The World’s Fastest Automobile Race

Mike Hiss says that 220 mph isn't really that fast. Don't you believe him.

June 1973By Comments

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.”

He just shrugged. “It doesn’t seem that much faster, not when everyone is running about the same.”

In the week before the race A. J. Foyt had been talking in the newspapers about the speeds becoming unsafe. All you can do, he’d said, is point the car and pray. USAC is going to have to do something, maybe change the rules. We’re going too fast, he’d said.

But Hiss wasn’t buying any of that. “That’s Foyt,” he’d commented. “Trying to psyche everyone out. He hopes everyone else will slow down. But you watch the race and see if he does. No, we’re not having any of Mister Foyt’s moves.”

Hiss would be starting in last place. He’d been turning laps at 198 during practice, sufficient to move him well up in the starting grid. But, on his second qualifying lap, his car had jumped out of gear. When that happens the engine over revs and blows. So that was where he was, out of the race, until mechanical attrition began knocking other cars out. Finally they’d had to draw for a spot and Hiss had won it. That very night his crew had worked straight through putting in a new engine. Now he was happy, very happy, that he could run. “I’ll suck those babies up” he said. “It’ll be hard, but I’ll pass four cars in the first lap.”

It had stopped raining late that night when I ran into a young man I’d been looking for for two years. It was Tom Sneva, whom I’d met at the Phoenix race track when he was getting his first Champ car ride. He’d been a sprint car champion on the West Coast, but Champ car rides are hard to come by. Rollo Volstedt had given him his spare car to see if he could qualify it. Sneva had tried desperately, but the car was a sled and just wouldn’t run up to speed. In the next season I’d watched eagerly for him in the newspapers, but there hadn’t been a word. Now here he was, sitting tiredly over a glass of milk and a piece of pie at the Castle Lorna motel. For some reason I’d overlooked his name in the starting lineup. He’d qualified well, starting 17th in the field of 26. He was just now in his second Champ car. It was something of a coincidence that I’d been present, at such divergent points and times, both times he was running.

He said he’d been getting along all right. When no one would give him another chance, he’d gone back to the sprint cars. Finally, with time running out, a group in his home town of Sprague, Washington, had formed a syndicate and bought him a car. But it was still a very poor-boy operation. Sneva, his father and two other men had trailered the car down from Washington. He was not only the driver, he was also one of the mechanics, in contrast to the sponsored teams which had crews of 12 and more for each car. He was tired because they’d been working 24 hours straight trying to correct some oil leaks in the engine. “It’s a real ratty engine,” he said. “There’s drivers out here wouldn’t even use it for a practice engine.”

But he was in the field, and he’d be running.

When I’d met him in Phoenix, Sneva had been a math teacher at the high school in his home town. He’d shown me, then, a telegram from his ninth grade class. It had said something about how they were pulling for him and they knew he could win. He put the telegram back in his pocket with a wistful look. “They don’t understand” he said. “They’ve seen me win on the little dirt tracks and they think this is the same.” He shook his head and laughed. “I hope they’re not too disappointed. But they just don’t understand the difference.”

But it was different. Now he was in the race and he was no longer the math teacher. Now he was the principal of the high school. He frowned. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. If we get the money, we’re going to Indianapolis. I guess I’ll have to quit the school and just race. It’s a big chance, but . . .”

Race drivers live in an isolated world. They are so surrounded by a solid coterie of fans and hangers on that they seem to gain a distorted view of life and their own worth and the scheme and importance of all things. This is not their fault. They seldom live an ordinary life of home and family and everyday happenings. Their world is the road and travel and hotel rooms and coffee shops and race tracks and a constant exposure to the most adoring fans in the world. You can hardly be surprised if they regard themselves as being the center of the only world they know. A large bullfrog in a small pond thinks of himself as master of all he surveys. Never mind how poor his eyesight is.

In the garages, at the track, the mechanics were starting up the incredibly beautiful racing machines. They made a fulsome roar in the enclosed space, not as loud, because of the blowers, as they used to be, but still loud enough so that talking was difficult. Walter Cunningham, the astronaut, was standing around looking at Johnny Rutherford’s machine. He asked vaguely, “Anyone seen Roger Penske?” No one answered him or paid the slightest attention. In the garages he was just another fan who happened to have enough pull to get into the inner sanctum.

