The question of whether Bobby Unser or Mario Andretti won the race, the unpleasantly spectacular exits of Rick Mears and Danny Ongais, the large amount of caution time, and the return of the 200 mph lap were highlights of this year’s activity on the racetrack.
The personal side of the year was highlighted by my first time of seeing the second Saturday of time trials, my first trip to the Speedway with Dixie and the children, and my first camping experience there.
At 10:30 on Friday morning, May 8th, I left in my 1975 Chevrolet for the first day of time trials. I followed old Route 36 to Decatur and then the regular Route 36 to Chrisman. I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen for a toasted cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. It wasn’t a full meal, but it tasted good and refreshed me somewhat.
It was between 1:15 and 1:30 when I left the restaurant and continued on Route 36 to the Indiana capital. Shortly after 3:00, I stopped at the Standard Station at the intersection with Lynhurst Drive and filled the gas tank. With that important job done, I went north on Lynhurst to 16th Street, right to Georgetown Road to 30th Street, and then right to Gate 10, where I entered the Speedway grounds and then drove to the Hall of Fame and Museum parking lot. It was now 3:30.
I browsed through the gift shop for a few minutes, hoping to find something for Dixie and the boys, but was discouraged by the high prices and left. I walked by the Speedway hospital and the garage area on my way to the Tower Terrace area, where I walked along the pit area fence and watched the cars practice until 6:00 closing time.
After that, I walked back to the car and then left for the MCL Cafeteria in the Speedway Shopping Center. I had a full meal for supper, and it tasted real good. As usual when I am there, the cafeteria was doing a fine business, but the serving line moved right along and the food and service was fine.
Feeling much better, I decided to walk off some of the meal by walking through the shopping center. I bought a Mother’s Day card at Hook’s Drug Store, my fried chicken dinner for Saturday at the Kroger store, and a belt at Penny’s.
By now it was dusk, so I left and drove to the Holiday Inn motel at Lebanon where I had a reservation for Friday and Saturday nights. It was 9:00 when I arrived, and I had no trouble getting my room. I sat down for a couple minutes and then took a short walk to see what was happening at the motel. As I walked through the breezeway connecting the two buildings of the motel, I noticed it was raining, which was displeasing.
A room full of loud people and music in the lounge contrasted with the restaurant which was closing for the day and almost devoid of people. The Holidome area was also busy, although the crowd was diminishing as the 10:00 closing time approached. When I returned to my room, I watched the 10:00 news, did some reading, and then retired for the night.
The ringing of my alarm clock started the day for me at 5:30. I brushed my teeth and shaved and then walked to the restaurant for breakfast. Rain was still falling, so I assumed it had been doing so all night. For breakfast, I had pancakes, hash brown potatoes, sausage, orange juice, and coffee. There were several other early breakfast eaters, and I could tell from the various conversations that their plans for the day were the same as mine.
I returned to my room to brush my teeth, got my equipment together, and then left for the Speedway. It was about 7:30 now.
It rained all the way to Indianapolis but had stopped when I arrived there. I tried something new and parked on the infield instead of the private parking lot, thinking it would save time and money. I wanted to park on the asphalt parking lot of the museum but it was roped off, so I parked on a grassy area between the museum and the second turn. Although it wasn’t raining, I knew it had stopped just recently because everything was heavy with dew. It would be a long time before there was any activity on the racetrack.
I took a walk from south to north on the road paralleling the back straightaway and saw areas of the infield I hadn’t seen before. I continued on to the fourth turn area and then came south to the garage and Tower Terrace area. The race cars were still in their garages, and about the only areas of activity were the concession stands and the gift shops.
For the next few hours, I went to several gift shops and concession stands trying to find some reasonably priced items for Dixie and the boys, but I had little success. By now it was after 12:00, so I found a Tower Terrace seat and sat for a while. I read my newspaper and a little bit of my Reader’s Digest and ate a couple pieces of chicken. The track and pit areas were slowly drying, and a couple hours or so later, USAC officials announced the track was fit for practice. A huge roar came from the crowd as the engines were started and the cars were pushed away for 30 minutes of practice.
After the practice period, the pre-qualification ceremonies were held as the cars were pushing into position for qualifying. A.J. Foyt was the first driver to complete a qualifying run, and it was a fine 196.078, which turned out to be the fastest time of the day. Nine drivers completed qualifying runs, and then a few minutes before 6:00 a cool breeze started blowing and the sky turned dark.
