IT WAS COLD AND DREARY and raining in College Station on the eve of the Texas Twin 200's at the Texas World Speedway. It didn't look like racing weather and it didn't feel like racing weather, but everyone was very determined and hopeful that the races could be run. The promoters had been beating the gong for months, publicizing the event. This was to be the first ever U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) Championship race with its Indianapolis-type cars in Texas. The track was being billed as the world's fastest and, indeed, some of the cars had been turning laps over 200 miles per hour in practice.
The greatest drivers in USAC racing were there: drivers like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Roger McCluskey and Lloyd Ruby. The real bigshots. Of course this didn't come as any surprise to anyone who knew anything about racing. There are only eleven races on the Championship tour and the drivers can be pretty well counted on to show up. For some reason they are not like pro golfers who get tired and have to take off a week every month or so. Perhaps golf is more demanding.
Texas World Speedway is fast because it's so highly banked. It's four degrees higher than the Michigan track, formerly the highest banked track on the circuit. The drivers don't like it at all. They won't always say this to be printed in the newspapers, but that's what they think. Mainly, they don't think it's a fit track for Champ cars. They believe the high banking makes it more suitable for stock cars. And the look of the track does give the impression that it's a poorly disguised compromise between the glamour draw of the occasional Champ car race and the bread and butter stocks that can be run almost any time. Before sanctioning, the USAC officials called it a course for stock cars. Afterwards, however, they began laboriously to paint a different picture, the main blue-sky being that it was the "fastest in the world." But, then, the officials didn't have to do any of the driving.
The day before a race there's not much to do. The qualifying had been the day before and the cars had been locked up, not to be started again until the day of the race. The rain and general dreary conditions only seemed to emphasize this restless lassitude. The drivers mostly stayed in their rooms with their wives or girlfriends. A few could be seen during the day in the hotel coffee shops and restaurants, where they studied the weather with great interest. The drivers had a lot on the line—the need to get in a race car and drive it just as fast as it would go. The reason for this need is something they could know, perhaps, but certainly wouldn't, or couldn't, articulate. But the race at Phoenix the previous week had been rained out and they were all very hungry to get the season started and to get a car out on the track in competition.
They had a shrimp boil and beer bust that night at the National Guard Armory for the drivers and the press. Very seldom do all the big name drivers come to these functions. Generally they pass the duty around among themselves. This night Bobby Unser had drawn the black bean and he was there, very friendly, very willing to talk to anyone who had anything to ask him. But it was a press occasion and he had on his public face and attitude. He answered, patiently and willingly, all the stock questions with the stock responses: yes, he was glad to be in Texas; yes, he liked the track; yes, it was fast; yes, his car was ready; no, he wasn't taking anything for granted and he'd be watching for Andretti and Foyt and the others. Occasionally, though, you'd catch him glancing at his watch with a drawn, anxious look on his face as if he couldn't wait to get away and get by himself and think about the race to come. He'd won the pole position by virtue of a qualifying speed of 212.766 mph, three miles faster than Gary Bettenhausen who was on the outside of the first row.
All during that evening a Western string band cranked out the standard country hits, barely overriding the noise level from the conversation at the long tables piled with strongly aromatic shrimp. Mike Hiss, the USAC rookie-of-the-year for 1972, was at one of the tables with his wife and a few friends who had flown in with him from California. In a way, Hiss seemed out of place. He does not look like most of the drivers, the majority of whom have come out of garages and pit crews. Hiss didn't come up the small track, dirt track route. He'd been a road racer, driving the kind of cars associated with Graham Hill and Jackie Clark and other gentlemen of the track. Hiss is tall and thin with slim hands and a long-nosed, aristocratic face. He just misses being handsome. The USAC officials like to refer to him as the "glamour boy" of the circuit, mainly because he'd been a centerfold in Playgirl Magazine . He doesn't like to talk about that, however, and you quickly get the impression that he wishes he hadn't done it.
Hiss, at first, seems gentle and quiet, nothing like a man who runs those thunderbolts 200 miles per hour. But then you start talking racing and he erupts. "Like it? Like racing? Damn right I do. I love it. That's all I want to do. I mean, what else is there?"
I have asked a lot of drivers if they are scared, if they race in fear. None of them has ever said he was. With most of them I never believed it; but when Hiss said he wasn't scared, I believed him.
"Even over 200 miles per hour? That's awfully fast."