In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, moving Memorial Day from the fixed date of May 30 to the final Monday in May. For 1971-1972, the race was scheduled for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The Speedway still maintained a policy of not holding the race on Sunday. For 1973, the race was scheduled for the Monday Memorial Day holiday itself.
The 500 Festival Committee had a desire to move their annual parade downtown to Saturday afternoon. Previously it had been held at night during the week. For 1973, the parade was held Saturday, the public driver's meeting was scheduled for Sunday, and the race was scheduled for Monday. A decision had been made that starting in 1974, the race would ultimately move to Sunday.
Just one year prior, USAC began allowing bolt-on wings. The increased downforce increased lap speeds nearly 30 miles per hour in just three years. The dramatic rise went from 170 mph in 1970, to flirting with the 200 mph barrier for 1973. During Goodyear tire tests in late March, Gordon Johncock set an unofficial track record of 199.4 mph. Experts and officials agree that the safety features in the cars were not prepared for the speeds attained. In addition, engine development with the turbocharged version of the venerable I-4 Offenhauser had resulted in horsepower readings in high-boost qualifying trim in excess of 1,100 hp. According to Mario Andretti, this was sufficient to induce rear wheelspin on the 1/8-mile "short chutes" between turns 1 and 2 and turns 3 and 4—an unnerving sensation for even the bravest, most skilled and experienced of drivers.
The track opened on Saturday April 28 with Gary Bettenhausen earning the honor of first driver on the track. Rain and winds plagued practice during the first week, while drivers started creeping up the speed chart. On Monday April 30, chief steward Harlan Fengler lifted the 180 mph speed limit and speeds climbed quickly. Gordon Johncock set an unofficial lap of over 190 mph to set the early pace. Johnny Rutherford was another member of the "190 mph club" with several laps in the mid-190 mph range. On May 5, Swede Savage upped the speed chart to 197.802 mph, inching closer to the elusive 200 mph mark.
On Sunday May 6, three drivers left the grounds to race in the NASCAR Winston 500 at Talladega. A huge crash, described as the worst crash in the history of NASCAR, put Bobby Allison and Gordon Johncock out of that race. Dick Simon, however, escaped the incident, with Simon coming home 7th. All three would return to qualify at Indy.
Rain and high winds kept speeds down in the second week of practice. Mario Andretti turned a lap of 192.967 mph on Thursday May 10. The final day of practice before pole day was Friday May 11. From April 28—May 11, there were only three accidents reported in practice that involved wall contact, none of which caused serious injuries.
By the eve of pole day, no drivers had eclipsed the 200 mph barrier according to published reports, but conditions were favorable for pole day, and anticipation was high.
Pole day dawned sunny with high temperatures in the 70s (°F). Brief showers put out the yellow light a few times during the day, but did not significantly affect the proceedings. An enormous crowd estimated at 250,000 arrived, anticipating the first ever 200 mph lap at Indy. Practice opened promptly at 9:00 a.m., but was quickly marred by the crash of Art Pollard. At 9:37 a.m., Pollard hit the outside wall in turn 1, spun to the inside, then flipped over, coming to a rest in turn two with flames and heavy damage. Pollard suffered pulmonary damage due to flame inhalation, and burns over his hands, face, and neck, as well as a fractured right arm. Pollard was pronounced dead at Methodist Hospital one hour after the crash.
Despite the crash, time trials began on time at 11 a.m. Peter Revson was the first driver in the field, with a fast run of 192.606 mph. The next car out, Gary Bettenhausen, upped the mark to 195.599 mph, just short of the existing track record.
At 12:29 p.m., Swede Savage took to the track, and was the first to set records. His first lap of 197.152 mph set a one-lap record, and his four-lap speed of 196.582 mph was also a record. The run put him tentatively on the pole.
At 1:37 p.m., Johnny Rutherford took to the track, and electrified the crowd into a frenzy. His third lap of 199.071 mph was just 0.21 seconds shy of the elusive 200 mph barrier. his four-lap average of 198.413 mph secured the pole position.
Defending race winner Mark Donohue squeezed onto the front row with a run of 197.413 mph. In the final hour, Bobby Unser was the last driver of the day with a shot at history. He came close to Rutherford, but his four-lap average of 198.183 mph was good enough only for second starting position.
