News last week that McLaren will enter the 2020 IndyCar Series with a full-time team was to be expected. McLaren are no strangers to the Indianapolis 500 race and will make a full assault on the series partnering with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports running tow Chevrolet-powered cars.
This follows this year’s hiccup with ex F1 driver Fernando Alonso failing to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 race in May, in a McLaren!
It’s all part of what one might refer to as an interesting history McLaren has with Indy racing.
So what part in this history does a man called Salt Walther, a McLaren, the Goodyear tyre company, the Indianapolis 500, lawyers and lawsuits play?
The 57th running of the Indianapolis 500 took place in 1973 and it would add to the McLaren history in a number of ways. Johnny Rutherford (main picture) qualified on pole, eventually finishing ninth with the second McLaren team car of Peter Revson crashing out.
Most entrants that year were in Eagle cars (ex works or customer cars) including Kiwi driver Graham McRae in a STP Eagle Offenhauser. McRae drove eventual winner Gordon Johncock’s spare car (once Johncock qualified safely on the fourth row) and qualified after just 10 laps of practice on the fifth row. This was quite an extraordinary performance by the F5000 champ as 22 others failed to qualify for the 33-car grid. McRae’s qualifying speed was 192mph, fractionally short of Johncock’s and achieved with just eight-minutes of track time. He finished 16th overall earning him the Rookie of the Year title.
McLaren had six cars entered in the race and it was the privateer McLaren of Salt Walther that caused major problems for McLaren much later after the race.
Walther was competing in a former works M16B and as the race got underway, had moved to avoid the car of Steve Krisiloff. He clipped Jerry Grant’s Eagle and this catapulted Walther’s McLaren into the large safety fence.
On breaking up as it hit the steel fencing, burning fuel was sprayed into the crowd before Walther’s car slammed back onto the track upside down engulfing other competitors cars. Walther survived albeit with a number of extensive injuries including burns (and lived until 2012).
It was an eventful running of the race, marred by a number of fatalities both in practice and the race.
The aftermath of the crash for McLaren was that they were to be sued by the families of the spectators who were burned during Walther’s crash. It appeared that anyone connected with Walther was in line for this class action – the Speedway, the race organisers, Goodyear tyres and McLaren, who were accused of building a car insufficient to withstand a 160-mph impact into the steel fencing.
While there was sympathy for all involved in the incident, initially McLaren presumed that the lawsuit would be covered by the circuit owners public liability insurance, like in Formula One.
On the contrary. To the shock of the McLaren management team, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had no insurance, no public liability insurance, and nothing covering drivers, teams and spectators.
What does one do? Well it’s reported that McLaren engaged (the cheapest) US lawyers with bills coming in that could have paid for several F1 engines.
Eventually it was the Goodyear tyre company that ended up settling out of court much to the relief of McLaren (and other parties). The settlement amount has never been revealed.
After 1973, Rutherford went on to win the 500 the following year in a M16C/D. He finished second in ’75 and won again in ’76 with McLaren finishing on the podium in three of the next five years.
So the great McLaren F1 team will enter the 2020 IndyCar Series, no doubt with Alonso as one of their drivers. It all adds to the highs and lows of their history with American racing.
Incidentally, Salt Walther is the all-time leader in the Indy 500 last-place finishes with three – 1972, 1973 and 1975.