As the 6:00 gun ended activity for the day, everybody hurried to leave as the rain started falling. It was a long, wet walk to the car, and by the time I arrived I was wet to my skin. I had no problem getting into the flow of traffic, but it took several minutes to get onto 16th Street.
The traffic moved quickly until it reached Lynhurst Drive. There, the State Police had the road blocked and were sending all traffic south. I drove to 16th Street and then right to go west and eventually came north again. Unfortunately, several hundred other drivers did the same thing, and it became a long, frustrating wait in the rain as I tried to reach the shopping center. I had a 7:00 supper date at the MCL Cafeteria with two former Sunday School classmates from Springfield, David and Mary Johns, and I was becoming unhappy about maybe being tardy for the date. A few minutes after 7:00, I reached Crawfordsville Road and went straight across to the cafeteria.
Johns were waiting for me inside the front door. I expressed my apology for being late, and they were real understanding of the situation and didn’t seem to mind. We had a real fine meal and sat and visited with each other until 8:30, which was closing time. Dave insisted on paying for my meal and refused my offer of reimbursement.
It was still raining when we said goodbye and went our separate ways. I drove straight to the motel, arriving shortly after 9:00. The motel was busy with the restaurant, bar, meeting rooms, and Holidome all doing a good business. I watched the 10:00 news on TV, and at 10:30 I saw a 30-minute program about the time trials on channel 13. It was narrated by Paul Page, and Johnny Rutherford was the guest commentator. It was a fine, enjoyable program, and I saw parts of the day’s program I hadn’t been able to see in person. When that was over, I finished eating my fried chicken and then went to bed.
On Sunday morning, I awoke about 6:30, did some reading, got cleaned up, and ate breakfast in the motel restaurant. My breakfast was fried eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and orange juice. When I finished, I returned to my room, brushed my teeth, and got everything packed and ready to go. I checked out at the front desk, and a few minutes before 9:00 I started my trip home.
The rain which started at 6:00 Saturday night had not stopped, and it rained quite heavily all the way to the Illinois state line. I returned the same way I went, and shortly after 11:00 I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen for a cup of coffee and a barbeque. The large Mother’s Day crowd was already coming in, and by the time I left at 11:30, business was really booming.
As I continued west on Route 36, the rain increased in intensity. Many of the farm fields along the highway looked more like ponds than fields. It was not until I almost got home that the rain let up quite a bit. When I arrived home about 2:00 it had diminished to a heavy drizzle, although I could tell quite a lot had fallen. I gave Dixie and the boys their presents and then unpacked my suitcase and put everything away. For the fifth time in the last six years, it had rained during all or part of the first weekend of time trials. Despite this disappointment, I was glad I went because I still had a good time.
The following weekend was unlike any other I’ve ever had at Indianapolis. Willadean Walker, Dixie’s sister, was supposed to have visited us; however, due to illness, she couldn’t come. On Friday morning, I told Dixie I wish I could be at the Speedway because the previous Sunday’s activity had been rained out and many first-day qualifiers still hadn’t made their runs. Dixie said we should get up early Saturday morning and go over there. I was unsure about what the boys would do during that time.
When Dixie got to school that morning, she talked to one of her teaching colleagues, Shirley Howard, about our conversation. Shirley said she and her husband, Gary, and their two children were going over there, and we should go with them. They were taking their camping trailer and we could share it with them. I said okay but was still quite doubtful about how everything would go.
On Saturday morning, the five of us left our house in our 1978 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon. We took I-72 instead of Route 36, which was something new for me. We met Howards at the Riverton interchange. They said they would check on camping arrangement before coming to the Speedway. We decided to meet at 11:00 behind the Control Tower.
We took I-72 to Champaign and then got on I-74 and stayed on it the rest of the way. We stopped at a restaurant about halfway between Champaign and Danville so that we could get out and stretch for a few minutes and use the restrooms. With that important job done, we resumed our driving and arrived on the Speedway infield at 9:45. Our parking space was behind the north end of the Terrace Extension area.
We got our equipment together and walked to the general area just south of the Control Tower. This is where I had sat last Saturday and wanted to sit today, but after a couple minutes in the sun we decided it would be too hot for eight-month old Paul, so instead we sat in the grandstand on the other side of the track and had a roof over our heads.
I was surprised that these seats were almost empty. I didn’t think there would be an empty seat anywhere. It felt good to sit down after carrying the heavy equipment around.
