USAC Indy Cars Brands Hatch UK 1978Brands Hatch was basked in the sun, which was rather unusual for the UK in October. The Daily Mail Indy Trophy was held on Saturday 7th October on the Brands Hatch short circuit, or as it subsequently became known, the Indy circuit. The large Champcars would have suited the full Grand Prix circuit far better, but the rationale was that, if there were rain, the short circuit would dry quicker
Many of the racers looked longingly at the full circuit and mulled over what could have been. What so nearly was in fact, for the Champcars were originally intended to run on the full circuit. Due to the nature of the organisation at the time, tyre supplier Goodyear had done more than mull over the track; it had designed tyres to run on the full circuit and the company was understandably perplexed when company officials learnt of the change. This information did not come in an official communication, most of the Goodyear officials learnt of the change be reading it in a magazine. Clearly things were going astray with USAC, who were to lose the Champcars at the end of the year with the teams opting to regulate themselves under the CART moniker.
At Silverstone the previous weekend, the Champcars had smashed records, the large turbo-charged chariots lending themselves to the fast, sweeping circuit. Brands was considered to be a different kettle of fish altogether, the Indy circuit is tight and twisty, hardly ideal fare for the Champcars which were designed with running ovals in mind. Despite this, they flew.
Star at Silverstone, Danny Ongais, was the man of the moment again, showing that even though his grounding was in the straight line of the dragstrip, he was more than adept at going around the corners too. Despite his speed, and his dramatic manner of achieving it, Ongais was pipped to pole position by Al Unser, whose time was quicker than anything that had been around the circuit before, save for Gordon Murray's Brabham 'fan' car. Despite running on the shorter circuit, Ongais was still clocked at the end of the pit-straight at 173 mph.
Qualifying over, the top ten drivers lined up Al Unser, Rick Mears, Danny Ongais, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Tom Bagley, AJ Foyt and Spike Gehlhausen.
Come race day, twelfth on the grid man Steve Krisiloff, in his Wildcat Mk3, gave the spectators a dramatic crash to view before the race had even begun, as driveshaft failure caused him to go off in the warm-up session. Krisiloff, the man who had led the Indianapolis 500 for five laps that year, was unable to make the race as his car was beyond repair.
When the race started, poleman Al Unser's race was exceedingly short. No sooner had the pace car pulled into the pits than the Albuquerque-born driver, was retiring from the race, his clutch having disintegrated. Up into Paddock, Rick Mears was in the lead but, coming back down the hill, Ongais was the man at the head of the field.
After three laps, the yellows were out to arrest the Hawaiian's departure from the following pack after Tom Bagley spun his Watson 78, whilst the other Tom in the race, Penske pilot Sneva, took to the grass in avoidance. Bagley was soon out, his engine broke, Sneva meanwhile had flat-spotted his tyres so took to the pits for some more.
Green again, and it was to stay that way for the rest of the hundred lap race, and Danny Ongais made his departure from the rest of the field good again. Further down the field there was still an Unser in the reckoning, and Bobby in his Eagle 78 was embroiled in a battle with the Wildcat Mk3 of Gordon Johncock. Soon after the Wildcat was through the second Unser retirement from the race came, not clutch, but gearbox this time.
Johncock didn't fare much better however as a cracked cylinder head spelled the end to his race at a third distance. Racing legend AJ Foyt, who won at the Silverstone race the week before, wasn't getting on quite as well at the tight and twisty Brands Hatch circuit, his car being far from suited to the track. Despite this, the old Coyote did manage to keep the McLaren-Cosworth M24B of Johnny Rutherford behind him until pitstops intervened and the positions were reversed.
At the pitstops, the lead of Ongais, the winner of races at Ontario, Texas, Mosport, Milwaukee and Brooklyn that year, was such that he could return to the track in the lead. It was certainly looking like the race would be his, until lap 83 when his clutch suffered the same fate as the polesitter's. Ongais retired and Rick Mears was now comfortably in the lead having built up a buffer between himself and Sneva, who had made his way through the field.
Come the chequered flag, it was the Penske pairing of Mears and Sneva that took the win and second place, with McLaren-man Johnny Rutherford joining them on the podium.
The Champcars had been thoroughly enjoyed by all who watched them, but unfortunately there were insufficient spectators for them to return, with promoters Motor Circuit Developments making only about half of the money it needed to do. For 1979, the Champcars had left USAC and were regulating themselves under the CART brand. They were not to return to the UK until 2001 and the Rockingham race, which suffered a very similar fate with the weather to the 1978 Silverstone event.
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