Tragedy Strikes the Brickyard: The 1973 Indianapolis 500
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, the month of May is a special time. The Memorial Day holiday comes at a perfect time when you’re a kid. It signifies the end of the school year, the official opening of the public swimming pools, and the Indy 500. Louisville is a bit of a sports-crazed town, but it’s not just stick and ball sports that generate the excitement. The State of Kentucky is known for it’s college basketball teams, and by the end of January, you either cut down the nets at the NCAA Finals or you’re already thinking about next year’s team. Right after the basketball season ends, it’s all about horse racing. Starting in February, we would get all the latest buzz about the hottest 3yr old thoroughbreds that are set to race in the Kentucky Derby, which goes down on the first Saturday in May. Back in the ’70s, as soon as the Derby winner was crowned, the focus then switched to the Indianapolis 500. You see, Louisville is a mere 115 miles away from Indy, a direct shot north on the I-65 Freeway. Many of us considered Indy as our home track, and if you’ve ever experienced the racing fever that encompasses the entire month of May in Indianapolis, you’ll know what I mean when I say that it’s special. It’s funny, even to this day, when I see a 4 digit year from my childhood displayed somewhere in print, I’ll occasionally flash back to the driver that won the 500 in that year. Of all of the great memories I have of past races, there was one that changed my life forever. That race was the 1973 Indy 500.
In 1973, I was a 10 year old kid who liked baseball, building models, and cruising on my Schwinn Stingray Jr. It was the beginning of May, and the world was till buzzing about the incredible Kentucky Derby, where a horse named Secretariat laid down an ass-whoopin that cemented his place as arguably the greatest race horse in history. The excitement of the Derby was a great segway to the upcoming Indy 500, where all of us race fans were certain that the magical 200mph barrier would be broken at the Brickyard. The wings were bigger, the turbos were bigger, the tires were wider, and we were convinced that it was going to be an Indy 500 for the ages. The added downforce had helped to increased lap speeds by nearly 30mph in just three years. The Offenhauser engine development had also increased by leaps and bounds, and an Offy in high-boost qualifying trim was making in the excess of 1100 horsepower! Mario Andretti once said that the horsepower was sufficient to induce wheelspin in the 1/8th mile long short-chutes between turns 1 and 2 and turns 3 and 4. The cars had become violent beasts. The track opened up for testing on April 28th, and even though a few drivers ran times in the 197 mph range, the 200 mph record remained safe all the way to Pole Day.
Pole Day is always ran on the Saturday that is two weeks prior to the race, which in 1973, was May 12th. The day started out as sunny, and an enormous crowd of over 250,000 people had arrived to see who was going to sit on the front row. Practice started promptly at 9:00 a.m., but was quickly marred 38 minutes later when crowd favorite Art Pollard hit the outside wall in turn 1, then flipped over, coming to rest in turn 2 engulfed in flames, and the car destroyed. Pollard suffered pulmonary damage due to flame inhalation, and had suffered severe burns all over his body, and was pronounced dead at the hospital one hour later. They finished Pole Day under a very somber mood, with Johnny Rutherford taking the top spot with a blistering 199.071 run. I remember reading the news the next day that Pollard had died. They had included a picture of Pollard’s car in the article, his car coming to a stop with his body slumped in the seat. I stared at that picture for a long time, with my 10yr old mind trying to comprehend what I was seeing. That was a rough picture for a 10yr old kid. Little did I know that Pollard’s death was merely a precursor of what was to come in the following weeks.
After Pole Day, the local area around the Speedway endured terrible weather. Lightning, hail, and tornado warnings were a daily phenomenon, but they were eventually able to get the field filled up to it’s maximum of 33 qualified cars. Twenty two teams were sent home, each of them unable to reach the minimum speed needed to qualify for the field. Although there were a few spinouts and engine explosions, the 2 weeks leading up to the race were relatively uneventful.
