The worlds of Formula 1 and Indycars were possibly at their closest in the early 1970s. Big money would force them apart in the early 1980s as the FIA grew increasingly bullish about open-wheel competition outside their control and FOCA wanted to crack the lucrative American market for themselves.
However, before this both drivers (including Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti) and constructors (such as Lotus, Penske and Parnelli) happily dabbled in both disciplines, and there was none of the bickering about circuits. This left some obvious crossover potential, something spotted by American entrepreneur David Lockton, head of athlete management company Sports Headliners. Convinced of the viability of a major race circuit on the West Coast he raised $25.5m to build the Ontario Motor Speedway, located some 40 miles from Los Angeles.
The track was a 2.5 mile oval with an infield that could be converted into a 4.2 mile road course using part of the banking, not dissimilar to the configuration later added to Indianapolis in 2000 for Formula 1 cars. The nineteen turns were numbered rather than named, with the number 13 skipped for superstitious reasons. Seating was provided for some 140,000 spectators (both infield and in grandstands), and when the circuit opened in 1970 it was state-of-the-art, with luxurious facilities and a computerised real-time position board.
The owners rapidly secured interest from USAC, NASCAR and Formula 1. The latter agreed to add a second United States Grand Prix to the calendar in 1972, subject to the successful running of a non-championship race in 1971. To raise local interest the organisers decided to effectively make the race a Formula Libre event by inviting ten prominent American USAC drivers to compete in Formula A (5-litre single-seaters which were the most powerful class in the American F5000 series) cars against the Grand Prix regulars. It wasn’t a new idea – the Race of Two Worlds had tried a similar thing on the Monza banking – but it satisfied the FIA. It didn’t hurt that the Formula 1 cars were more powerful than their Formula A opponents, albeit not by much, loading the dice so the Grand Prix drivers could give their Indycar rivals a nice trouncing on their own doorstep.
In return for title rights for the event the Questor Group put up a combined prize fund of $278,400, which raised considerable interest from the major teams. The race was scheduled for the 28th of March, the weekend following the traditional Race of Champions meeting at Brands Hatch and also clashing with the USAC race at Phoenix. The British teams all left in a flight of freight planes from Gatwick the Tuesday after the race. Only one demurred – Surtees had originally entered Rolf Stommelen and Big John himself, but with their Cosworth DFV engines badly in need of a rebuilt decided to skip the meeting
In all seventeen Formula 1 cars attended. Lotus had planned to run the innovative Pratt & Whitney turbine-powered 56B for lead driver Emerson Fittipaldi but after a difficult debut for the machine at the Race of Champions he instead opted to stick with the proven Lotus 72 (borrowed by club racer Tony Trimmer at Brands). Reine Wissell would take the second machine, using the latest Series 11 DFV.
Ferrari flew Jacky Ickx and two cars – the other for South African Grand Prix winner Mario Andretti – over directly from Italy, having dispatched a small team to run Clay Regazzoni at Brands. The winner of the Race of Champions, Jackie Stewart, entered in Tyrrell 001. He was further boosted by the installation of the other available Series 11 Cosworth.
March intended to enter two works cars – one for Ronnie Peterson and another for Alex Soler-Roig – but after teething troubles with the new ‘tea-tray’ winged 711 chassis only entered the Swede. Brabham entered Graham Hill in the new ‘lobster claw’ BT34 machine also first seen at Brands, where the combination had set fastest lap; junior team-mate Tim Schenken had to make do with the old BT33.
Graham Hill in the promising
McLaren arrived with the promising new M19A for Denny Hulme and an older M14A for Peter Gethin. BRM meanwhile dispatched three cars – two of the new P160s for Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert and an older P153 for young Kiwi Howden Ganley. Matra sent a single updated MS120B for Chris Amon, flown direct from France after the French concern elected to skip the Race of Champions.
Privateers were thin on the ground due to the freight costs. However, Frank Williams made the transatlantic journey with his new March 711 for Henri Pescarolo and arranging a deal with Derek Bell to run in his old 701. Another 701 was hired by STP to enter USAC driver – and reigning F5000 champion – John Cannon . Volkswagen dealer and serial local Grand Prix entrant Pete Lovely also belatedly arrived with his Lotus 49B (which he was still running in F5000), but due to his lateness was only allowed to practice as a prospective reserve.
The Formula 1 drivers would be challenged by 15 Formula A cars. The most numerous type was Lola’s T192, powered by a V8 Chevrolet engine. Examples of these were on hand for Mark Donohue (a sportscar specialist but no slouch in single seaters, entered by good friend Roger Penske), Al Unser (the reigning USAC champion), Bob Bondurant (well-known to most from his European escapades in the 190s with the Shelby Cobra GT team and a stint in Formula 1), Lou Sell (1968 F5000 champion) and Tony Adamowicz (Sell’s successor). Older but modified T190s were provided by Charlie Hayes for Bobby Unser (Al’s brother, who had briefly guested for the BRM team but was better known as one of the biggest names in Indycars, winning the title – and the Indy 500 – in 1968) and Ron Grable (a winner of two rounds in the 1970 F5000 series), with Jack Byers on hand as a reverse.
Lotus’ Formula 5000 models were only represented by George Follmer (later to drive for the Shadow F1 team) in a Boss Ford V8-engined Lotus 70; while the machine was considered something of a disappointment Follmer had won two races in the 1970 season with it. Surtees TS8s with Chevrolet engines were entered for Peter Revson (the Revlon heir in between his two stints of Grand Prix racing, being largely known in Europe at the time for his unsuccessful early-1960s stint with the Parnell team) and Sam Posey (a regular in both TransAm and Indycars who would guest for the works Surtees F1 team at Watkins Glen before the end of the season). McLaren’s F5000 models were represented by Chevy-engined M10Bs for A.J. Foyt (already a three-times Indy 500 winner) and David Hobbs (an Englishman who had dabbled in F1 with BRM and Honda but found greater success in America during a nomadic career). Like Lovely, Hobbs was a late entrant and would only be allowed to practice as a reserve.
There were two more entrants for the Formula A class. Firstly, Dan Gurney – having finally called time on his Formula 1 career the previous year after helping McLaren after the loss of founder Bruce – entered his wild protegee Swede Savage, who had won the 1970 Bobby Ball 150 Indycar race, in a Plymouth-engined Eagle 69/511. The other was Gus Hutchison (who had privately entered a Brabham at the 1970 US Grand Prix) in the unusual Aero Structure Developments American car, another to use a Chevrolet engine.