On the eve of this year’s Indianapolis 500, Racemaker Press released its latest book ‘Wally Dallenbach: Steward of the Sport’. Written by journalist and author Gordon Kirby, Dallenbach’s biography is another in Racemaker’s long series of books on American Championship and Indy car racing.
During his tenure as Chief Steward of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Dallenbach had a profound effect on the sport. With his deep concerns about driver safety, adherence to a consistent set of rules and calm demeanor on times of crisis, Dallenbach drew on his own experience as a driver to make American Championship racing a better sport for the drivers, teams and fans alike.
Chapter 9 / One last blast, and grappling with safety
In May of 1981 Wally made a brief return to the cockpit in order to qualify Mario Andretti’s Patrick Racing Wildcat for the Indy 500. During Indy qualifying Mario was otherwise occupied racing an Alfa Romeo F1 car in the Monaco GP and Mario and Pat Patrick agreed that Wally was the only man properly qualified to stand in for Mario. “Pat called me and asked to me to qualify Mario’s car,” Wally recalls. “I was on the ranch and he said, ‘We need you back here.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You know what’s going on back here, don’t you? I need you to come back here and qualify Mario’s car.’ Well I burst out laughing. I didn’t think he was serious.
“The good thing about it was it was a ground-effects car and you didn’t have to lift. When I quit in 1979, you had to lift, so that made it easier. I flew out on Monday and I was in the car on Tuesday. Mario was there that day and then he left that night for Monaco. I got twelve laps in the car. They gave me three laps each day but the car felt really good. I could pull the trigger and it would just stick and go. I qualified pretty well. The deal was I was paid $5,000 to qualify the car and $10,000 if it won the race. That was the year Mario and Bobby Unser had their dispute over who won the race and for a few months I didn’t know if I was going to get paid $5,000 or $10,000. In the end of course, they gave the win to Bobby so I got $5,000 for a couple of days work”
Kirk Russell says he and some other CART people were concerned about Wally qualifying Andretti’s car. “We were so divided in those days,” Russell shakes his head. “You were a CART guy or a USAC guy and some of us didn’t think it was good that CART’s chief steward should be a driver at a USAC race. I had done a lot of different kinds of racing – drag racing, SCCA sports car racing and USAC. I got involved in Indy cars because I really liked Formula 5000 and I could see it was slipping away from the SCCA. I tried to get USAC involved and in 1975 they co-sanctioned the F5000 series with the SCCA. But there were two camps. Everybody had a side.”
As Wally settled into his new job he began to tackle the job of making the cars safer. He reflects on the motivation and effort CART put in through the eighties and nineties aimed at making the cars safer and more crushable in accidents. “As we broke away we were considered outcasts by USAC,” Wally relates. “A lot of us didn’t like the lack of ambition, so to speak, that we saw in USAC. We wanted to make the sport better. It started with Dan Gurney’s ‘White Paper’. I think the general feeling and attitude over the years was if we don’t hang together we’re going to hang separately. So we became a team, not only to support each other but we weren’t afraid to say let’s share what we know. It was a back and forth between the technical people, the drivers and the officials.”
Wally enjoyed a strong team with Kirk Russell as his wing man and technical director. Other key men in building CART’s safety team were Carl Horton, Doctors Olvey and Trammell and safety director Steve Edwards. “We started building CART’s safety team with Carl Horton, Doctors Olvey and Trammell and Steve Edwards. We all wanted a better program. We started from nothing. Looking back on my racing career, there were a few times when I said, I hope I never come back here, because the safety at many of the tracks was non-existent.
“Johncock had an accident at Milwaukee and they put him in the ambulance with his helmet on. At that time Gordie had a tiny eye opening in his helmet and in the accident he had swallowed his chewing gum. He was having a very difficult time breathing but they didn’t realize it and then as the ambulance was leaving the door opened and Gordie and the gurney he was on almost fell out the back!
“Kirk was a dynamite guy in the technical director’s capacity,” Wally continues. “He knew and respected me and when he got up in race control we had two sets of eyes looking at everything. But it wasn’t just there. It was everywhere. We were beginning our own safety team which didn’t exist with USAC.
“We started creating a safety team. Carl Horton was a big contributor to that era of improving safety and we were so comfortable having Doctors Olvey and Trammell. Those guys contributed a tremendous amount to the sport and we created a safety team that was second to none. Steve Edwards led the team and he was a dynamite guy too.
“In my racing days back in the sixties I had asked myself, ‘Why do we go racing at a place like Sacramento with an open cockpit car running 130 mph?’ I said if I hit the fence, I’m dead. I put that into my mental tanks and when I settled down as chief steward I said to myself, I’m in a position here where I can do some good. Until then I was just another race driver who could be hired and fired if he said he didn’t like it.
“So I began to think about these things on another level. I spent a lot of my time working on the safety of the sport whether it was the cars or the tracks. The temporary tracks took a lot of work but we had a good team and it grew on both the car safety side and track safety side. It had already started when I arrived and I just picked it up and we went forward with it.
“It was something that became a multi-faceted job. I was lucky enough to be involved in all the safety aspects at the same time that I had enough mechanical ingenuity to understand the cars because I had built winning cars.
“One of the problems was a lot of the promoters didn’t want to spend the money on safety. At Elkhart Lake for example, they ended up spending a million dollars on track improvements that should have been done years ago. Some things we learned the hard way after guys got hurt. We didn’t turn our backs on it. We looked at it square in the eye and tried to make it better. No matter how safe you make it, racing is dangerous.”
Kirk Russell discussed the revolution in safety that CART ushered into racing during this period. “The CART safety team really was an extension of the USAC safety team,” Russell relates. “USAC was the only sanctioning body at that time that took first responders from track to track but often those first responders were working on a driver in the back of a hearse. Wally took that seed and expanded it into a full service type of situation. Back in those days Emergency Medical Services were not part of the vernacular. Most of the tracks didn’t have trained trauma doctors. They had guys who were interested in racing and wanted to do a good job but had no training.
“So Wally built a good first responding team with the correct practitioners and in a lot of cases the best practitioners for medical attention at the track and follow-up work after the accident. The goal was to minimize trauma at each step of the process. That was very important to Wally and to me that was an unbelievable accomplishment. Doctors Olvey and Trammell were tremendous additions to the safety team. They were the guys who pushed the thing forward. Like Wally always said, ‘We didn’t make them good but we made them famous.’
“It didn’t come easy. A lot of the tracks had what they thought was their own way to manage the on track activities. The sanctioning was supposed to bring the cars and the track would do everything else. There were times when it got sticky. Licensing issues were pulled out of the hat. Was this doctor licensed to operate in this or that state? It was a challenge.
“Wally contributed to the discussion about improving car construction but he wasn’t really involved in the rules. The working technical committee wrote the rules. Wally contributed, particularly on the car construction which was something everybody was concerned about. We worked hard to improve the footboxes to reduce the severity of the foot injuries we saw in the early and mid-eighties. The formulation of what we did to make the chassis, driver position and cockpit surround better was done by the technical committee which included the design engineer from each of the car builders at Lola, March and Penske.
“The owners had no idea how much work all this required,” Russell concludes. “At the beginning it was myself, Don Garner, Steve Edwards and Wally that really handled everything from the rulebook to getting the people together to do all the different jobs. All the owners knew was they had a race car and a driver and wanted to race them. We took care of all the administrative work required to make that happen.”