INDIANAPOLIS 500, 1977. May 7, the opening day of practice.
...back on the track, the engine now behaved as it should. The real work
could start. I cranked it on, started feeling my way around the Speedway for the
first time since last year. All seemed well with the engine. The handling was
something else. In a couple of laps, I pitted.
"It's darting," I said. The slightest change in pressure on the
steering wheel altered the car's direction of travel more radically than I
intended. "If this were my taxicab," (that was the Indianapolis
expression for the big Chevrolet I had been racing at Daytona and Talladega)
"I would associate the problem with a soft front sway bar."
"No," Dick said, "that can't be it." We mulled it over,
sniffing around the front end. It wasn't long before he spotted the cause.
"Look at this!" he said. Two pieces were missing from the front spring
assemblies. They hauled the Lightning back to the garage and fixed it, returning
it to the pits within three quarters of an hour.
The car was now a different animal, lively and responsive. In three or four
laps I was at 181 mph. Then suddenly the engine went soft and sluggish, a
dramatic loss of power.
I killed the switches, simultaneously hitting the clutch, and flipped it out
of gear. Searching the mirrors for smoke or an oil trail, I saw nothing.
Offenhausers rarely left an unseemly drooling of slippery fluids in the path of
traffic behind. With no reason to pull off the racing surface, I could coast
nearly two miles.
As I pulled the car down toward the inside of the track in Turns 1 and 2, the
relative calm of a dead engine unmasked a faint improper noise that seemed to
come from the right front. Was it just the sound of air rushing past at well
over a hundred miles an hour, or was it something else? I undid my belts and
hitched up and out to hear it better; played with the brakes, which cut the
speed to eighty or so, and concluded the source was a wheel bearing. That
bearing hasn't disintegrated, I thought, but we had better take a look at
The track went yellow--the caution lights came on--as I coasted to a stop on
the inside of the back straight. Emergency crews arrived. They tossed me the end
of a rope attached to the wrecker. I passed it around the roll bar a couple of
turns, gripped the loose end, and gave them a thumb up. They hauled the
Lightning around to the pits.
When our guys looked it over, relief! It wasn't a catastrophic failure. A
clamp had come off a hose on the intake log, and was easily replaced. It was
nearly the end of the day; the track would close at six. We had just a few
"You know," Rolla said, "you're only a couple of miles an hour
off fastest time of the day."
"Yeah?" My heart leaped. "Let's go!"
Although careful not to say so, even to myself, I knew that mark was ours for
the taking. And that's the way it was, at 185.605 mph. Danny Ongais was nearly
three miles an hour slower in a Cosworth-engined Parnelli, Wally Dallenbach
third in George Bignotti's Wildcat-Offy. Those were teams that operated with
five or ten times the budget that Rolla Vollstedt had.
What cheer, what great good cheer!
We didn't make a fuss about it there in the pits. We still had a long month
ahead of us, and plenty of competition. Eighty-five cars were entered in the 500
this year, the second-largest entry in history, and only the fastest
thirty-three would start the race. In the privacy of Vollstedt's garages,
though, we could loosen up a bit. Hugs all around; the guys grinning and
punching each other on the shoulder; Rolla's blue eyes sparkling.
"Well, Guthrie," he said, "that ought to get their
Indeed. Just a year earlier, the preponderance of racing opinion stated
firmly and passionately that no woman could possibly handle a 750-horsepower,
200-plus mph Indianapolis 500 Championship race car. Rolla Vollstedt, a
respected team owner and long-time car builder in United States Auto Club
racing, had flown in the face of sixty-five years of tradition when he announced
his intention of bringing a woman driver to the Indianapolis 500. There must
surely have been moments when he regretted it.
The resulting heat was blistering. Established drivers complained loudly,
publicly, and at length. "Women don't have the strength, women don't have
the endurance, women don't have the emotional stability, women are going to
endanger our lives." The records of women in European auto racing,
stretching back to the nineteenth century, and those of American women sports
car racers might as well not have existed, for all the roundy-round boys cared.
My own thirteen years of experience on the road-racing circuits, my Two-Liter
Prototype class win at the Sebring 12-Hour, my North Atlantic Road Racing
Championship seemed to count for nothing in the world of oval-track racing.
Tradition was all, and tradition said that women, peanuts and the color green
were not allowed.
Just a few years earlier, women had not even been allowed in the press box at
Indianapolis, much less the garage area or the pits. A woman might be a
reporter, a photographer, a timer/scorer, she might own the race car--but
she couldn't get near it at any time for any reason. A woman on the track itself
At the beginning of 1963, after two seasons of running gymkhanas and
hillclimbs in my 1953 Jaguar XK 120 coupe, I acquired a 1956 Jaguar XK 140
roadster and began racing in the Sports Car Club of America. By the end of the
season, its engine (purchased from a wreck) clearly needed rebuilding.
On a cold brilliant day in February, when the flat farm fields of central
Long Island were covered with snow that squeaked underfoot, I tackled the Jaguar
again. The barn that sheltered it had neither heat nor electricity, and I was
still using flat wrenches. It took a flashlight to get them solidly around the
deeper nuts and bolts.
Getting an engine ready to pull without a ratchet wrench, sockets, and
extensions is something like cutting up a chicken with fingernail scissors: it's
an exercise in frustration, although it can be done. I had the benefit of
ignorance; I didn't know that the project was entirely unreasonable...
