1 1973 500 Walther Crash
Salt Walther (77, upside down) and Mike Mosley (98) were among 11 drivers involved in a fiery crash on the opening lap of the 1973 Indianapolis 500. (Bob Gates Collection photo)

1973: A Forgettable Indianapolis 500

“I looked ahead and saw four cars abreast,” exclaimed Wally Dallenbach. “It was a lousy start. … ”

During a drivers’ meeting the following morning, one driver angrily shouted, “If you don’t shape up the start, you’re going to get us all killed!” The meeting broke into an obscenity-laced shouting match. Later, Foyt, Peter Revson and Steve Krisiloff were fined for improving their positions before the green flag.

Tuesday, May 29, came and went with more rain and no race.

By Wednesday morning, nerves were on a ragged, raw edge. The long waits, the tragedy and uncertainty knocked even normally cool, collected drivers off kilter. Then it rained. The traditional festive atmosphere of Indianapolis dissolved into a rain-soaked, oppressive bleakness.

1 1973 500 Victory Lane
Gordon Johncock in victory lane after winning the 1973 Indianapolis 500. (Bob Gates Collection photo)

Unexpectedly, at 2:10 p.m., the track was deemed dry enough to start. Few anticipated the race going the full 500 miles.

Exorcising three days of pent-up adrenaline and pushing to get to the front before it rained, drivers put on an exciting and aggressive show. There was much passing and three-wide racing, with Johncock, Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Savage swapping the lead throughout the afternoon.

The race seemed to have settled into a routine, when Savage, running second, lost his STP Eagle and spun in turn four on lap 58. Savage’s car slammed the inside wall and exploded into hundreds of pieces.

The transaxle and engine bounded down the track, tearing chunks out of the pavement. The cockpit section flipped, ground across the track, smacked the outer wall and burst into flames.

Savage remained conscious through the ordeal, even radioing his crew from his mangled car, “Guys, I’ve made a big mess up here.”

As emergency workers struggled to extinguish the flames and extricate Savage, a fire truck rushing to the scene in the wrong direction through the pits, struck Savage’s team member, Armando Teran. The 23-year-old died instantly.

Transported to Methodist Hospital, Savage clung to life for more than a month. There was hope he might live, but the tentacles of this evil month wouldn’t let go. Savage died on July 2, according to Dr. Stephen Olvey, from a transfusion of tainted blood.

With the Savage crash, the race was red flagged for the second time that month due an accident. In the 500’s long history, an accident had stopped the race only one other time.

When it resumed an hour later, minor incidents and mechanical failures eliminated car after car, until by the 120th lap, only 11 cars were running. On the 129th lap, rain came again and on the 133rd the race was red flagged.

Drivers climbed wearily out of their machines. They waited for a restart that no one really wanted. They got their wish as the race was called.

Winner Johncock walked to victory lane. There was little celebration. Johncock managed a couple of subdued smiles for the photographers. In lieu of the traditional victory banquet, he visited Savage in the hospital and ate dinner at a Burger Chef.

Johncock’s 1973 victory hung over him like a black cloud, his 500 crown dissatisfying, until his dramatic 1982 triumph over Rick Mears shoved the memory of the 1973 debacle aside.

The curse of the most forgettable 500 had finally run its course.


This story appeared in the May 10, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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