Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What I Learned While Watching the 1971 Indy 500 On My TiVo

Last May, ESPN Classic ran ten old Indy 500s in abbreviated formats, but each still clocking in at a relatively comprehensive two hours. Since I am a sucker for posts with recurring themes, I'm going to take a periodic look at the races my TiVo captured and recap what I learned. This week (month? year? decade? whatever), I'll be taking a look at 1971.

1) Back in those days, it was totally OK to make non-PC jokes on the air. At one point, Jim McKay made some sort of remark about how somebody had hit a bird on the track during qualifying. He then joked to boothmate Jackie Stewart, "Of course, that's a different kind of bird from what you're used to where you come from." Wow! Can you imagine Bob Jenkins and Jon Beekhuis joking like this today? I mean, Bob Varsha and David Hobbs would, but one of those guys sounds like he's got something other than coffee in his cup (how else would we be treated to the world's best Mark Webber, Alan McNish and Flavio Briatore impressions?) and they'd be making the joke at like 5:00 AM, so nobody would be any the wiser.

2) Safety measures were held to a far lower standard than they are today. McKay remarked something like "that would have been a far worse fire, if it weren't for the space age fuel cells that these cars use" when Mike Mosely's car hit the inside wall of Turn 4. Note that at the time, there was an actual 40 foot tall (my estimate, though it might have been more like 60) mushroom cloud of burning methanol towering over the wreckage in the infield. Um, so this would have been worse somehow without a fuel cell? I guess 50 people could have died or something?

3) It was totally cool to smoke at the track, and a cigarette could be bummed off of just about anybody (grade school kids possibly included). I learned this when Bobby Unser lit up a smoke as he walked away from his wrecked car after the Mosely crash.

4) David Hobbs was already hilarious. He was incredibly philosophical and even cracked a couple of jokes after Rick Muther's car hit the inside wall of the front straight and speared back across the track and collected a completely innocent Hobbs at well over 180 MPH.

5) People who say that you can't tell the difference between 180 and 220 MPH are full of crap. The cars, while fast, looked like they were crawling in comparison to even the cars from the 1981 race that I watched later (more on that race in a subsequent installment).

6) Chris Economacki was not available to interview Mario Andretti when Mario dropped out of the race (McKay threw down to Chris for the interview), but the guy who was actually standing by with Mario in Turn 3? A guy named Dave Letterman.

7) The commentators were not aware of basically anything that was going on other than what their own eyes and the eyes of their corner reporters saw. No timing and scoring, no instant replays, no video to analyze, very limited pit reporting = two guys saying stuff like "Joe Leonard comes into the pits! We think this is a planned stop, but it might be a little earlier than we'd have thought!" And now people complain that we know too much about fuel strategies, in- and out-lap times, push-to-pass applications remaining and car setup changes made during the race. Go figure.

8) The 1971 McLarens, the first cars to have the huge rear wings, were crazy fast in comparison to everybody else in the race. Al Unser led more than half of the laps and beat Peter Revson handily, but Revson and Mark Donohue were able to pass people wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Only trouble for the McLarens allowed Big Al to win that one, in my opinion.


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