Jerry Grant dead at 77

Updated: August 13, 2012, 5:26 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Jerry Grant, the first man to officially achieve a 200-mph lap in an Indy car, died Sunday. He was 77.

The versatile Grant had a successful driving career in sports cars, Trans-Am sedans and open-wheelers. Although he never won an Indy car race, the landmark 201.414-mph qualifying lap Grant turned at Ontario Motor Speedway on Sept. 3, 1972 was enough to put him into the history books.

Driving a distinctive purple Eagle-Offy for Dan Gurney's All American Racers, Grant looked to be in control of the 1972 Indianapolis 500 when he was forced to pit to change a punctured tire with 12 laps remaining. But Grant slightly overshot his pit box, and during the course of the stop, his car appeared to be fueled with methanol from his teammate Bobby Unser's supply tank.

Grant finished the race in second place behind Mark Donohue, but when the official results were posted the following morning, USAC officials demoted Grant to 12th place due to the fueling infraction.

"If Grant hadn't had that trouble, the outcome would very likely have been different," Donohue told reporters after the race. "But we were the lucky ones today."

The California native gained some form of revenge just a few months later when the USAC Championship Trail showed up at Ontario, a clone of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The '72 Eagle had been the class of the USAC field throughout 1972, with Unser claiming pole position for seven of his nine starts and shattering the track record at Indianapolis by nearly 17 mph.

After running nearly 197 mph at Indy, Unser desperately wanted to be Indy car's first 200-mph man, but teammate Grant beat him to the honor.

"Bobby really wanted that record," Grant recalled in a 2003 interview with Forbes. "And he blew four engines trying unsuccessfully to break it!

"On the third lap, they flashed me '200' on the pit board," he added. "When I got the checkered flag and slowed down, it finally hit me that I had broken the record. I came into the pits, and everybody was giving me the high-five. It was something people looked at in awe, and didn't really think was ever going to happen."

The misfortune at Indianapolis only enhanced Grant's reputation as a hard-luck driver. In 1966, while teamed with Gurney on the factory Ford sports car team, the duo was disqualified from a second place finish in the 12 Hours of Sebring because Gurney pushed the car across the finish line after the GT40's engine expired with five minutes left in the endurance race. Gurney and Grant were also leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans when they dropped out in the 21st hour.

Grant retired from driving following the 1977 season, but he remained closely involved in auto racing as a spokesman for Champion spark plugs. The rest of his life was defined by the pair of 1972 events he called "sort of the high and the low of my career."

"They remember I was the first guy who broke 200mph, and they also say I won the 1972 Indianapolis 500 race, which was taken away from me on a technicality," Grant said. "That was probably the biggest disappointment of my life."