1973 Indianapolis 500

This is what everyone has feared! This is why there’s been such a terrible atmosphere of fear here all weekend long! – Jim McKay, calling the Salt Walther crash on Monday, May 28, 1973

Despite the nature of the accident he had described above, little did Jim McKay realize just how deep that statement would ring true for the 1973 Indianapolis 500.

Pretty much every Indianapolis 500 aficionado whose memory goes back to the 1970s knows that the 1973 Indy 500 is generally regarded as the worst 500 ever; claiming three lives, taking three days to run, a dozen or so spectators injured, a driver disfigured, and the race never going the full 500 mile distance. So it came as a great surprise when ESPN Classic re-aired the 1973 race on August 12, 2011.

In recent years ESPN has been extremely stingy with Indy 500 broadcasts – prior to this year the only race from the 70s that saw rebroadcast was the 1971 race. ESPN tended to focus on a very select few from the 80s, and the 90s and 2000s.  But for the 100th anniversary  running this year they brought out a slew of telecasts that many of us original broadcast collectors thought might never see the light of day: 1967, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1977 (last half), 1978, 1979 (partial), 1980 and 1983 amongst others. It was a 500 fans delight!  We pretty much figured there was no chance in hell of 73 being shown.

By 1973 speeds had gone up about 30mph in just four years and in qualifying they were flirting with 200mph, with Johnny Rutherford coming up a hair short in his qualifying run that landed him on the pole. But drastic speed increases with minimal improvements in safety would take their toll. Popular veteran Art Pollard was killed on the first day of qualifying, setting the tone for the month of May, 1973.

The race – and the broadcast – were originally scheduled for Memorial Day, Monday, May 28th (The 500 up to that time had never run on Sunday – 1974 would see the first Sunday running of the 500). But the red flag due to rain after the aborted first start meant that there would be no race, and no broadcast on Monday. The race was rescheduled for Tuesday the 29th at 9:00 am, but ABC had no plans to televise the race that night. But Tuesday only saw them get as far as the pace lap before rain again washed things out. The race would be moved to Wednesday the 30th and ABC would pre-empt their Wednesday night lineup to broadcast the race. The story of the race would focus around the Patrick Racing Team: Drivers Gordon Johncock and Swede Savage, sponsor Andy Granatelli and his brother Vince, and chief mechanic George Bignotti.

Swede Savage, taken during the driver introductions.

From a personal perspective, 1973 was the first Indianapolis 500 I remember watching, although I was very aware of the 500, and had seen the speedway in person the previous year. Watching the broadcast, my imagination was quickly captured by a cool looking driver with a cool name and a cool looking car – I immediately picked Swede Savage as the driver I wanted to win the race.

The broadcast starts off with the parade lap from Monday and the aborted start which saw Salt Walther crash into the catch fence on the front straight and sent his car pinwheeling down the front straight upside down spewing fuel.  Walther lost most of the fingers on his left hand, and spent two-and-a-half months in a burn ward. When he impacted the catch fence, burning fuel sprayed into the crowd standing several deep along the fence, injuring approximately a dozen spectators. ABC showed emergency crews tending to the spectators, as well as Salt Walther. Dave Diles interviewed Jerry Grant, whom was directly involved as Walther’s car passed directly over him as it plowed into the fence. Jim McKay reported that two teenage girls were in serious conditions with burns from the fuel that sprayed into the crowd. The doom and gloom of the month was already weighing heavily on the participants, but the worst was yet to come.

Steve Krisiloff - blue car - forces his way up to the second row on the pace lap. Peter Revson, in the yellow/orange car at the top right, can also been seen having made his way up to the third row from row four.

The broadcast then touches on Tuesday’s rainout and McKay and Jackie Stewart spend a few minutes on the ragged start from Monday, which saw third row driver Steve Krisiloff move up to the second row, and Peter Revson and AJ Foyt who were in line behind Krisiloff also moved up a row. The footage clearly shows a second row with four cars approaching the start! Dave Diles reports on a meeting that had just taken place with drivers and USAC officials. He reports that one driver stood up and said: “Look, if you don’t shape up the start of this race, you’re going to get us all killed out there.” He goes on to say there were obscenities and name calling in the meeting.  The outcome of the meeting was that the restart would take place at no less than 100mph, vs the supposed 80mph on Monday (drivers stated there was no way they were going as fast as 80mph.)

The broadcast finally moves to Wednesday’s race. This part of the broadcast started sunny and with a more optimistic Jim McKay. Jackie Stewart had to leave for Monaco, and thus Chris Economaki took his place in the booth with McKay.  Despite the fact that several cars were involved in the Salt Walther wreck on Monday, all but Walther’s car were repaired and made the start on Wednesday.

1973 Indy 500 start

The field gets off cleanly on Wednesdays restart of the 500.

