Highlights from the the Indianapolis 500, Runnings 61-70

Johncock over Mears in 1982. Photo: IMS Archives
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The Associated Press has compiled a list of highlights of all past Indianapolis 500 races, as the buildup to the 100th running presented by PennGrade Motor Oil takes place this May 29.

Here are runnings 61-70, from 1977 through 1986.

Past pieces:

RACE: 61st Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 29, 1977

WINNER: A.J. Foyt

AVERAGE SPEED: 161.331 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Foyt became the first four-time winner of the race. He also had a winning car that had both a body and engine built entirely within the United States.

NOTABLE: Tom Sneva became the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier at the Speedway while winning the pole. Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. It was the final Indy 500 for track owner Tony Hulman, who died of heart failure five months later.

RACE: 62nd Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 28, 1978

WINNER: Al Unser Sr.

AVERAGE SPEED: 161.363 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Although he dominated the second half of the race, Unser bent his front wing during a pit stop on lap 180. It allowed second-place finisher Tom Sneva to close within 8 seconds – the second-closest finish in Indy history to that point. Unser’s victory was the first at Indy for the Cosworth DFX V8 engine, and the British-based company won the Indy 500 for 10 consecutive years.

NOTABLE: Janet Guthrie finished ninth and later revealed she drove with a broken wrist. Tony Hulman’s widow, Mary F. Hulman, delivered the starting command for the first time. It was the final Indy 500 contested before the formation of CART.

RACE: 63rd Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 27, 1979

WINNER: Rick Mears

AVERAGE SPEED: 158.899 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Mears, in his second Indianapolis 500, took the lead with 18 laps remaining to win the first of his four 500s. Unser brothers Bobby and Al combined to lead 174 laps, but Al was unable to finish the race and Bobby faded to fifth.

NOTABLE: Former President Gerald Ford was in attendance and served as grand marshal of the 500 Festival Parade. It was the first 500 that used the pace car during caution periods. Although the race was sanctioned by USAC, many drivers entered it as a one-off and broke away to participate in the in the inaugural 1979 SCCA/CART Indy Car Series. It marked the first open-wheel “split” and created a rancorous month of squabbling in which a court injunction was needed to lift USAC’s ban of CART participants.

RACE: 64th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 25, 1980

WINNER: Johnny Rutherford

AVERAGE SPEED: 142.862 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Rutherford won the pole, led 118 laps and won the race by a commanding 29.92 seconds. Rutherford became the sixth driver to win the Indy 500 three times.

NOTABLE: Tom Sneva set a record by becoming the first driver to start last and lead the race, which he did twice for 16 laps. Sneva also became the first driver in Indy history to start last and finish second. It was his third runner-up finish in four years – which earned him the title of “bridesmaid” – and it matched Bill Holland’s achievement exactly 30 years earlier. The race also had 10 rookies, and for the first time in Indy history, the three drivers that started on the last row all finished in the top eight.

RACE: 65th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 24, 1981

WINNER: Bobby Unser

AVERAGE SPEED: 139.084 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: One of the most controversial Indy 500 races in history after Unser beat Mario Andretti to the checkered flag. USAC officials later ruled Unser had illegally passed cars while exiting the pit area during a caution. When the official results were posted the next day, Unser had been issued a one-position penalty and Andretti declared the race winner. Penske Racing appealed and the process wasn’t settled until Oct. 9, when Unser was reinstated as the winner. It was Unser’s third Indy 500 victory and he retired at the end of the season.

NOTABLE: A rainy month disrupted on-track activities and pole qualifying was stretched over three days because of the weather. The event was also marred by a crash that left an unconscious Danny Ongais completely exposed in the cockpit as the burning car continued to move. Ongais suffered a concussion and badly broken feet and legs, but returned to Indianapolis the next year. Rick Mears was also burned during a fire in the pits, forcing him to try to use a fire extinguisher on himself. His father, Bill, grabbed the extinguisher and put out the fire. The incident prompted a redesign to the fuel nozzle used on Indy cars, and Mears recovered after plastic surgery.

RACE: 66th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 30, 1982

WINNER: Gordon Johncock

AVERAGE SPEED: 162.029 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Johncock beat Rick Mears by 0.16 seconds, the closest finish in Indy 500 history to that point. The two dueled for the final 40 laps, too, making it one of the best races in history.

NOTABLE: Gordon Smiley was killed when he crashed during qualifying and his body tumbled for hundreds of feet between turns 3 and 4, the helmet ripped from his head. His death was the first at Indy since 1973. Kevin Cogan started from the middle of the front row between pole-sitter Mears and A.J. Foyt. As the field approached the start, Cogan suddenly swerved right to trigger a crash that collected Foyt, Mario Andretti, Geoff Brabham and Roger Mears. Cogan was blacklisted in the industry, rebuked by Andretti – who said “this is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job up front” – and he was ultimately fired by Roger Penske.

RACE: 67th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 29, 1983

WINNER: Tom Sneva

AVERAGE SPEED: 162.117 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Sneva had finished second three times, won the pole twice and was the fastest qualifier once, but finally earned his first victory to shake his “bridesmaid” tag. Al Unser Sr. was leading over the final 20 laps and his son, Al Unser Jr., was several laps down and accused of intentionally blocking Sneva to protect his father’s lead. Sneva eventually got by both Unsers to win.

NOTABLE: Civility was restored after four years of disputes between USAC and CART. The two sanctioning bodies agreed that the Indianapolis 500 would be sanctioned by USAC, but also recognized on the CART schedule. The arrangement remained in place through 1995.

RACE: 68th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 27, 1984

WINNER: Rick Mears

AVERAGE SPEED: 163.612 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Mears won his second Indy 500 with ease as contenders Tom Sneva and Mario Andretti dropped out of the race in the second half. That left Mears alone two laps ahead of the field and able to cruise to the victory. Three months after the race, Mears suffered severe leg injuries in a crash during practice at Sanair Super Speedway in Canada.

NOTABLE: Three rookies finished in the top five: Roberto Guerrero (2nd), Al Holbert (4th) and Michael Andretti (5th), and Guerrero and Andretti shared the rookie of the year award. Sportswriter-turned-racer Pat BeDard wrecked on lap 58. Emerson Fittipaldi made his debut in the race.

RACE: 69th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 26, 1985

WINNER: Danny Sullivan

AVERAGE SPEED: 152.982 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: It was known as the “Spin and Win” race because as Sullivan passed Mario Andretti for the lead on lap 120, he lost control of his car and did a 360-degree spin in front of Andretti. Sullivan somehow avoided hitting the wall, and Andretti was able to slip past him to retake the lead. Sullivan regained the lead and led the final 61 laps to give Roger Penske another victory.

NOTABLE: The Speedway celebrated 40 years of ownership by the Hulman/George family. The race was also the breakout for the “stock block” Buick V-6 engine and Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton swept the top two spots in track record speeds during qualifying with the pushrod Buick. But reliability was an issue, and both drivers dropped out of the race with mechanical problems.

RACE: 70th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 31, 1986

WINNER: Bobby Rahal

AVERAGE SPEED: 170.722 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: The race was rained out May 25-26 and rescheduled for the following weekend. Rahal battled with Rick Mears and Kevin Cogan, who took the lead with 13 laps to go. But a caution set up a final restart with two laps remaining and Rahal pulled away to win the race. Rahal was the first driver to complete 500 miles in under three hours.

NOTABLE: Rahal won for car owner Jim Trueman, who was cheering from the pit area despite a battle with cancer. Trueman died 11 days after Rahal’s victory. Trueman was the father-in-law of current Team Penske President Tim Cindric.