On May 2, six days before the race cars took to the track, former Governor of California Ronald Reagan visited the Speedway. Reagan was in town campaigning for the 1976 Indiana Republican primary to be held on May 4. Reagan met with Tony Hulman, toured the Speedway, and drove around the track in one of the Buick pace cars.
The biggest story of practice was the appearance of Janet Guthrie, who was attempting to become the first female driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Considerable media attention followed her through the month, however, the first two weeks of practice were plagued with various troubles. In addition, her participation was met with resistance by some fellow competitors. Upon her arrival at the airport, her flight lost her luggage (which included her helmet and driving suit). On the first day of practice, teammate Dick Simon was shaking the car down, but suffered an oil leak. On the second day, he burned a piston and had a turbocharger fire. Guthrie was unable to take to the track until Monday. Her first foray in the machine was short-lived, as she too burned a piston after only seven laps at speed.
On Tuesday, Guthrie started her rookie test, and despite low oil pressure and overheating, she made it through the first phase. On Thursday, she was trying to finish the second phase, but rain cut the run short. She finally completed her rookie test on Monday May 17, with a top lap of 171.429 mph.
Practice for the veterans was led by Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Sr. and A. J. Foyt. In the third year of a rules package crafted to slow the cars down, there were no expectations of record speeds for 1976. Top speeds were in the high 180 mph range, with the best lap (189.833 mph) going to Rutherford. The existing track record (set in 1973) of 199.071 mph would stand for yet another year.
The most serious crash of practice was that of rookie Eddie Miller. He lost control coming out of turn one, and spun to the inside. The car hit an earth embankment, flipped over wildly, cleared two fences, then came to rest upside-down near the bleachers. Miller suffered a neck fracture, and would never return to Indy.
Overnight rain delayed the start of time trials until 2:30 p.m. During practice, Johnny Rutherford finally broke the 190 mph barrier for the month, making him the favorite for the pole position.
Gordon Johncock (188.531 mph) put himself on the provisional pole position at 3:30 p.m. About an hour later, Johnny Rutherford (188.957 mph) took over the top spot and won the pole position. A. J. Foyt settled for fifth (185.261 mph), and Tom Sneva (186.355 mph) qualified for the outside of the front row.
Qualifying closed at 6 p.m. with nine cars in the field. Five drivers were still eligible for the pole round, however, none of those left in line were considered a threat for the pole. The day closed with the front row consisting of Rutherford, Johncock, and Sneva.
Only two cars that were eligible for the pole round made runs, and the field was filled to 11 cars. Moments later, the "second day" of time trials officially commenced.
Mike Mosley (187.588 mph) and Bobby Unser (187.520 mph) were the quickest of the day, but as "second day" qualifiers, they lined up 12th and 13th, respectively.
Mario Andretti returned to Indianapolis after competing in the Belgian Grand Prix. Andretti was expected to get up to speed quickly, and did not disappoint. His qualifying speed of 189.404 mph was faster than the pole speed, and Andretti became the fastest qualifier in the field. However, since he was a "third day" qualifier, he was forced to line up behind the previous days' qualifiers. On race day, he would start in 19th position.
A busy day of time trials saw the field filled to 33 cars at 5:37 p.m. The day ended with two cars bumped, and at least five drivers looking to make the field on Bump day.
Among those who did not make an attempt yet was Janet Guthrie. Still having problems finding speed in her #27 entry, her best practice lap of 173.611 mph was still too slow to bump her way in. A rumor was already circulating around the garage area that Foyt was going to lend her one of his backup cars (#1) – a car in which he practiced at over 190 mph on Friday.
The story of the day was Janet Guthrie, who arranged a deal with A. J. Foyt to borrow his #1 entry for practice. Shortly after 10 a.m., Guthrie was in the car shaking it down. Her lap of 180.796 mph was easily her fastest lap of the month. Despite her considerable gains in speed, Guthrie did not end up making an attempt to qualify.
As the afternoon was winding down, the attention shifted to the cars trying to bump their way into the field in the final hour. David Hobbs bumped his way in at 4:55 p.m. Eldon Rasmussen was now on the bubble. Rasmussen survived three attempts, but at 5:59 p.m., Jan Opperman took to the track. Opperman's run of 181.717 mph bumped Rasmussen from the field, and the lineup was set.