At the end of the day, the field was filled to 24 cars. A. J. Foyt (188.927 mph) and Sam Posey (187.921 mph) were the two slowest. Foyt, who was over 192 mph during the week, waved off once, and had to settle for a slow run.
A fairly busy second day of time trials saw six cars added to the field without incident. John Martin (194.384 mph) was the fastest of the day. Posey and Foyt were still the two slowest cars in the field.
Rain kept cars off the track for most of the day. Lightning, hail, and a tornado warning, emptied the grandstands at 3 p.m. In the final ten minutes, two cars (Tom Bigelow and Sammy Sessions) made it out on the track for qualifying attempts, but neither were successful. Bigelow spun on his warm up lap, and Sessions waved off.
With three spots left open in the field, the final day of time trials was expected to be busy, but saw only moderate action. Sammy Sessions was the first car out, and completed his run, slightly slower than his run a day earlier. After a down period in the mid-afternoon, the field was filled to 33 cars at 5:37 p.m. Tom Bigelow was on the bubble.
With 15 minutes left in the day. Jim McElreath bumped out Tom Bigelow. Sam Posey was now on the bubble. Next out was Jim Hurtubise, but he was 4 mph too slow. With one minute left before the 6 o'clock gun, George Snider got in a Foyt backup car. A fast run of 190.355 mph bumped Posey, and the field was set.First alternate: Sam Posey (#34) – Bumped (Posey was disqualified and stripped of first alternate status)
Second alternate: Tom Bigelow (R) (#27)
On race day, a crowd estimated at 350,000 waited as morning rain delayed the proceedings for four hours and four minutes from its original scheduled time of 11:00 a.m.. Tony Hulman gave the command to start engines just after 3:00 p.m., and the field pulled away for the pace laps. Bob Harkey's car did not fire, and his crew wheeled the car back to the pits. It was discovered earlier in the day that the engine had failed, and rather than withdraw (and give their starting spot to Tom Bigelow, the first alternate), the crew gridded the car as normal. They worked on the car briefly to give the impression that the engine failed when the starting command was given.
At the start, an 11-car accident on the mainstretch stopped the race immediately. Salt Walther's car edged towards the outside wall, tangled wheels with Jerry Grant, and climbed over Grant's left-front wheel into the catch fence. It sent burning fuel into the grandstand, dousing many spectators. Eleven grandstand spectators were injured, and nine required hospitalization. Walther's car also significantly damaged portions of the fence itself. As the front of the car dug into the fence, the nose was sheared off and Walther's legs were exposed. The car flung back onto the racing surface upside-down, and spun wildly down the mainstretch, spraying burning fuel in all directions. The spinning car was hit by at least two other cars, and a total of at least ten other cars became involved in the crash. Several cars were damaged extensively, with debris and burning fuel now littering the track.
Walther's car came to rest upside-down near the pit exit. Walther suffered severe burns and injuries to his hands. The race was red-flagged, and the start was negated. Safety crews attended to the crash scene, aided injured spectators, and also started repairing the catch fence. The other drivers involved in the crash suffered only minor injuries, but Walther was transported to the hospital, and would remain hospitalized for months thereafter. Before all the cleanup and the repairs could be completed, rain began to fall again. The rest of the day was washed out, and officials rescheduled the start for 9:00 a.m. Tuesday.
On Tuesday May 29, the scheduled start time of the race was 9:00 a.m.. Rain fell in the early morning, delaying any attempt to start until 10:15 a.m.. Attendance was visibly down from Monday and estimated at approximately 200,000.
Officials announced that the race would restart from scratch, and the single lap driven on Monday would not count in the scoring. Cars would be gridded in their original starting positions, sans Walther, who was credited with 33rd place. All cars involved in Monday's crash were allowed to make repairs, and Bob Harkey's team was able to install a new engine. Therefore, Tuesday's race start had 32 of the 33 race entrants ready for the start.
A heated pre-race meeting was held with the drivers and officials, and the subject of the crash and the speed at the start was the focus. Drivers were complaining that the pace of the start (80 mph) was too slow, and pointed to the ragged start of 1972 as well as reason to increase the pace car speed to 100 mph.
