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‘A race we would all like to forget': 50 years later, 1973 Indy 500 is grim, haunting memory

Salt Walther in Car Accident

(Original Caption) Indianapolis: Salt Walther, Dayton, Ohio, slides upside down in car 77 after hitting wall just after start of Indy 500.

Salt Walther slides upside down after hitting the wall just after the start of the 1973 Indy 500 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images).

INDIANAPOLIS – The 1973 Indy 500 was one that even the winner has tried to avoid recalling.

“I can remember people asking me about the race, and I said it was a race we would all like to forget,” Gordon Johncock told NBC Sports. “I didn’t even want to think about the thing, because it was bad.”

In three separate incidents over three disconcerting weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, two drivers and a crew member died, another driver would sustain serious injuries, and nearly a dozen fans would suffer burns. Countless nightmares were spawned from the haunting images.

It would be the deadliest Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1937, and it was capped by an exhausting race whose misery seemed never-ending against a grim backdrop -- taking three days to complete amid persistent rain.

“It was one of those races where terrible thing after terrible thing kept happening.” three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who started on the pole in 1973, told NBC Sports. “There was no explanation for it. There was no way to sum it up. It’s just the way it was.

“Everybody was ready for this race to be over – the drivers and the fans, too. It was one incident after another.

“It was sad.”

The world was a different place 50 years ago. America’s highways were killing zones because of traffic accidents, and many of today’s safety innovations that are taken for granted in the automotive industry had yet to be invented. Seat belts were installed in the family car, but there were no laws mandating that passengers wear them. Countless fatalities in that era could have been avoided by wearing seat and shoulder belts.

It wasn’t much safer at work. Many factories had yet to institute the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines that were signed into law on Dec. 29, 1970. Men could be killed at work from a variety of industrial accidents.

Most of the workforce had lived through worse. They were part of the generation that fought in World War II and the Korean War. The Vietnam War had just ended, leaving another generation to deal with its lasting impact.

It was a much different and dangerous era for sports, too. Few players in the National Hockey League wore helmets (goalies just had begun donning face masks in the late 1960s and early 1970s). NFL players could sustain a concussion-level hit and return to action on the next play.

But there was no sport that reflected the danger of the era more than auto racing.

In 1973, Indy 500 drivers still wore open-face helmets and goggles with a handkerchief tied around their mouth to keep from breathing debris from the track. The race cars were designed for speed and performance more than safety. Driver’s heads fully were exposed in the cockpit with a roll hoop extending 5 or 6 inches above the top of the driver’s helmet just behind the bulkhead.

The Indianapolis 500 was a race for the brave who understood the fatal risks. That bravado made these drivers superheroes, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a modern-day Roman Coliseum. More than 350,000 spectators turned out every Memorial Day to watch these high-speed gladiators cheat death for the fame and glory of the Indianapolis 500.

When practice began for the 57th Indianapolis 500 on Saturday, April 28, 1973, nobody could have predicted the danger and sheer horror to be endured over the next 32 days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Opening day came with the anticipation that the 200-mph barrier could be broken for the first time in track history. USAC began allowing bolt-on wings, and speeds rose dramatically. Johncock set an unofficial track record of 199.4 mph during a Goodyear tire test in late March.

Gary Bettenhausen was the first driver on the track for practice as drivers and teams began their assault on the 200-mph barrier.

Back then, there were two full weeks of practice prior to Pole Day and two weekends of qualifications with two rounds each weekend.

Pole Day was on Saturday, May 12, and 250,000 fans were at IMS hoping to witness history – the first official 200-mph lap. Qualifying practice began at 9 a.m. with 55 entries trying to make the 33-car starting lineup.

Art Pollard's Fatal Indy 500 Crash

Art Pollard died after this practice crash for the 1973 Indianapolis 500 (Patrick Partington/Getty Images)

Art Pollard died after this practice crash for the 1973 Indianapolis 500 (Patrick Partington/Getty Images)

Thirty-seven minutes later, practice was halted for a crash in Turn 1.

