IndyCar legends remember Danny Ongais: ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’ at the Indy 500

Danny Ongais
Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS – Danny Ongais, the first and highest-finishing Hawaiian starter at the Indy 500, also might have been one of the hardest chargers in the race’s storied history.

Ongais was a man of few words but drove a race car with the right foot of an elephant on the accelerator. No matter how fast Ongais drove his race car, he always wanted to go even faster.

That earned him such nicknames as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” and Danny “On-The-Gas.”

He drove with bravado and advocated unlimited rules at the Indianapolis 500.

“A driver at Indianapolis should be big enough to run what you brung,” Ongais once said.

That attitude often got him in trouble, though. Ongais had some of the biggest, hardest crashes in Indianapolis 500 history.

There probably has never been a driver who hit the wall harder more often and was able to survive than Danny Ongais (who died earlier this year).

“Danny was a super guy, but he also got himself in a lot of trouble,” Indy 500 legend AJ Foyt told “The cars were fragile on the half shafts, and he liked to drive them hard sometimes. That is the reason why he got into the wall so often.”

Born in Kahului, Hawaii on May 21, 1942, Ongais remains the first driver from the Aloha State to race in the Indianapolis 500, and he’s an appropriate pioneer as May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. (Though Indianapolis Motor Speedway had listed Ongais as the only Indy 500 driver from Hawaii, Bill Alsup, the 11th-place finisher in the 1981 race also was born in Honolulu, but his racing career primarily was built in the continental U.S.).

Ongais had no fear. When he was 14, he already was speeding around on motorcycles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper stationed in Europe.

Danny Ongais and Mickey Thompson
Danny Ongais and Mickey Thompson with Thompson’s Mach 1 Mustang NHRA Funny Car (ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

After he was discharged, he returned to Hawaii and entered motorsports, first as the Hawaiian motorcycle champion in 1960 before switching to a drag racing career.

He won the American Hot Rod Association AA Gas Dragster Championship in 1963 and 1964. He moved up to the National Hot Rod Association AA Dragster championship and defeated the legendary Don Prudhomme in the 1966 NHRA Nationals in the Top Fuel semifinals.

In 1969, Ongais won the NHRA Spring Nationals and NHRA U.S. Nationals in the Funny Car class driving a Mickey Thompson Ford Mustang.

That victory came one year after Thompson tried to enter Ongais into the 1968 Indianapolis 500, but Ongais was denied because he had almost no experience in open-wheel race cars.

Thompson and Ongais also teamed up to set nearly 300 national and international speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Mach 1 Mustang during the 1960s.

Ongais dominated in SCCA competition in 1974, catching the eye of young media mogul Ted Field, who had recently founded the Interscope Records label.

Field was part of the famed Marshall Field family, the famed owners of the department store chain in Chicago.

Ted Field/Danny Ongais - Interscope Racing
Team owner Ted Field and Danny Ongais at a track in the 1970s. Ongais raced cars for Field in endurance racing, IndyCar, Formula 5000 and Formula One. (ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images),

Ongais and Field teamed up with success in Formula 5000 and the IndyCar Series in the late 1970s. He also competed in four Formula One races in 1977 and 1978, including two starts with Interscope, with a best finish of seventh in 1977 at the Canadian Grand Prix.

The best season for Ongais and the Interscope team came in 1978, when he won five races and eight poles en route to an eighth-place finish in the USAC standings.

“Danny, the way he picked it up, was like a duck to water,” Mario Andretti told NBC Sports. “He really wanted to be here. He was a force to be reckoned with when he was out there.

“He didn’t talk, but he let the car speak for him.”

That 1978 season also included Ongais starting in the middle of the first all-200-mph front row at Indianapolis, between pole-sitter Sneva and rookie Rick Mears.

“Danny Ongais was my hero,” Mears told NBC Sports. “He was the only guy that spoke less at functions than I did. I always wanted to be like him.

“He would get an award, step up to the microphone and just say, ‘Thank you’ and then sit down.

“He was a good guy. Great guy. Our paths didn’t cross a lot away from the track, but when they did, he was a quiet, easygoing guy – totally different and opposite outside of the car. He was easy going outside of the car, didn’t say much and kept to himself but when he got in the car and put a helmet on, it was like he flipped the switch and stood on the gas.”

The success of Ongais and Field with the Interscope team also extended to sports car racing, with Field also driving. They teamed up with the legendary Hurley Haywood to win the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 1979 in the Interscope Porsche 935 prototype.

While Ongais was known for his blazing speed at Indianapolis and elsewhere, he also attracted attention for surviving some of the most violent crashes of his era. Ongais suffered serious injuries in a head-on crash in the 1981 Indianapolis 500, missing the rest of the season to recover.