Chris Schenkel from ABC Sports reported on the parade and pace laps from inside the pace car with Jim Rathmann, astronaut Al Worden, and Dolly Cole (wife of GM CEO Ed Cole and the first female honorary referee at Indy since Amelia Earhardt), and the sparse-but-still impressive crowd sounds enthusiastic. The start was smooth and uneventful but on the second lap, as Bobby Allison’s engine blew, Jim McKay exclaims that there’s an accident on front straight, then quickly corrects himself with the addendum “we’ve been getting conditioned to that, I apologize.”

Bobby Unser lead early and Mark Donohue was a surprisingly strong second, keeping close pace with Unser. Over the course of the first 50 laps the lead was held by Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, and Swede Savage. During the first 50 lap segment, the broadcast was punctuated with side stories about pit stops (using Gary Bettenhausen as an example), speed increases, and drafting.

When they return from the drafting story, Savage and Al Unser are putting on a battle for the lead with Al eventually taking the lead from Savage at 55 laps. The broadcast misses Savage’s pit stop on lap 57 and this was a key omission, as Savage crashed on his out-lap with his car full of fuel, thus his crash comes as somewhat as a surprise as I was expecting to see his pitstop first.

Swede Savage accident

The track is blocked by the wreckage from Swede Savage's accident.

No matter how many times you’ve seen the footage of his crash, it doesn’t prepare you for the sudden, violent impact as you watch it play out as if it were happening live. Bobby Unser – much like in 1964 with the Sachs/MacDonald accident – barely gets through, while the car behind him (Jerry Grant?) comes to a complete stop because the track is so blocked by debris (bringing out the red flag again). McKay exclaims that it was “the worst thing I’ve seen anywhere”.  In the view from the turn four camera you can somewhat see Swede moving around in the debris on the left side of the track, and that there is a small fire. A pool of fuel starts to spread out from the car and a fireman comes across the track with a fire extinguisher. As the fireman sprays the extinguisher at the pool of fuel, the fuel erupts in a massive inferno that travels from the spot of extinguisher contact, back to the car where Savage is trying to get out. McKay notes that Swede had switched to a new firesuit before the race that fills with foam and that hopefully it will be offering him some better protection than a standard suit.

As the camera switches to a closeup of the fire (you can no longer see Savage), you can hear the crowd gasp in horror as Patrick Racing crewmember Armondo Teran is struck and killed by a firetruck going the wrong way down the pit road. McKay: “OH! Somebody’s been hit in the pits! A firetruck, a firetruck racing to the scene has hit a mechanic or somebody in the pits, was going the wrong way through the pits… the man was thrown in the air, hit by a firetruck.”

Jerry Grant

An unnerved Jerry Grant describes his view of the Swede Savage accident.

As they replay the accident, both Economaki and McKay incorrectly surmise that the rear wing came off of Savage’s car, causing him to veer into the inside of the track. A crewmember is shown consoling Vince Granatelli. Dave Diles again interviews Jerry Grant, who is noticeably more terse than he was in his interview on Monday. Grant surmises that the accident was caused due to the oily nature of the track, stating how they are having to change the line they are driving to minimize running through oil. When Diles asks him if he’s saying that he’s been driving on an unsafe track, Grant avoids saying that directly, but replies “Well, it’s making an old man out of me.” Dave Diles is then seen at the front of Joe Leonard’s car and literally wipes oil off the nose of the car – clearly visible on Diles’ hand – and states that oil is most definitely a factor. They cut to another pre-filmed segment with Jackie Stewart about safety measures at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Moments later Bobby Unser is interviewed and asked about the track and he contradicts Grant. In fact he states flatly “No, it’s not unsafe, in fact for the most part they’re turning pretty fast speeds out there, running… some of them 185mph out there, that’s not too bad… I don’t think the track is unsafe at all”. He goes on to say that he’s never seen the track stay good for the entire race and it was pretty much what he expected.

Johncock leads 1973 500

Gordon Johncock leads the second half of the race.

When they finally resume racing, Al Unser leads easily in his cumbersome Viceroy sponsored Parnelli until his engine burns a piston, handing the lead over to Gordon Johncock, who leads the rest of the way. At one point Bobby Unser unlaps himself from Johncock, but by now the racing is over, with the eleven remaining cars just going through the motions until the rain comes at lap 129 and the race is finally red flagged at 133 laps. Given how late it was – 5:38pm with no time left to dry the track, and the light so low that the cameras are barely working – it’s surprising that they didn’t throw the checkered flag.

