The first time it rolled through the pits and Mario Andretti got a glimpse of it, he put his head down and declared: “We haven’t got a chance.” Bobby Unser was rendered speechless — no easy feat — and stood with his mouth agape.

A.J. Foyt made a backhanded reference to an English airplane.

Fifty years ago at Indianapolis, McLaren unveiled the M16, a space-age creation from the mind of designer Gordon Coppuck. It was a bit like the Trojan horse because it was as surprising as it was shocking. A sleek profile with side radiators, a wedge nose and an engine cover that was basically a wing.

Nobody had ever seen anything like it but Coppuck had taken the USAC rule book to the limit because it mandated that any aerodynamic device had to be a integral part of the bodywork. It was genius.

“That was a glorious time,” recalls E.P. “Chalkie” Fullalove, who started with Lotus, switched to Brabham and wound up working with McLaren and Foyt before starting his own fabrication business. “There were only five of us — Huey (Huey Absalom), Rabbit (Graeme Bartils), Slugger (Bevan Weston) and Tyler (Alexander) and built all three McLaren cars in the winter of 1971. (Pictured above: Absalom, Weston, Fullalove, Bartils and Teddy Mayer)

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“When we took one to Ontario for Denny (Hulme) to test, he came in with a big grin and we all knew we had something special.”

Peter Revson and Hulme were on board for the late Bruce McLaren’s team and Teddy Mayer of McLaren sold the third car to Roger Penske. “We never figured that out — it made no sense because we had such an advantage,” said Fullalove.

The McLaren plan was not to show their hand too soon but Mark Donohue started putting up big numbers in practice and turned an unofficial lap of 180mph — some 8mph faster than the track record. The question wasn’t whether Donohue would win the pole, it was by how much and at what speed?

“The morning of Pole Day we couldn’t get the car to run, so we never made a lap and got it in the qualifying line where we were thrashing, changing everything trying to find t he problem,” continued Chalkie.

“We were about five cars behind Donohue and Revson called us into a little huddle and said: ‘If this thing runs, I’ll burst his #@&&^%$$ bubble.”

Donohue’s four-lap average was 177.087mph but as he was still being interviewed on the IMS public address system and with other media, Revson uncorked a 178.659 to steal the position from the team that could come to dominate Indianapolis.

Revson was unable to replicate his qualifying performance on race day. IMS photo

The race wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Donohue led the first 50 laps before breaking down and despite being 4mph slower than the polesitter, Al Unser’s old reliable Colt led 103 laps and breezed to a 23-second victory over Revson.

“Pete had the flu and he was a mess afterwards — we could barely get him out of the car,” said Fullalove. “He ran second all day but he was just out of it. Dan Gurney was out on the pit wall waving to Revvie to close up on Unser under a yellow but he just didn’t respond. It was a pity — we should have won that race by a lap.”

A year later, Donohue pulled Penske’s McLaren into Victory Lane.