It involved popular driver Art Pollard, who hit the outside wall in Turn 1, spun to the inside and flipped in Turn 2. Pollard suffered pulmonary damage from inhalation; third-degree burns on both of his hands, face and neck; a fractured right arm; a fractured leg; and a severe spinal injury. He was pronounced dead at Methodist Hospital one hour and 3 minutes after the crash.

“Art Pollard was a dear friend,” Rutherford told NBC Sports. “Prior to coming to Indianapolis, we spent a week together in New Orleans having a good time. Art was a super guy.”

Rutherford’s wife, Betty, was a nurse who had worked at IMS, and she noticed that Pollard had the symptoms of a bad cold.

“She wonders if he had sneezed” before the crash, Rutherford said. “It takes a second to sneeze and in a second, you cover a lot of ground here at Indianapolis. You think of the things that could have happened and it was not pretty. “I was one of the first to drive by the scene of the crash and having been in this business a while, I could tell it was not good.”

Less than 90 minutes after Pollard’s fatal crash, qualifications began on time at 11 a.m.

At 1:37 p.m., Rutherford took his McLaren onto the race track and his third lap of 199.071 mph was just 0.21 seconds short of the elusive 200-mph mark. His four-lap average of 198.413 mph was good enough for the pole.

There were no other incidents similar to Pollard’s through the next week of practice and qualifying, but inside Gasoline Alley, there was a tremendous undercurrent of anxiousness.

Speeds were on the rise, and safety was a tremendous concern. The troubling events to come would exceed anyone’s worst fears.

A fiery wreck

Just four years after the Woodstock Music and Art Fair brought more than 400,000 humans to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, the Indianapolis 500 had its own Woodstock-esque feel.

Tens of thousands of denizens would descend upon the west side of Indianapolis in the days before the race, turning the neighborhoods surrounding Indianapolis Motor Speedway into a den of drunken debauchery.

Today’s crowds appear tame compared to those of this era. Motorcycle gangs were often part of the mix. Knife fights were not uncommon. Streaking was a popular fad of that era.

There was nothing major league about Indianapolis in 1973. Sure, the Indiana Pacers had won their third championship, but that came in the American Basketball Association, three years before it merged with the National Basketball Association.

Indianapolis in 1973 was perceived as a gangly, awkward and boring city that had earned the nicknames “Nap-town” and “India-no place.”

But every May, the world came to Indianapolis, turning the capital city of Indiana into the Motorsports Capital of the World.

Race Day in Indianapolis was a day many Hoosiers lived for, and that feeling was amplified in 1973.

Unfortunately, as a crowd of 350,000 fans entered Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was pouring on Monday, May 28 (the race then was run on Memorial Day). The start was delayed four hours and 4 minutes from the scheduled starting time of 11 a.m. ET.

At 3 p.m. ET, IMS owner Tony Hulman finally gave the command, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” even as the skies still were leaden gray with more inclement weather on the way.

It set into motion some of the worst events in the history of the race.

When Pat Vidan waved the green flag, Rutherford and second-place starter Bobby Unser gunned the accelerator heading into Turn 1.

But further back in the field, Steve Krisiloff’s car had ignition problems and slowed on the front straight. It fell alongside the fifth row by the time he crossed the start/finish line.

The rest of the field behind Krisiloff tried to avoid his car. In the sixth row, Salt Walther’s car hit Jerry Grant’s machine and went over the left-front wheel.

It turned over in the air and slammed into the catchfence. The cables stretched and kept Walther’s car from going into the crowd -- but couldn’t stop 75 gallons of flaming methanol. The fuel spewed from Walther’s ruptured fuel tank spewed into the packed grandstands. Eleven spectators were injured, and nine went to the hospital with burns.

Race Cars Spinning out of Control

(Original Caption) Indianapolis: (Speedway). Huge ball of fire covers the track as the car of Salt Walther spins across the main stretch track after hitting the outside wall just as the field of 32 cars began the first lap of the Indy 500 5/28. Nine cars were involved in the chain-reaction accident. Walther is in serious condition. Bob Harkey’s car failed to start and was in the pits. The race was stopped and postponed until 5/29.

A huge ball of fire covers the track as Salt Walther’s car spins across the frontstretch after hitting the outside wall on the first lap of the 1973 Indy 500 (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images).