They rolled the cars out onto the track about an hour before race time, lining them up in 13 rows of two cars each. In the 500-mile races there are 33 cars which form up in 11 rows of three each. The drivers had been called to a drivers’ meeting in the lounge where the various officials would give them sundry instructions, all of which they’d heard a hundred times before. The meeting was not long. Mike Hiss came out and headed into a phone booth to call his wife back at the motel. I sat on a nearby railing, watching him laughing and talking into the phone. He struck me as having that one fundamental quality that all great drivers must have: the total absence of fear and the competitive urge that is sometimes called the killer instinct. When he got off the phone, I asked him what they’d said in the drivers’ meeting. He shrugged: “Same old stuff.”

“No particular instructions for this track?”

“No.” He looked around. “Well, excuse me. I’ve got to go get something to eat and get dressed.”

Not all the drivers eat before the race. I suspect it’s not so much because of the old bullfighter fear of greeting an accident with a full stomach as it is nerves which rob them of their appetite.

The weather that Saturday was clear but cool. There was still dampness in the air, which meant the cars would run faster. Speed conditions were ideal. An adage in racing is that speed falls about a mile an hour for every five degrees above 80. That’s why it’s important to draw an early qualifying number; the later in the afternoon you make your run the slower you’re probably going to go.

They did all the normal, silly formalities; introducing a wealth of people in a seemingly endless line. At times you wondered what these people had to do with racing, other than getting their name mentioned in front of a crowd of racing fans. The crowd stood it with good humor for a while, but, finally, began to catcall and yell for the race to start. Outside the track long lines of cars were still snaking over the muddy parking area. On the highway that led into the two narrow entrances to the track, cars were backed up for four and five miles in each direction. It seemed that, while the promoters had hoped for a large crowd, they weren’t ready to handle one. Out in the infield a chartered bus was stuck in the deep mud. It rocked back and forth, roaring, while the PA kept up its endless drone and the drivers stood restlessly by their cars.

Champ car races are started with a running start. The cars circle the track until the starter feels they’re lined up properly. Then he drops the green flag.

It took five laps to get a start. Gordon Johncock lost a wheel on the second lap, but he was able to drive back to his pits and get it replaced before the race started.

Bobby Unser was accelerating even before the flag dropped. It seemed as if he’d been able to anticipate the starter. He led the field, roaring loudly now down the straight in front of the main grandstand. Gary Bettenhausen, outside on the first row, tried valiantly to outgun Unser and take the lead coming off the first turn. But Unser was too quick. He carried Bettenhausen high as they raced into the first turn, slipped down into the groove, and pulled away, increasing his lead perceptibly. You could see, from the way he was handling the corners, that his car had been set up perfectly for the track.

When you speak of a car being tuned up or dialed in, you are speaking of the chassis. It is understood the $35-45,000 engines are in tune. A chassis is tuned by minute adjustments in the suspension and steering and other running gear. It is a slow and tedious process, involving hours in the garage and on the track. A car is tuned both for the style of the driver and for the particular track. But it goes even further than that. Since each corner is run differently, the crew will work to achieve the best balance they can, consciously giving away perfection, say, in turn four in order to get around turn two better. For the big races, the three 500-milers, up to 30 days is given to preparing the car. In the shorter races there is not that much time, and preparation usually has to be accomplished in four or five days. The big teams have two cars for their drivers: a car basically set up for the shorter races and another, probably better, that they use to run the 500’s.

It quickly became obvious that Bobby Unser had the best car in the field this day. With seeming ease he continued to open his lead over Bettenhausen. Back in the tail end of the roaring line of cars Mike Hiss was doing what he’d said he’d do, passing four cars on the first lap. Because of the jumbled qualifying there were a number of slower cars between him and the leaders. Swede Savage, who’d also qualified by virtue of the draw after losing a rod in the qualifying, was running strongly at Hiss’ side. They’d agreed beforehand on their strategy. Their initial concern was to make sure they didn’t get tangled up with each other as they pushed their faster cars past their immediate neighbors. It had been decided that Savage would go low and Hiss, having a looser set up car, would run the high groove.

Hiss was doing just that as he came barreling out of turn four, passing a car very near the wall. He got through, but just barely, and the crowd screamed with exhilaration as he came flying down the main flat, already gaining on the car in the 21st position.

