“I’ll never win a 500 as long as Vuky’s in it.” So said Jack McGrath, a talented and proven AAA/USAC race winner, after Bill Vukovich’s second straight Indianapolis 500 win and third year of domination in 1954. McGrath was echoing the feelings of most Indy drivers in that early ’50s period.
As our cover feature recounts, Vuky had become the benchmark at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His percentage of laps led in the Indy 500 – almost 72 percent – is quite astonishing because his first two outings were busts – a DNQ and a DNF – and his last ended tragically just past quarter-distance. His margin of superiority over the opposition was unapproached even by future Indy benchmarks Parnelli Jones and Rick Mears.
Fifty years ago, the theme of the Formula 1 season was who might replace the retired Jackie Stewart as 1) world champion and 2) grand prix racing’s driver to beat. There were a half dozen contenders – ’72 champ Emerson Fittipaldi, now at McLaren; Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni and new arrival Niki Lauda; Ronnie Peterson in the complicated Lotus 76 and ageing Lotus 72; the moody but occasionally magical Carlos Reutemann at Brabham, and Stewart’s replacement at Tyrrell, Jody Scheckter. This six-way fight made 1974 a truly compelling season.
The 1969 Daytona 24 Hours was less entertaining, yet its result was just as unpredictable. Team Penske (a future benchmark) ensured its Lola T70 outlasted the established benchmark sports cars, the Porsche 908s and Ford GT40s, to score a huge win. It was the organization’s most significant endurance race triumph until last month, when Roger Penske’s squad won the same event again, 55 years on, but this time with Porsche.
Sadly, in this issue we must pay tribute to two legends who set new standards. Without question, Cale Yarborough was a yardstick by which his rivals would judge their own performances…and usually have to accept that they had come up short. With 83 Cup Series victories, he remains firmly in the top 10 of all-time NASCAR winners, although his endorsement by Junior Johnson as the best that ever drove for him is no less significant.
Gil de Ferran, meanwhile, moved the needle in terms of how tech savvy a driver could be by the time he arrived in Indy car racing. Combined with his huge talent and strong work ethic, he was always destined for success. As one of his former team owners, Derrick Walker, observed, Gil was the ideal man to help accelerate Team Penske out of the doldrums. The proof comprised two championships and an Indy 500 victory over the course of just four seasons.
De Ferran joined the CART Indy Car fray a couple of years after the sixth and final edition of the Marlboro Challenge, a non-points race for each season’s top performers in the CART Championship. On the eve of IndyCar’s Thermal $1,000,000 Challenge, we take a look back at the last non-championship rounds of top-rank U.S. open-wheel racing.
A great many of the cars that moved the motorsport game on in period will be in action on tracks around the world this year. So check out our eight-page guide to 10 unmissable historic racing events, as well as event reports from HSR’s Sebring Classic 12 Hour and the Gulf Historic Dubai GP Revival.
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