There are many arguments as to what represents the "golden age" of the Indy 500, where the race and its talent level, excitement and innovation was at its peak. For the generation of fans prior to me (my golden age was the 80s and 90s, but more on that someday), many point to the late 60s and early 70s as a time where the Speedway was shining in all of its glory.
No doubt, big changes went on during that period. Once the move was made to rear-engine cars, speeds skyrocketed and we began seeing some of the first pieces of equipment that utilized aerodynamics to help the car be more streamlined.
By the time May of 1972 rolled around, the people that design the cars had learned that the use of wings at the front and rear of the car went a long way to helping the car punch a bigger hole in the air while using downforce to keep it on the track at higher speeds. With bolt-on wings allowed for the first time and little in the way of regulation, the bigger the wing the better, which made the cars go faster but also added to the danger involved, as Jim Malloy died three days after a practice crash.
Qualifying was like nothing the Speedway had ever seen before. For the first (and still only) time in the track's history, two 10 mph increments were broken on the same day.
Joe Leonard put Peter Revson's 1971 record speed of 178.696 on ice with a four-lap average of 185.223, which was then broken three more times, the last by Bobby Unser, who clinched the pole at an amazing speed of 195.940 with a fast lap of 196.678.
In the end, Revson's record was broken by the ENTIRE 1972 field, as every one of the 33 drivers qualified faster than the previous year's pole speed.
When race day rolled around, Unser picked up his dominance right were he left off, piloting his Dan Gurney Eagle to the front for the first 30 laps of the race before retiring with an ignition issue. Gary Bettenhausen, driving for Roger Penske in what in hindsight was his best opportunity to win the race, led 138 of the next 144 laps before his engine went sour as well.
Jerry Grant took over for the next 12 laps, then pitted for fuel and with his tank dry borrowed some from Unser's pit and was subsequently penalized. That left the door open for Mark Donohue, who had patiently driven up front all day and jumped to the lead with just 13 laps to go. The Brown University-trained engineer took it from there to give Penske the first of his 15 wins.
Donohue, named one of the race's Greatest 33 drivers, averaged a race-record 162.962 miles an hour, a mark that stood for 14 years. His No. 66 McLaren is one of the sleeker and more popular cars of the era, a gorgeous machine that looks just as spectacular in the museum today as it did 40 years ago.
Al Unser, who entered the day looking to win his third straight 500, was second while Leonard placed third. In a strange twist, five of the top-10 finishers started from the 19th position (Unser) or further back, with Jimmy Caruthers and Cale Yarborough driving from the last row to finish ninth and 10th, respectively.
Below is my favorite YouTube video from that day. It was shot by a then-11-year-old boy who was seeing the race for the second time. Besides really liking the accompaning music, I relate to that video a lot because I was 10 when I went to the Speedway for the first time and love to think about how this race was viewed through his eyes.
The last minute of the video is pure gold, showing Donohue pulling into Victory Lane and the subsequent celebration. Good stuff.