The morning before the race Gary Bettenhausen and a few of his mechanics were having lunch in a nearby motel. At another table a young mother was having trouble with her four sons, aged around 10 to 14. The oldest had a deck of cards in his hand that he kept dealing around. As he did the mother would pick up the cards and hand them back to him. “I told you,” she said firmly, “that you ain’t dealin’ no blackjack at the dinner table. Now put them cards in your pocket.”

She caught the attention of Bettenhausen and he watched, grinning. The woman was like a lot you see around the race tracks, pretty, but with a hard face and knowing eyes. She was probably the wife of one of the mechanics. Bettenhausen called something across to her and she shrugged. “I don’t know what to do with these boys,” she said. The boys looked over at Bettenhausen, recognizing him, but not too impressed. One of them said to Gary, “I’m going to be a doctor until I make enough money to buy my own race car. Then I’m going to beat you.”

Tom Sneva was having trouble with his car. It wasn’t running up to speed. Something seemed wrong in the electrical somewhere. In his rear-view mirror he could see Savage and Hiss bearing down on him. They were high and low so there was no way he could move over to let them pass. Turn one was corning up, but his car was running so under-powered there wasn’t even a need to shut off to set up for the corner. He could just run it full throttle.

There is so much good to racing it seems absurd that such a fat lot of the ludicrous and silly must also be included. What the drivers do in going out to the edge challenges the idea that man must be mortal, and enobles triumph for all of us. It would be better if racing could be left at that, with its shining shaft of courage untainted by all the officiousness and commercialism. But that is not how it is. The commercialism might be understood: racing costs a lot of money and the sponsors—the Firestones and Purolators and Shell and Bell Helmets—must be placated and massaged and catered to since their money makes the sport possible. But it does not seem necessary that there be the endless and wearying mumbo-jumbo of the officious insider. In no other sport is there such an obese layer of insiders jealous of their position and constantly jockeying and elbowing to be sure that they stay a little further on the inside than anyone else.

There are, it seems, thousands of officials at a USAC race. Very, very few of these are paid. Most are moderately well-to-do men who are fascinated by racing and who pay their own expenses to come. USAC finds an unending number of jobs for these men because they are what keeps USAC going with their dues and their contributions. However, the jobs are largely unnecessary. Perhaps this is what makes the people who hold them so little, or seem so little. They have a protective instinct, holding on to every tangible evidence of their own importance that they can.

While I was down in the garages I got to wondering what the prize money would be. I spotted a USAC official and walked over and asked him. He told me it was on a percentage of the gate basis. I told him I knew that, but that I also knew there was a guarantee and I wondered what that might be.

He said: “I better not say.”

I said, “Listen, I can go right up there in the press box and ask. Save me the walk.”

But he answered, “I better not say.”

“You mean you don’t know.”

“Oh, I know all right” he answered with a satisfied look.

“Then tell me. Is it some big secret?”

“I haven’t been released to give out that information,” he replied. Then he turned around and walked off, holding his tiny secret pressed to his breast. A little later I happened to see a program. The information I wanted was right there, public knowledge.

On the 18th lap Mike Hiss suddenly felt his car begin to lose power. He’d moved up ten places, driving with a quiet, intense ferocity. He could feel how right he was, how melded he was with the car and the track. Then came the almost imperceptible slowing down. Looking back he could see a few faint wisps of smoke from his tail pipe. He felt sick. Oh no, he thought, just keep running, car. Don’t fail.

The leaders had settled into the groove of Unser and Bettenhausen and Rutherford and Foyt. Then Foyt had to go to the pits with engine trouble and the field changed. All of a sudden Bill Vukovitch hit the wall between turns three and four. He cut a tire on the rough track and his car was abruptly into the concrete. For an infinity the car scraped down the wall, pieces flying in all directions, dust rising. Then Vukovitch got it under control and steered the wreck down toward the infield. He came to rest on three wheels, the car tipped over at a drunken angle.

The yellow flag immediately came out and the field slowed. As many cars as could took advantage of the occasion to make a routine pit stop for more gas and a change of rubber on the right side.

