1973 – A Year To Forget

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For years, I’ve lamented the fact that my father inexplicably gave up our tickets to the Indianapolis 500 after several years of sitting in prime seats in Stand A. My first race was in 1965, but he took my brothers in 1964. We had been sitting in Stand A since the 1967 race and I considered those seats to be our domain each May for at least the next few decades. As it turns out, the 1972 race was my last race to attend for twenty years. For reasons I still don’t know, my father decided that he would not renew his tickets for 1973.

Not that I’m happy he gave up our tickets, but if there was one race over the last fifty years to miss – it was 1973.

Rain and tragedy is what I think of when I think of the 1973 Indianapolis 500. There were four days of practice leading up to Pole Day that were completely rained out. Several drivers had posted speeds over 190 mph during the first few days of practice, before second-year driver Swede Savage posted a speed of 197.802 mph. That was enough to tease fans into thinking that the 200 mph barrier may be broken during Pole Day.

The track opened for practice on Pole Day at its customary 9:00 am. It didn’t take long for a pall to be cast over the large crowd estimated at well over 200,000. At 9:37 am, popular veteran driver Art Pollard lost control of his car in Turn One and hit the outside wall. His car spun through the grass and flipped before catching fire as the flaming wreckage came to a halt in the short chute. Pollard was fatally injured in the crash. It was a precursor of what was to come.

Qualifying started on time, about an hour and a half after the fatal accident. Johnny Rutherford won the pole with a record four-lap average of 198.413 mph – fast, but still short of the 200 mph mark that would finally fall four years later. Bobby Unser would start in the middle of the front row, with defending race winner Mark Donohue on the outside. That front row would eventually account for a total of seven Indianapolis 500 wins.

The third day of qualifying was rained out, but the weather was good enough for a successful Bump Day, which saw George “Ziggy” Snider jump into an AJ Foyt backup car at the last minute to bump Sam Posey from the grid. The field was set.

Race Day was scheduled for Memorial Day, Monday May 28. The day began with dark skies and rain. Then there was more rain. The race finally got underway around 3:00 pm. As the thirty-three cars came down for the start, Salt Walther suddenly veered to the right on the main straightaway and was launched into the catch fence. His full fuel cell ruptured and sprayed spectators with methanol. The car was thrown back onto the track, upside down where it sprayed more fuel in a circular pattern like a lawn sprinkler. When his car came to a rest, there had been eleven cars involved in the melee. Walther was severely burned in the crash but would live to race again at The Speedway.

Before the mess could be cleaned up, the skies opened and a downpour soaked the track. It was decided that the start would not count and all cars involved would be allowed to be repaired overnight and the race was scheduled to start again at 9:00 am the next day – minus the injured Walther, who was credited with thirty-third.

Mother Nature had other ideas. On the parade lap, rain began to fall. The cars pulled back into the pits before taking the green flag. By 2:00 that afternoon, the race was postponed again to the next day.

By the time Wednesday came, the rain had remained but the crowds had gone home. Few people showed up and the drivers had lost their edge. There was a general feeling among the drivers to just forget about it and pack up to head to Milwaukee. Of course, that’s not what happened. Finally, there was a break in the weather, the track dried and the race finally started a little past 2:00 pm. The first one hundred miles were uneventful and things seemed to finally settle down to normal.

Swede Savage pitted and filled his car with seventy-five gallons of methanol. On Lap 57, as Savage was exiting Turn Four – he lost control and hit the inside retaining wall. His car exploded into pieces as well as flames. Although he lived for thirty-three days following the accident, Swede Savage succumbed to his injuries on July 2, 1973. The horror didn’t stop there.

In the confusing initial seconds after the crash, Savage’s Patrick Racing crew instinctively looked north towards the fireball that had engulfed their driver. A crew member for Patrick Racing, Armando Teran, ran out into pit lane while looking northward. He did not see the northbound ambulance that was headed toward the accident scene. Teran was killed instantly. Since then, emergency vehicles are only allowed to go one-way in the pits, since no one is expecting them to be going the “wrong way”.

After more than an hour of the race being red-flagged, it was re-started. On Lap 129, a light rain started to fall bringing out a yellow flag. On Lap 133, the rain fell much harder and the race was red-flagged. Shortly thereafter, the race was mercifully called and Gordon Johncock, teammate to Swede Savage, was declared the winner.

