MILLER: The 1970s – a decade in headlines

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MILLER: The 1970s – a decade in headlines

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MILLER: The 1970s – a decade in headlines


Long before we had the internet, Facebook, Twitter and instantaneous ways to communicate, all we had was National Speed Sport News, Competition Press & Autoweek and The Indianapolis Star & The Indianapolis News to keep us informed. Those were the four most popular ways in North America to stay on top of auto racing, and they gave us the news, rumors and scoops, but at a pace today’s enthusiasts likely couldn’t comprehend.

Speed Sports News was published weekly and came out on Thursdays, while Autoweek was a bi-weekly newsletter than became a magazine. The Star was a daily morning paper that had two writers dedicated to racing and The News was the afternoon version, with both primarily blanketing USAC with coverage.

Chris Economaki owned SSN and his Editor’s Notebook was a must-read, while Pete Lyons and Leon Mandel were Autoweek’s big guns and Ray Marquette, Bob Renner, Dick Mittman and yours truly cranked out story-after-story for Indy’s dailies.

The 1970s were chocked full of breakthroughs, tragedies and a spirit of innovation,may  so while we’re all quarantined and waiting on our COVID vaccine, let’s look back at some of the headlines/stories of that decade.


A.J. Foyt wins the USAC midget race on a dirt track inside the Astrodome in front of 40,000 spectators, and it rates a story in Sports Illustrated.

Al Unser starts on the pole and leads 190 laps to win the first of his four Indy 500s – the first for Parnelli Jones and Vel Melitich as car owners, and fourth for George Bignotti as a chief mechanic. Johnny Lightning is the sponsor and the model of the car immediately becomes one of the hottest toys in the country.

Phillip Morris Inc. signs up for two years as the title sponsor for USAC’s premier series, which will be called the USAC Marlboro Championship Trail with a $300,000 point fund set for 1971.

Bruce McLaren is killed on June 2 while testing his Group 7 sports car at Goodwood.

Bruce McLaren compares notes with compatriot and teammate Denny Hulme at the Spanish GP at Jarama in mid-April, 1970. Weeks later, McLaren was killed in a testing crash. Image by Rainer Schlegelmilch

After being badly burned at Indianapolis during practice, Denis Hulme returns to the winner’s circle in August and wins the Can-Am race at Watkins Glen for McLaren as Jackie Stewart’s challenge in Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2J is thwarted by brake problems. The starting lineup includes Hulme, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson, Stewart, Mario Andretti, Jacky Ixkx, Pedro Rodriguez Jo Siffert, Brian Redmond, Jo Bonnier, Vic Elford and John Cannon among the 34 starters.

Roger McCluskey wins the USAC stock car race at Milwaukee by two laps over Norm Nelson in a Plymouth Superbird. The purse is $57,000.

Mario Andretti is rumored to have been offered a full-time F1 ride with Ferrari for a $250,000 retainer and still would be allowed to compete at Indy and Ontario. He is also been invited to drive for Colin Chapman at Lotus in 1971.

USAC loses two IndyCar races in one week. The 200-mile race set for Dover, Delaware was cancelled after it was determined the new paving was not acceptable for an Indy car, and the proposed road race at the Dallas International Motor Speedway is nixed because of a lack of time to properly promote it.

Illinois International Speedway – formerly Meadowdale Raceway in Carpentersville, Ill – gives up on trying to build a 1.5-mile oval for a pair of fall USAC IndyCar and stock-car races.

The SCCA runoffs move from Dallas to a new 2.6-mile road course named Road Atlanta, near Gainsville, Ga.

Emerson Fittipaldi scores a stunning victory in the USGP at Watkins Glen in only his fourth F1 start and clinches the championship posthumously for Jochen Rindt and the 23-year-old Brazilian’s new team (Lotus).

The inaugural California 500 openes to massive crowds at Ontario Motor Speedway – estimated at 50,000 for qualifying and 175,000 for the race won by Jim McElreath. Mac evidently didn’t impress too many people, as he finds himself walking back to the Holiday Inn (approximately four miles) a few hours after the race with his driver’s suit tied around his waist before actor James Garner kindly gives him a ride.

Parnelli Jones captures the Riverside Trans Am race and Dan Gurney announced his retirement. PJ beats teammate George Follmer by nine seconds with Mark Donohue third, Swede Savage fourth and Gurney fifth. “I am 39 and although there are many examples of athletes succeeding in competition beyond that age, I’m getting more and more interested in other aspects of racing,’’ says The Big Eagle, who plans to field two Eagles on the USAC championship trail.

