Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Remembering Jerry Grant

I was sorry to hear of the passing of Jerry Grant yesterday. I never saw Jerry race, but he’s kept a prime spot in Indy 500 lore all these years from his terrible luck in 1972 with 12 laps to go. Pitting with a punctured tire while leading Mark Donohue, he pitted in teammate Bobby Unser’s pit, which resulted in a protest. With his last dozen laps disallowed, he finished 12th instead of 2nd. It’s the sort of story made for reminiscing with the old-timers over coffee in May, or bringing up on the Talk of Gasoline Alley.

Grant came close to winning Indy in '72.
(Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)
It would be easy to look at Grant as another late 60s-70s midpacker at Indy if you didn't know much about him, but the truth is, he did far more. You might recognize him as the first driver to turn a 200mph lap in an IndyCar, doing so at Ontario in a Mystery Eagle back in 1972. He also came close to winning the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1966, being disqualified only when Dan Gurney pushed the car across the finish line after it blew its engine a mere minute before the race’s end.

Maybe fast laps and “almost wins” are sometimes just footnotes when we look at open wheel racing’s history, but they’re also part of what gives it depth and meaning. Jerry Grant qualified for Indianapolis 10 times, bridging a gap where revolutionary changes in cars were a yearly occurrence. His first 500 featured Jim Clark as winner; in his last attempt, he failed to qualify along with a young rookie named Rick Mears. He was a well-respected driver, and seemed to be a part of some of the strangest chapters in racing. Yet beyond that, it seems as if he raced just about every type of car at one point or another, from USAC to NASCAR to Can-Am and much more.

In a Forbes interview in 2003, Jerry Grant seemed acutely aware of how close he had come to winning Indianapolis, and just how unfair his hand may have been. Whatever he may have felt about his place in racing history, there can be no doubt there’s certainly one for him in its pages.

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