Odd things happen at Pocono Raceway, that former spinach farm east of Hazleton, Pa., where the $400,000 Schaefer 500-mile race for Indianapolis cars will be run today at 1 p.m. over the bumpy, triangular 2 1/2 mile course.
This year the excitement began a week ago when four-time Indiapapolis champion A.J. Foyt submitted his entry without naming a driver for his car. He'd never done that before in some 20 years of racing. Foyt did appear, saying it was just to tune up the machine for a test driver, one Sam Seasions who had retired a year ago.
Then came the time trials. With only 33 cars contesting for 33 starting places, it should have been dull. Early on Thursday, Johnny Rutherford turned in a 189.2 miles-per-hour trial. Five hours later, when it was cool, so tires and engines could function better, Foyt went out to win the pole position at 189.4 m.p.h. It appeared Foyt deliberately delayed his trial until the cooler hours.
The crowd seemed to think so and booed Foyt when he climbed from his car. The Texan responded with a "rude gesture," refused to be interviewed as is customary, refused to pose with Rutherford and Mario Andretti for the usual front row starters photo, but did sign autographs for youngsters at his garage.
Foyt, twice a winner at Pocono, will drive against former winners Rutherford and Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Unser, Andretti and his teammate Tom Sneva.
As Rutherford pointed out "Any of eight or 10 drivers could win." He could include Danny Ongais, the Hawailan ex-drag racer and winning road racer, in that group.
A newcomer to super-speedway racing, Ongais had the fastest lap in the Indianapolis 500 and qualified in the second row at Pocono. He is clever enough to pace himself and his car though rookies seldom win major auto races.
Aside from the Foyt fracas, interest will center on the performance of eight-cylinder versus four-cylinder engines. The four fastest Pocono qualifiers use "eights" with fifth quickest, Johncock, in a four. Neither is exactly a breakthrough in motor design.
The basic "four" was developed some 50 years ago and has survived with many updates since then. About 15 years ago. Ford came up with an "eight," then sold the idea and materials to Foyt when it got out of racing.
In England, the Cosworth firm produced an "eigh" as an offshoot of its Grand Prix road racing model. It has yet to prove its reliability, but Al Unser used one to win the 1976 Pocono 500.
It's matter of power, as well as reliability. Can the "four" produce as much as the "eight"? Can it stand the strain when the turbocharger is turned up? At Indianapolis last month, Foyt's "eight" was steadily gaining on Johncock's "four" and the feeling was Johncock was getting as much as he could from it before sidelined with a broken valve.
Both engines displace about 160 cubic inches and turn out more than 750 horsepower. They [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] which is why the search for reliability is important.
No matter how the race ends, it is already in Pocono's annal as another odd one. It began wiht the first Schaefer race in 1971 when the late Mark Donohue beat Joe Leonard by just 1.61 seconds having regained the lead only two laps from the finish.
The next year Leonard felt he won, but Al Unser felt victory was his. Both jammed their racers into the winner's circle. Unser was ushered out when he was penalized after the race one lap for pasing under a caution flag.
In 1973, Roger McCluskey was cruising to one of his rare victories when he ran out of fuel with one lap to go. A.J. Foyt went past him to win. Rutherford won by a full lap in 1974, a poor year for oddities.
Foyt almost didn't make the race for real in 1975. He and Wally Dallenbach were caught in a prerace traffic jam. The start was held up until they arrived, and until showers ended. When the rain returned, Foyt was leading and the track became too wet to race on ending the event.
Last year the time trials were rained out so drivers drew starting positions from a hat. This time Al Unser did win, but by only 3.2 seconds.
Pocono's unequal curves, each banked to a different angle and uneven surface make it the slowest of the three 2.5-mile "ovals" used by lap record of 156.7 m.p.h. and no one Indianapolis cars. At Pocono, Rutherford set the record of 156.7 m.p.h. and no one expects it to be beaten today.