It was a perfect storm for a little team that never had much money or luck.
Back in October of 1973, USAC’s Championship Trail was at Texas World Speedway for the next-to-last race of the season. Bill Finley had towed his homemade Fleagle chassis to College Station behind a Chevy pickup truck with two stooges in the front seat, and Bentley Warren was set to drive.
There were 26 cars going for 24 starting spots, and just as Warren began his qualifying run the engine started to cough and it died as he completed one lap. So that was it for Tassi Vatis’ team, except Finley decided he wanted to change the engine before heading back to Indianapolis.
He figured USAC would allow him to run it in during Sunday morning’s pre-race practice session. So, as qualifying was being completed, Finley, Warren and the “crew” changed the Offy in the middle of the infield – dirt, dust and all. “I remember that, it was about 90 degrees and not that much fun,” recalled Warren, one of those really good racers that never drove a top-flight Indy car. “But I’d have done anything for Finley – he was the best.”
Now, here’s where the story gets good.
Warren wound up the first alternate with his sick engine, but he was faster than Bobby Unser, who blew up before he could complete a lap in Dan Gurney’s Eagle. Suddenly Texas promoter Bill Marvel had a problem. He had to get one of IndyCar’s biggest names and best teams in the show, but how?
First he asked USAC boss Dick King if they could simply add two more spots on the grid, but that request was turned down. King said the only way the 1968 Indy winner could race were if two of the already-qualified teams withdrew, or two teams had problems in the Sunday morning practice period.
So then Marvel, one of the best promoters and PR specialists in the history of motorsports, went to Goodyear for some assistance. Gurney and Unser were valued members of Goodyear’s test program in addition to their obvious clout on the track.
Marvel talked Goodyear and got the tire company to offer Lee Brayton (who had qualified 24th) $2,000 and some test time if he withdrew. That was 10th place money and an easy sell. One down, one to go.
Uncle Bobby then told Finley that AAR would give him $1,000 to “officially” drop out of the race, and Marvel said that if anything happened to another competitor during warm-up that Warren would be invited back into the field.
During Sunday’s practice period Bob Harkey crashed and suddenly Finley and Warren were back in the show – getting paid a grand to change engines and stick around. But after only 17 laps No.94 was leaking oil and got black-flagged. Bentley was classified 22nd and the car earned $658. Yet with the “bonus” money, the Vatis team took home the same amount as 13th place Eldon Rasmussen.
“I didn’t remember the circumstances but Bill always tried to save Tassi as much money as possible and getting $1,000 for basically doing nothing had to make him happy,” said Warren. “And Bobby Unser had to be nice to me for 10 minutes.”