They ran under the flag for seven laps. When the green came on, Tom Sneva slammed in the throttle and his car almost died under him. With the racer jumping and missing, Sneva went down to the edge of the apron and eased around the track until he could make it into the pits. He stayed in the car while his crew frantically tried to find the trouble. A few feet away the healthy racers were whizzing by, their muted exhausts bugling out their speed and power. Finally Sneva felt a hand on his shoulder indicating he should switch off. He did and, in spite of the noise from the track, there came a sudden quiet as his engine died. One of the mechanics was looking at him and shaking his head. “Broken points,” he said, in the lull. Sneva looked at him. “Can’t we put another set in? Anything?”

The mechanic shook his head. “We don’t have another set” he said painfully.

“Oh,” Sneva said. He climbed slowly out of the car and stood looking down at it. For a five dollar set of points he was out of the race. That’s what it meant to go racing on a shoestring. There was just no chance.

Roger McCluskey was running along fretfully in seventh place. He was able to hold off those chasing him, but his car just wouldn’t turn up enough clicks to catch the leaders.

All of a sudden Bobby Unser, the leader, went out with ignition trouble. Rutherford moved temporarily into the lead, but soon lost it to Bettenhausen. Then Bettenhausen had to pit and lost the lead to Al Unser.

Mike Hiss could see the smoke increasing out his tail pipe. He was expecting the black flag at any lap from the starter. As he came booming off turn four he saw the starter, leaning far out in his little tower over the track. The starter was pointing at Hiss, then unfurling a black flag and waving it. That was it. Hiss worked his way lower, slowing to avoid interfering with any cars still racing. He circled the track and pulled into his pits. When he shut off his engine one of his crewmen said: “You were leaking oil.” Hiss nodded. He’d known it all along. All he could do now was wait for another race on another day. This one was over.

The field dwindled from the original 26. Foyt was out, Andretti was out. Art Pollard broke a suspension bar and went out. Rick Muther caught on fire and came tumbling headfirst out of his car before it had completely stopped rolling. On the 69th lap, with only 13 cars remaining, Al Unser took the lead. Mike Mosely and Gary Bettenhausen were right behind him. Johnny Rutherford was running strongly in fourth place. Unser’s car did not seem to be as fast as Mosely’s and Bettenhausen’s. But he held them off as lap after lap unwound, skillfully using the traffic to block their attempts to pass. Mosely seemed to have the fastest car, but Unser was outdriving him in the corners.

The yellow came on with only ten laps to go. The cars slowed and began to bunch as the pace car came out to lead them around the track. Unser was still leading with Mosely tight on his shoulder and Bettenhausen just behind. In turn three the safety crew was frantically trying to clean up debris from Swede Savage’s car that had littered the track when he blew an engine. The end of the race came nearer as the laps mounted under the yellow. The crowd was growing restive, fearful that the race would finish under the caution flag. At lap 96 they began booing and waving at the pace car to get off the track. Then the pack turned another lap and the starter signaled for one more. The pace car sped up and pulled off the track.

The pace was now under the control of the leader, Unser. The crowd was half on its feet, anticipating a dog fight finish among the leaders. Unser took the field through turn one, then two. He seemed to be slowing the pace even more than that set by the pace car. Suddenly, as they came out of turn two he hit the accelerator and jumped far ahead of Mosely and Bettenhausen. Far across the field, on the back stretch, you could see him pulling away, one hundred, two hundred yards. It seemed forever before Mosely and then Bettenhausen reacted.

As Unser came out of turn four the starter gave him the green flag. Behind him Bettenhausen, still far behind, was passing Mosely.

There was no race after that. Unser’s lead was too great. Bettenhausen made up a lot of ground, but Unser took the checkered flag, the winner.

But the crowd didn’t like it. As Unser wheeled his car into the winner’s circle they gave him a solid round of boos. They thought, mistakenly, that what Unser had done, jumping out under the yellow, was illegal. But this wasn’t so. It is up to the leader to set the pace, no matter how he chooses to do it. Some of the drivers, however, didn’t agree, at least not with the ethics. Bettenhausen, incensed, said: “What Al did was dirty pool. He slowed way down in turns one and two, making Mosely slow down so much that he lost blower pressure. Then when Al stomped on it, Mike couldn’t run. And since we were still under the yellow I had to hold up until it was plain Mike couldn’t hold the pace before I could pass him. That was lowdown of Unser.”

But Unser just shrugged. “So what?”

The crowd, however, was still arguing about it in the hours it took to clear the parking lots. Some of them felt that one of their heroes had tarnished his shine a little. Real heroes didn’t do such things. That was for the cut-throat arena of work-a-day life.

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