Jerry Grant: The First Over 200 MPH
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.