Fifty years ago at Phoenix International Speedway, Swede Savage scored the first and only victory of his short IndyCar career but showed why Dan Gurney was so bullish on his protege’s future.
Driving Gurney’s All American Racers Eagle with a stock block Ford, Savage swept past Roger McCluskey on the last lap and held off Al Unser by a few car lengths to win the Bobby Ball 150. Yes, it was lucky because McCluskey ran out of fuel on that last lap and Unser had to battle back from an earlier spin, but it was no fluke.
In what was only the 24-year-old California’s second oval-track race and eighth overall in an Indy car, he qualified fourth fastest and ran in the front of the pack all afternoon on the mile always referred to as the ultimate “driver’s track.”
“I always got a little perturbed when people would say something about what a fluke it was — no, actually it really made me mad,” said Gurney (pictured at left, above, with Savage at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1970) in a 1983 interview. “Look at where the kid qualified, look at what a tough track Phoenix was and he was right there to pounce on the opportunity.
“I was so proud of Swede that day because he was really mature in the car and it was so obvious he was going to be a star.”
There were 46 drivers going for 24 spots at Phoenix that day and while all the front-runners were in turbocharged cars, including his teammate Bobby Unser, Savage drove Gurney’s stock-block Weslake Ford.
“The car performed perfect just like the engine,” said the kid with the Hollywood good looks and football player’s physique.
Savage’s story would have made a great movie. Riding motorcycles professionally as a teenager, he catches the eye of a Ford exec while doing wheelies at a car test in Riverside and the wheels are in motion for him to become a race driver. He starts in NASCAR, heads for AAR to run the USRRC sports car series and becomes teammates with Gurney in Trans Am.
But The Big Eagle was planning his exit as a driver, so in 1969 he stuck Swede in his Indy car and he promptly finished fifth in his debut at Brainerd. Then he ran sixth in the season finale at Riverside before taking second at Continental Divide Raceways in Colorado in 1970. His first oval race was Dan’s last, in the inaugural California 500 at Ontario, and then he was in the second Olsonite Special as a teammate to Bobby Unser at Phoenix for the ’70 finale.
During the pandemonium in Victory Lane, ABC announcer Jim Wilson asked Savage if this was the best win of his career. “This is the only win I’ve ever had,” he responded, yet it certainly seemed liked the beginning of a great partnership.
When AAR had to cut back to one car in 1972, Swede signed with Pat Patrick and that’s whom he was driving for in 1973 when he lost his life at Indianapolis.
“We lost a lot of great, young racers in the 1960s and 1970s,” reflected Gurney. “And I think Swede was going to be something special.”