It was Armed Forces Day throughout the country, and the Speedway celebrated the occasion. A team of fighter jet airplanes flew from north to south over the main straightaway and made a loud noise, although we could only see the shadows of the planes from our seats. It was a fine show.
At 11:00, the track was open for what turned out to be the busiest qualifying day in Speedway history. A few minutes before, I had met Howards behind the Control Tower and showed them to our seats.
One of the first drivers out was rookie Josele Garza. He made a terrific showing with a 195.101 mph average. As expected, Bobby Unser made an excellent run of 200.545 mph in his Norton Spirit. His teammate, Rick Mears, ran his first two laps about 200 mph, but then he encountered engine trouble and had to make his run in a backup car.
Tom Sneva gave the crowd something to cheer about when he qualified the Bignotti-Cotter car at 200.691 mph for what turned out to be the fastest qualifying speed of the year, although he wasn’t eligible for the pole position.
About 3:00, Shirley and Dixie left and took the children with them so that they could get the camping equipment set up. Gary and I stayed and watched the rest of the program. There was almost no caution time, and this allowed several qualifying runs which normally wouldn’t have happened. At 6:00 the activity ended, and Gary and I walked to my car and left for the campgrounds. I stopped at the Standard Station on Crawfordsville Road for gasoline, and then we drove to the campgrounds. We took I-465 south and stayed on it until we reached State Route 37 where we turned and went south a couple blocks and reached the campsite.
The women had everything ready and were ready to go out for supper. We went back to I-465 and took it east and a little north until it intersected with US Route 40. Here, we turned off and came to a place called the Paramount Music Palace Family Pizza Restaurant and Ice-Cream Parlor. It had a large parking lot which was well-filled, and the line of people waiting to get in extended through the building and onto the surrounding sidewalk. This made us, particularly Gary and me, rather skeptical about whether we wanted to stay or not. Shirley kept saying we would like the place, so we took our place in line.
The line was long but it moved steadily, and there was a steady line of people both coming and going. As we progressed though the line, I heard what sounded like live organ music. At last, we reached the serving line, and Dixie ordered a large pizza and I ordered a poor-boy sandwich.
It would be a while before the pizza was ready, so we bought our drink, a pitcher of Pepsi-Cola, and then found a place to sit. Customers sat at long wooden tables with backless benches. While we waited for our food, the evening’s entertainment began.
The source of entertainment was a large Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ, much like the one which was at the old Orpheum Theatre in Springfield. The music started, and then the organ appeared to come up from the floor. The organist, a young woman, played a couple songs and then talked with the audience. She acknowledged some of the out-of-town visitors and race fans as a whole. Her warm style made everybody feel comfortable and happy to be there. She played several songs, and the fabulous sound of the organ filled the air. Flashing colored lights around the walls enlivened the activity.
After what seemed a long time, our pizzas and sandwich were ready. Everything tasted fine, particularly since it had been so long since we had eaten.
The organist played for 30 minutes, and there was an intermission of a few minutes. As she finished playing, the organ went down and out of sight. At the end of the intermission, the sound of music filled the air again as the organ ascended, but this time a young man did the playing honors.
Like the young lady, he acknowledged some of the visitors and those with birthdays by playing a lively, fancy version of the birthday song. He played numerous popular songs, and sometimes the sound was enough to vibrate the walls.
It was about 10:00 when we left. We went out the same way we came in, and there was still a line of customers stretching out onto the sidewalk. Listening to the fabulous organ had made a most enjoyable evening for me. Gary and I were both glad we had gone but still didn’t like having to wait in the long line.
It was 10:30 when we arrived at the campgrounds and got ready for bed. Paul slept with Dixie and me in our station wagon while Mark and John slept in the camper with Howards. It had been a long but certainly enjoyable and memorable day.
To go back a little bit, the address of the Paramount Music Palace was 7560 Old Trails Road.
It was not a normal night of sleep for Dixie and me. In the first place, the station wagon was too cluttered with equipment to be comfortable, and in the second place, Paul couldn’t get used to sleeping in his car seat, and his crying woke us up twice.
My long night ended about 6:30. I managed to leave the car without awakening anybody, made use of the restroom, and then went to the campgrounds store and had a cup of coffee and visited with the campers and managers of the campgrounds for quite a while.
A few minutes after I returned to the car, Gary woke up and put in his first appearance of the day. We made a pot of coffee and then got everything ready for breakfast. The breakfast menu consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, orange juice, toast, and milk. It was a fine meal and good way to start the day.