The nose on Walther’s car was severed as the car landed upside down, spinning like a top with Walther’s legs exposed as burning fuel continued to spray in all directions.

At least two other cars hit Walther’s mangled machine, and the crash involved 10 other cars, including Wally Dallenbach, Mike Hiss, Lee Kunzman, John Martin, David Hobbs, Mike Mosley, Jim McElreath, and Dick Simon.

Kunzman, whose face had been disfigured from burns in a Sprint Car crash earlier in his career, thought he had been blinded by hitting the burning fuel. When he attempted to flip up the visor, it had melted.

Walther’s car came to a stop at the exit of the pits. With severe burns and injuries to his hands, he would remain hospitalized for months after being transported to Methodist Hospital.

The race was red-flagged.

Terror in the pits

By the time the catchfence and broken stanchions were repaired, rain had started to fall again, and the race was postponed and rescheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 29.

The skies were clear at dawn the following day as roughly 200,000 fans returned for what they hoped would be a complete Indianapolis 500. But rain began to fall later in the morning and the start was delayed until 10:15 a.m.

The race restarted from scratch with 32 of the 33 cars gridding in the original positions. After the command to start engines, rain began to fall on the second parade lap, and the race was stopped again. At 1:48 p.m., ET, the race was postponed again and rescheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, May 30.

By the third day, the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a mud pit and filled with litter from the tens of thousands of spectators who annually turned the infield into a wild free-for-all. The Indiana Board of Health threatened to intervene if the race was postponed a third consecutive day because of the horribly unsanitary conditions in the infield.

To add to the grimness, it was still raining on the morning of May 30. Drivers and teams wanted to leave and head to the next race at Milwaukee.

It had become the Indianapolis 500 nobody wanted to run. In retrospect, it might have been better if it had been canceled.

The sun finally popped out for a few hours around midday, and track drying began. At 2:10 p.m., the command was given to start the race. At the end of the first lap, NASCAR star Bobby Allison had suffered a blown engine in his Penske Racing entry. Mario Andretti broke a piston on Lap 4 and also was an early exit.

Johncock made his way up from 11th to second by the 17th lap. One of his teammates, a young, star driver named Swede Savage, was in the lead by Lap 43.

Swede Savage

1969: Swede Savage ran three NASCAR Cup events during the year. He drove in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, FL for the Wood Brothers, in the Atlanta 500 at the Atlanta International Raceway for Smokey Yunick, and for Banjo Matthews in the Virginia 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Swede Savage competed in both the NASCAR Cup Series and at the Indy 500 (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images).

Savage made a pit stop on Lap 57, and his crew put 70 gallons of methanol into his fuel tank. On Lap 59, Savage was up to second place chasing leader Al Unser, who came down pit road as Savage sped out of Turn 4.

Suddenly, Savage’s car veered across the track at nearly full speed, skidded across the grass and slammed hard into the infield retaining wall. Savage’s car burst into flame, and a rear wheel flew more than 100 feet into the air. The engine and transaxle broke loose and went tumbling down pit lane.

Savage, 26, was alive and conscious but still strapped in his seat after being thrown back across the track into the outside wall. He was engulfed in fire while anxiously trying to exit the car in full view of the spectators and TV cameras.

The red flag waved for the massive debris field from the crash.

In one of the fire trucks on pit road, Jerry Flake was given the signal by Cleon Reynolds, the Chief of the Speedway Fire Department, to head to the scene of the crash.

Flake’s vehicle was at the south end of the pits and went against traffic to reach Savage’s crash, instead of driving through Turns 1, 2, 3 and 4. At that time, USAC rules allowed safety vehicles to go against the flow of traffic, and Flake was following his instructions. He even hit the horn a few times to warn others on pit lane that he was approaching.

Armando Teran, a 22-year-old handling the pit board for Graham McRae, was running up pit lane toward Savage’s crash scene -- and into Flake’s path.

The truck hit Teran with such impact, his body flew 50 feet into the air and tumbled down pit road in front of the master control tower, where the Indianapolis 500 Festival Queen and her Court were seated. Several festival princesses fainted.

The 1973 Indy 500 was no longer a race: It had become a real-life horror show with haunting memories 50 years later.