After creating a media and fan frenzy, Janet Guthrie left the track without making the field. With the spotlight still on her, she quickly found herself an alternative. Promoter Humpy Wheeler consummated a deal for Guthrie to acquire a car from NASCAR owner Ralph Moody, and within 48 hours, flew her to Charlotte to qualify instead for the World 600.First alternate: Eldon Rasmussen (#58) – Bumped
Bill Simpson (#38) – Bumped
Bobby Olivero (R) (#78) – Bumped
Jim McElreath (#65, #76) – Bumped
Mike Hiss (#11) – Spun during qualifying attempt
Bill Engelhart (R) (#44) – Waved off
Mel Kenyon (#61) – Waved off
Janet Guthrie (R) (#1, #17, #27) – Practiced, but did not attempt to qualify
Larry Dickson (#65)
Jim Hurtubise (#56)
Jerry Karl (#8)
Lee Kunzman (#65)
John Mahler (#19, #91, #92)
Rick Muther (#99)
Ed Crombie (R) (#67) – Wrecked during driver's test
Eddie Miller (R) (#46) – Wrecked during practice
Woody Fisher (R) (#52)
Gary Allbritain (R) (#75) – Entry declined
Race day dawned with blue skies and temperatures in the 60s. However, rain was in the forecast for later in the afternoon. Tony Hulman gave the command to start engines at 10:53 a.m. EST, and the field pulled away for one parade lap and one pace lap. Country singer, and part-time NASCAR driver Marty Robbins drove the Buick pace car.
At the start, polesitter Johnny Rutherford took the lead in turn one, and led the first three laps. A. J. Foyt moved up to second, then passed Rutherford for the lead on lap 4. Back in the pack, Mario Andretti charged quickly from 19th starting position to 7th in two laps.
Moments later, Dick Simon blew an engine and stalled on the backstretch, bringing out the first caution. By lap ten, Simon, Spike Gehlhausen, Bill Vukovich II, and David Hobbs were all out of the race early with engine-related problems.
The green came back out on lap 7 with Foyt leading. On lap 10, Roger McCluskey lost control in turn 3, hit the outside wall, then spun to the infield grass. Several leaders pitted under the caution. At lap 10, the top five was Foyt, Rutherford, Johncock, Sneva, and Dallenbach. A. J. Foyt was among those who pitted. As he pulled away, he snagged the crewman's wing adjuster, and he drove away with the long extension wrench still attached. Foyt was about to be black-flagged, but the adjuster fell off harmlessly. However, a debris caution came out on laps 14-16 to pick up the wrench.
Gordon Johncock took over the lead on lap 20, following Foyt's mishap. Johnny Rutherford ran second, and Foyt dropped to third.
At lap 50, Johnny Rutherford was now leading, with Foyt second, and Johncock fading to third. Pancho Carter and Wally Dallenbach were running in the top five, with Tom Sneva close behind. Also climbing into the top ten was Salt Walther, in his best run at Indy thus far.
After running in the top ten early on, Gary Bettenhausen dropped out on lap 52 with a broken turbo wastegate.
Johnny Parsons lost a right front wheel on lap 60, bringing out the yellow. Rutherford had already pit, and Foyt had stayed out. Foyt was able to pit under the caution, and gained enough track position to take the lead for the restart on lap 65.
Foyt led Rutherford by about 9.5 second on lap 70. At that point, Rutherford began to close the gap. The sky was darkening, and rain was being reported in nearby Brownsburg. Rutherford charged to take the lead on lap 80, and began to pull away. At the same time, Foyt was beginning to suffer from handling problems.
Jerry Grant ran out of fuel on lap 91, bringing out the yellow. The green came back out on lap 95 with Rutherford first and Foyt second. Rain was quickly approaching. The yellow came out for drizzle on lap 100. On lap 103, the rain began to fall harder, and the red flag was displayed, halting the race. The race was stopped at approximately 12:42 p.m. local time.
The cars were parked in the pits, with Rutherford leading and Foyt second. In order for the race to be ruled official, it had to complete one lap beyond the halfway point (101 laps). Since the race was on lap 103, it could be deemed official, and if the rains continued the rest of the afternoon, USAC could call the race at that point.
Since it was only 12:45 p.m., and with 97 laps still remaining, officials decided not to call the race prematurely. However, they did begin assembling the Victory Lane platform. By 1:15 p.m., it appeared that the rain had stopped, and track drying efforts were underway in earnest. About a half hour later, some light rain began to fall again.
Under the red flag, A. J. Foyt's team discovered a broken anti-roll bar linkage, and were able to make repairs. The team expected the car's handling to improve if and when the race was resumed.
At about 2:15 p.m., the rain was stopped, the sun was shining through the clouds. With safety trucks and a jet dryer circulating, the track was almost dry. At 2:45 p.m., chief steward Tom Binford announced that the race would be resumed in about 20 minutes, and the focus shifted to the restart procedure. The decision was made to restart the race in single file, and give the field three or four warm up laps.
At 3:00 p.m. the call was made for the cars to line up in the grid, anticipating a restart.
With the car lining up in the pit lane for a restart, observers around the circuit reported a dry track, but intermittent rain drops were falling at various locations. Soon after, umbrellas started opening up, and the rain began to fall harder around the track. Some fans began to look for cover, and the crews quickly covered up the cars with tarps.