The four eldest children had fun playing with each other while the four adults cleaned up the breakfast mess. After that, Gary and his boy, Mike, and Mark and I took a short tour of the campground facilities while the ladies visited with each other. When we came back, the ladies and the children, except Paul, went paddle boat riding. Everything went fine until Dixie, Mark, and John disembarked. Mark and John had no trouble, but when Dixie started to step up, she inadvertently pushed the boat away too soon and fell into the water. Fortunately, the water came only to her waist and she had an extra set of clothes to put on, but she was quite embarrassed.
It was 11:30 when we got everything packed and started the trip home. We went back to I-465 and took it north to the intersection with I-74, where we took the westbound turnoff and started the trip west. We stayed on I-74 to Danville, where we changed to Route 150 and 1 and went south to the Route 36 intersection at Chrisman. There, we stopped at the Colonial Kitchen for some cold drinks and light refreshments.
About 15 minutes later, we were on our way home again. Everything went fine, and when we went through Tuscola, Dixie decided she wanted to stop at the Four Seasons, a women’s clothing store, and look around. The three boys and I stayed in the car. During this time it started raining, just slightly at first but then more and more. Dixie shopped for an hour, and when she returned to the car it was coming down quite heavily.
The drive from Tuscola to our house was one of unending rain, and it seemed to get heavier the further west we came. When we arrived at our house it had diminished a little bit, but it continued for quite a while.
It was 5:30 when we drove onto the driveway at home, ending a real pleasant weekend but certainly different from any others I had spent at Indianapolis.
At 12:30 on Saturday afternoon, May 23rd, I left in my 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Classic for my 27th trip to see the Indianapolis 500-mile race. This was my first trip since we had moved last August to 832 Independence Ridge after living at 14 Royal Road for 11 years.
I took old Route 36 to Decatur and arrived there at 1:30. The traffic was heavy on Eldorado Street as it always is when I go to the race, but I didn’t have any trouble, and about 15 minutes later I was out of town and on the road again. The drive from Decatur to Chrisman is always a pleasant one, and this year was no exception. The straight road, the new farm crops, the pretty green grass, and some of the attractive homes along the highway make an enjoyable drive.
It was 2:55 when I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen for a little refreshment. For my snack, I had a BBQ sandwich, potato chips, and two cups of coffee. It felt good to walk around a little bit after being in the car for two and a half hours, and the food and coffee perked me up considerably.
I used the men’s room, paid the bill, and at 3:18 started on my way again. I turned left and drove the 23 miles to Danville. Each town along the way was busy with its residents cutting grass, pulling weeds, riding bicycles, and various other jobs.
My trip ended at 3:54 when I arrived at the Olde Danville Inn, formerly the Holiday Inn. I had already paid for my first night’s reservation, so all I had to do was fill out the registration card and get my room key.
From there, I walked to my room and gave it an inspection. I checked the bathroom facilities for general condition, whether I had hot water or not, and a sufficient supply of towels. Another item of prime concern was to see if I could get channel 17 well enough on the TV set so that I could see the Sunday night telecast of the race.
The TV set worked OK and there was hot water and plenty of towels, so I brought my suitcase in and lay down for a couple minutes to relax. I had brought the last six issues of the Indianapolis Star with me, so I got up and read two of them.
By now it was early evening, so I took a bath and put on clean clothes and left the motel for a little bit. My first stop was the Famous Recipe chicken place where I bought my Sunday dinner. From there, I drove to the Derby filling station where I filled up with gasoline for the trip tomorrow. With those two important jobs done, I left to do the third job — eat supper.
Last year, for the first time, I ate supper at George’s Buffet a few blocks east of the Derby station, and this year I decided to do likewise. The price had gone from $4.25 to $4.50, which I didn’t think was bad. My meal consisted of chicken livers, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, coffee, beets, cake, noodles, macaroni salad, and rolls. It was a good meal, and I felt better afterward.
From the restaurant, I drove back to the motel. Before going to my room, I walked through the lobby and noticed the bar was doing a good business. There was a combo playing music and several couples dancing to the music. This was the first time I could remember live music and dancing at the bar.
Upon returning to my room, I read my other four newspapers and then watched television for a few minutes as I got everything I needed put into my tote bag so that I would be ready to go tomorrow morning. It was 11:00 now, so I got ready for bed, made sure the alarm clock was set, and then turned the lights out. As always, I was too excited thinking about tomorrow to go to sleep right away, but after a little while I finally dozed off.
