Forty years ago, not unlike today, Roger, “The Captain”, Penske, appeared to have the field covered for the 1971 Indianapolis 500.
The Penske ziggurat was still a year away from winning its first 500, but Mark Donohue in Penske’s beautiful blue, yellow trimmed, Sunoco sponsored McLaren came out of the box fast, and remained fast. In the two weeks of practice leading up to Pole Day, Donohue was quickest in nearly every session.
At a time when winning the Pole at Indianapolis was as important as winning most other races, Donohue didn’t go unchallenged in his pursuit of that prestigious starting spot.
The usual contenders were scrambling after him, but they weren’t even close. While Foyt, Andretti, and the Unsers were running 174-175 mile per hour laps, on May 13th, Donohue turned an astounding 180 mph circuit. While unofficial, it was the first sub-50 second lap in Speedway history.
Even the factory McLaren’s couldn’t touch Donohue’s speed. On what is now known as Fast Friday, Peter Revson set quick time in his Gulf sponsored McLaren, at 175.5. Still, he was five mph slower than Donohue. Team Penske was so confident that they never took their car out of the garage.
“I’ve been scratching around 175, 176,” admitted Revson after his quick lap, “and I must admit that I’m beginning to wonder what they (Penske) got.”
Compounding Revson’s concern was the fact that his turbocharged Offy blew just as practice ended for the day. It would take an all-nighter by his team, and Champion Spark Plugs’ engine master, Dick Jones, to get the car ready for the next day.
Pole day evolved much as expected. Foyt was the first of the top drivers to take to the track, and his run of 174.317 easily bested the old record, 171.599, set by Joe Leonard driving the STP turbine in 1968.
But, “Tex” only had a moment to savor his accomplishment. Donohue powered out of the pits even as Foyt was recounting his run on the public address system. As expected, Donohue shattered Foyt’s new record with a fast lap of 178.067, and an average of 177.087.
With Donohue’s run complete, the fans settled back to relax and soak up the May afternoon sun, certain that the excitement for the day was over. They watched, somewhat inattentively, as drivers attempted to make the big show. Some made it, some didn’t. Mike Mosley added some distraction by pounding the concrete on two different qualifying attempts.
In the meantime, unnoticed by most, a piece of drama was building as Peter Revson’s bright orange McLaren made its way down the qualifying line. The crew was still adjusting the car.
“I only had time to run a few practice laps this morning after we lost the engine yesterday,” Revson explained later, “and the crew was working on it until the time we rolled out of the pits,” They were tripping over battery carts and fire extinguishers every time we moved. And, if it hadn’t been for Mosley’s two wrecks, we would have been very close to not being ready.”
But, ready they were, and one of those defining moments that has helped create the mystique and aura of Indianapolis, was about to take place.
Revson took the green flag in front of an indifferent crowd, but when Tom Carnegie’s mellow, booming baritone began to call out, “It’s a new track record,” the Speedway erupted in bedlam. The monstrous crowd, as one, lunged to its feet, a roar in their throats. Revson was going for the Pole!
And he did it. He pulled off the seemingly impossible.
In the long history of Indianapolis, there had been few as clearly heads above the competition for Pole Day honors than Donohue was in 1971. Yet, there Donohue was, sitting in second place.
As Revson made his way down the long pit road, the crowd screamed their acclaim, and Revson pumped his arms in triumph. An underdog had beaten the favorite. David had slain Goliath.
The fans loved it. Team Penske stood stunned.
Before his untimely death in 1974, Peter Revson would go on to international acclaim, winning the 1971 CanAm championship, and becoming one of only a handful of American drivers to win multiple Formula One races.
But, his run for the pole that Saturday afternoon 40 years ago remains as a pivotal accomplishment, and an integral part of the 100-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.