The race was run in the wake of the energy crisis, which precipitated several changes to the schedule. During the offseason, government officials were pressuring sports and recreational organizations to curtail their energy consumption. Track management did not want to shorten the traditional 500-mile race distance, but agreed to voluntarily curtail other track activities. In the first half of 1974, NASCAR decided to trim all of their race distances by 10%, as well as scale back practice and ancillary events. Earlier in the year, the Daytona 500 was notably trimmed by 20 laps (the race officially started on lap 21), and the race ran a distance of only 450 miles. Furthermore, the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring were canceled outright.
USAC opted to cut a week of practice out of the schedule for the Indy 500. Previously, the track would open for practice on May 1 (or as early as the Saturday before May 1). For 1974, the track opened three weeks before the race. Time trials were cut back from four days to two. Pole day would be held on the Saturday two weeks before the race, and Bump Day would be held on the Saturday one week before the race.
In addition, the track would begin opening on practice days around 12 noon, rather than the previous 9 a.m. Normally, the first few hours of practice were quiet and leisurely with few cars taking advantage of the track time. Thus they were deemed superfluous and excessive on resources and operating costs. This change was also introduced because it made logical sense to have drivers practicing on the track at the same time of day as they would be running in time trials and the race itself (theoretically it would better mimic the conditions encountered on those days).
The reduced on-track time was seen as a way to reduce overall fuel consumption – fewer days that fans would drive their cars to the track – but a mostly insignificant reduction of the actual methanol fuel used by the race cars.
After the tragic 1973 race, several changes were made to the course, as well as the car rules. The pit lane was widened, and lengthened to the north by about 400 feet. In addition, the inside wall from turn 4 to the pit entrance was moved in, which allowed cars to have a much easier entrance into the pit lane. The height of the inside and outside retaining walls were also increased and set at a uniform height, additional fencing was added, and several rows of trackside seats were removed.
Also part of the improvements were a new flagstand and officials' booth. Tom Binford, the new chief steward for 1974, requested the construction of an elevated booth, to be located on the outside of the track at the start/finish line. The flagging duties were moved to the new perch, previously they were done from a small trackside platform, and prior to that, on the race track itself. Though flagman Pat Vidan did not particularly like the confines of new flagstand (it constricted his grandiose waving style), the officials preferred their improved view of the track and the isolation the booth provided (previously the officials were stationed on the pit lane, in full ear of the often confrontational participants).
Rear wings on the cars were reduced in size to 55 inches from 64 the previous year, car fuel capacity was reduced to 40 US gal (33 imp gal; 150 l) (down from 75 US gal (62 imp gal; 280 l) ) and fuel tanks were only allowed on the drivers' left side, and behind the cockpit. Total fuel allotment for the 500 miles was reduced to 280 gallons.
During time trials, all cars were required to carry a pop-off valve to control turbocharger "boost." Maximum boost levels were set at 80 inHG. The reduction of boost, reduction of wing sizes, and other technical changes lowered speeds by about 8–10 mph from 1973. As a result, top speeds would be around 190 mph, and the elusive 200 mph barrier would be out-of-reach for 1974.
In response to the fatal accident of pit crew member Armando Teran in 1973, safety trucks were prohibited from driving on the racing surface in the opposite direction of the racing cars. Teran was struck by a fire truck rushing to the scene of Swede Savage's accident.
During time trials, a new safety rule was put into place to convey to the officials the start of a qualifying attempt. When a driver is on his three warm-up laps, a crew member(s) from his team is now stationed at the north end of the mainstretch. When the car is coming around after the third and final warm-up lap, the crew waves a green flag in the air to signify the driver will begin the run. If the crew waves a yellow flag, or waves no flag, the run does not start, the car returns to the pits, and the attempt does not count. As in previous years, each car was still allotted three official qualifying attempts.
