1972 All American Racers Indy Eagle #7209
Gerhardt Racing lost their all new 1972 All American Racers Eagle #7206 at Indianapolis on May 14, 1972 when driver Jim Malloy, a veteran of four Indianapolis 500 races, crashed head-on into the Turn 4 outside wall at approximately 186 mph. Malloy had been one of the fastest drivers that month, and was looking at eclipsing the 200 mph barrier that had yet to be broken.
Four days later, the accident claimed the life of Malloy, who had only a year earlier finished 4th at Indianapolis driving for All American Racers.
As cold as it may seem, life went on. In the case of the Gerhardt camp, a new driver was found in the form of Texan Johnny Rutherford, who piloted the team's older self-built Gerhardt chassis the week following Indy at Milwaukee.
In that race, Rutherford broke a half shaft heading into turn 3, hit the inside guardrail and then bounced off the outside wall. This left 'JR' with painful burns and a burned out heap of a chassis.
As the July 29, 1972 Pocono 500 came around, the Gerhardt team took delivery of their second 7200 Eagle, #7209. Rutherford qualified the car a fine 13th of the 33 in the field, and upped that come raceday, finishing 2nd in the 200-lap event.
When the November 4, 1972 Best Western 150 at Phoenix International Raceway came around to cap off the 1972 campaign, Rutherford started 7th aboard #7209 and finished 5th. Rutherford's #16 Thermo King entry finished five laps adrift from race winner Bobby Unser, driving the AAR factory Eagle, #7203. The Phoenix race would be Rutherford's final event with the Gerhardt outfit.
For the 1973 season, the 1972 USAC Rookie of the Year Mike Hiss, a personable Californian with a open-wheel road racing background; joined the Gerhardt team. Along with Hiss, the squad had another newcomer in the shape of another 1972 All American Racers Eagle, #7216, which was to be earmarked for the bigger events, while #7209 was relegated to smaller events at Milwaukee, Trenton and Phoenix.
Much can be said for #7216 and #7209 for 1974 with driver Jim McElreath, who joined Gerhardt after Hiss left to join Team Penske after the retirement of Mark Donohue and death at the South African Grand Prix of Peter Revson, Donohue's would-be replacement.
The 1974 campaign saw #7209 use the #45 for the first time, while #7216 sported #46. The two cars were both painted white, retaining Thermo King sponsorship, as the team had going back to the late 1960s.
It is believed McElreath mainly raced #7209 during the season, including the 500-milers at Ontario, Indianapolis and Pocono. The Texan elected to run the car at Indianapolis, where he qualified 30th and finished 6th in the car's first ever attempt at the Brickyard, six laps behind race winner Johnny Rutherford, now driving for Team McLaren.
The year 1975 saw yet another new driver behind the wheel of #7209. Gary Bettenhausen rejoined Gerhardt, a team he had run for 5 years prior. Bettenhausen's return to the track for 1975 was also a colossal feat, as he crushed his left arm at a USAC Championship Dirt Car event at Syracuse, New York, on July 4. 1974, leaving him with paralysis.
The '75 season again saw the use of both Eagle chassis for two separate drivers, as Bettenhausen mainly used the #45 (#7209), though not exclusively. The beloved driver from Tinley Park, Illinois put on a display of masterful driving throughout the season, and top-ten finishes were often the case.
At Indianapolis, Bettenhausen qualified the Drake-Offenhauser powered #45 entry to a fine 19th place starting slot, while neither Jan Opperman or Rick Muther could muster the speed from the #46 machine, Muther being the last driver bumped from the field. The #46 entry was originally intended for SCCA Can-Am driver Bob Nagel, who never found comfort at the Speedway, and walked away early in the month.
As the May 25, 1975 Indianapolis 500 got underway, Bettenhausen drove his familiar charging race, always making the most of his experience at the Speedway, all-the-while fascinating the world with the limited use of his left arm.
As the skies began to darken as the race edged closer to the finish, a titanic battle between AAR's Bobby Unser and the reigning champion, Johnny Rutherford began to emerge.
Suddenly, on lap 170, Bettenhausen, who had raced himself solidly into the top-10, sheered a right-rear upright on his Eagle at the exact spot where his famous father was killed 14 years earlier. The entire right-rear suspension assembly tore off the car. The #45 three-wheeled down the main straight, briefly touching the outside retaining wall, all-the-while bucking up and down with every steering input by a driver who's talent shown brightly to everyone watching in-person and on ABC that afternoon.
Bettenhausen slid the stricken Eagle down into the grass in turn 1 as the yellow flag quickly came out. The sound of Offenhausers and Ford-Foyt engines was quickly drown out by the sound of racing fans applauding Bettenhausen, who had just done the impossible to keep the Eagle from total destruction. The #45 entry would be shown in 15th place when the final lap charts were finalized.
The Indy crowd forever wanted the see the Speedway do right by the Bettenhausen family. Sadly, it never did.
The All American Racers #48 entry of Bobby Unser quickly pitted, and came out before Rutherford in the lineup for the restart. Four yellow-flag laps after Bettenhausen's incident, the skies opened up to a sudden cloud burst, drenching the Speedway and guaranteeing the win for Unser and AAR.
Later in the summer of 1975, Bettenhausen raced #7209 at the June 25th Pocono 500. Starting 31st in the 33-car field, he drove a consistent, charging race to finish 5th, two laps down to eventual winner A.J. Foyt.
George Snider also drove the #45 car on one occasion in 1975, placing 22nd at the July 20 Norton 200 at Michigan after the Drake-Offenhauser engine expired on the fourth lap of the 200-lap affair.
1976 proved to be the final season for Gerhardt Racing in the USAC IndyCar series. Bettenhausen would be back, but he switched to campaigning chassis #7216, the former #46 car, now #45. The older of the two chassis, #7209, now sported #46 and a black, white and red livery (as did its sister car) that was striking to say the least. Despite its stunning aesthetics, it would be an uphill battle for its final attempt in competition that year- not that it was in any way meant to be.
Seventy-one entries were filed for the 1976 Indianapolis 500, 62 of which actually made it onto the track. Initially, the #46 Thermo King-backed Gerhardt Racing Eagle did not have a driver listed in the initial entry list.
However, 31-year-old Lakewood, Colorado resident Eddie Miller soon arrived at the Gerhardt garages with a $20,000 sponsor and a $32,000 insurance policy from Lloyd's of London. Miller had been an SCCA Formula Ford standout, winning the 1972 and 1974 SCCA Runoffs titles , along with the 1975 Professional Super Vee championship aboard a Lola 324.
In years prior, USAC mandated that rookies should run and be observed at the one-mile ovals on the IndyCar circuit before being granted a waiver to run at the larger speedways. By 1976, this rule had taken a backseat to ride-buyers, looking to stimulate teams with income. Miller did come with some racing pedigree, but with the exception of a few F5000 entries; nothing in comparison to the championship cars of Indianapolis.
Thus, what could be expected to happen, happened. On May 11, 1976, Miller was progressing up to speed in a rookie test, gradually going through the paces under close supervision of officials and other drivers.
Miller had completed the first phase of the rookie test that morning for 160 mph. It was on his second phase that things quickly got out of control. The session was to see if Miller could sustain speed of over 165 mph in a controlled manner.
At 4:45 pm local time, Miller clocked in a lap at 167.380 mph. Then, entering turn one, he missed the entry point of the turn and tried to steer the car with the throttle. The #46 car got up into the marbles and started to skid close to the wall on the exit of turn 1. Miller tried to turn away from the wall and the Eagle took hold under throttle, skidding towards the inside drainage ditch and fencing in the short chute.
The Eagle dug into the ditch and then launched 200 feet, flipping high over two 5' fences before landing upside down in a bleacher enclosure and just short of the then-new tunnel. Ten more feet, and Miller would have been into the bleachers. A few feet further towards turn 2, and Miller would have landed in the tunnel.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway rescue squad was quickly on the scene, though they had to cut a hole in one of the fences to get to him. Once there, a small fire broke out but was quickly extinguished. From there, Miller was extricated with the help of the expert staff, cutting away part of the Eagle cowling in the process.
Miller fractured the fourth and fight vertebrae of his neck. The following day, he was quoted by AP writer Jerry Garrett, 'I'm healing a lot faster than anyone expected. So, I'm going to get out and come watch qualifying. I feel pretty good.'
Miller also remarked 'The problem was that I went in too high- the track had changed quite a bit that day from when I took the first part of the test. There were shadows cast out across the track.'
Shadows or not, it was the end for Eagle #7209. Miller's near-tragic accident demolished the car in what was its first outing of its fifth year of service.
The remains stayed in Fresno for many years at a local garage until around 2010 when John Mueller inquired what was left, purchased the lot and used many of the chassis pieces that were salvageable to finish the restoration of Eagle #7228.
What remained was the top of the front bulkhead, carrying the AAR serial number tag, the left-hand side of the chassis tub, and the left-hand radiator intake. Beyond that, #7209 is but a distant memory- a car born because of destruction at Indianapolis, an ending the same way.