Jerry Grant, who broke the 200-mph barrier in an Indy-style race car and nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in a controversial finish in 1972, has died. He was 77.
Grant, who lived in Irvine, died Aug. 12 of liver failure and diabetes at an Orange hospital, said Gary Bryson, a family friend.
A burly, likable and versatile driver, Grant was a 10-time competitor in the Indy 500 who also raced NASCAR stock cars, a variety of sports cars and endurance-racing cars.
His best finish in the Indy 500 was seventh in 1970. In 1975, he called his Indy 500 car "The Spirit of Orange County."
Although he struggled at times to finance his racing career, Grant had a shot at a huge payday in May 1972, when he was leading the Indy 500 with 12 laps remaining.
Driving a car owned by legendary driver/owner Dan Gurney, Grant was forced to fix a tire and pulled into the pit stall of teammate Bobby Unser, who was out of the race.
During the stop, "one of Unser's pit guys automatically dumped some gas in my tank, which is against the rules" because it came from another competitor's supply, Grant later recalled to The Times.
After leaving the pits, Grant still thought he had won the race, but the victory went to Mark Donohue, with Grant second.
Later, after Gurney filed a protest, the race's sanctioning body disallowed Grant's last laps due to the refueling incident and dropped Grant to 12th.
As the laps wound down, "I was rehearsing my victory speech and trying to decide whether to have milk" — the traditional drink for winning the Indy 500 — "or champagne," he recounted to Times columnist Jim Murray in 1996. "In my mind, I won."
Grant earned $24,156 in the race, while Donohue's victory paid $218,763, the equivalent of about $1.2 million in today's dollars.
But three months later, Grant made history when he became the first driver to eclipse 200 mph in an Indy-style car.
He did so during qualifying for a race at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway, a 2.5-mile rectangular oval similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Grant's purple No. 48 Olsonite Eagle car streaked around the Ontario track at 201.414 mph and, when the time was posted, a crowd of 61,430 roared its approval.
"The chassis, the engine, tires, everything worked perfect," Grant said after he climbed from the car. "I just drove it."
Born Jan. 23, 1935, in Seattle, Grant was a football standout in his late teens who had a love of cars with powerful engines.
"In those days, I was spending my lunch money on cars ... and everything I earned working at a Texaco station down the street," he once said.
After two years in the Army, he started road racing in the Pacific Northwest and began driving sports cars in Northern California in the early 1960s. He made his first Indy 500 start in 1965.
After retiring as a driver following the 1977 season, Grant's endeavors included being a spokesman for Champion spark plugs and the company's highway safety effort.
Grant is survived by his wife of 55 years, Sandy; daughters Yvonne and Tammy; and four grandchildren.