The big day started about 4:20 for me. I had set the alarm clock back about 10 minutes from other years to allow more time to wake up and shave. It was 4:50 when I finished and left for the motel restaurant. There were two couple already there, and when the doors were opened at 5:00 there were a few more persons in line.
Breakfast was served buffet-style. I had bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits, toast, orange juice, coffee, and water. It was a good breakfast, and I went back for seconds of everything. By then I was full and decided it was time to leave.
I hurried back to my room, brushed my teeth, and got my tote bag. It was 5:32 when I left the motel for my drive to the big race. Traffic on I-74 was heavy as usual, and I was quite sure most of them had the same destination I did. I listened to an Indianapolis news radio station, and the weather prediction was for fine weather for the race but possible rain in the late afternoon. The city certainly didn’t need any more rain!
It wasn’t quite 7:00 when I reached the I-74 and 465 interchange, and the traffic slowed although it didn’t stop. It moved well all the way to Lynhurst Drive where I turned left to enter the bank parking lot. A member of the Lions Club, which operates the parking lot, stopped me and said the lot was full. I backed up and drove a few feet to 20th Street and turned left again. I saw a man and woman directing cars into their yard, so I stopped and parked there, not knowing when or where the next chance might come. I made sure I had everything with me, locked the car, paid the man the $5 fee, and started walking to the Speedway. It was now 7:15.
I walked back to Crawfordsville Road and took the familiar walk to the Speedway. When I reached Fisher Street, I stopped and talked to the young lady who was standing in the street and trying to get some business for her parking lot yard. I had seen her many times during the years Bobby, Dad and I stayed in Kramer’s yard. I asked her if Mr. Kramer was still parking cars for the race, and she replied that he had suffered a fatal heart attack while shoveling snow one day during the past winter. When I expressed my regrets, she said it had been a shock to everybody in the neighborhood because he was so well-liked by everybody.
It was between 7:45 and 8:00 when I entered the Speedway grounds through one of the turnstiles at the main gate entrance. I bought my four souvenir programs and started the long walk to the tunnel by the starting line. Upon reaching the infield, I turned right and walked to the garage area. Several of the race cars were still in the garage area, and there was a multitude of fans standing behind the fence hoping to see a car or driver before the cars were pushed to the pit area. After 8:30, I walked around and observed some of the sights and then left for my seat. It was shortly before 9:00 when I reached the north end of the Tower Terrace and gave my tickets to one of the ticket-takers.
At 10:00, with zero-hour only one hour away, the parade of celebrities began. I was not familiar with most of the names, but among those in the parade were Joyce DeWitt and Jenilee Harrison from the TV program Three’s Company. There was also Sonny Shroyer from the Enos program and renowned Indiana native Phil Harris.
By this time, my two race companions of the past four years, Malcolm and Barbara McKean, had arrived and settled down for a day of racing.
At 10:20, Chief Steward Tom Binford announced on the PA system that pit crews could start the engines of their cars and run them for five minutes. This bought a round of applause from the fans.
A few minutes after the engines were turned off, Ton Binford and a few other USAC officials made a final inspection of the track and pronounced it ready for racing.
Shortly after this, the crowd rose to its feet and turned silent for a few minutes as the PU band played The Star-Spangled Banner. This was followed by the invocation. The minister asked the Lord’s blessing on the drivers who were about to start the greatest sporting event in the world and for the Iranian hostages who had been released from captivity in January.
The atmosphere remained solemn as the band played Taps and homage was given to our country’s war veterans in keeping with the meaning of Memorial Day.
The normal feeling of jollity returned as Phil Harris attempted to sing Back Home Again in Indiana. He did a poor job of it, and my opinion was shared by Malcolm and Barbara and a few others around us.
The tension and excitement were reaching their climax as the big moment was only seconds away. Announcer Jim Phillipe got everybody ready and then turned the microphone over to Mari George, daughter of Tony and Mary Hulman and now a Speedway Vice-President. She pronounced her father’s famous command, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”, slowly and clearly. The crowd broke into unrestrained cheering as the 33 engines roared to life.
Duke Nalon, former race driver, and some USAC officials were in the pace car with Nalon doing the driving. A member of each pit crew raised one of his arms to indicate his car was ready to go, and a couple minutes later, Duke slowly started toward the first turn. The front row of Bobby Unser, Mike Mosley, and A.J. Foyt were pushed away, and then one by one, as soon as space allowed, the remaining rows were pushed away.