Al Unser triumphs on Saturday at Trenton’s IndyCar race and then flies all night to Sacramento, Ca. where he wins the USAC dirt car race.

NASCAR’s greatest character, Curtis Turner, is killed in airplane crash at DuBois, Pa. at the age of 46.

The 12-race USAC Marlboro Championship for 1971 will consist of 12 races, including a new venue at Parkersburg, West Va. and two races at Hanford, Ca., and there is also a possibility of a date for Argentina. But USAC removes the dirt-car races from the Championship Trail and starts a new division in a move that will impede, then deny USAC drivers from ever getting to Indy.


During a January autograph show in Rochester, N.Y., Mark Donohue tells a reporter that if Indy cars were going to become vacuum cleaners at Indianapolis by 1972 that qualifying speeds would jump 25 mph. Donohue and Roger McCluskey are both concerned that A.J. Foyt had a leg up on the competition in what somebody called “ground effect.”

The Questor Corp., an Ohio-based management firm, has signed on as the title sponsor for a March race at Ontario Motor Speedway’s road course pitting F1 cars against F5000. The QGP entry list sports some of the biggest names in motorsports with Stewart, Surtees, Hill, Hulme, Fittipaldi, Foyt, Andretti, Donohue, Revson and Follmer.

No shortage of people in the stands to see Revson take pole at Ontario, although the track would struggle to see out the decade. Image via Robin Miller Collection

For sale: 1969 Merlyn Formula Ford, race-ready with trailer for $3,300.

USAC adds two tracks to its Champ Car road racing schedule: Bryar Motorsports Park in Loudon, N.H. and Bridgehampton, N.Y. to join Wentzville, Mo. Castle Rock, Colorado and Kent, Wash.

A year after being badly burned and broken in a sprint car when the throttle stuck, Lee Kunzman applies for his USAC midget license in Cincy and is denied because he is deemed not ready yet. So he borrows a helmet, qualifies, races under a different name and wins the feature.

The Holman-Moody team withdraws its entry for NASCAR star David Pearson in the 500-miler at Ontario because it is reportedly “too costly” to make the west coast trip.

Parnelli Jones files a $365,000 lawsuit against NASCAR, three of its top officials and Riverside International Raceway for making him go to the rear of the Motor Trend 500 field over a tire controversy. After winning the pole position, NASCAR deems that Jones’ Firestone tires were outlawed because he could not provide them for all 45 entrants (Jones’ Firestone store serviced the west coast races). In the race, Jones charges through the field to take the lead and give NASCAR officials the one-fingered salute, but his car breaks with three laps left.

USAC cancels Bridgehampton one month before its scheduled date because of a shortage of entries and a conflict with F5000 race at Mount Tremblant. The plug is also pulled on Bryar and Wentzville so USAC’s road racing series wound up with only two events.

Jerry Hansen and David Hobbs win the L&M Continental 5000 races at Road America, while Mark Donohue runs away with the Trans-Am feature.

Mark Donohue, Roger Penske and Chris Economaki make good use of some downtime. Image by Gene Crucean

Friday Hassler wins the pole but Richard Petty captures the NASCAR 300-miler at Trenton, N.J.

Rumor has Group 7 series in Europe merging with Can-Am.

Herschel McGriff will reportedly make his USAC IndyCar debut at Phoenix with Rolla Vollstedt.

A.J. Foyt ends a three-year drought by winning the USAC season finale at Phoenix.

Jo Siffert loses his life in the F1 finale at Brands Hatch.

Roger Penske is rumored to having a Matador prepared in the Holman/Moody shop to see if it’s feasible for NASCAR Grand National competition.

Brock Yates, one of the top motorsports and automotive journalists in the country, recruits a few racers and gearheads to race from New York City to Los Angeles in passenger cars without stopping and for no money. Then Yates works his magic and convinces Dan Gurney to be his co-pilot and they win the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in just under 36 hours in a Ferrari.

Yates and Gurney have a cunning plan for that Ferrari. Image via Robin Miller Collection

Danny Caruthers is killed warming up for a race in Corona, Ca. just a week after clinching the USAC midget championship.

The Federal Trade Commission rules that Al Unser and Don “The Snake” Prudomme can no longer endorse Johnny Lightning and Hot Wheels on television because they didn’t have a degree in social sciences and it was “deceptive” for a race driver to try and influence children about toys.