This new arrangement also made it simpler for the crew to "wave off" an attempt already in progress. At any time during the four-lap run, if the crew was dissatisfied with the performance, they could wave a yellow flag, and officials would immediately abort the run. Crews could now wave off a run without needing input from, or conveying the message to, the driver out on the track. Furthermore, the rules made it clear that the instant the yellow flag was waved by the crew, the run was aborted, irrespective of the position of the car out on the track. If the car continued down the mainstretch, it would not matter if he/she proceeded to cross the finish line. Previously, if a car physically crossed the finish line, the run counted and was locked in. That situation made for some precarious maneuvers to the pit lane or to cars stopping out on the track to avoid crossing the finish line and 'locking in' the undesirable qualifying time.
Previously, the driver himself would make the decision on whether to start the qualifying run. He would do so by raising his hand in the air as he approached the start/finish line. Due to significantly rising speeds, and the awkwardness of doing so in the increasingly confined cockpits, this practice was abandoned. It was also in the interest of safety, reflecting upon an incident that involved Bobby Grim during the 1959 race. Grim suffered magneto failure and began coasting to the pits. As was customary for drivers of the time, he raised his arm to signify to the other drivers he had lost power. However, due to the high speed he was still traveling, he painfully dislocated his arm in the process.
The 1974 race would be the last, temporarily, for Firestone, who dropped out of Indy car competition effective at the end of the season. Firestone had been a fixture at Indy dating back to 1911. Firestone had won a total of 48 Indy races to date, including 43 consecutive from 1920 to 1966. Starting in 1975, Goodyear became the lone tire supplier for championship trail racing and the Indy 500 - an arrangement that would continue through 1994. Firestone made a heralded return to Indy car competition in 1995.
Pole Day was held on Saturday May 11. Foyt drew the first in the qualifying draw, and was the first car to make an attempt at 11 a.m. His four-lap speed of 191.632 mph placed him tentatively on the pole position.
Wally Dallenbach completed a run of 189.683 mph, which put him in second starting position. His car featured a controversial "king sized" turbocharger, which some competitors complained was too large to be controlled by the standard issue pop-off valves. Ultimately, Dallenbach's blower was deemed legal, but USAC ruled that the team had to use the same turbo in the race. They would not be allowed to swap it out for the more fuel-conservative smaller turbo on race day.
At 12:25 p.m. rain halted qualifying. Only nine cars had completed attempts.
At 3:35 p.m., the track was dried, and qualifying resumed. Five more cars were able to take to the track, but rain returned, and the track was closed for the day at 4:20 p.m. The field was only filled to 15 cars, and several drivers, including Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock were still in line and eligible for the pole. Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford, however, both suffered blown engines during the day, and had to forfeit their spots in the qualifying line. Both would be ineligible for the pole, and would have to be second-day qualifiers.
The track opened for time trials on Saturday May 18 with 11 cars still eligible for the pole position round. Gordon Johncock was the first driver out, and he completed a run of 186.287 mph. The next car out was Mike Hiss, who qualified third at 187.490 mph. Andretti was the last driver who was a factor for the pole, but he ended up 5th. At 12:30 p.m., the pole round was over, with Foyt holding on to the pole position. The field officially was filled to 24 cars. As soon as the pole round was over, rain fell, closing the track for almost 4 hours.
At 4:20 p.m., the track was dried and re-opened for Bump Day time trials. Rutherford, who missed out on the pole round, qualified at 190.446 mph, the second-fastest car in the field. Since he was a second day qualifier, however, he was forced to line up behind the first-day qualifiers in 25th position.
With 15 minutes left in the day, the field was filled to 33 cars. Johnny Parsons bumped Jigger Sirois out of the field with 9 minutes left. The final car to make an attempt was rookie Jan Opperman, who qualified for the 32nd position. Sammy Sessions and others were left waiting in line at the 6 o'clock gun. A protest was filed by owners who were not able to make an attempt (mostly due to the numerous rain delays), but it was dismissed.
At the start, Wally Dallenbach blasted from the middle of the front row to take the lead into turn one. His aforementioned "king-sized" turbocharger was credited for the fast start, but its reliability was a source of considerable concern. Dallenbach set a new race record for one-lap of 191.408 mph on lap 2, as he pulled out to a sizable lead. The lead was short-lived, however, as Dallenbach broke a piston and coasted to a stop on lap 3. Attrition was very high early on, as eight cars dropped out with mechanical problems by lap 11. Mario Andretti and Gary Bettenhausen each broke a valve, and Mike Mosley blew an engine. Rick Muther pulled into the pits with problems during the pace lap, but rejoined the race, only to lose a piston after 11 laps.
