Parnelli

[Parnelli]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Parnelli: A story of auto racing
by Bill Libby

The powerful but delicate engines in these cars are not prepared to run fast and slow, to be wound then unwound, to be started and then stopped and then started up again. Andretti’s engine sang as it carried him to the front. He seemed certain to pull far ahead of the field. But now its voice cracks and it goes sour. Andretti falls back and at 67 miles he coasts smoking into the pits with his valves fouled and most of his power gone. Mario gets out of the car and stands looking at it as though he cannot believe it has betrayed him. Mechanic Clint Brawner pokes around in the sick guts of the engine, then turns away in disgust. Sponsor Al Dean tilts his head back and stares silently at the heavens.

The cars of Bud Tingelstad, Carl Williams, and Jim Hurtubise all go bad within the first 80 miles. Hurtubise pulls to a stop with oil pouring out of his car’s undersides. He gets out and asks, “When the hell am I going to beat this place? Is it really possible?” In front, Clark and Ruby duel, but then Clark pulls away, with Ruby hanging on grimly. Behind them, Jones’s engine is misfiring. It has been seeping water. One cylinder is soaked. Also, his mechanics have packed the wheel bearings in the wrong grease and one is wearing out. He senses it is hopeless, but he carries on awhile, even speeds past Ruby into second place. At 65 miles, Clark loses control in a corner and spins into the infield, but with unsurpassed skill he regains control of his car without stalling and rolls back into the race without even having been caught. No one ever has spun and still won this race, but Clark has spun and still leads.

At 185 miles, Ward pulls into the pits and shuts off. His crew looks at him stunned. “What’s wrong?” one asks. “Everything’s wrong,” Ward says quietly. “It’s not handling right. It’s not running fast. There’s no point going on with this thing.” He takes off his crash helmet and places it in the cockpit of his car and walks away, head lowered. No one says anything to him, but some pat him on the back as he moves past them.

At 215 miles, Jones’s wheel bearing goes out and he grinds his car to a halt. “I’m sorry,” Aggie says. Jones says, “So am I.”

At this point, Clark spins out again. And again with his enormous skill he manages to avoid any contact with anything or anyone, wrestles the balky beast back under control, manages not to stall, and resumes running. This time, several cars have passed him, but he and his crew are not sure just which ones. For the remainder of the race, the precise order in which the cars are running will not be clear to many, including the announcers who pass on misinformation to the crowd. But the scorekeepers, counting off each lap for each car, continue their jobs diligently.

At the midway point in the race, it clearly is a test of survival. The toll of accidents and breakdowns has been unusually heavy. Many of the best drivers in the fastest cars are on the sidelines. Many drivers who have not pushed hard or contended for the lead have moved up in the standings because stronger runners fell out in front of them. Ruby leads now, pulling steadily away, with Stewart, McCluskey, Hill, and Clark spread out behind him. Then McCluskey pits and stops with oil dripping from his car.

At 365 miles, Ruby leads by fifty seconds. He never has led this race before, but he is a smooth veteran with a good car who has run well all month and it seems that the breaks have put him in a position to gain the precious Indianapolis triumph. However, now smoke begins to pour from his car, which has begun to throw oil. He is black-flagged into the pits, where his crew works frantically on the engine. He has lost. By the time he can resume racing, he is eight minutes from the front.

Now, suddenly, Stewart is in front. He is a young Scot, inspired by Clark to pursue racing glory. He has shown enormous promise on the Grand Prix circuit. He is only a rookie here but he has run a fine, steady race and has fallen into the lead, and he and his car seem capable of holding it. It seems illogical that fate can yet twist things around more fiercely. In the pits the rich rookie owner Mecom and his brilliant veteran mechanic Bignotti wave on Stewart and Hill, both their cars, running within reach of victory.

Meanwhile, Al Unser crashes, and Bobby Unser, Eddie Johnson, Jerry Grant, and Joe Leonard break down. None of Gurney’s Eagles remains flying now. In fact, with 50 miles to go, only six cars are running. Will anyone finish? Stewart will not. He leads by a lap with only eight laps to go, but then his car slows down and he eases onto the grass and pulls to a stop. His oil pressure has dropped. Can’t he keep running? Perhaps. But he does not. The young driver gets out of his car, takes off his helmet, and walks slowly back toward the pits. Only 20 miles from becoming a rookie winner of this international test, he is finished. “Man, when you are that close, it has to hurt a lot,” he says, smiling sadly.

At the instant Stewart stops, Hill goes by Clark. Clark, thinking he is a lap ahead of Hill, permits Hill to ease past him.

But now Hill leads. Or is it Clark? No one seems sure. The various announcers on the public-address system and the television and radio networks contradict one another.

Hill actually is in front, but Clark’s crew believes Hill is almost a full lap back. As Mecom and Bignotti urge Hill on, Chapman and Lazenby urge Clark on. It is not precisely a race. The two cars are not dueling. They are running wide apart.

In the Chapman pits, Granatelli looks on excitedly. As a sponsor, he has a piece of Clark’s action. It would not be exactly the sort of victory for which he has struggled, but if Clark finishes first in the STP Lotus-Ford, Granatelli can at least stroll into Victory Lane. As the cars close in on the finish, word comes to the press box that the official scores definitely have Hill in front of Clark. But the word does not have time to reach the pits by the finish, when all is madness.

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