Start of the 1977 Indianapolis 500

1977 Indianapolis 500 – Profile and Photo Gallery

During the coming months, Sports Car Digest will be running a series of photo retrospectives drawn from the film archive of Bob Harmeyer. This first installment looks at the 1977 Indianapolis 500.


1977 Indianapolis 500 – Profile and Photo Gallery

By Bob Harmeyer

The Indianapolis 500 has long been one of the most important events on the world racing calendar and, for several reasons, the 1977 race ranks among the most significant of all.

Most importantly, AJ Foyt claimed a historic fourth “500″ triumph. But prior to the race, during qualifying, two entirely different storylines grabbed the national spotlight: Tom Sneva became the first driver to officially crack the 200 mph barrier at the Speedway and, on “Bump Day,” Janet Guthrie nursed an ailing Offenhauser through four laps of qualifying to become the first woman to make the field for the Indianapolis 500.

Entering that year’s race, AJ Foyt was tied with five other drivers at the top of the Speedway’s victory list with three wins apiece. Two of those – Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser – were Foyt’s contemporaries, and were entered in the ’77 event with formidable teams. Any of the trio could become the first driver to reach four “500″ victories.

Mechanical problems eliminated both Rutherford and Unser before half distance, and Foyt had his own problem to overcome en route to the finish. Early in the race he had run out of fuel on the backstretch, coasted into the pits, and spent the rest of the race fighting his way back to the front.

Gordon Johncock dominated much of the race in one of Pat Patrick’s Wildcats, leading a total of 129 laps. But Johncock was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion in the blistering heat, and Foyt was closing quickly as the laps wound down. Both drivers had made their final pit stops and Foyt had narrowed the gap to less than 10 seconds when, on lap 184, Johncock’s engine expired. Foyt assumed the lead as Johncock coasted to a stop in the grass inside the first turn.

Foyt led Tom Sneva to the checkered flag by almost half a minute, waving to the crowd as he approached the flag to clinch a spot in Indianapolis history as the first four-time winner. Foyt’s career spanned the era when Indy Car racing transitioned from the nose-heavy, front-engine roadsters to lower, lighter rear-engine machines, and he was the only driver to win the “500″ in both front and rear-engine cars. His victories in 1961 and 1964 were at the wheel of roadsters, while the 1967 and 1977 triumphs were in rear-engine cars designed in his own race shop.

Driving for Roger Penske, Sneva had made the headlines two weeks earlier when, in front of almost 200,000 fans during Pole Day qualifying, he became the first driver to officially lap the Speedway at more than 200 mph. The track had been repaved in the summer of 1976 and several drivers had exceeded the 200 mph mark in testing. But testing speeds weren’t considered official, so the record belongs to Sneva.

Janet Guthrie earned her own place in Indy 500 history by being the fastest qualifier on “Bump Day,” the fourth and final day of qualifications during that era. Given the current state of IndyCar racing, that may not seem significant. But there were a total of 77 qualifying attempts that year, and Guthrie out-qualified drivers like Dick Simon, Formula 1 veteran Clay Regazzoni, and a young rookie named Rick Mears who made two attempts but failed to qualify.

Together, the achievements of Foyt, Sneva and Guthrie made the 1977 Indianapolis 500 one of the most notable in Speedway history.

Finally, in a footnote to the ’77 race, one future superstar made his rookie appearance at the Speedway. Rick Mears made two qualifying attempts in an older Eagle/Offenhauser, but the car didn’t have the speed to make the show. Mears returned the next year driving for Roger Penske and, over the course of 15 years with Penske Racing, would join AJ Foyt on the list of four-time winners of the Indy 500.


To see more of Bob Harmeyer’s images, visit bobh.photoshelter.com.

Celebration of the 1977 Indianapolis 500 – Photo Gallery

AJ Foyt, 1977 Indianapolis 500

AJ Foyt raised his right arm in triumph as he cruised past the main grandstand to take the checkered flag and become the first four-time winner of the Indy 500. Foyt held a lead of almost 30 seconds over Tom Sneva, the only other driver to finish on the lead lap.

AJ Foyt's crew pushes his Coyote 75/Foyt TC to victory lane after he became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977.

AJ Foyt's crew pushes his Coyote 75/Foyt TC to victory lane after he became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977.

Tom Sneva, driving a McLaren M24/Cosworth TC entered by Roger Penske, was the first driver to turn an official lap above 200 mph when he qualified on the pole position in 1977. Sneva was above 200 mph on his first two qualifying laps, but the third and fourth laps were slower and left him with a four lap average of 198.884 mph.

Tom Sneva, driving a McLaren M24/Cosworth TC entered by Roger Penske, was the first driver to turn an official lap above 200 mph when he qualified on the pole position in 1977. Sneva was above 200 mph on his first two qualifying laps, but the third and fourth laps were slower and left him with a four lap average of 198.884 mph.