Wreckage of Burning Racing Car
Danny Ongais survived this Turn 3 crash in the 1981 Indy 500 that left him in critical condition with compound fractures in both legs, a broken arm and internal bleeding. Ongais was leading just before the crash (Getty Images).



“He was fearless,” Mears said. “That’s the way he drove, too. That stems more from drag racing. That’s what it is all about, any way you can add another 500 horsepower, you do it. That is what you do in drag racing.

“He was a racer. He loved what he was doing. That’s the difference. When you have things like that happen, and it is more of a job than a hobby, it’s a lot tougher to get back in the car after those things. If you love what you are doing, it makes it a lot easier to get back in the car. He was a racer, and he loved what he was doing, so it was easier for him to get back in the car.”

In 1985, Ongais also survived a spectacular barrel-roll at Michigan International Speedway after hitting the back of the slower car of Phil Krueger on the backstretch.

Ongais crashed in practice and suffered a concussion in 1987 at Indianapolis while driving for Team Penske, forcing him to miss the race.

Al Unser was named as Ongais’ replacement and drove to his fourth Indy 500 victory in a backup car that previously had been used as a show car earlier in May at a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.

“Timing is everything in this business and having the luck of the timing on your side,” Mears said. “Al was doing his typical thing. If he was running at the end, you couldn’t count him out. He proved it again in that race and got the job done.”

The tragic circumstances of an accident also led to Ongais’ final start at Indianapolis in 1996.

Pole-sitter Scott Brayton suffered fatal injuries in a post-qualifying practice crash, and team owner John Menard hired Ongais as the replacement driver. (Menard recalled how he knew the driver he called “The Ghost from the Coast” in an interview last year.)

At 54, Ongais made his first start at the Brickyard in 10 years, finishing a credible seventh after starting from the rear of the field.

Ongais’ final attempt at Indianapolis came in 1998, when he failed to qualify in a Team Pelfrey car.

Ongais’ Indy 500 career ended with him leading in four races for 79 total laps. He also recorded the fastest lap of the race, 192.678 mph, as a rookie in 1977.

Ongais died Feb. 26, 2022 from congestive heart failure in Anaheim Hills, California. He was 79.

For those of us who saw Ongais race, he was a man who thrived on sheer, raw speed.

“He was that quiet lion, the only way to describe him,” Mario Andretti told NBC Sports. “What a likable guy in every way. The times I got to know him; he was one that you always admired. He never really disparaged anybody. He did his own thing.

“He made a lot of noise in a very quiet way.

“He never left anything on the table, I can tell you that. But he was not an idiot going around and doing stupid things. He was there to do a job. He was fast. He got his licks in. I never worried about being alongside of him or anything like that. He did not have any of that reputation, quite honestly.

“He was a good guy. A sense of humor. A good guy to have a conversation with. He was direct. What you saw is what you got. That is what I liked about individuals like that.”

The fairest . . . . and fastest. Driver Danny Ongais acknowledges cheers yesterday after winning Mol
Danny Ongais acknowledges the crowd after winning the Molson Diamond IndyCar race at Mosport International Raceway on June 11, 1978 (John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images).

Another great driver from that era was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who recalled one dramatic showdown with Ongais at Michigan International Speedway in the 1978 Norton Twin 200.

“I had probably the best race other than the one I had with AJ Foyt in 1974, but Danny and I were racing at Michigan in 1978,” Rutherford told NBC Sports. “It was a big track. We were running a race and about 25 laps from the end, there was a caution. The caution wasn’t that long, but we started side-by-side to finish the race.

“The green flag came out, and we ran side-by-side 220 mph for about 21 laps, sashaying at each other, side-by-side. I thought towards the end of the run, if the fans didn’t like this, they don’t need to be here.

“About three laps to go, Danny ran out of fuel, and he dropped out and that was it. I won the race. Went to victory lane and did all the smiling and pictures. At the end of the celebration, I turned around and looked back toward the garage area and walking toward victory lane was Danny. I got down off the stand and went down to meet him. We came together with a big hug. He was smiling and said, ‘Hell of a race.’ That was Danny Ongais. He was intense and good.

“It made you sad that he ran out of fuel because it would have been something to see if he could have produced anything to beat me or if I could have beat him.

“Danny was a great guy. He suffered a lot of serious crashes. The time he hit the wall in the third turn. The car broke in two and his legs were hanging out. He was a tough guy, but it was fun to know him.

