03 May Rear-view Mirror
A regular look back at old motoring and motor sport items…
The 52nd International 500 Mile Sweepstakes was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana on Thursday 30 May 1968 and was memorable for a number of reasons, sadly not all joyous. Parnelli Jones headed a super-roster of seven drivers signed by Andy Granatelli to drive STP Lotus 56 turbine cars in an unprecedented single-team assault on the Indianapolis 500. The great Jim Clark was one of the team’s drivers and in testing he was reportedly very excited at the prospect of racing the radical, wedge-shaped car. Tragically, however, on 7 April 1968, Clark died in a racing accident at the Hockenheimring in West Germany.
Briton Mike Spence was also part of the team. During practice on Tuesday 7 May, Spence ran a lap of 169.555 mph (272.9 km/h) – fastest of the month and then the second-fastest in track history, Later in the afternoon, Lotus chief Colin Chapman was asked by STP boss Andy Granatelli if Spence could take out one of the other cars for a test run after driver Greg Weld had difficulty getting the car up to speed. Spence quickly was on the pace but early in the second lap, he misjudged his entry to turn one and collided heavily with the concrete wall. The right-front wheel of the Lotus swivelled backwards into the cockpit and struck Spence on the helmet; he died in hospital later that evening from massive head injuries.
The deaths of Jim Clark and Mike Spence, plus a serious injury to Jackie Stewart, whittled the STP entry to four. Jones, testing his reworked 1967 car in practice, was dissatisfied with the car’s performance compared to the newer wedge-shaped Lotus 56 turbines, and had concluded the car was unsafe. He stepped out of the car, which was subsequently assigned to Joe Leonard, who promptly wrecked the car in practice. As a result, Leonard took over Spence’s car.
In the race, for the second year in a row, one of Andy Granatelli‘s STP turbine-powered machines was leading late in the race, but once again it failed within sight of victory. On lap 174, Lloyd Ruby‘s engine misfired, allowing pole-setter Leonard to take the lead. Leonard, however, suffered a flame-out on the lap 191 restart, and rolled to a silent and shocking halt. Bobby Unser in the venerable piston-powered Offenhauser, inherited the lead, and despite gear linkage trouble, won the first of his three Indy 500 victories.
This was the final Indianapolis 500 to feature a front-engined car in the starting field. Of the 33 cars, 32 were rear-engined machines (including three turbines). Jim Hurtubise‘s entry, which dropped out after only nine laps, was the last front-engine car to race in the 500. This was also the first 500 won by a turbocharged engine.
In the picture above, left to right are Andy Granatelli, Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones. Colin Chapman is on the far right.
(NB: No copyright infringement is intended with any of the images used to illustrate these articles.)