Typical for the Speedway during that era, a massive crowd turned out for pole qualifying in 1977 when Tom Sneva became the first driver to officially crack the 200 mph barrier.

Typical for the Speedway during that era, a massive crowd turned out for pole qualifying in 1977 when Tom Sneva became the first driver to officially crack the 200 mph barrier.

Bobby Unser is interviewed after qualifying his Lightning 77/Offenhauser TC second fastest for the "500" in 1977. Despite his front-row starting position, Unser led just two laps before dropping out of the race after 94 laps. High attrition during the '77 event allowed Unser to finish 18th, in spite of completing less than half the race.

Bobby Unser is interviewed after qualifying his Lightning 77/Offenhauser TC second fastest for the "500" in 1977. Despite his front-row starting position, Unser led just two laps before dropping out of the race after 94 laps. High attrition during the '77 event allowed Unser to finish 18th, in spite of completing less than half the race.

Janet Guthrie drew a great deal of attention during practice for the 1977 event, and even more after she became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. Driving Rolla Vollstedt's Lightning 76 1/Offenhauser TC, Guthrie posted the fastest speed on the final day of qualifying.

Janet Guthrie drew a great deal of attention during practice for the 1977 event, and even more after she became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. Driving Rolla Vollstedt's Lightning 76 1/Offenhauser TC, Guthrie posted the fastest speed on the final day of qualifying.

Tyler Alexander oversaw the preparation of Johnny Rutherford's McLaren M24 1/Cosworth TC for the 1977 Indy 500.

Tyler Alexander oversaw the preparation of Johnny Rutherford's McLaren M24 1/Cosworth TC for the 1977 Indy 500.

Wally Dallenbach (seated, upper right) waits to drive his Wildcat II 2/DGS during a practice session at the Speedway.

Wally Dallenbach (seated, upper right) waits to drive his Wildcat II 2/DGS during a practice session at the Speedway.

1977 Indianapolis 500 – Profile and Photo Gallery Continued

Comments

  1. Glenn says

    The article is flawed from its onset. In 1977, Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose & A.J. were the only 3-time winners, with A.J. being the ONLY CURRENT / ACTIVE driver at the time poised to win a 4th. Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser had 2 Indy 500 wins apiece at the time. Rutherford’s third came in 1980 and Bobby Unser’s third came in 1982. Al Unser, Sr. would become the 2nd 4-time winner (’70, ’71′ 78, & ’87) and Rick Mears joined the list with wins in ’79, ’84, ’88 & ’91.
    Today, Helio Castroneves & Dario Franchitti (as of 2012) are the only current / active drivers with 3 wins.
    Also note: Tom Sneva broke the 200-mph SINGLE-LAP qualifying record in 1977 AND broke the 200-mph AVERAGE (for 4-laps) qualifying record in 1978. And ALSO broke 210-mph in 1984 !

    • says

      Yes you are correct about your corrections,save but one.Gordon Johncock won the 82 race.Bobby Unser was declared the winner of the 81 race(his 3rd) in COURT in Oct/81.We all know that Mario was declared the winner the day after the race in a passing under caution dispute that rages to this day.It was proven that they both passed illegally under caution under the blend line
      ,Mario passed fewer cars than Bobby,so how on earth did anybody with a smattering of rule knowledge not believe the true winner IS 3rd place;Vern Shuppan!

        • says

          Yes,but they would have had to amend the 200 lap rule like Nascar does all the time.Another solution is they could have run a one lap shootout w/o Mario and Bobby the next day.Either way Shuppan deserves the win. The same goes for the 2007 Daytona 500,Mark Martin was cheated out of that win because Nascar did’nt freeze the field on that last lap wreck as is the rule! I will never forgive them for either race.

  2. Fred Frank says

    A great era. Nice to see Indy without boring spec racing — different cars and motors (what a concept!).

  3. Glenn says

    So TRUE, Fred !! Today, even Formula-1 is more interesting that aspect.
    ’77 was my 2nd attended race (age 13) and our 1st to be seated on the front stretch (Paddock seats). What a sight around Foyt’s pit when Johncock coasted passed the start/finish line with no power ! I don’t think a single spectator was seated for those last 10 laps !

    • says

      Hey Glenn; I was sitting in turn 1 when Johncock’s crankshaft broke and i then STOOD there and watched him get out and jump in that creek.Never will i forget that sound of the spectators as Foyt roared past to take the lead to make history(4th win) with 16 to go! The only other time i heard racing fans scream like that was when Richard Petty led the first 6 laps of the 1992 Firecracker 400(his final Daytona race in his retirement year) My eardrums are still numb.He had not won in 8 years and when he faded,and was later relieved(Humidity that would kill a horse) i swear 10,000 people got up and left. 2 hours after the race,he was still signing autographs in bare feet on a bench in the garage area!

  4. says

    Other ear-splitting screams in auto racing is when F1 Drivers lead or Win their Home Grand Prix.Damon Hill led the British Gran Prix in 98 or 99 at the end of his career and i watched on television,it looked insane.

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