Just when it appeared that driving foreign cars on road courses was the best route to the Indianapolis 500, along came Pancho Carter and Steve Chassey to revive the old sprint-car, oval-track theory.
Back in the days before rear-engine cars became a staple at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, if a driver didn't earn his spurs wrestling sprint cars, he wasn't likely to get there. Since the rear-engine revolution, however, the correct moves seemed to lead up through formula cars.
Carter, the surprise pole winner last Saturday with a record qualifying speed of 212.583 m.p.h. in a car powered by a turbocharged Buick V-6, is a former champion in the United States Auto Club's sprint-car, midget-car and dirt-track divisions. He is the only driver to have won championships in three open-wheel categories.
Chassey, 28th on the starting grid going into the second weekend of qualifying, qualified at 204.224 in a car with the same 355-cubic inch Chevy V-8 he used to win the Hoosier Hundred dirt-track race last year at Indianapolis.
Although Carter and Chassey now live close to Indianapolis--Carter in Brownsburg and Chassey in Carmel--each got started in Southern California.
Carter, 34, whose father Duane drove in 11 Indy 500s and was once USAC director of competition, drove his first race in 1967 in a midget at El Toro. He was a senior at Marina High in Huntington Beach at the time.
Later, while getting a degree in business administration at Cal State Long Beach, Carter drove on the United Racing Assn. circuit at Ascot Park and other area tracks.
Coincidentally, the midget car that Carter drove in URA races in 1970 was driven in competition last Sunday at Ascot by Kenny Dunlap of Santa Ana.
Carter won his first USAC championship in 1972, driving a midget, then moved up to sprint cars and won USAC titles in 1974 and 1976. He won the dirt-track crown in 1978.
Chassey, 40, whose family moved to Southern California from Massachusetts when he was 2, drove his first race in a stock car at Saugus Speedway in 1964.
After his racing career had been interrupted by Army service in Vietnam--where he survived several napalm attacks--Chassey returned to race sprint cars in the California Racing Assn. series. He was named rookie of the year in 1969.
After showing more talent on pavement, with wins at Speedway 605 in Irwindale and the Cajon Speedway in El Cajon, than on the dirt at Ascot, he decided to pursue his career on the USAC sprint-car circuit in 1973 and moved to Indiana.
This weekend, Chassey and other slower qualifiers such as Kevin Cogan of Redondo Beach, Chet Filip of Odessa, Tex., and Derek Daly of Ireland, face the possibility of being bumped from the field. Sessions Saturday and Sunday will give non-qualified drivers opportunities to post faster times and make the 33-car field. Four spots remain open, and once they are filled, non-qualified drivers will try to bump the slower qualifiers from the field.
Daly, one of eight foreign-born drivers in the field at the moment, is the slowest at 203.082 m.p.h. For Chassey to lose his spot, eight cars would have to qualify faster than his 204.224, since he is ahead of Daly, Filip and Cogan.
The foreign-born contingent, already equal to last year's record of eight, includes Mario Andretti, who has been an American for many years but was born in Italy; Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil; Geoff Brabham of Australia; Roberto Guerrero of Colombia; Josele Garza of Mexico; Daly of Ireland, and rookies Arie Luyendyk of the Netherlands and Michael Roe of Ireland.
Among the drivers still trying to get into the race are Australian-born Dennis Firestone, Jim Crawford of Scotland, John Paul Jr. of West Palm Beach, Fla.; George Snider of Bakersfield, and rookies Jacques Villeneuve of Canada and Raul Boesel of Brazil.
Also looking for a spot on the starting grid is Tony Bettenhausen Jr., of Speedway, Ind., who has not had a car this year. He will attempt to qualify a third car for the Dan Gurney-Mike Curb team of Santa Ana. Bettenhausen, who has been in the last four Indy 500s, will drive a Lola. The two Gurney-Curb Eagles were qualified last weekend by Tom Sneva and rookie Ed Pimm.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Sam Ermolenko is paying the price of success. The former British League rider won the Ascot, Carlsbad and Costa Mesa scratch main events last week, so Friday night promoter Harry Oxley is pitting him against U. S. champion Kelly Moran in a match race series at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. . . . Next Wednesday night, the Inland Speedway in San Bernardino is holding the Bruce Penhall Classic, a scratch program honoring the former two-time world champion from Balboa.