“Danny let his racing do his talking for him, that’s for sure.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500

Kyle Larson wins third consecutive High Limit Sprint race at Eagle Raceway, Rico Abreu second again

Larson High Limit Eagle
High Limit Racing - Twitter

It took four attempts for Kyle Larson to win his first High Limit Sprint Car Series race in the series he co-owns with brother-in-law Brad Sweet, but once he found victory lane, he has been undefeated with his win at Eagle (Nebraska) Raceway. For the second week, Abreu led early only to fall prey to Larson.

The win was Larson’s third straight victory and the fifth consecutive top-five, giving him a perfect sweep of the season after finishing 10th in last year’s inaugural race at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana.

Larson started third behind Abreu and Brent Marks but was embroiled in a fierce battle with Anthony Macri for third during the first dozen laps. Larson slipped by Macri in traffic until a red flag waved for a flip by Lachlan McHugh.

Meanwhile at the front of the pack, Marks retook the lead from Abreu on Lap 18. Larson followed one lap later and then caution waved again. Tyler Courtney lost power and fell to 24th after starting eighth.

Marks scooted away on the restart but tragedy struck in Lap 26. Leading the race, Marks hit a pothole in Turn 1, bicycled and then flipped, handing the lead to Larson.

Abreu caught Larson again during the final laps and in a reprise of their battle at Tri-City Speedway, the two threw sliders at one another for several laps until Larson built some separation and ran away to the checkers.

“I didn’t feel like my pace in [Turns] 1 & 2 slowed down a ton,” Larson said from victory lane. “I missed it once there and then I saw his nose in 3 & 4. I didn’t know if he nailed the bottom that well behind me and I think he might have slid me in the next corner, so he was definitely on the top.

“I was nervous to move up there because my car was really pogoing up in the entry of 1. I got up just in time, made a few mistakes and he threw a couple more sliders at me but he was just a little too far back and I was able to squirt around him. Then I really had to commit to hitting my marks – back my effort down a bit to avoid mistakes.”

After leading early, Abreu fell back as far as sixth, but faith in his car kept hope alive.

“I just needed to do a few things a few laps before I did and fix some angles, then my car got a whole lot better,” Abreu said. “I’m thankful for this team; they do an amazing job. They don’t give up on me. I know my car is going to be there right at the end of these races, so it’s just the discipline of being patient.”

For Abreu, it was his third near-miss this season. He was leading at Lakeside in the 2023 opener until a tire went flat in the closing laps and he lost the lead to Larson late in the Tri-City Speedway race. Abreu has finished sixth or better in his last three High Limit races with each result being progressively better until his pair of runner-up results.

Third-place finisher Scelzi was the hard charger, advancing from 17th.

“I had a very specific plan; don’t go near [the hole in Turn 1],” Scelzi said. “It worked out. No one wanted to start on the top. I think I gained a couple of rows there on the choose cone and ran the middle, which seemed to be better than right around the bottom.”

Michael “Buddy” Kofoid in fourth and Macri rounded out the top five.

World of Outlaws star and former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne was one of 41 entrants, but he was not among the 26 starters. He failed to advance to the Main after finishing eighth in the B Main and seventh in his heat.

Feature Results

A Feature (40 Laps): 1. 57-Kyle Larson[4]; 2. 24-Rico Abreu[1]; 3. 18-Giovanni Scelzi[17]; 4. 71-Michael Kofoid[5]; 5. 39M-Anthony Macri[3]; 6. 9-Chase Randall[9]; 7. 26-Zeb Wise[14]; 8. 1X-Jake Bubak[15]; 9. 8-Aaron Reutzel[10]; 10. 14D-Corey Day[18]; 11. 11-Cory Eliason[12]; 12. 5T-Ryan Timms[11]; 13. 88-Austin McCarl[13]; 14. 21H-Brady Bacon[22]; 15. 48-Danny Dietrich[16]; 16. 7S-Robbie Price[19]; 17. 21-Brian Brown[23]; 18. 22-Riley Goodno[26]; 19. 52-Blake Hahn[25]; 20. 15H-Sam Hafertepe Jr[21]; 21. 3J-Dusty Zomer[6]; 22. 14-Cole Macedo[7]; 23. 19-Brent Marks[2]; 24. 7BC-Tyler Courtney[8]; 25. 25-Lachlan McHugh[20]; 26. 53-Jack Dover[24]

2023 High Limit Sprint Car Series

Race 1: Giovanni Scelzi wins at Lakeside Speedway
Race2: Anthony Macri wins at 34 Raceway
Race 3: Kyle Larson wins at Wayne County Speedway
Race 4: Kyle Larson wins at Tri-City Speedway