At roughly 3:15 p.m., the rain was falling harder, and the officials decided that the track was "lost." They decided there was not sufficient time left in the day for the track to be dried, and declared the race complete. The scoring was reverted to the completion of lap 102, and Johnny Rutherford was declared the winner.
Before the crew was able to wheel the car to Victory Lane, Johnny Rutherford was surrounded by media and reporters, and famously walked to Victory Lane.
Rutherford capped off a three-year stint with finishes of 1st-2nd-1st from 1974–1976, tied for the best three-year span in Indy history. It was equaled by Wilbur Shaw in 1937–1940 (1st–2nd–1st–1st), Al Unser, Sr. in 1970–1972 (1st–1st–2nd) and by Helio Castroneves in 2001–2003 (1st–1st–2nd).
As of 2017, the 1976 race is the shortest Indy 500 on record, completing only 102 laps (255 miles) out of the scheduled 200 laps. By USAC rule, the race was required to complete 101 laps – one lap beyond the halfway point – to be considered official. It is also regarded as the "shortest" 500 mile race in a major U.S. series. Among other rain-shortened 500-mile races, the 2007 Pocono 500 went 106 laps (265 miles), the 2003 Daytona 500 went 109 laps (272.5 miles), and the 1987 Southern 500 went only 276 miles due to rain.
At one lap beyond official rate status, a 2002 NASCAR Busch Series race at Darlington Raceway is the shortest race with similar rules. The 147-lap, 200.8 mile race won by Jeff Burton in August 2002 ran only to the minimum -- 74 laps.
Two INDYCAR races under current sanction were declared abandoned and not counted -- the 1999 Charlotte race and the 2011 Las Vegas races, both as a result of fatalities during the race. Charlotte was abandoned after 79 laps and Las Vegas was abandoned after 12 laps as a result of fatalities during the race on Lap 61 and 11, respectively. Most motorsport regulations only require a race to reach three completed laps to be counted as an official race. However, INDYCAR uses the next full lap past the halfway point (101 laps in Indianapolis' case) or time limit (as in some races) regulation, so those races are not counted.
The 1976 race was the third race in four years (1973, 1975, 1976) to end rain-shortened. There would not be another rain-shortened Indy 500 until 2004. Rutherford's win from the pole was also somewhat trend-setting - only three other drivers had done so in the previous 22 years. In the next six years, the polesitter would finish either 1st or 2nd.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. The network celebrated its 25th anniversary. Sid Collins served as chief announcer for the 25th time. Unbeknownst to all involved, 1976 would be the final Indy 500 for Collins. After a surgery to repair a disk in his neck, Collins was still suffering muscular and neurological ailments, which made his work at the 1976 race physically difficult. He was later diagnosed with ALS, and committed suicide on May 3, 1977.
This would be the third and final time Paul Page reported from the pit area. The following year he would be elevated to the chief announcer position. In addition, third-year veteran Jerry Baker would report from the backstretch for the final time, in future years, he was promoted to a turn reporter. Bob Forbes served as the wireless roving reporter in the garages. The broadcast reached over 1,200 affiliates, including foreign language translations into Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. It was picked up by Armed Forces Radio, and also transmitted to Japan, Central America and South America.
Collins customarily ended his broadcasts with "words of wisdom," vignettes, or a set-piece monologue for the listeners. His final broadcast was closed with the following sign-off quote:
So now, the 60th running of the 500 here is now history. Since 1911, the hypnotic effect of speed upon driver and spectator alike is never dim. The run from the green flag to the checkered and on to Victory Lane here is a pursuit only one man in the world can accomplish once a year. Today, once again, Johnny Rutherford etched his name and his achievement upon the granite of time. He reigns supreme as the champion of the sport of auto racing this day and forever more. The massive crowd of more than 350,000 has threaded its way towards the exit gates as their eyes have taken a final sweep over the track before departing. For some, this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, others will come back, but in every case, it's always difficult to relinquish one's grasp on the pulsating emotion that is the 500. And at this microphone we share that reaction of having to say goodbye to you across the many miles that separate us. But, another icy Indiana winter will come and go, and before we know it, springtime returns, it will be May, and the roar of engines will once again breathe life into the lazy Hoosier sky and bring us back together. God willing, I'll be here to greet you for this annual reunion through our mutual love of auto racing and the Indianapolis 500...
...And now this final thought for our winner. Enthusiasm with wisdom will carry a man further than any amount of intellect without it. The men who have most-powerfully influenced the world have not been so much men of genius, as they have been men of strong conviction with an enduring capacity for work coupled with enthusiasm and determination. Johnny Rutherford showed these qualities today in becoming victorious over the Indianapolis 500...
...So until next May, this is Sid Collins, the Voice of the 500, wishing you good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending upon where in the world you are right now. We're here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at the Crossroads of America. Goodbye.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. Jim McKay returned to anchor the broadcast, after having had to sit out the 1975 race due to a bad cold.