‘That was life back then’

Among those sitting in the Tower Terrace grandstands watching the events unfold was Mario Andretti, who dropped out of the race on Lap 4.

“It was horror, horror, horror moments,” Andretti told NBC Sports this past May. “It couldn’t have gotten any worse.”

Savage was taken to the hospital with third-degree burns and listed in stable condition.

He would die July 2, 1973 -- 33 days after the crash. According to Dr. Steve Olvey’s book Rapid Response, the reason for Savage’s death was contaminated plasma that caused his liver to fail. Savage’s father contends that because Swede’s lungs were badly burned, the percentage of oxygen given to him was so small, there was no way he could have survived.

The 1973 race was an inflection point for Indy 500 safety enhancements. It became the last “unregulated” race at the Brickyard, meaning stricter rules were enforced on what cars could run. The engine boost was limited for the first time and governed by a popoff valve.

Other safety improvements after the 1973 Indy 500 included reducing fuel tank capacity (from 75 to 40 gallons), smaller rear wings (from 64 to 55 inches and then 43 inches) and new pit lane protocols. IMS made several changes to walls (raising the pit and retaining barriers by 14 inches), grandstands and the pits, which were widened and lengthened.

After being stopped for 1 hour and 11 minutes, the race would continue.

Johncock was leading Bill Vukovich II when the skies once again darkened. Rain began to fall on the 129th of 200 laps, and the caution flew with only 11 cars left on the track. It was 5:30 p.m. when the red flag came out. Without much daylight left to dry the track, the race finally was called complete.

Johncock had led a race-high 64 laps but hardly celebrated the greatest victory in his life.

“I have mostly bad memories,” Johncock told NBC Sports. “Like when Swede got burned so bad, after the race I remember going to the hospital with (team owner) Pat Patrick to see if we could see him. We were there quite a long time, and we couldn’t get in to see him.

“We left and came down 16th Street, stopped at Burger Chef and had supper and went back to the motel.

“When Swede died, me and Bobby Unser were driving stock cars for Ray Nichels, and we were at Bristol, Tennessee. Darrell Waltrip won, Bobby was second and I was third and we got the news when we were down there that Swede Savage had died.

“He could have been a real good race driver. He was good.”

Because of the circumstances surrounding the 1973 Indy 500, Johncock never got the credit he deserved for that victory (though he did receive a Baby Borg this year to commemorate the victory).

“In 1973 when I won, it wasn’t a situation where the leaders had all pitted and now here you sat,” Johncock said. “Maybe you had been running 10th or 12th and the yellow comes out and they call the race.

“That wasn’t the case. I had led more laps in that race than anyone else had. It wasn’t that I just inherited the race. I don’t know if I would have won it at the end or not. If the car had held up, probably would have, but you never know.”

It was unfortunate in many ways because Johncock was among the best drivers of his era. He led a race-high 129 laps in the 1977 Indy 500 before the crankshaft broke just 16 laps from the checkered flag -- and A.J. Foyt won his fourth Indy 500.

“That right there is the biggest disappointment of my life when I blew up that day,” Johncock said. “That’s the worst ever.

“I’ve thought about that all of my life. I would have had three and Foyt would have had three. Out of the four races that Foyt won at Indy, he had three given to him. He didn’t earn them.”

Nine years after the grimness that was 1973, Johncock finally enjoyed his moment in the sun. He outdueled Rick Mears in 1982 to win by just 0.16 seconds (the closest Indy 500 finish to that point).

Johncock had won an Indianapolis 500 for the ages and got to enjoy all of the accolades that he was denied in his 1973 win.

“Oh yes,” he said. “That was certainly a much better year.”

But fate would not be kind to Johncock in 1982, either.

“I got on an airplane and came home because my mother was dying,” Johncock said as he started to cry. “My mother died the night I was on the stage at the Victory Banquet. Even that night, it didn’t end up very good.”

His mother’s death gave Johncock a moment of clarity.

“It’s the way I lived my life,” he said. “I was always doing something. I guess that’s why I wasn’t a very good family man. I was always racing or working and didn’t spend a lot of time with my family, which I regret now. But that was life back then.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500