The command to fire engines was given a shortly after 10 o'clock, and the field of 32 pulled away for the warm-up laps. On the second parade lap, a light rain began to fall, and the track was red-flagged. The cars were halted on the main stretch to wait out the shower. Rain continued to fall most of the day. Many fans headed for the exits, and crews wheeled the cars back to the garage area. During the delay, a pick-up soccer game broke out on the pit lane. At 1:48 p.m., the race was postponed until Wednesday.
On Wednesday, morning rains threatened to wash the race out for the third day in a row. Estimates put the Wednesday attendance as low as 20,000, 35,000, or 50-60,000, and rain check tickets were no longer asked for at the gate. After over two days of revelry, the infield was overwhelmed with mud and garbage. The grandstands and bathrooms were littered with trash, walkways and parking areas were flooded. The health department overseeing the race even threatened to keep the race from running at all if it was rained out again on Wednesday, due to the deteriorating conditions of the infield.
The mood around the garage area was glum. Crews were exhausted, and drivers were apprehensive. Johnny Rutherford later quipped that if a poll had been taken around the garage area, the consensus would have been to leave and move on to the next race at Milwaukee. Media had already nicknamed the race the "72 Hours of Indianapolis", a play on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The delays in running the Indianapolis 500 were beginning to have cascade effects on the USAC schedule itself. Wednesday morning, it had already been stated that If the Indianapolis 500 were postponed past Wednesday, the Rex Mays 150 in Milwaukee would be rescheduled to the weekend of June 9–10 (originally scheduled for June 2–3). Even if the race ran on the 30th, the USAC still planned to meet to determine whether to hold the Milwaukee race on the upcoming weekend.
The May 30 scheduled start time of the race was 9:00 a.m.. At midday, the sun finally came out for a few hours, and the track surface dried enough for a race start at 2:10 p.m.
On the pace lap, the car of David Hobbs began smoking heavily. He pitted, and later rejoined the race.
The first 58 laps were run with only two brief cautions, for minor incidents. However, there was considerable attrition. Bobby Unser took the lead at the start, and led the first 39 laps. Bobby Allison blew his engine at the completion of the first lap, Peter Revson brushed the wall in turn four on lap 3, and Mario Andretti broke a piston on lap 4.
The first yellow light came out on lap 17 when Bob Harkey's engine seized. It spilled oil, causing him to spin out and stall on the backstretch. Mark Donohue was the only one of the leaders that chose to pit during the yellow. Bobby Unser continued to lead, with Gordon Johncock running second, and Johnny Rutherford third. A. J. Foyt coasted to a stop in the pits after 37 laps with a broken rod bolt. Bobby Unser made his first pit stop on lap 40, briefly handing the lead to Johncock. Unser's pit stop dragged on for almost 45 seconds, and Swede Savage took over third.
Johncock led laps 40-42, then made a pit stop. The lead was assumed by Swede Savage on lap 43, with Al Unser now second. Joe Leonard brought out the yellow for two minutes when he spun on lap 45 in the northchute between turns 3 and 4. Savage and Al Unser battled closely for several laps, with the lapped car of Roger McCluskey also in the mix. Unser was able to get by McCluskey on the backstretch on lap 53. He then made a slingshot pass around Savage for the lead going into turn one on lap 54.
On lap 55, Johnny Rutherford was given the black flag and went to the pits to check for leaking fluid. At the same time, Mark Donohue's car slowed and he went to the pits (and later dropped out) with a bad piston.
By lap 57, only 22 cars of the starting field of 33 were on track.
On the 57th lap, Swede Savage made a pit stop. His car was filled with 70 gallons (500 lb.) of fuel and fitted with a new right rear tire. On lap 59, Savage was in 2nd place, a few seconds behind race leader Al Unser. As Unser committed to a lap 59 pit stop ahead of him, Savage lost control of his car as he exited turn four. The car twitched back and forth, and then slid across to the inside of the track at nearly top speed. It hit the angled inside wall nearly head-on. The force of the impact, with the car carrying a full load of fuel, caused the car to explode in a plume of flame. The force of the fuel exploding was so great that some structural rivets were blown rearward out of the car. The engine and transaxle tumbled end-over-end to the pit lane entrance while Savage, still strapped in his seat, was thrown back across the circuit. Savage came to rest adjacent to the outer retaining wall, fully conscious and completely exposed while he sat in a pool of flaming methanol fuel. The other cars on the track quickly stopped in turn four, as the track was completely blocked with debris and fire. A red flag stopped the race at 3:05 p.m..