A. J. Foyt took the lead when Dallenbach dropped out. Rutherford was charging dramatically from the 25th starting position. By lap 23, he was running third, and on lap 24, he passed Bobby Unser to take 2nd position.
The top five consisted of Foyt, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, rookie Tom Sneva and Al Unser. By lap 45, Rutherford was driving very aggressively in traffic, and caught up to Foyt. The two cars ran nose-to-tail over the next several laps.
During the second sequence of pit stops around lap 50, teammates Gordon Johncock and Steve Krisiloff both ran out of fuel. They coasted back to the pits and lost considerable time on the track. On lap 62, the first caution came out when Larry Cannon stalled on the backstretch. Under the yellow, A. J. Foyt had a terrible pit stop of 53 seconds, which allowed Rutherford to take the lead for the first time on lap 65.
The green came out on lap 68, but only lasted three laps, as Jimmy Caruthers blew an engine, and dropped oil on the track. Five laps later, Pancho Carter lightly brushed the wall exiting turn four, but the car did not suffer significant damage.
On the next green flag pit stop around lap 90, Rutherford was on the receiving end of good luck. He ducked into the pits under green, but seconds later the caution came out for a spin by Jan Opperman, which allowed Rutherford to pit with little time lost.
Jerry Karl crashed in turn 3 after completing 115 laps. During the caution, Johnny Rutherford exited the pits right in front of second place A. J. Foyt, and held the lead. Seconds later, the green light came back on while the drivers were in the southchute. Foyt got the jump on the restart, and passed Rutherford for the lead in turn 2.
At lap 130, Foyt, Rutherford, and Bobby Unser were running 1st-2nd-3rd. Al Unser dropped out on lap 131 with a broken valve, bringing out the caution for a tow-in. Foyt ducked into the pits, and Rutherford was now the leader again.
On lap 138, the green light came back on. Foyt came through traffic and passed Rutherford for the lead down the mainstretch. A lap later though, Foyt's car began smoking, and he was issued the black flag due to leaking oil. After two pits stops, Foyt dropped out with a broken turbocharger scavenger pump.
Rutherford took over the lead on lap 141, and seemed to have the race in hand. Bobby Unser was the only other car on the lead lap, but was between 15-20 second behind. Rutherford had a close call in turn one while attempting to pass lap traffic. As he was lapping Pancho Carter and Jim McElreath, Carter spun right next to him in turn one. McElreath narrowly avoided him, and all three cars continued.
Rutherford gave up the lead only one more time on lap 176 during a pit stop. He led the final 24 laps to win his first Indianapolis 500.
David Hobbs' 5th-place finish was the only top ten at Indianapolis for a foreign driver in the 1970s (except Andretti, who was born in Italy but was a naturalized U.S. citizen).First alternate: Denny Zimmerman (#31)
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. The broadcast reached an estimated 1,200 affiliates and carriers. Sid Collins served as chief announcer and Fred Agabashian served as "driver expert." At the conclusion of the race, Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. The broadcast opened with a 45-minute prerace.
Several shuffles occurred amongst the reporters and locations, the most significant changes in almost a decade. Mike Ahern retired from the crew and his prestigious turn one location. Veteran Ron Carrell moved from turn three to take over turn one. Among the newcomers was Paul Page, who debuted as a pit reporter. The reporting location for turn three was moved to a platform on the "L" grandstand. Doug Zink took over turn three, and rookie Jerry Baker made his 500 radio debut on the backstretch.
For the first time, there were five pit/garage reporters on the crew. For the 1974 race, the length of the pit road was increased, and two additional reporters were added to cover the expansion. Bob Forbes was once again the "wireless" roving reporter.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. Jim McKay returned as announcer, but Jackie Stewart was in Monaco for coverage of the grand prix. Former driver Sam Posey joined the crew as booth analyst.
The broadcast has re-aired on ESPN Classic since May 2011.