Among the many headlines throughout the 1968 Indianapolis 500 were a famous owner’s second attempt at technological innovation, and the beginning of one of racing’s great family dynasties.
Unser Prevails after Leonard Stumbles
After falling four laps and a gear bearing short of winning in 1967 with Parnelli Jones, Team Owner Andy Granatelli returned to the speedway even hungrier for victory. As he had done the previous year, the STP CEO brought his radical turbine-powered car to the track. This year, the engine was placed in the Lotus 56 chassis and dubbed the “Wedge Turbine”
The month got off to a rough start for the team. Jones, who dominated the race the previous year, announces his withdrawal from the race amid changing regulations. Jones would not compete in the 500 as a driver again.
Mike Spence was fatally injured on May 7 when he crashed and was hit in the head with one of his tires. Spence has taken over the ride after 1965 winner Jim Clark was fatally injured the previous month in Formula 2 crash.
Less than a week later, 1966 Rookie of the Year Jackie Stewart announced that a wrist fracture would sideline him from the race.
Despite seeing their team trimmed from five entries to three, the STP Lotus showed the turbine’s success wasn’t a one-year wonder. 1966 winner Graham Hill qualified first set a new track record.
Teammate Joe Leonard went out and posted an even faster lap, winning the pole at 171.559 MPH. As the turbines of Leonard, Hill and Art Pollard (11th) once again dominated the headlines, one of the race’s most storied eras came to a close.
Three days before the race, Jim Hurtubise qualifies his Mallard-Offenhauser entry in 30th, it would be the last front-engine car to run the race.
On race day, Leonard jumped in front of Bobby Unser, as Hill elected to fade back. Unser takes advantage of lapped traffic early on, and motors past in his Eagle-Offenhauser car on Lap 9, leading the following 48 laps. Unser leads all the way through a Lap 41 caution after his younger brother Al crashes in the short chute.
One lap later, Lloyd Ruby takes the lead as he tries to end a string of bad luck in the race. The popular Texan leads 33 laps before Unser takes back the top spot. Four laps later, Leonard battles past Ruby just one lap after the latter driver ran the fastest lap of the race (168.666 MPH).
A lap after the pole sitter pits, disaster strikes for one of his teammates, as Graham Hill crashed in Turn 2. Once the race went green again one Lap 120, Unser drives past Leonard and pulls away until the final round of pit stops on Lap 166. A broken transmission enables Ruby and Leonard to power past.
On Lap 174, Ruby’s engine misfires and Leonard takes over the lead. Leonard seems to have victory for the turbine well in hand, until a fiery Turn 2 crash involving Carl Williams brings out the yellow with 18 laps to go.
With 11 laps to go, the green flag flies, but disaster strikes again for the STP team. Leonard slows on the front straightaway due to a broken fuel shaft. His teammate Art Pollard had also dropped out of the race a lap earlier with a similar issue, as both settled for finishes of 12th and 13th. The dreams of victory for Granatelli and the turbine car were dashed.
Up front, Unser went on to win by 54 seconds over Dan Gurney, whose Eagle chassis Unser raced to the win in his sixth start. It would also mark the first win for a turbocharged car in the 500.
The Albuquerque native led 127 laps and averaged a record speed of 152.882 MPH. Mel Kenyon and 1967 Rookie of the Year Denis Hulme finished third and fourth, with Ruby recovering from his mid-race issues to place fifth, the last car on the lead lap.
The 1960s became a decade of new ideas permeating the speedway and legends dominating the record books. Here’s a look at the legacy some of the race’s stars have left in the 50 years since.
Ten years after his eldest brother Jerry made his debut in the 500, Bobby notched the first of what would be nine wins for the Unser Family.
Bobby won again in 1975 and in 1981, while his younger brother Al won in 1970, 71, 78 and 87. Al’s son Al Unser Jr. also triumphed in 1992 and 94, while Bobby’s son Robby (1998-99 and nephew Johnny (Jerry’s son: 1996-2000) also appeared in the race.
Bobby remained actively involved in the 500, first becoming manager for Josele Garz, 1981 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. Most notably, Unser became a commentator for ABC Sports in 1987 and would do so until 1997, winning an Emmy for his Indianapolis 500 coverage in 1989. He also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis in 1989 and 1992.
Despite yet another heartbreak in the 500, Ruby continued to have a solid career in the race. He finished sixth in 1972 and ninth in 1974, but would not match his best finish of third in 1966. Ruby is often considered one of the best drivers to never win the 500.
A motorcycle champion early in his career, Leonard achieved success in open-wheel cars, but a 500 win eluded him as well. The California native won seven races in his career, and equaled his 1966 third-place effort in 1972, his penultimate appearance in the race.
More than 50 years after its debut, the turbine remains one of the most heralded innovations in Indianapolis 500 history. The 1968 race would turn out to be the swan song for the experiment though. Tougher regulations by USAC in 1969 made the engine even less competitive.
That year, Granatelli returned to the speedway and triumphed with Mario Andretti. Granatelli’s famed STP brand would also adorn the car of Gordon Johncock during his wins in 1973 and 1982. His son Vince and Joe would also become a car owner, while Andy remained a fixture at the race well after his 1973 retirement.
Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.
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