WALTZ: The First CART Indy Car Race

Keith Waltz Mug
Keith Waltz.

HARRISBURG, N.C. — Forty-two years ago this month there was a seismic shift in the American motorsports landscape when Gordon Johncock won the first race organized by the new Championship Auto Racing Teams car owners group.

Prior to the March 11, 1979, event at Phoenix Raceway, Indy car racing had been the exclusive province of the United States Auto Club.

Johncock’s triumph in the Arizona Republic/Jimmy Bryan 150 was his fifth at the one-mile track and came as a complete surprise to the 1973 Indianapolis 500 winner who struggled with a malfunctioning radio. The 42-year-old Johncock thought he had lost the lead seven laps from the finish when Al Unser drove around him to get back on the lead lap.

“I didn’t know I had won until I saw Al pull onto the pit apron a lap after the checkered flag,” said Johncock, who wheeled the No. 20 North American Van Lines Penske PC6/Cosworth V-8 owned by U.E. “Pat” Patrick.

The victory marked the first time that a Penske-built Indy car had beaten Roger Penske’s own equipment to the checkered flag.

Rick Mears, driving a new Gould Charge Penske PC7, finished 1.3 seconds behind Johncock with Johnny Rutherford claiming the show money. Al Unser and Bobby Unser rounded out the top five as cars owned by CART board members swept the top seven positions.

The statistics show Johncock completed the 150-mile distance in 1 hour, 15 minutes and 23.016 seconds at an average speed of 119.389 mph. There were four caution flags for 25 laps and four lead changes among three drivers. Johncock earned $18,670 from the $75,000 purse.

Bobby Unser, driving Roger Penske’s Norton Spirit, started from the pole and led the first competitive lap in CART-racing history. Fourteen of the 21 cars were still running when starter Nick Fornoro waved the checkered flag.

There were six Offy-powered entries in the field with 10th-place finisher Larry Rice best among the four-cylinder brigade.

Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt showed his allegiance to USAC by leaving his Indy car in the race shop and winning the USAC stock car season opener at Texas World Speedway.

In the March 14 edition of his Editor’s Notebook, Chris Economaki wrote, “The Championship Auto Racing Teams — SCCA premiere apparently went off very well with those present complimenting the organizers on the smoothness of the proceedings. It’s too bad the TV show did not parallel the CART modus operandi. The only complaint came in the area of scoring, some press types saying it was too long a wait for official results.”

CART oversaw 401 Indy car races before it filed bankruptcy and ceased operations following the 2003 season. Founded in 1996 as the Indy Racing League, the NTT Indy Car Series has been the lone sanctioning body for Indy car racing since it merged with CART’s replacement, the Champ Car World Series, prior to the 2008 season.

– It’s rare when a longtime short-track racer is able to walk away from the sport on his terms. That’s why we are thrilled to see Jac Haudenschild and Rico Abreu join forces for select sprint car events during what is planned to be the Wild Child’s final season of riding the cushion.

There was a sense of desperation in Haud’s voice when we talked late last year. He didn’t want to continue fielding his own car and he didn’t want to simply walk away from the sport that has been his life for more than 45 years.

Driving Abreu’s No. 24 car, Haudenschild has the opportunity to thrill his legion of fans a few more times — and he might even win a race or two. Wouldn’t that be the icing on the cake?

– A tip of the hat to SPEED SPORT colleague Jacob Seelman for being selected Media Member of the Year by the voting panel of the 410 Sprint Car Poll. It’s hard to find anyone in a pit area who can match the level of passion and dedication Jacob has for the sport of auto racing.