The Unique 1981 Pocono 500

Pocono 500
A.J. Foyt (14) battles a dirt car on track at Pocono Raceway during the 1981 Pocono 500.

Two years into the battle initiated in 1979 between USAC and the upstart CART for control of Indy car tracks, car owners and drivers, USAC seemed on the losing end.

CART had scooped up the best teams and drivers and with them, the top tracks.

USAC still had the crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500, but by 1981 the rest of the USAC schedule consisted of only three dirt miles and Pocono Raceway. And Pocono was in trouble with a shortage of entries for its 500-miler.

Before the split, Pocono traditionally started 33 cars. A week before the June 21 race, only 19 cars were entered and several of those entries were questionable in nature.

To address the issue, USAC decided to fill the Pocono field with championship dirt cars. The rumor of such a turn of events had circulated for days and driver Mark Alderson made a point of being in the USAC office when the decision was announced.

“I immediately left and went to A.J. Watson’s shop,” Alderson recalled. “A.J. loaned me everything I needed to get the car ready for the 500-mile race. Pit equipment, everything.”
Alderson had never driven a dirt car on pavement. However, he often raced pavement sprint cars and readied the Grant King car owned by Steve Enslow, accordingly.

“I started on the car right away,” explained Alderson, “and, worked on it every day flat out. Rides heights, spring rates, gearing. I got a Steve Stapp nose for the car. It had a small aerodynamic lip on the underneath side to prevent lift at high speeds.

“That was a big asset once we got to Pocono,” continued Alderson. “I remember Larry Rice kept the standard nose on his car and it lifted so much the front end was practically flying down the stretch. He got a lot of thrills.”

Besides Alderson, there were eight other dirt cars entered at Pocono. As anticipated, the difference in speed between the upright dirt cars and the Indy cars was significant.

According to Alderson, that difference wasn’t down the straightaways, as might be expected, but through the turns.

“We were probably running 180 to 185 mph at the end of the straight,” said Alderson. “And when the Indy cars passed us, it wasn’t that dramatic. They’d motor on by, but only 15 to 20 mph faster. It wasn’t alarming or anything.

“But in the middle of the turns, they were phenomenally faster. The dirt cars had to brake heavily for the corners. They didn’t. When they came by six inches off your tires, it was swoosh, and they were gone. It sucked your shorts right over your head.”

Besides speed, the dirt cars were at another disadvantage — pit stops. The dirt cars were refueled with a funnel from plastic dump cans. In the interest of safety, drivers had to kill their engines and get out of their cars while refueling.

Alderson’s car, however, resembled the Indy cars’ refueling setup, complete with a refueling bung in the side of the tank and a dry-brake coupler. Initially, that created consternation between he and USAC officials.

“They informed us at the drivers’ meeting that we all had to get out of the cars while refueling,” explained Alderson. “I said I shouldn’t have to because my car was set up like the Indy cars. They said it didn’t matter, that all the dirt cars were under one set of rules.

“I said, ‘Listen, there are not two classes of cars here. Today, they’re all Indy cars. Even your entry forms specify this is an Indy car race. My car’s equipped so it can safely be refueled. There’s no difference.’”

Alderson won the argument.

There were still doubts, however, whether Alderson would actually race. Car owner Enslow wanted to start and then park. Too much could go drastically wrong with an upright car racing for 500 miles on a 2.5-mile track.

But racers are racers. On race morning Enslow relented, telling Alderson, “We’re going to go for it. We’re going to do everything we can do.”

During the race, the dirt-track cars raced among themselves and tried not to create problems for the Indy cars.

“With the huge differences in speed, you better have your mind straight,” Alderson said. “The attitude I adopted was that I would run against the race track. Run as hard as I could, but not do anything stupid.”

That plan paid off. Shortened to 122 laps because of rain, A.J. Foyt won. Alderson ended up 11th, the top finisher among the dirt cars.