Indianapolis (May 7, 2014)-Track Enterprises, promoter of the May 22 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, would like to recognize the fortieth anniversary of perhaps the greatest upset victory in the 60 year history of this prestigious event.
The date was September 7, 1974. America was just one month into the presidency of Gerald R. Ford and trying to cope with the fallout of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Americans were feeling a pinch in the pocketbook as the Arab oil embargo caused numerous economic problems on the home front including increasing inflation. Vietnam vets were trying to deal with the after effects of service in a war that no one could quite explain.
Nevertheless a sellout crowd headed for the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the 20th Hoosier Hundred. Promoter Jo Quinn to post a purse of nearly $54,000 for the 37 entries that would vie for 24 starting positions in the fifth and final event of USAC’s 1974 dirt track division schedule. The drivers kept coming as well. Twelve of the combatants had rides across town at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and ten of the starters from the 1974 Indianapolis 500 would make this day’s 24 car field.
Legends and former winners A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser were in the house along with 33 other drivers as a total of 36 cars were parked in the pit area on a warm and muggy late summer afternoon. Unser was looking for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Hoosier Hundred victory while Viceroy teammate Mario Andretti was looking to improve upon his 1966 and 1967 victories. Foyt, the only six time winner of the event, was struggling to work the bugs out of a new Grant King built machine powered by the four cam Ford engine. The car finished 16th at Springfield and ran 4th at DuQuoin until the rain came.
Unser was dealing with virtually a new mount as well, having wrecked the former Johnny Lightning Grant King built Ford at Sedalia three weeks prior. The accident caused him to miss Springfield but car owner Parnelli Jones had a Viceroy mount for Big Al bearing the number 1 of the national champion for DuQuoin and Al finished third behind Mario and Tom Bigelow. In fact, the Viceroy team had won every race on the schedule to date. Al won at Syracuse in July, and then Mario ripped off three in a row at Sedalia, Springfield and DuQuoin. To further illustrate their domination, Mario and Al had led every lap of the 1974 season to date, with Mario having been in front for 339 laps and Al 13. In fact, Mario had led the last 252 laps consecutively of the dirt track division!
Indy 500 stars in the field included Bill Vukovich, Jr., Jim McElreath, Bigelow, George Snider, Jimmy Caruthers, Johnny Parsons and the up and coming Pancho Carter as well as Jan Opperman. ABC was on hand to broadcast the event as part of the “Wide World of Sports Program”.
One driver missing was Gary Bettenhausen. He flipped out of the park at Syracuse and his arm injuries would keep him sidelined until the start of the 1975 season and greatly affect his career.
Master mechanic George Bignotti was on hand as well with two mounts, a Grant King car formerly of the STP stables assigned to Wally Dallenbach (and driven today by Parsons) and another Grant King built car assigned to Oklahoma supermodified standout Jackie Howerton. The car and driver were somewhat unusual; Howerton came from an area that wasn’t frequented by USAC’s traveling series. He had made his big car debut in 1972 at DuQuoin and his only other start came 5 days ago in the same Bignotti entry. This car was unusual in that George, on something of a lark, had installed a 160 cubic inch turbo charged Offy, the kind normally associated with rear engine Indianapolis cars. It had an auspicious debut at DuQuoin running 20th.
Practice for the dirt cars ended with a clear cushion out near the wall, the kind that should have favored drivers like Foyt, Unser and Andretti. However, Howerton shocked the railbirds by sticking Bignotti’s creation on the pole with a 34.25 some .7 off Parnelli Jones’ 1962 one lap standard. Sheldon Kinser gave Indiana fans a thrill when the Bloomington native qualified second, with Mario third, Bigelow fourth and Snider fifth. Al Unser nearly lost the car and would start thirteenth. Foyt lost an engine, he and his father worked furiously with the crew to replace the Ford power plant and he qualified eighth. Crowd favorite Ralph Ligouri made the show on his first lap, then dumped the McGinty 85 and was out. Arnie Knepper benefited and would start twenty-fourth.
When the green flag dropped Howerton surged toward the cushion and into the lead. A rooster tail of dirt hit Sheldon Kinser in the face and blinded him, causing the Indiana native to lose control and wreck the Dave McIntire 20 in the first turn taking Jim McElreath’s Windmill Truckers and John Hubbard’s Vatis mounts with him. Caruthers went out under the yellow with no brakes.
Three laps later the green flew once more and Unser began a march to the front. Foyt fans groaned as the King’s car lost the ignition on lap 9 ending his day. Opperman had a wheel fly off into the sky and the horse barns on lap 11 bringing out the yellow once again. The green stayed out for 28 circuits until the yellow light flashed on again at lap 43 for contact between Unser’s Viceroy 1 and the Leyba 9 of George Snider. Neither pilot crashed but the caution stayed out for 4 laps.
At times Howerton built a lead that was 17 seconds over his closest rivals, but pit signals from his crew indicated the two red and white Viceroy cars were closing on his exhaust pipe and in the last few circuits, both Unser (now in second) and Mario were pressuring the race rookie for the lead. On the final circuit Jackie was able to give Bignotti’s turbo-Offy one last kick as Mario and Al tangled in the turn and the red and white car piloted by the Okie came home first.
A payday of over $11,000 awaited Howerton as he headed for victory lane, the crowd still on his feet and his jubilant crew awaited his arrival. Pounding him about the helmet and back were Bignotti and George Huening and numerous well wishers, and his wife was the first to plant a big kiss on him as the helmet came off.
The thirty-one year old Okie had beaten the best in the business and led every lap in the process. He would later say “it was obviously my biggest victory and George (Bignotti) made it all possible for me.” “I told my wife Becky if we didn’t make good we were going back home, but it worked out today.”
The dream of an Indy ride never materialized for Howerton and the 1974 Hoosier Hundred remains arguably his biggest win. He would however move to Indiana and become one of the most respected fabricators in the business. By the late 70’s he was pretty much done driving with a booming fabrication business going. With only two starts he finished sixth in the USAC Dirt Track points in 1974. His performance led to USAC banning turbocharged engines for the mighty uprights over the winter.
Mario would win the USAC dirt title with a third in his final appearance in the big cars. Unser would continue for Parnelli for one more year, then come back for final appearances with George Middleton. Middleton, by the way, came to own the Meskowski dirt car Foyt abandoned for his new King car. Greg Weld missed the show in the car at Indianapolis, yet it would carry Jimmy Caruthers to the dirt car title in 1975.
Jackie’s stirring 1974 victory remains one of the great moments in Hoosier Hundred history. You can relive this moment at the 2014 Hoosier Hundred which takes place at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on the evening of May 22 as the opening event for the 98th Indianapolis 500 mile race weekend.