Track and safety crews immediately descended onto the crash scene to aid Savage. One fire truck, driven by fire/safety truck driver Jerry Flake, was signaled to head to the scene by Cleon Reynolds, the Chief of the Speedway Fire Department. Flake was stationed at the south end of the pits, and would have to traverse the pit lane 'against traffic' to reach the Savage crash as quickly as possible. Driving a safety vehicle against the flow of racing and pit traffic was permissible in the USAC safety rules of 1973, and Reynold's hand signal to Flake specifically instructed him to do exactly this. Flake reported "laying on the horn" and slow progress through the pit lane as people were in the way.
As Flake began speeding toward Savage's crash via the pit lane, numerous pit crew members from several teams would move to cross pit lane, toward the grass infield at trackside. Among those who did was George Bignotti, chief mechanic for Gordon Johncock, and 22-year-old Armando Teran, pit board man for Graham McRae. "I had just crossed the lane," Bignotti begins. Flake, driving northbound in pit lane at high speed, describes what he saw: "All of a sudden things cleared up on the pit road and I had a clear shot all the way up to Savage's car which I could see burning. Then out of nowhere, a guy was in front of me..."
Flake's truck struck Teran, his body tossed about 50 feet, an impact violent enough to knock him out of his shoes. As Bignotti relays it, "I heard the car coming, and - whap - it hit him." The incident was easily seen by thousands of spectators, as it occurred on the pit lane at the start/finish line. Teran suffered crushed ribs and a broken skull, and although he lived through the initial impact, he died shortly afterward after being transported to Methodist Hospital.
It was erroneously reported by media that Flake was at fault in the Teran collision because of driving against racing traffic; in 1973, safety trucks were permitted to drive in the opposite direction of the racing cars as Flake had done. The following year, USAC specifically prohibited safety trucks from driving in the opposite direction. For Teran's part, there was no rule forbidding him from leaving the pit wall, as a team's pit board, or "chalkboard" man, either.
Savage was taken to the hospital with serious injuries, but was in stable condition. One hour and eleven minutes after the accident, the debris was cleaned up, and the race was resumed. After witnessing the Savage crash, George Snider decided to retire, and turned his car over to A. J. Foyt, his car owner. Foyt's own car had already dropped out in lap 37.
The race restarted with Al Unser leading, and attrition continued to take a toll on the field. On lap 73, Jimmy Caruthers blew his engine, and a connecting rod flew out, punctured, and violently blew his right front tire on the mainstretch. He was able to maintain control of the car, and coasted around to the pit area. Al Unser's day ended with a blown engine on lap 75, and Gordon Johncock, another of Savage's Patrick Racing/STP teammates, assumed the lead.
In quick succession, seven cars dropped out between laps 91 and 101, including Bobby Unser, A. J. Foyt (in George Snider's car), and Dick Simon. The race became official at its halfway point, lap 101. By this time, only 11 cars were still running, 2 on the lead lap. These were Gordon Johncock, leading, and Bill Vukovich II who had climbed all the way up to second position. Track officials began assembling victory lane, as dark skies were looming, and the race was not expected to go the full distance.
Jerry Karl, after about two hours of repairs in the pits, rejoined the race running over 100 laps down. He was able to move up to 26th place.
On the 129th lap a light rain began to fall, and the yellow light came out with Gordon Johncock leading. Only eleven cars were still on the track. After 133 laps, at about 5:30 p.m., the rain started to fall much harder, forcing the race to be stopped. A short time later, officials declared the race complete, with Johncock the winner. Johncock led the most laps with a total of 64.
The 1973 race was the shortest "500" on record at the time (332.5 miles), with the exception of the 1916 race, which was actually scheduled for 300 miles. Three years later, the 1976 race was halted at an even shorter distance (255 miles).