It took two months for me to tear the engine apart, down to the last nut and
bolt, and rebuild it. A 1956 Ford station wagon ($95) replaced the old Buick tow
car, as engine assembly progressed. The Ford had room for the engine block,
crankshaft, rods, pistons, and myself, if I knelt or sat cross-legged. I
borrowed tools here and there: a torque wrench from the gas station across the
street, a piston-ring compresser from another Republic engineer. The oil pump
got intensive scrutiny, as the clear suspect for the most recent failure. Nearly
every page of the shop manual bore my blackened fingerprints.
There was so much to learn! How to lap in valves, and what a properly lapped
valve seat looked like when it was done, and how to check it for the slightest
trace of leakage. How to check the clearances of the new lead-indium bearings,
by laying a thin strip of Plastigauge on the crankshaft journals, tightening the
bearing cap bolts to the right number of foot-pounds, then undoing the assembly
to examine the width of the crushed strips. And on and on.
It was enjoyable, in a way, to explore the geography of a whole new world, to
feel in my hands the shape and heft of each carefully machined component of my
engine-to-be. Had I had the money to engage a competent mechanic, though, I'd
never have started the job. Some of my friends figured I'd never finish it.
Besides the engine, the car needed bodywork. The Jag's motheaten look was due
in part to old fender damage that the previous owner had knocked out roughly
with a hammer, then painted with a brush. A bright shiny appearance ought to go
with the new engine.
I did the bodywork in the rented barn--hours of puttying and sanding, to
smooth out the Jag's voluptuous fender curves. But a fine coat of paint required
spray apparatus, and that meant the use of an air compressor. I started asking
...by Sunday night, the Jaguar was an elegant shade of blue. So were my
fingernails and eyelashes. I was truly proud of the results; there was only one
little run on the whole car, and no orange-peel texture anywhere. It looked
beautiful. With a light heart, I picked out a blue dress to go with my eyelashes
and the streaks in my hair, and went blithely off to a party at Tom's big house
in Lloyd Harbor. He and friends rented it from humorist-poet Ogden Nash, whose
memorabilia were everywhere, and we spent the evening giggling through framed
verse that hung on all the walls...
...May wore on, and the pressure grew as my engine neared completion. Ralph
Farnham had once crewed for a driver at the Indianapolis 500, and he started to
take an interest. When I finished assembling the engine, he helped me drag it
out of my station wagon and drop it into the Jaguar. It was a fine fair Saturday
when I spun up my engine for the very first time.
There was no oil pressure.
I took out the spark plugs, hitched the Jag to the Ford, and towed it up and
down New Street in gear. That brought the rpm's all the way up to 4000, much
faster than the starter would turn the engine over. There was still no oil
At dusk, my tail between my legs, I went home to fix dinner for Tom, who was
due back from his first race in his newly-built Sprite. He never showed up, nor
called. I checked with his roommates; they hadn't heard from him, either.
By ten in the morning there was still no word from Tom, and I could think of
no way to find him. In Oceanside, Ralph and I checked the oil lines for crimps
and blockages. I pulled the filter assembly and checked the pressure relief
valve, changing filters as well. Ralph found adapters while I removed the oil
pressure gauge, and we checked that with calibrated air pressure.
Nothing explained the problem.
How could I have done something so drastically wrong in assembling this, the
first engine I'd ever built?...
...Monday morning early, I hauled the Jaguar to a shop where two British
mechanics specialized in XK's. If anyone could figure out why there was no oil
pressure, it would be they.
By Wednesday they had given up.
Thursday passed. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Monday. I read and re-read the
shop manual, asked questions of every mechanic I knew.
On Tuesday after work, I took the Jag back to the British shop and put it up
on their lift, drained its twelve quarts of oil. A plethora of little bolts held
the pan in place. The cost of oil and pan gaskets was mounting up. As I undid
the bolts and pulled the oil pan down for the fifth time, my frustration
teetered toward despair.
It was a mild sunny evening in early June. Golden light slanted through the
surrounding woods, deep green now that summer was truly under way. Tom would be
sipping a martini about now, I thought wistfully, on the flagstone terrace by
the apple trees, a few miles away.
I carried the oil pan outside and set it down on the white gravel drive. Bees
hummed toward the nearby wildflowers, and clustered at the sparkling spillage of
a leaky faucet. I stared glumly at the pan--and suddenly, there was the answer,
as if I had been blind. Without visible dents or scratches, the bottom of the
pan had been uniformly pushed up, subtly distorted, so that when the pan was
fitted to the engine the oil pump intake sat in a blind alley amid the baffling.
It must have happened when that XK 140 coupe was wrecked. The pump couldn't
possibly suck up any oil!
Quickly, a pan from my old, blown engine; bring the car down off the lift,
start it, and there's oil pressure!
I whooped and skipped like an Indian...
...Driving the Jaguar to work put easy break-in time on its engine. At day's
end, I pointed its long nose east and north among Long Island's great estates.
The Jaguar purred gently through green meadows and shadowy woods toward Planting
Fields, where hundreds of rhododendrons neared their peak of bloom. In the late
spring dusk, masses of flowers glowed lavender to cream to crimson under the
pines. Far away, out over Long Island Sound, a summer thunderstorm rumbled
In two days, other thunder would fill my ears: the urgent, exuberant roar of
sports cars at speed. The Jaguar was ready. So on this peaceful evening, as the
little racing windscreen brushed back a bug or two, I was most peacefully