During the coming months, Sports Car Digest will be running a series of photo retrospectives drawn from the film archive of Bob Harmeyer. This first installment looks at the 1977 Indianapolis 500.
1977 Indianapolis 500 – Profile and Photo Gallery
By Bob Harmeyer
The Indianapolis 500 has long been one of the most important events on the world racing calendar and, for several reasons, the 1977 race ranks among the most significant of all.
Most importantly, AJ Foyt claimed a historic fourth “500” triumph. But prior to the race, during qualifying, two entirely different storylines grabbed the national spotlight: Tom Sneva became the first driver to officially crack the 200 mph barrier at the Speedway and, on “Bump Day,” Janet Guthrie nursed an ailing Offenhauser through four laps of qualifying to become the first woman to make the field for the Indianapolis 500.
Entering that year’s race, AJ Foyt was tied with five other drivers at the top of the Speedway’s victory list with three wins apiece. Two of those – Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser – were Foyt’s contemporaries, and were entered in the ’77 event with formidable teams. Any of the trio could become the first driver to reach four “500” victories.
Mechanical problems eliminated both Rutherford and Unser before half distance, and Foyt had his own problem to overcome en route to the finish. Early in the race he had run out of fuel on the backstretch, coasted into the pits, and spent the rest of the race fighting his way back to the front.
Gordon Johncock dominated much of the race in one of Pat Patrick’s Wildcats, leading a total of 129 laps. But Johncock was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion in the blistering heat, and Foyt was closing quickly as the laps wound down. Both drivers had made their final pit stops and Foyt had narrowed the gap to less than 10 seconds when, on lap 184, Johncock’s engine expired. Foyt assumed the lead as Johncock coasted to a stop in the grass inside the first turn.
Foyt led Tom Sneva to the checkered flag by almost half a minute, waving to the crowd as he approached the flag to clinch a spot in Indianapolis history as the first four-time winner. Foyt’s career spanned the era when Indy Car racing transitioned from the nose-heavy, front-engine roadsters to lower, lighter rear-engine machines, and he was the only driver to win the “500” in both front and rear-engine cars. His victories in 1961 and 1964 were at the wheel of roadsters, while the 1967 and 1977 triumphs were in rear-engine cars designed in his own race shop.
Driving for Roger Penske, Sneva had made the headlines two weeks earlier when, in front of almost 200,000 fans during Pole Day qualifying, he became the first driver to officially lap the Speedway at more than 200 mph. The track had been repaved in the summer of 1976 and several drivers had exceeded the 200 mph mark in testing. But testing speeds weren’t considered official, so the record belongs to Sneva.
Janet Guthrie earned her own place in Indy 500 history by being the fastest qualifier on “Bump Day,” the fourth and final day of qualifications during that era. Given the current state of IndyCar racing, that may not seem significant. But there were a total of 77 qualifying attempts that year, and Guthrie out-qualified drivers like Dick Simon, Formula 1 veteran Clay Regazzoni, and a young rookie named Rick Mears who made two attempts but failed to qualify.
Together, the achievements of Foyt, Sneva and Guthrie made the 1977 Indianapolis 500 one of the most notable in Speedway history.
Finally, in a footnote to the ’77 race, one future superstar made his rookie appearance at the Speedway. Rick Mears made two qualifying attempts in an older Eagle/Offenhauser, but the car didn’t have the speed to make the show. Mears returned the next year driving for Roger Penske and, over the course of 15 years with Penske Racing, would join AJ Foyt on the list of four-time winners of the Indy 500.