Gordon Johncock, 1973 Indy 500 winner

Gordon Johncock being interviewed as winner of the 1973 Indy 500

Dave Diles had the task to interview Andy Granatelli and he tried to spin the day as a good one for Andy – Andy clearly wanted nothing to do with ‘enjoying’ the win, somberly saying ‘It’s a good day, and it’s a bad day, you win some, you lose some.” Diles asks if this overcomes the frustration he’s experienced over the years? Andy politely replies “Well you know we had some problems with some of our people in the accident so I really don’t feel very happy today, but I am happy to win the race, and thank you very much.”  Diles then interview’s Johncock who is happy in the moment, stating that it’s the happiest day of his life, but he hates to win a rain shortened race. While being interviewed the announcement comes over the PA system that the race is officially over and Johncock is the winner. There are cheers and the crew celebrates, and crew chief George Bignotti is happy in victory lane, but expresses sadness for Swede Savage. There is no mention of Armando Teran, and McKay points out that Granatelli and Bignotti “may well not know the worst news as of yet.”

The broadcast signs off with host Chris Schenkel who describes it as “the longest month of May” and states that “it will be better next year”.

It was a feat in itself for ABC to get the broadcast on that night; back then, apart from the start and finish, McKay did his play-by-play in post production. By the time the day’s events had ended, it was at least 6pm local time – only one hour before the broadcast aired in the eastern time zones.

After watching this broadcast with 38 years of hindsight, it would be easy to scorn any cheering or celebration that took place. But don’t forget, the participants, fans and crew didn’t have the replays and newspaper articles thrown in their face for review and reflection while the race was going on. Many did not know that a crewman was killed, and Swede Savage’s injuries were not life threatening; the news of his passing would not come for another 33 days.  Sometimes the nature of how bad or good something really was doesn’t hit immediately. I think that as fans and participants had time to reflect on the events, read the newspapers, and watch the replays, is when it really sank in just how much the 1973 Indianapolis 500 sucked.  For Johncock, it may have even been that night. He ‘celebrated’ by visiting Swede in the hospital and having dinner at Burger King with his wife.

Some have questioned the necessity to air this race. But the fact is, all the accidents – particularly the Walther and Savage accidents – have been replayed ad-infinitum over the years. The point isn’t to see the accidents, but to see how it was handled by ABC, to get a feel for what it was like for the participants, and to see the rest of the race that was overlooked by history. Nobody in their right mind would derive ‘enjoyment’ from the 1973 Indianapolis 500 any more than anyone would derive enjoyment from the death and destruction of WWII, but yet people study that to no end, and likewise, those of us who study the history of Indianapolis need to include 1973 in our studies. It was still an Indy 500, and to try to pretend it never happened would be an insult to those who died and their families.

Follow up: Gordon Johncock eventually won what this blogger considers the best Indianapolis 500 ever in 1982. He retired in 1985 and made a couple comebacks in the following years, finally retiring in 1992 at age 55. He doesn’t particularly care to talk about 1973, but did take part in a special replay of his 1982 victory on ESPN Classic. He has since distanced himself from the sport and was not in attendance for the Indianapolis 500 100th anniversary celebrations in 2011. After sitting in storage for many years his 1973 winning car was restored to running condition in 2010.

Jim McKay, Dave Diles and Chris Schenkel all passed away within the last few years. The events of 1973 affected McKay deeply, resulting in him ‘sitting out’ the 1975 race. McKay would return in 1976 to call the next ten Indianapolis 500s. Jackie Stewart and Chris Economaki are still involved in motor racing. Andy Granatelli got out of racing shortly after 1973, but still goes to the 500 every year. George Bignotti would go on to win one more Indy 500 as a crew chief with Tom Sneva in 1983, bringing his total to seven Indianapolis 500 wins as crew chief. Jerry Grant raced a few more years before retiring. He still comes to the 500 from time to time. Pace car passenger Dolly Cole still attends the Indianapolis 500 every year.  Al and Bobby Unser would go on to each win two more Indianapolis 500s and both are still close to the sport.

For David “Salt” Walther, the ramifications of that race continue to this day. While he returned to racing, his life was ruined by pain killer addiction from the treatment of his burns and today he is serving time in an Ohio prison.

David Earl “Swede” Savage was conscious and actually joking with safety workers after his accident and was expected to recover. His injuries were two broken legs and some serious burns. While in the hospital recovering he received a blood transfusion tainted with Hepatitis C resulting in his passing on July 2nd 1973 at age 26. For more information on Swede Savage, visit the Swede Savage tribute site.

All images are copyright ABC/ESPN and are presented here for editorial purposes only.

Postscript, July 2013:
Jerry Grant passed away August 12, 2012 at age 77

Chris Economacki passed away September 28, 2012, just short of his 92nd birthday.

Salt Walther’s suffering finally ended December 27, 2012, age 65.

After passing on the 100th anniversary celebrations in 2011, Gordon Johncock made an appearance at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. in 2013, the 40th anniversary of Johncock’s ill-fated win, his winning car was one of three former winners to take to track on race day morning for a lap of honor. Rumor had it that Johncock would drive it, but it was 1999 winner Kenny Brack who got behind the wheel.

This entry was posted in Racing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply