Indy 500 Veteran Jerry Grant Passes At Age 77

Jerry Grant passed away this weekend at the age of 77. He was not a household name and most fans under the age of forty never saw him race, however. Grant was a respected driver with a diverse racing background.

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Grant started in drag racing and later moved into sports cars. Eventually he ended up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1964. That year, Grant labored to get a new Bardahl sponsored rear-engine car into the race. His struggles were noted in the Dynamic Films racing film, “1964 Indianapolis 500” which showed the dejected Grant missing the race and the sponsorship moving over to teammate Johnny Rutherford for the race. Grant made the “500” the following year in what is considered the greatest rookie class ever at Indianapolis. The rookie class in 1965 featured eleven drivers which included Grant, Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, George Snider, Mickey Rupp, Bobby Johns, Billy Foster, Arnie Knepper and Masten Gregory.

As was the custom in the day, Grant drove cars in many forms of racing. He drove in the USRRC and Can-Am sports car series, USAC Stock Car Series and drove in 19 NASCAR events, most in Tom Friedkin’s Chrysler products. Grant’s career took a big leap when he drove the famous Ford GT-40, including co-driving with the legendary and future boss, Dan Gurney at the 12-Hours of Sebring in 1966. For Grant and Gurney, it was a memorable race but for all the wrong reasons. The car suffered an engine failure while leading with two minutes left in the timed event. Gurney got out of the car and attempted to push the car over the finish line, a violation of FIA rules, and the pair were disqualified. If he would’ve left the car in place, Grant and Gurney would’ve been classified in second place. Later that year, the duo of Gurney and Grant were leading the 24 Hours of LeMans when mechanical issues eliminated them after 21 hours.

Grant drove in ten Indianapolis 500’s with a best finish of tenth in both 1966 and 1974. However in 1972, Grant had the best car of his career, the purple “Mystery Eagle” as teammate to Bobby Unser on Gurney’s All-American Racers team. The team, equipped with a pair of 1000-HP Offenhauser powered revolutionary sleek winged Eagles seem to break track records across the nation. At Indianapolis, Unser broke the track record by 17-mph. Later that year Grant was the first to break the 200-mph barrier at Ontario Motor Speedway in California in the Roman Slobodynskyj-designed Eagle. Bad luck seemed to plague Grant that year. At Indianapolis, Grant led the “500” after Gary Bettenhausen’s ignition quit with thirty laps to go. Seemingly on the way to victory, a tire puncture caused him to pit at lap 188. Grant he stopped in teammates unoccupied pit next to his and took on tires. Whether he took on fuel is up for debate as the hoses were hooked up to the car. It is known that his tank was dry. Grant would cross the finish line in second place behind winner, Mark Donohue. However USAC disqualified Grant, taking away the laps he completed after his final stop, classifying him 12th. The following race at Milwaukee Grant and Unser were on the front row with Unser taking the win. At Ontario where he broke the track record his engine broke on the first lap and never made it around. His sponsor was Chris Vallo a person who many considered a shady character whose sponsorship checks bounced to many in auto racing. Grant would tell me many years later he still had a $10,000 check in his desk at home with NSF (No sufficient funds) stamped twice on the back from Vallo.

Grant’s final attempt at Indy was in 1977 when he failed to crack the starting grid in the Hoffman Racing #69 Eagle-Offy. After retiring from the cockpit, the amiable Grant would be seen at tracks as a representative for Champion Spark plugs, Cooper Industries and, later, his own consulting company. He was also a member of the Champion Spark Plug Highway Safety Team in which he would speak at high schools across the nation about safe driving.

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