IndyCar Flashback: 1972 Indianapolis 500

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Mark Donohue

Thank you to everyone who voted in the first Open-Wheels.com fan vote for our weekly IndyCar Flashback series. This week’s winner is the 1972 Indianapolis 500, a race that had multiple names find their way to the top of the leaderboard which ended with one of the era’s best winning the race, in what became a landmark victory for his car owner.

Donohue Scores Redemption, Penske’s first ‘500’ Win

The month of May began with a major rule change as USAC permitted larger rear wings on the back of the cars, increasing cornering speeds due to the increase in downforce. Ford, who had won the last two Indianapolis 500’s with Al Unser driving for Parnelli Jones, left racing which relegated the field’s engines to be split among Foyt and Offenhauser.

Unser, who was looking for the first three-peat in race history, teamed with 1969 winner Mario Andretti and 1968 polesitter Joe Leonard for the race. The team’s run at Indy comes with some controversy, as the team would see the side wings on their cars removed before qualifying fifth (Andretti), sixth (Leonard) and nineteenth (Unser).

On the front row for the race would be Unser’s brother and 1968 winner, Bobby, with a record speed of 195.940 MPH. Accompanying Unser on the front row would be 1971 pole winner Peter Revson and Team Penske’s Mark Donohue.

Early in the race, Unser dominated from pole by leading the first 30 laps before falling out with ignition failure. After Unser’s departure from the event, Donohue’s Penske teammate Gary Bettenhausen took command. Bettenhausen, who finished a career-best tenth the previous year, looked to better the result in his fifth start at Indianapolis.

Gary Bettenhausen

Gary Bettenhausen once again challenged for an Indy 500 victory, only to come up short.

On lap 54, Bettenhausen receives a challenge from the Leader Cards Eagle-Offy of Mike Mosley, but Mosley crashed in turn 4 two laps later and was left with burns to his hands, feet and face. Bettenhausen would continue in the lead.

Bettenhausen continues on in his McLaren-Offy and leads 115 of the next 119 laps. Just as the Illinois native appears to have victory within his grasp, disaster strikes. The car is slowed due to ignition problems on lap 176, before his day finally ends six laps later.

The race lead is handed over to the All-American Racers Eagle-Offy of Jerry Grant, the only driver aside from Mosley to contend with Bettenhausen, with 25 laps to go. Grant makes his final pit stop of the day 13 laps from the finish, but misses his pit stall. Grant gets fuel from the pit stall of teammate Bobby Unser.

Grant continues on and attempts to run down Donohue, who had inherited the lead in the shuffle, but is penalized by USAC for illegal fueling. Grant’s car was not scored after his lap 188 stop and he is relegated to 12th in the final running order.

Donohue, meanwhile, opens up a massive lead on Al Unser and pulls away from the two-time winner to collect his first 500 win. Donohue wins at a record average race speed of 162. 962 miles per hour, a mark that would stand until 1984. The win is also the first for car owner Roger Penske, with whom Donohue had driven for since 1966.

Analysis

More than 45 years later, the 56th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing still holds a special place in history. Here’s a look at some of the key factors from the race and how things progressed after the checkered flag.

Mark Donohue
Perhaps the earliest star of the Penske dynasty, Donohue and Penske had partnered together for victories in Can-Am and NASCAR in addition to IndyCar success. After the 1973 season in which Donohue won the inaugural IROC (International Race of Champions), the New Jersey native briefly retired. In 1975, Donohue and Penske teamed up again to venture into Formula 1.

Tragically, Donohue would lose his life after a practice crash at the Austrian Grand Prix in August of that year. Donohue’s engineering prowess and smooth driving style remain an integral piece of his legacy as a top racer.

Team Penske
Although it would be seven years before Roger Penske’s team would claim victory at Indianapolis, the 1972 victory proved to be the start of the most dominant team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Penske’s teams have combined to win 16 Indianapolis 500s and 17 poles for the prestigious race, both record highs for a team at Indy.

Jim Nabors at the 1972 Indianapolis 500

Jim Nabors performing Back Home Again in Indiana for the first time in 1972, reading lyrics from a piece of paper.

Jim Nabors
Also of note from the 1972 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was the beginning of a new tradition.

Added on as a last-minute replacement, Jim Nabors, known mainly as Gomer Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show, sang “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” before the race. Nabors’ rendition of the song would become one of the most anticipated moments of race day, as Nabors performed the honor at nearly every race from 1972 until his retirement following the 2014 race.

In a decade that saw many legendary names etched onto the Borg-Warner Trophy, Mark Donohue’s is one that appears just once, but barely begins to tell the story of his racing legacy.

Gary Bettenhausen
The other end of Penske’s story at the 1972 Indianapolis 500 is Gary Bettenhausen. Following the heartbreak of 1972, Bettenhausen finished fifth for Penske in the 1973 Indy 500.

Seven years later, Bettenhausen would complete a remarkable run from 33rd to finish second to Johnny Rutherford in the 1980 Indy 500. Bettenhausen also recorded the fastest qualifying time for the 1991 race, but would start 12th and finish 22nd. After making two more starts at the Indianapolis 500 and a final start at the 1996 US 500, the popular racer retired.

Jerry Grant
Also within the category of heartbreaks from the race, Grant would come back to the Speedway, but not come close to his previous success. His best finish in the four starts after was a 10th in 1974; his best overall was seventh in 1970. The Washington state native would see his best career start of 14th in 1975, but would leave the sport two years later.

Spencer Neff

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