Fifty years ago the IndyCar season opened in Argentina without its two biggest stars but with a title sponsor (Marlboro) and a new format to decide the United States Auto Club championship. Even with A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti missing from the line-up, the race at Rafaela wound up with some great racing and a damn good crowd of 40,000.
But that promising start wasn’t enough.
It all became a reality when the owner of Autodromo Ciudad de Rafaela — a 3-mile oval located two hours from the nearest big city — reportedly offered USAC $100,000 to stage an exhibition race. In other words, a non-points-paying affair.
“I didn’t want to go to start with and when I found out it wasn’t going to count towards the championship it was an easy decision not to,” said Foyt, who opted instead for a NASCAR race at Ontario, Calif.
Andretti couldn’t recall why his STP team didn’t go but co-owner Andy Granatelli was miffed America’s premier open-wheel series would begin its season in another country. And a few days before the race, with entries lagging, USAC decided to award points for the twin-150 milers.
So 27 cars were loaded and flown to the place when Juan Manuel Fangio was a god in Formula 1 and oval-track racing was a total stranger. But USAC was smart enough to get Argentina’s Carlos Pairetti a ride with Dick Simon.
“We got on the buses at the airport and on the drive to the track there were literally thousands of people waving American flags and cheering — it was amazing,” recalled Bentley Warren, one of the 10 drivers still living who competed in Argentina.
The track featured two straightaways much longer than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, some substantial banking and wicked fast speeds as Lloyd Ruby won the pole position at 173 mph. (Watch highlights below or click here to view on YouTube.)
In the opening 53-lapper, Al Unser and Ruby staged a tremendous duel before Unser eked out the victory and they were the only two cars on the lead lap. Mike Mosley held off Swede Savage in a great battle for third and Pairetti started 17th and finished 12th, three laps down, in his oval debut.
The second heat was all Big Al as he led 48 of the 53 laps, with Rube and Joe Leonard taking second and third respectively. But the early story was Warren, who lined up 10th and charged to the front in Bill Finley’s homemade Offy. The super modified star was in third by Lap 8 and closing on Ruby when Rick Muther blew his engine and Warren spun in the oil and drilled the guardrail. A mini inferno ensued and badly burned Bentley’s hands.
“That car was always hit or miss but that day it was fantastic and that track was so fast and I loved it,” he recalled. “But hitting that oil was like hitting ice at 200 mph and it was a serious fire.”
Taken to the local hospital, Warren was told to drink lots of liquids. “So I got a big bottle of beer and started drinking,” he laughed.
The charter plane back to Indianapolis was delayed from taking off because Bill Simpson was trying to talk a pretty blonde into moving to California with him and Warren had to sit in a middle seat with his heavily-bandaged arms in an upright position. Mechanic Al Freedman asked all the USAC officials sitting in first class if anyone would like to give up their seat for the injured driver and nobody responded.
“I got to sit next to Boston Louie (Seymour, a colorful character who fielded USAC cars for 30 years) so that made the flight home more fun than it could have been,” said Warren, who would make two Indy 500 starts before returning to his winning ways at Oswego.
Foyt won the NASCAR stock car race at Ontario that same day and a week later Andretti scored his initial F1 victory in South Africa.
Pairetti came home ninth in the second heat and went to Indianapolis that May, but was in an uncompetitive car and didn’t qualify. Argentina was tentatively on the 1972 schedule but was dropped and wound up like so many open-wheel races of the past 50 years — one and done.
Because USAC took the dirt car races out of the national championship after 1970 and made a separate division and did the same thing with road courses, the 1971 Marlboro Championship Trail only had 12 races — all on ovals — and the diversity that defined USAC’s national champion was gone.
And so was Marlboro a year later after USAC allowed Viceroy to sponsor a car.