The 1968 Race Through Nine Year-old Eyes

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I hope that longtime readers of this site don’t grow tired of me regularly referring to my childhood days of going to the Indianapolis 500. While some may find it tiresome, those were the days that shaped me into becoming a lifelong fan of the Month of May. Chances are, you have a story similar to mine. While my first race in 1965 introduced me to the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500, there was only so much that I could comprehend as a six year-old. Three years and two races behind me; I feel like I was probably the most well-versed nine year-old on the planet when I was heading into the 1968 Indianapolis 500 – fifty years ago this month.

Starting in 1967, my family started attending Pole Day as well as Race Day for the “500”. By the time Pole Day for the 1968 race rolled around, my appetite for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was already insatiable. For some reason, my father never wanted to explore the grounds of The Speedway. We always sat in our assigned Race Day seats on Pole Day, which was General Admission seating. We arrived early when we could have been sitting anywhere, but we sat in our usual Stand A seats – very close to where I sit today.

As I sat there and watched the place fill up, I couldn’t believe that I was back to what had already become my favorite place on earth. A year had passed since the 1967 race. A year to a nine year-old is like a decade to someone of my current age.

One of the best things about getting to the track so early on Pole Day is that if your seats are across from the entrance to Gasoline Alley like ours were, you get to see every car roll out of the garage area and into the pits. The previous year, I had seen Silent Sam being rolled out on a dreary cloudy day. I had never seen a color like that. It seemed to cast a light, it was so bright. The morning sky for Pole Day in 1968 was bright and sunny. When the three wedge-shaped Lotus 56 turbines were rolled out, the bright sky made them even brighter than the year before.

While Silent Sam looked like a giant beast, these new wedge-shaped turbines were about the coolest thing this nine year-old had ever seen. I had not yet become the stodgy traditionalist that I am now. I didn’t share the opinions of my father or two older brothers. There was no question in my mind that I was pulling for one of those three cars to win. I just didn’t know which one.

I would be lying if I said I knew who Joe Leonard and Art Pollard were going into that morning. Leonard was a rookie in my first race in 1965 and finished third in 1967, but he had not made an impression on me yet. Pollard had been a rookie the previous year and finished eighth, but he was not yet on my radar either. Graham Hill, I knew about. He had won as a rookie in 1966, the year my father opted to take his brother and father instead, and left me and my brothers behind. Therefore, Hill was who I thought I would pull for.

Graham Hill was the first qualifier of the day. Watching and listening to that beautiful machine whoosh by gave me goose bumps. Nothing I had seen at Indianapolis to that point excited me like the sight of Hill’s turbine on his qualifying run. As Tom Carnegie announced Hill had set a new track record, the crowd went wild. When Hill coasted into the pits at the conclusion of his run, he had set the bar with a four-lap average speed of 171.208 mph. For comparison’s sake, Mario Andretti’s pole speed in 1967 was 168.982.

All of the big names that I was familiar with took their shot at Hill. Lloyd Ruby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti all fell short of Hill’s mark. Then later in the day, one of the other turbines took the track. It was the No.60 driven by Joe Leonard. Again, Tom Carnegie stirred up the crowd as Leonard sped to a new track record and a four-lap average speed of 171.559 mph, which was good enough to knock Hill off of the pole.

Nine year-olds are fickle. I suddenly had a new favorite – Joe Leonard. When we returned home for that period between Pole Day and Race Day, I read through the new program we had bought and learned as much as I could about Leonard. I found out he had driven for Foyt the year before and finished third. I also learned he had been a motorcycle champion and was from California. In the late sixties, a cool-looking guy from California that rode motorcycles was about as big as it got to a nine year-old. Put him in that Lotus 56 and, well – it wasn’t hard to decide who I was going to pull for in 1968.

When we returned on Race Day, I was shocked and disappointed to see that Andy Granatelli had changed the appearances of the three turbines – none for the better. Art Pollard had a matte black finish on the nose of his No.20 turbine and Graham Hill’s now sported white paint on the nose of his car for Race Day. The car I was pulling for was the worst. Leonard’s number had been reversed to where it now carried a black “60” on a white field instead of how they all looked beforehand, with white numbers on a black field. But worst of all, the nose and the sides were in day-glo lime green along with the left-front wheel and even the sidewalls of the left-front tire.

It went from this…

Leonard 1

To this…

Leonard 2

I was shallow even back then, but it still didn’t dissuade me from pulling for Leonard. Still, I couldn’t believe how this sleek beautiful car had grown ugly since I had last seen it.

Within my family, the battle-lines had been drawn. While I was pulling for any of the three turbines to win, preferably with Joe Leonard winning – my father and two brothers were pulling for practically anyone not driving a turbine. Yes they were pulling for Foyt, but their allegiances also seemed to be falling toward Dan Gurney and a driver I wasn’t that familiar with – Bobby Unser.

The race started out to my liking…sort of. Leonard pull away and led the first lap, but Unser kept pace with him. Graham Hill dropped like a rock as the green flag waved. For the most part, the race went back and forth between Leonard and Unser. Hill crashed in Turn Two on Lap 110. Art Pollard was never a real factor, except when he may or may not have been slowing Unser down during a yellow as Leonard pulled ahead. That was in the days when the Pace Car did not come out during a caution and all drivers were expected to run at the same pace and not advance their position.

It was a moot point, because during a restart on Lap 191, Leonard’s turbine flamed out while he was in the lead. Apparently the vast majority of the crowd was not in favor of a turbine winning, because the crowd roared with approval as Unser took the lead from the now-silent turbine. Oddly enough, Pollard’s turbine was struck with the exact same malady on the same restart.

Bobby Unser went on to win in a car that I reluctantly had to admit had a beautiful paint job as well. My father and brothers were ecstatic to see Unser take the checkered flag. My mother was just glad it was over. I, on the other hand, was livid. It didn’t help that my older brothers kept rubbing my face into it that my guy lost after coming so tantalizingly close, while their guy won. This nine year-old pouted the entire way home.

Now that I’m fifty years removed from that day, some of my thinking has changed while some hasn’t. While I’m glad a turbine never won the Indianapolis 500 and was rendered uncompetitive by further changes in the rules, to this day I think the Lotus 56 was one of the most striking cars to ever race at The Speedway. Two years later I became an Al Unser fan and was pulling for him when he won the first of his two consecutive races in 1970-71. By the time Bobby Unser started on the pole in my last race to attend for a while in 1972, I was a fan of both Unser brothers. As the years went on and the Unsers started piling up the wins, I learned to appreciate the greatness of the legacy that was developing before our very eyes.

But on that day in 1968, Bobby Unser was a villain in my eyes for stealing the win that should have been Joe Leonard’s. It never dawned on me at that time that Unser had nothing to do with the turbine flaming out. But that’s how I saw it as a nine year-old, fifty years ago this month.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “The 1968 Race Through Nine Year-old Eyes”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Great story George, thanks for sharing.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    But do we know for sure that Unser had nothing to do with Leonard’s turbine flaming out?

    I say we get Charles Leerhsen on the case!

  3. Doug Gardner Says:

    Great story George. That was my second 500. Remember it like it was yesterday. Very similar thoughts and reactions that you had as well. I just wonder if the turbine had won. Would the field have gone silent with all turbines. If so would interest have decreased due to the lack of the roar. Kind of like Formula E

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