The traditional victory banquet was canceled, and the victory celebration was muted. Johncock left the track soon after the race to visit Swede Savage at the hospital, with team owner Pat Patrick. Johncock and Patrick ended the day with a "victory dinner" which consisted of sharing fast food hamburgers at a Burger Chef just east of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The race and its safety concerns caused immediate uproar among racing owners, crew, and track owners. Two days after the race, team owner Andy Granatelli (whose car, driven by Johncock, won the race), declared that he would withdraw from USAC racing in 1974 unless changes were made. On June 2, Dr. Joseph Mattioli of Pocono International Raceway was calling for USAC to make changes "(restricting) speeds of the race car so that we can once again have auto races that are competitive, exciting, and relatively safe" for the next 500-mile race on the USAC schedule in early July.
USAC acted quickly. On the evening of June 2, 1973, the weekend after the race, USAC held an unscheduled meeting, revising rules. The large rear wings used in 1972–73 were cut back in size (from 64 inches to 55), fuel tank capacity was drastically reduced (from 75 gallons to 40) and the allowable fuel to be consumed in a 500-mile race was reduced from 375 gallons to 340. Those changes were designed to slow the cars down. USAC also created a rule specifically disallowing the pit sign carrier from leaving his post as Teran did, for the duration of a race. (The pit signs have been replaced by two-way radio communication, and by 2014 were prohibited during the race.) All of these rule changes were effective as of the Pocono 500 to be held on July 1, 1973. USAC also delayed the Rex Mays 150 race in Milwaukee one week, to June 9–10, because of the lengthy delay in running the Indianapolis 500 race.
On July 2, 33 days after his on track injury, Swede Savage died in the hospital from complications arising from his injuries and treatment.
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, several changes were made for the 1974 race. The angled inside wall at the northwest corner of the track (which had also played a role in the Dave MacDonald/Eddie Sachs double-fatality in 1964) was removed, and the pit entrance was widened. Retaining walls and catch fences were improved around the track. In addition, the spectator areas were moved back away from the track, and many rows of "trackside" seats were removed. There was not another on-track fatality at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1982.
As of 2016, Savage's death in 1973 is the last fatality at the Speedway that occurred as a result of a crash during the race itself. It would not be until the 2010 MotoGP race weekend that a fatality occurred during an actual race at the Speedway.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Sid Collins served as chief announcer and Fred Agabashian served as "driver expert," replacing Len Sutton. Fred Agabashian returned after a six-year absence. The race was held over three days, and the network covered activities live on all three days.
This would be Mike Ahern's final race with the network crew. For 1973, the turn two reporting location was moved to the new VIP Suites, which had just been constructed. Bob Forbes served as wireless roving reporter, concentrating on the garage area.
At the conclusion of the race, Lou Palmer reported from victory lane.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. The race was scheduled to air on Monday May 28 at 9 p.m. EDT for a two-hour same-day tape delay broadcast. However, the race suffered the crash of Salt Walther and rain prevented it from being restarted. After showing a brief program showing Walther's crash, the network filled the rest of the two-hour time period with a movie instead. On Tuesday May 29, the race was to be rescheduled for 9 a.m., but it was again rained out as well. On Wednesday May 30, the race was finally held, and ABC planned to air the broadcast in primetime on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. EDT. The broadcast featured a rebroadcast of Monday's aborted attempt at a start, as well as the conclusion on Wednesday.
Analyst Jackie Stewart was to be the color commentator, but was only able to be at the grounds on Monday and Tuesday. Stewart left the Speedway Wednesday for Formula One commitments at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix. Chris Economaki substituted for Stewart in the booth on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Chris Schenkel rode and reported from inside the pace car.
Because of the long delay after Swede Savage's accident, some of the later portions of the race were still being edited as the beginning of the race was being broadcast.
The race was billed on ABC as "Goodyear Presents the Indianapolis 500 Race."
The broadcast re-aired on ESPN Classic for the first time on August 12, 2011. The broadcast was slightly edited from the original airing, as a scene in the immediate aftermath of Armando Teran's fatal accident was omitted. The broadcast was shown again on ESPN Classic on May 30, 2013 (the 40th anniversary).
Several documentary films were also produced discussing the 1973 Indianapolis 500. These include:
The 200 MPH Barrier, narrated by Ralph Camargo, Dynamic Films (for Ashland Oil)
Catastrophe, narrated by William Conrad (the 1973 Indianapolis 500 is one of the film's subjects)
Fire and Rain, for the STP-sponsored Patrick Racing teams (Johncock, McRae, Savage), Allend'or Productions
The Longest May, narrated by Tom Carnegie, McGraw-Hill productions