Fifty years ago this week A.J. Foyt won a USAC midget race, which wasn’t that newsworthy except for the fact it was in his hometown. In the Astrodome. In front of more than 20,000 people. And he wasn’t declared the winner until the next day.
“Hell yes I remember. It was a lot of fun,” said the 85-year-old legend from Houston, where he’d just climbed off a bulldozer on Wednesday. “Had a big crowd and a big purse and I guess it got a little wild at the end.”
That was the second year in a row USAC staged a race at the world’s first multi-purpose, domed sports stadium dubbed the “ninth Wonder of the World,” and the inaugural show in 1969 was the richest, best-attended and most star-studded midget race of all time.
Twenty years before the Chili Bowl began, the Astro Grand Prix got big results from the smallest cars in USAC’s four divisions.
It was the brainchild of Bill Marvel, who has done just about everything in motorsports during the past seven decades. The man who worked for USAC, Pocono and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among others, was employed by Sports Headliners at the time.
“USAC had no PR man back then so Charlie Brockman (president of USAC) asked if I would go to Houston and put the thing together,” recalled Marvel, the most active 91-year-old man on this planet. “I spent six weeks working on it and didn’t sleep a few days because there was so much to do.
“But I got 26 Indy 500 drivers to agree to come race and that helped sell a lot of tickets.”
Marvel, who also wrote and published the Charger racing newspaper and promoted races at Indianapolis Raceway Park, assembled a Who’s Who of open-wheel racing among the 63 entries. He had A.J., Mario, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby, Bill Vukovich, Gary Bettenhausen, Mel Kenyon and the Unser brothers.
Pace Management rented the Astrodome, built a quarter-mile dirt track and went with 100-lap feature races on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. It was a big enough deal that Sports Illustrated sent its motorsports writer, Bob Ottum, to cover it and it drew 31,000 and 18,000, respectively, as Gary B. and Lee Kunzman triumphed and Tom Bigelow earned $7,650 for his team as the overall winner.
Foyt had to start last as a promoter’s option in the first race but stormed through the 26-car field to finish second.
In 1970, Bruce Walkup, Dave Strickland, Vuky and Foyt waged a war for the first 50 laps — trading slide jobs and the lead — before they started diving under the tires in Turns 1 and 3. The track got so tiny and dusty that USAC officials threw the red flag on Lap 66 to try and restore some semblance of order.
“It started out as a quarter mile but by then the leaders were running around the wooden stand inside the infield and it was crazy,” said Merle Bettenhausen, who had dropped out of the feature along with his brother and was watching from the infield. “We thought we might get run over.”
When the race restarted, A.J. and Vuky took turns cutting inside each other until the second-generation star was black-flagged.
“To be honest, I don’t remember too much other than me and A.J. had a good battle,” said Vukovich, who was one of the best midget racers of his era.
“We were cutting each other pretty good,” said Foyt, who barely fit in his non-caged car even back then. “But it was good, hard racing, we just shortened up the track a little bit.”
Afterwards, several drivers and owners protested the finish and the results weren’t official until the next day.
“I had the trophy and I wasn’t giving it back,” said Super Tex with a chuckle. “But I don’t think anybody was going to try and come get it.”