Controversy isn’t just for horses, as 1981 Indy 500 proves

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In a historic decision yesterday at Churchill Downs, a post-race review led to Country House being named winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby and first-place finisher Maximum Security being disqualified for impeding the progress of several horses in the race.

While the public continues to argue amongst themselves over the results, Country House now sets his sights on continuing a Triple Crown bid with another victory at the Preakness Stakes (Saturday, May 18 on NBC).

As the waiting game stretched on yesterday, longtime Indianapolis 500 fans may have found themselves drifting back to 1981, when The Greatest Spectacle in Racing wasn’t decided at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May – but in an appeals board meeting in October.

On October 9, 1981, an appeals board from the United States Auto Club awarded the victory to Bobby Unser. Unser had taken the checkered flag at Indy on May 24, 1981, but the following morning, USAC officials penalized him one position for illegally passing cars during a caution period – and elevated Mario Andretti to the win.

Andretti took pictures with the Borg-Warner Trophy and was feted at the Indy 500 victory banquet. But his mood was dour.

After being named winner one day after the 1981 Indy 500, Mario Andretti is photographed with the Borg-Warner Trophy. Credit: IMS Photo

“I am glad the officials did the right thing but it still is sad,” he said in an interview during the banquet. “When Bobby won he went through all the hoopla and got to experience victory lane and the other things a winner gets to experience in victory lane … then it was taken from him and given to me. And I will never get to experience that myself.”

As for Unser and his team, Penske Racing, they immediately launched an appeal of USAC’s decision. But a final decision wasn’t made until that fall.

USAC agreed that on Lap 149, after making a pit stop under yellow-flag conditions, Unser did indeed pass multiple cars before blending in with the rest of the field – a moment that was captured on ABC’s tape-delayed coverage of the race.

But USAC also maintained that the infraction should’ve been called on the spot by chief steward Tom Binford and his crew of officials. And so, the USAC appeals board voted 2-1 to reinstate Unser as the winner, giving him his third Indy 500 triumph. However, he was also fined $40,000 for the infraction.

Edwin Render, a University of Louisville law professor who was named the appeals board chairman for the case, cast the decisive ballot. In a 2013 interview with Motor Trend, he said the no-call on the infraction during the race swung his vote.

“That was what decided it for me,” Render said. “They should have acted when the foul was committed. You can’t call a foul after the game is over.”

The saga took its toll. USAC’s reputation was damaged. Unser retired from Indy-car racing at the end of the season. And for many years, Unser and Andretti were at odds over the outcome.

But during a health scare for Unser a couple of years ago, the frosty relationship finally thawed when Andretti called him at the hospital.

“He starts talking to me and I said ‘Who is this?’,” Unser told WTTV Indianapolis last year. “And he says, “g***** it, don’t you know my voice? It’s Mario!’ And I thought ‘Damn! He’s going to get over being mad before I am!’”

“[Mario] was always a good friend and I really liked the guy. I mean God dang it, I don’t know why he had to try to steal that race from me, you know?,” Unser continued with a laugh.

In the same interview, Al Unser Jr. – Bobby’s nephew and two-time 500 winner – said the old rivals were friends again.

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‘Drive Like Andretti’, a new documentary on the life and times of racing legend Mario Andretti, debuts Saturday, May 11th at 2pm ET on NBC, leading into coverage of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 3pm ET.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”