There was no team celebration or even smiles. The Patrick Racing team instead turned their attention to Savage who was at Methodist Hospital fighting for his life. The Victory Banquet for that evening was cancelled. Johncock and his legendary Chief Mechanic, George Bignotti, went to see Savage and then stopped at a Burger King on 16th Street for their race night dinner. That was their level of excitement for winning the Indianapolis 500.

I am glad that Gordon Johncock was able to win the race again in 1982 under much better circumstances – a then-record closest victory in history over Rick Mears. Until then, Johncock always felt a little empty that his one shot at greatness – winning the Indianapolis 500 – came in a race that everyone did their best to forget. It was good to see him fully enjoy his win in 1982.

But everyone wanted to forget that race in 1973 for good reason. It was a month of misery. It was plagued by rain, then the death of Art Pollard along with the ill-fated start involving Salt Walther. Then there was more rain and even more rain. That was followed by the ultimately fatal crash of Swede Savage and then the unfortunate death of Armando Teran. Then in fitting fashion, more rain brought the race and the month to a merciful end.

I know that in the almost fifty years that I have followed the Indianapolis 500, I have never seen another year that even came close to the futility and tragedy that that race brought. Those that followed the race before my time say that they don’t recall a race as black as that one either.

Until I’m old and feeble, I don’t plan on missing any more Indianapolis 500’s. But if there was ever one to miss – it was that dark month of May in 1973. Quite honestly, I’m glad I wasn’t there. I hope we never see another one like it.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “1973 – A Year To Forget”

  1. JohnMc Says:

    I was running on our two-mile relay team in the regional championships the day after Memorial Day as a high school junior in Memphis. I already knew that the race had been postponed another day and I was not feeling all that good about it (we came in 3rd that night, no ribbon and no more track). Losing Art Pollard reall shaded the 1973 race for me and it is a hard year at Indy to revisit.

  2. That race changed Indy and Indycars. Restrictions on fuel capacity, location of tanks, new rules on pit lane, and a change in the attitude of drivers and teams pushed safety forward. But it would still take years for improvements in cockpit safety and on-site medical care would meet modern standards.

  3. Carburetor Says:

    I remember this race well and the rain was extremely frustrating. Following on radio from the arid southwest, I couldn’t believe how it could rain so often! The tragedies were just extreme. I can fully understand why you’ve stated that it was the one race to gladly miss. My guess is that many drivers and teams would have felt the same way…

  4. George: I had just sat down to write a blog on the 1973 race when I saw your preview posted on twitter/facebook. 1973 was the first race that I attended unencumbered by chaperones, and (of course) I spent virtually all month at the track (instead of attending my classes at Butler University, where I was a sophmore at the time.) I may still sti down and write it down, because there are , in the midst of all the tragedy and rain, a few humorous vignettes typical of any year at Indy. Some of the things (aside form the on track activities) make me shudder to this day.

    For the totally uninitiated, there is a novel, “Spectator Sport” by James Alexander Thom which details the goings on of 1973. For anyone who remembers 1973, it is a must read.

  5. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    This is why I love this site…especially in May.

  6. Savage Henry Says:

    My family moved to Indy in 1972. The first time my parents ever went to the track, in 1972, they walked in just as Jim Malloy was killed. The next time they went was for their first race in 1973 (my dad had to sell hard to get my mother to go). Salt Walther hit the catch fence very close to where they were sitting. My mother has never been back to the Speedway.

    1973 was defintely the worst year. I nominate 1992 as the 2nd worst. It was redeemed only by the great finish and Al Jr.’s first victory.

  7. Brian Feely Says:

    I was a thirteen year old teenager fulfilling my young life’s dream….attending the INDY 500 ! My first race was supposed to be 1972 but my grades in school did not meet my father’s standards . After earning better marks the 1973 trip was on ! We had 72 Ford pickup with a camper on the back and stayed at the KOA camp. My Dad got so caught up in the event he called and got the ok to miss work and we stayed until the race was called. I remember A J Foyt’s radical new Coyote ( my favorite race car ) design that would get AJ’s fourth win four years later. I was amazed at the speed of the cars and the daring of the drivers.I fell in love with the Track and the Race. Over the years I have only missed a handful of 500′s and I plan on going until the day I die. See you at the track…I’ll be in turn 3 rooting for Sato and Foyt Racing.

    R.I.P Art, Swede, Armando, and Salt

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