emorial Day arrived, and a huge crowd of over 350,000 jammed the grandstands and infield. In typical fashion, the skies opened up to a heavy thunderstorm not long before the scheduled start time of 11:00 a.m., and the race start was delayed for over 4 hours. At 3:00 p.m., the field finally pulled away and began their pace laps. As the lumbering Cadillac Eldorado pace car brought the field to the green flag, they quickly came up to speed, and in an instant, all hell broke loose. Steve Krisiloff, who qualified on the inside of the third row, developed engine trouble and slowed down, producing a traffic jam as the cars behind him accelerated. Salt Walther was seeded in the middle of Row 6, with Jerry Grant on the outside of the same row. To miss Krisiloff, Walther took evasive action and touched wheels with Grant, climbing directly over Grant’s left front wheel, launching Walther’s car directly into the catch fence. The nose of Walther’s car dug into the fence, shearing it completely off, and exposing Walther’s legs. At the same time, Walther’s punctured fuel tanks sent burning fuel into the grandstand, dousing many spectators.
Eleven spectators were injured, nine of them seriously. Walther’s car was then flung back out on to the racetrack, upside down and wildly spraying burning fuel in all directions. The spinning car was hit by at least two other cars. Walther’s car eventually came to rest near the pit exit, and the eerie scene of his motionless legs hanging out of the remains of his crumpled race car led many on the scene to believe that he was certainly dead. By some miracle, he survived, but he had a very painful recovery due to severe burns and injuries to his hands and feet. He received the hand injuries due to them being trapped under the car when it was sliding upside down. He would spend the next two and a half months in the Michigan Burn Center, with burns over 40% of his body, a crushed right hand, and the upper portions of the fingers amputated on his left hand. In all, 11 cars were damaged in the accident. The race was red-flagged, and before all of the cleanup was completed, rain began to fall, and the race was washed out and rescheduled for 9:00 a.m. the next day.
The next morning, a heated pre-race meeting was held, with the drivers and officials taking sides. The subject of the prior day’s crash and the slow pace speed were the main focus. Drivers were complaining that the Eldorado pace car had brought the field out of Turn 4 at a slow speed of 80 mph, and it caused the field to bunch up too tightly. The officials decided that the race would restart from scratch, and the single lap the day before would not count in the scoring. Cars would be gridded in their original qualifying positions, with Walther credited with 33rd place. All of the crashed cars from the day before were allowed to make repairs, and amazingly, the grid for the second attempt had 32 0f the 33 cars that had started the race the day before. The command to start engines was given at 10:00 a.m., and the field of 32 pulled away for the warm-up laps. On the second lap, rain began to fall, and the race was red-flagged. The rain continued for the rest of the day, and the race was postponed until the next day (Wednesday).
On Wednesday, morning rains threatened to wash the race out for the third day in a row. The crowds had now dwindled down to somewhere between 2o to 30 thousand. After two days of rain and wild partying, the infield was overwhelmed with mud and trash. The bathrooms were destroyed, littered with garbage, and the roads and walkways were flooded. The Health Department overseeing the event threatened to keep the race from running at all if it were to be postponed again, due to the deteriorating conditions of the infield.
The mood in the garage was gloomy.
The crews were exhausted, and the drivers were nervous. The media had already nicknamed the race “The 72 Hours of Indianapolis”, a play on the 24 Hours of Lemans. The race was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m., but early showers had puddled the track. By Noon, the sun had come out, and the track surface dried sufficiently for a race start of 2:00 p.m.
The race started, and it ran for the first hour with only two brief cautions. However, there was considerable mechanical attrition. Bobby Allison blew his engine, Peter Revson brushed the wall, and Mario Andretti had burned a piston. By Lap 55, polesitter Johnny Rutherford was black-flagged for leaking fluids, and fellow front row member Mark Donahue had burned a piston. By Lap 57, only 22 of the starting field of 33 were still on the track.
