how short-sighted I was as a kid to dislike him simply because I didn’t like the looks of his car or that he almost beat my driver. I’m glad that came to understand and appreciate his career as I got older.

This past Sunday August 12, Jerry Grant passed away in Santa Ana, California at the age of 77. It’s yet another reminder that the drivers of my youth are vanishing rapidly. Let’s try to remember Jerry Grant for his driving abilities and for being the first driver to surpass the 200 mph barrier, instead of the controversy in the 1972 Indianapolis 500. That’s the way it should be.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Jerry Grant: The First Over 200 MPH”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    The first two options in the poll are what people ought to first remember about Jerry Grant, but I first noted him for different reasons.
    I was not yet around for Grant’s driving career, so all of my memories of him come from reading and seeing old photographs in Indy 500 books. As with most non-winning 500 drivers, the best, and most common, photos of them and their cars were their qualifying photos and those pictures are the first thing I remember about Jerry Grant. Grant’s qualifying photos were memorable to me because in most of them he’s doing two things unique compared to the rest of the grid’s photos.

    First, he’s one of a handful of drivers to raise his hand as if to wave to the camera and second, he would pull his headsock off his face but leave it on his head for the photo.
    I have read that he may have done the latter because he was losing his hair and did not wish to show his head uncovered. As a kid looking at fairly small photos in a history book, I thought the headsock bunched up on top of Grant’s head looked like a bandage, and wondered why he was allowed to race with an apparently bad head wound.

  2. Good Morning George,

    I can’t really add anything to what you have provided about Jerry Grant, but I found it interesting that you attended the 1992 500 after a long absence as that mirrors my experience. I attended most races in the 50’s and 60’s, but did not get back until 1992 as a guest of my uncle and with my daughter and nephew. At that point my uncle had attended 33 straight races. The night before that race it rained so hard that I could have floated my canoe down the street in Broadripple where my uncle lived.

    The race began on a very cold, clean track and I would guess that most of your readers know the rest of the story including the famous battle between Al Jr. and Scott Goodyear for the win. We were sitting at the short chute at the end of turn one. There were some bad crashes there and I will never forget just how frighteningly fast the cars would come screeching at us and into the wall with a loud bang and with parts flying everywhere.

    Thanks for filling our time as we wait patiently (?) for the next race.

  3. Jerry was a good one.

  4. I mostly remember Jerry Grant because of his attempts never to let anyone see the top of his head. He was one of three drivers, Dick Simon and Bobby Rahal being the other two that were, or were going bald and wanted to hide that fact. It is interesting that I noticed that back then. I’m not sure, but it may have been about that time that I knew I was undergoing the same process.
    1972 was my first race as an accredited member of the media. I covered the race that year for The Indiana Daily Student.

  5. Jerry was my uncle.
    I have lots of great memories growing up. He’d take us kids (his two daughters and his sister’s kids…my brother and me) motorcycle riding. We’d follow him on our mini bikes. Picture a big guy with a cut off sleeve swet shirt on his big ass Triumph dirt tracker…and a group of little kids following close by.
    He’d take us to the drag races at Irwindale and Orange county and when he’d be racing at Riverside or Ontario he’d all ways make time to take us kids and introduce us to all the drivers. Now that I look back we met some of the all time greats.
    Before I moved away from California he took me motorcycle riding…just he and I. I was about 20 then…one of my best rides ever. That was 30 years ago.
    Over the years I had limited contact with Jerry, maybe every three years or so when I was in California. Last year I made sure I spent some quality time with him and we spent a nice day together. I’ve become a real race fan over the years and wanted him to tell me his story…what a story teller…what a great day.
    The last time I talked to Jerry was after last years Indy 500. I called him to ask what he thought of the Dario/Sato finish. As usual he was more interested in what I thought and told me he viewed races differently than a fan.
    He loved racing and after retiring from racing, loved motorcycle riding. Kind of feel I missed out on some great rides with my Uncle.
    Sure going to miss you Uncle Jerry.

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