INDIANAPOLIS – It took 11 years to produce a repeat champion in the highly-competitive USAC Silver Crown Series.
Legendary pilots like Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Pancho Carter and Gary Bettenhausen were able to rack up a seasonal second to go with a first, but never a first to go with a first.
Instead, it was 1977 titlist Larry Rice who came from behind in the last race of 1981 to accomplish what had eluded all of the others.
By the midpoint of the campaign, a repeat by Rice seemed unlikely, as he had scored only one good finish in four starts, and even that had come in a borrowed car.
His George Middleton-owned Pizza Hut of St. Louis King/Chevy was badly damaged in an accident during the opening event at Eldora Speedway on April 26 and not repairable in time for the following week’s outing at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where he guest-drove Ray and Cissy Smith’s Chevy to a runner-up spot.
A disappointing pair of 12th-place finishes on the half-mile tracks of Knoxville and Williams Grove with Middleton’s substituted Stanton/Chevy came next, a major consolation being that nobody else was setting the world on fire either.
Rice had managed to hang on to sixth in points after four races, a shade under 100 points shy of pacemaker Sheldon Kinser.
Another consolation was that the first four events had been of shorter duration than usual and therefore not heaped too heavily with points.
The richer 100-mile races on the mile tracks at Springfield, DuQuoin and the Indiana State Fairgrounds were next up, and those history-packed fair date events were always good to the friendly and underrated former school teacher.
One hundred and sixty points, a chunk more than he had scored all year, went along with a $4,750 payoff for chasing George Snider home with the repaired King/Chevy at Springfield – and that tidy total carried him all the way up the ladder to second.
Only Jack Hewitt, who hung on for fourth at Springfield, had a better total than Rice’s.
No less than 53 cars checked in for the DuQuoin race and when qualifying was over, Rice had out-timed the entire field. But they lost the pressure in one cylinder and came close to withdrawing the car.
They decided to run it anyway and Larry spent close to an hour struggling on seven cylinders, back in the pack and driving hard to compensate for the deficiency, until a right rear tire blew in the process.
At the prestigious Hoosier Hundred, however, everything clicked.
Rice drew a good number, qualified on the pole again and then led the entire 100 laps for an $11,640 win, the biggest of his career.
Rich Vogler, who crossed the line only feet behind Rice, held on to a 17-point edge while, despite a disappointing outing, Jack Hewitt was still only 28 points behind Rice.
An accident in the following afternoon’s Hut Hundred Midget race at Terre Haute took Vogler out for the balance of the year – so it was down to Rice and Hewitt.
On the Wednesday before the 4-Crown Nationals were to wrap it up at Eldora, Rice was on a promotional tour which took him into Lima, Ohio.
Local resident Ralph DePalma, who owned the car driven by Hewitt, affectionately grabbed Rice by the hand and bicep and sportingly said, “Hey, good luck on Sunday. If we can’t win it, then we’ll be thrilled to see you get it.”
Hewitt did okay. He finished fourth. But Rice did better.
Rice finished second, and the 40 points he scored were more than enough to vault him past the injured Vogler.
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