Tom Bigelow made nine Indianapolis 500 starts during his career. (IMS Archives Photo)
Tom Bigelow made nine Indianapolis 500 starts during his career. (IMS Archives Photo)

WALTZ: How USAC Champs Fared At Indy

HARRISBURG, N.C. — Many refer to the 1970s as the golden era for the USAC sprint car series as talented drivers such as Dickson, Bettenhausen, Carter, Bigelow and Kinser honed their skills while dreaming of one day winning the biggest race on the planet — the Indianapolis 500.

Our recent conversation with Pancho Carter for a story that appears elsewhere in this issue sparked our interest as to how the eight drivers who earned USAC sprint car championships during the 1970s fared in the Indianapolis 500.

We did some research and here’s what we found:

Carter made 17 appearances in the Indy 500 between 1974 and 1991, and his two USAC sprint championships came in 1974 and ’76.

A second-generation Indy racer, Carter earned the pole for the 1985 Indianapolis 500, driving a Buick-powered March chassis entered by Rick Galles. He recorded six top-10 results with a best finish of third in 1982. That effort came in a Cosworth-powered March owned by Alex Morales.

Carter, who grew up in Speedway, Ind., finished seventh during his first Indianapolis 500 and was named rookie of the year, topping a class that included Larry Cannon, Tom Bigelow, Jan Opperman, Johnny Parsons, Bill Simpson and Tom Sneva.

Gary Bettenhausen, also a second-generation Indy car competitor, made 21 starts in the Indianapolis 500 between 1968 and 1993. He claimed the USAC sprint car crown in 1971.

Bettenhausen, of Monrovia, Ind., started the 500 from the inside of row two in 1972, and he drove Sherman Armstrong’s DGS-powered Wildcat to a third-place finish in 1980. An arm injury suffered in a 1974 champ dirt car crash resulted in Bettenhausen losing his ride in one of Roger Penske’s Indy cars.

Larry Dickson, of Marietta, Ohio, was a rookie at Indianapolis in 1966 and eventually earned USAC sprint car championships in 1970 and ’75.

Dickson made eight Indy 500 starts between 1966 and 1981. He qualified on the outside of row three in 1978, and his only top-10 finish was a ninth-place effort in 1969, driving a Ford-powered Vollstedt chassis owned by Rolla Vollstedt. That year marked the only 500 in which Dickson was still around at the checkered flag.

Sheldon Kinser made his first of six Indianapolis 500 appearances two years prior to claiming the 1977 USAC sprint car crown.

His best Indy start of 10th came in 1979, and the native of Bloomington, Ind., posted a sixth-place finish in his final Indy 500. That 1981 effort saw Kinser move forward from the 23rd starting spot in the No. 81 Longhorn/Cosworth entered by Bobby Hillin.

Sammy Sessions was an Indy 500 veteran with five starts when he earned the 1972 USAC sprint car championship.

Born in Nashville, Mich., Sessions raced in the 500 seven times between 1968 and 1975. His best starting position was 23rd in 1969, and his best finish of fourth came in the same season he captured the USAC title. He drove a Ford-powered Lola that year owned by Firestone dealer Gene White.

Tom Bigelow, or Whitewater, Wis., already had five Indianapolis 500 starts under his belt before he became a USAC sprint car champion in 1978.

Bigelow made a total of nine Indy appearances between 1974 and 1982. His best qualifying effort saw him lineup 14th in 1981, and his best finish of sixth came in 1977, while driving an Offy-powered Watson chassis owned by Ralph Wilke.

Greg Leffler, the 1979 USAC sprint car champion, made his only Indianapolis 500 start the year after securing the title.

The Indianapolis native started 23rd and finished 10th aboard the No. 44 Cosworth-powered Lola entered by Sherman Arm­strong. He ended up one spot behind fellow tyro Tim Richmond, who was named rookie of the year.

Rollie Beale was the only driver to win the USAC sprint car crown during the 1970s who never started the Indianapolis 500. Five years prior to securing the title in 1973, Beale had a ride for the 500 but never got the car up to speed during practice and did not make a qualifying attempt.

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