Grant's near miss at '72 Indy 500 not forgotten


Many years ago, when I was rummaging around the pantry for something to eat late at night, I found a little brown paper bag with the fixins for chili inside. This was an official Carroll Shelby's Original Texas Chili Kit.

My wife had no idea that Carroll Shelby had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 while driving in overalls, and that after his heart gave out, this former chicken farmer had become a famous American car builder, the man who put the muscle in the term "muscle car." All she knew is that he made some damn fine chili.

I made a mental note to tell this story when the automotive pioneer, who spent his last years in Las Vegas, died. It happened on May 10. But I did not tell the story because in the newspaper business, things sometimes come up - deadlines, previous assignments and such - and famous people who are about to die rarely issue releases alerting newspaper people to the possibility, even if they are 89 years old.

And so it was on Monday, when I was looking for something interesting to read on Facebook (usually the last place one finds it), that Robin Miller, the veteran auto racing writer, had posted that Jerry Grant had died at age 77.

Jerry Grant was one of Carroll Shelby's drivers.

I have a couple of stories about him, too. I thought I would share them now, because after a man dies, people in my business don't talk about him so much, unless maybe he was a former president or Frank Sinatra.

My earliest recollection of Jerry Grant is drawing his name out of a hat in one of those Indianapolis 500 office pools. Only this wasn't an office pool; it was a fifth- or sixth-grade pool at my Catholic school.

Every year there would be one of these pools, because where I come from, the Catholics start gambling at an early age. And every year I would pull the name of Jerry Grant or Dick Simon or Bob Harkey or, heaven forbid, George Snider, because Snider drove in the 500-mile race 22 times, never finishing higher than eighth.

I never drew A.J. Foyt or an Unser or Johnny Rutherford or even Peter Revson.

But I would cheer like mad for Jerry Grant on race day, even though it was futile, because he usually finished in 27th place because of a magneto problem, though I had no idea of what a magneto was, or did.

Sometimes when there was a big crash, the pit reporters would seek out Grant for comment, because he always was accessible. And he always wore his balaclava, his fireproof head sock, on the top of his head during these interviews, because he was self-conscious about being bald, and sometimes his hairpiece would come loose inside his helmet.

And then, in 1972, he nearly won the Indy 500.

Dan Gurney had retired by then, but he and Grant had been teammates at Le Mans, driving for Carroll Shelby, and so Gurney put his pal in one of his backup cars - which wasn't easy, because Grant stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed around 240 pounds, which was even bigger than A.J. Foyt.

This car of Gurney's was purple, No. 48, and they called it "The Mystery Eagle" because it was American-made and didn't have a sponsor. Cars that don't have sponsors aren't supposed to win the Indy 500. But with 12 laps to go, Grant was leading.

Then he punctured a tire. And when he made a pit stop to change it, they gave him a splash of fuel from his teammate Bobby Unser's tank, which was against the rules.

Instead of winning the Indy 500, Jerry Grant was penalized and knocked down to 12th place.

Which was just his luck.

And so a guy named Mark Donohue, a guy with an Ivy League education, won the race, driving for a guy named Roger Penske. That was Penske's first win as an Indy 500 car owner. There would be 14 more.

Jerry Grant never came close to winning Indy again.

He would have to settle for becoming a footnote in auto racing history.

On Sept. 3, 1972, he became the first man to drive a racecar at more than 200 mph, posting a qualifying lap of 201.414 mph at Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway. It wasn't Foyt, wasn't an Unser, wasn't Rutherford or even Peter Revson who achieved that. It was Jerry Grant.

For one day, he was auto racing's Usain Bolt.

For one day, he was the fastest man on the planet.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

 

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