By: Spencer Neff
May 15, 2019 | 8:54 AM
Much of the Indianapolis 500’s appeal to the fans, competitors and many others affiliated with the race is its history. The 500-mile race is steeped in traditions, many of which date back to the inaugural running in 1911.
Interestingly enough, one of the traditions that has become most meaningful at Indy is one that changed and evolved. The race’s constant shifts in technology, favorite drivers and more help make it enjoyable for generations to cherish it.
Today, IndyCar Flashback will examine the 1977 Indianapolis 500. As the month started, new milestones became the talk of the race. When the 200-lap event was done, it was a long-time favorite who would make history.
Foyt wins fourth in historic “500”
Before the green flag on Race Day, the 61st Indianapolis 500 already became one for the record books. For the first time, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was entirely repaved. With the smooth new surface, talk of a 200 mph lap in time trials began to spread.
Penske Racing’s Tom Sneva would be the one to eclipse the mark, doing so on the first two laps of his four-lap qualification run. With an average speed of 198.884, Sneva would start on the pole for the first time.
On Bump Day, more history was made. After falling short a year earlier, sports car winner Janet Guthrie qualified for the race, becoming the first woman to do so.
After the team’s decision to have Kay Bignotti start the car, IMS President Tony Hulman delivered a new command.
Hulman would declare “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.”
At the start, Al Unser celebrated his 38th birthday by taking the early lead. Early on in the event, attrition played a major factor. Johnny Rutherford, winner of the 1974 and 1976 races, overreved his engine and would finish 33rd, completing just 12 laps because of a gearbox failure.
Following her 26th-place start, Guthrie experienced engine issues. After completing just 27 laps, her day ended in 29th. With sweltering conditions also taking its toll, 1973 winner Gordon Johncock surged and took command of the race early on.
With the first round of pit stops complete, three-time winner A.J. Foyt took control of the race. In pursuit of a record fourth win in the race, Foyt led 27 of the next 30 laps. On Lap 35, Lloyd Ruby crashed in Turn 2 and was out of the race.
Considered by many as the best driver to never win the Indianapolis 500, Ruby did not make another IndyCar start. Following Ruby’s crash, there would not be another significant accident during the day.
On Lap 49, Eldon Rasmussen’s spin brought out the yellow. When the race went green, Johncock got past Foyt to take command of the race. Over the next 133 laps, the Patrick Racing driver led 125 – in addition to the 4 he led earlier.
Despite the overwhelming heat and humidity, Johncock seemed poised to earn his second win in five years. After Foyt took the lead during the final round of pit stops, Johncock would regain the top spot.
On Lap 185, a cloud of smoke billowed from the back of Johncock’s Wildcat. With his engine failing, he ended the day in 11th, despite leading 129 laps.
With Johncock out, Foyt went on to win his record fourth Indianapolis 500 a decade after his third – breaking a tie with Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer, and Mauri Rose. In second, Sneva recorded his career-best result to that point, 29.63 seconds behind Foyt.
After finishing 10th, Tom’s younger brother Jerry earned Rookie of the Year honors. In 1978, Tom upped his pole speed to 202.156 mph. Following his 1983 win in the race, he also became the first driver to eclipse the 210 mph mark in 1984.
Despite the historic achievements of Foyt, the Snevas and Guthrie, the race also had some tragic circumstances.
Earlier in the month, “Voice of the 500” Sid Collins passed away. Turn 1 announcer Paul Page took over as the IMS Radio Network’s lead announcer and became a fixture at the track.
From 1977 to 1987, Page held the role (doing so again from 2014 to 2016). In 1988, he was tapped to lead ABC’s television coverage of the race (doing so from 1988 to 1998 and 2002 to 2004).
In October of 1977, Tony Hulman passed away. Since then, his post-race pace car ride with Foyt has become an iconic moment in the race’s history.
Ten years after Foyt’s win, Al Unser equaled his mark with a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. In 1991, Rick Mears would also join the four-time winners club at the Indianapolis 500. Interestingly enough, Foyt’s win is also the last time a winning car was built entirely in America.
Guthrie returned to the speedway the following two years, with a best finish of ninth in 1978. Following her appearances, the Indianapolis 500 went 12 years without a female driver in the event.
In 1992, Lyn St. James made her debut (first female Rookie of the Year). Since then, only two editions of the race have not featured a female driver and three within the last decade have featured four.
Header Image By IMS/INDYCAR.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.