On Lap 57, Swede Savage made his scheduled pit stop, getting 70 gallons of fuel and a right rear tire. Two laps later, he was in second place behind race leader Al Unser. As Unser committed to make his pit stop on Lap 59, Savage lost control of his car as he exited Turn 4. The car made a series of twitches, and then made a hard left and slid across the inside of the track at nearly top speed, hitting the angled inside retaining wall nearly head on. The force of the impact, along with the car carrying a full load of fuel, caused a huge explosion and subsequent fireball. The transaxle and the engine had separated from the car and tumbled end over end into the pit lane entrance while Savage, still strapped in his seat, was thrown back across the circuit. Savage came to a rest adjacent to the outer retaining wall, fully conscious and completely exposed in a pool of flaming methanol. Fire and safety crews immediately descended onto the scene to help Savage. And then, tragedy struck again. One of the fire trucks was stationed at the south end of the pits at the exit of pit road, which meant that in order to respond to the crash in the most direct manner, it would have to traverse the pit lane against the traffic. So the truck responded, laying on the horn to warn any bystanders. As the truck barreled down pit lane, several crew members began moving across pit lane to the grass infield at trackside to render assistance, and pit board man Armando Teran ran right into the path of the speeding firetruck. The truck struck Teran with such force that it tossed his body over 50 feet and knocked him completely out of his shoes. The impact was seen by thousands of spectators, as it occurred on pit lane at nearly the Start/Finish line. Teran suffered crushed ribs and a broken skull, and died shortly afterward at the hospital. He was 22 years old.
Savage was taken to the hospital with serious injuries, but he was in in stable condition. After over an hour of clean-up, the race was resumed. After witnessing the crash, George Snider decided to retire from the race, handing the car over to A.J. Foyt, his team owner. Foyt’s primary car had suffered mechanical issues and dropped out on lap 37, so he was now back in the race. The mechanical attrition continued, and by lap 101, only 11 cars were still running, with only two on the lead lap. On Lap 129, with Gordon Johncock leading, a light rain began to fall, and yellow came out. By Lap 133, the rain started falling much harder, and the race was stopped. A short time later, the officials declared the race as finished, with Johncock the winner. At the time, the 1973 race was the shortest 500 on record, with only 322 miles completed. The Victory Circle celebration was muted, and the traditional victory banquet was cancelled.
The race and the numerous safety issues caused an uproar among teams and track owners. Many threatened to leave USAC unless changes were made. In order to cut back on speeds, the wings were decreased in size, and fuel tank capacity was reduced from 75 gallons to 40 gallons. Pit board members, like Armando Teran, were now not allowed to leave their post for the duration of the race, and all emergency response vehicles could no longer drive against traffic on pit road. The angled inside wall that Swede Savage had hit was removed, and the pit entrance was widened. Retaining walls and catch fences were improved, and trackside seats lining the catch fence were removed.
On July 22nd, 33 days after his on-track injury, Swede Savage died in the hospital due to complications. Incredibly, he was healing well from his injuries and was expected to make a full recovery, but had gotten contaminated plasma during a blood transfusion and had contracted Hepatitis B, causing his liver to fail.
We watched the race on ABC, and I vividly remember watching Swede Savage hit the wall and Armando Teran getting ran over. The scene was chaotic, and tone in analyst Jim McKay’s voice was ominous. You could tell that McKay was certain that Savage was dead, and seconds later, he witnessed Teran getting ran over. His voice was cracking, and he was about to lose it. We in the TV audience were all equally stunned, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the grandstands and witness it in person.
The entire event was an awful tragedy, and it stuck with me for the rest of my life. I think the 1973 Indy 500 was the turning point for me when I realized that the fame and glory of racing comes with a dark side. After that day, I wasn’t so sure of my dream to be a professional race car driver. And this time, I didn’t read about the tragedy in the following morning’s newspaper, I witnessed it with my own eyes.
And like clockwork, when May of 1974 rolled around a year later, I was all about the Indy 500 again. But this time, I had an even greater reverence for the brave drivers who risked their lives in order to hoist the Borg-Warner trophy and drink the milk in the Winner’s Circle. Indy Car racing was severely wounded when the CART/IRL split in 1996, and my opinion, the Indy 500 has never been the same since. A part of me dreams of the old CART and USAC days and wish that they would return. But as I get older, I just want to see close, competitive, and safe racing where all the drivers go home to their families when the race is over. And on this coming Memorial Day, just like I did when I was a kid, I’ll be glued to the TV and cheering on my favorite drivers.
May is indeed a special month…