As the field started getting into proper formation, the pit crews quickly gathered up their equipment and scurried back to the pit area. A couple minutes later, a big cheer came from the crowd as the pace car came through the fourth turn and down the straightaway. Many fans waved and applauded as the field passed in front of them. When they came around again to complete the second parade lap and start the official pace lap, I remarked to Malcolm that they weren’t lined up very well and had better do so in the next minute or so. His reply was a firm agreement.
The roar of the crowd increased as announcer Tom Carnegie excitedly announced the pace car’s pulling off the track and the cars coming down for the start. A few seconds of confusion followed as Bobby Unser accelerated away before starter Duane Sweeney waved the green flag. This was caused by Bobby watching the track light, which turned green before Duane waved his green flag. The rest of the field followed, and the 1981 Indy 500 was underway.
Bobby jumped into the lead, and when they came by for the first lap, Johnny Rutherford had moved from fifth to second position.
My hopes of not seeing a yellow flag for a long time were frustrated when it came out at the five-lap mark because of debris on the track. The debris was disposed of, and two laps later the green was on.
Second-place starter Mike Mosley was doing poorly and after 16 laps had to retire because of radiator trouble. It was a big blow to car owner Dan Gurney and the stock block engine fans.
Bobby Unser made his first pit stop after 21 laps and surrendered the lead to Rutherford. Johnny’s lead was ended when a fuel pump drive belt broke putting him out of the race. It was surprising, but after only 25 laps, two of the first six starters were already out of the race.
Tom Sneva, who started 25th, was really moving and led for one lap before pitting and giving the lead back to Unser.
On his 32nd lap, Don Whittington crashed in the second turn, causing the yellow flag to show again for 11 laps.
The standings at 20 laps or 50 miles were Bobby Unser, Rutherford, Sneva, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Gary Bettenhausen, Gordon Smiley, Mario Andretti, and Josele Garza.
Tom Sneva regained the lead on the 33rd lap and kept it through the 56th lap. His Bignotti-Cotter car was running well, and at 100 miles he was the leader. Behind him were Johncock, Smiley, Rick Mears, Geoff Brabham, Vern Schuppan, Pancho Carter, Garza, Bobby Unser, and Danny Ongais.
Rick Mears was credited with leading the 57th lap, and then he pitted on his next lap. This pit stop turned out to be one of the big stories of the race. Somehow, fuel was spilled and caught fire, resulting in injuries to Mears and six of his crewmen. All were taken to the infield hospital and treated. The fire resulted in a huge amount of white smoke and startled everybody, both in the pit area and in the crowd. Rick suffered first and second degree burns on his face and was released from the hospital the following morning.
In the meantime, rookie Tom Klausler and veteran Pancho Carter were forced out of the race with mechanical problems and were awarded 29th and 28th positions.
At 60 laps, there was a new leader, Danny Ongais, in the Interscope Racing Special. He was followed by Bobby Unser, Johncock, Andretti, Foyt, Garza, Carter (retired after 62 laps), Smiley, Steve Krisiloff, and Brabham.
Ongais led for three laps and then made a pit stop. As he was going through the third turn on his first lap back on the track, he crashed into the outside wall, resulting in one of the worst crashes in Speedway history. The car disintegrated, and parts were strewn a great distance from the site of impact. Fortunately, Danny wasn’t thrown onto the track, thus preventing even more trouble. He had to be cut from the car and had a broken right leg, broken left forearm, and chest injuries. Miraculously, he wasn’t burned. He was taken to the infield hospital and then flown to Methodist Hospital for further treatment and surgery. He would be hospitalized and out of action for a long time.
The Ongais crash brought out the yellow flag for 15 laps, during which Gary Bettenhausen was forced out with a broken rod. Also during the caution period, Johncock became the leader and stayed there through the 91st lap when he made a pit stop. At 80 laps, Ongais, Carter, and Krisiloff had been replaced in the top 10 standings by Dennis Firestone, Vern Schuppan, and Bill Alsup, although not in the same positions.
With the race nearing the halfway point, there was a series of pit stops and lead changes. When Johncock stopped, Bobby Unser led for four laps until he pitted, giving the lead back to Gordon for one lap. Mario Andretti then became the leader for the first time for laps 97-98, and then he came in for service and surrendered the lead to Josele Garza. This gave Josele the distinction of leading the race at the halfway or 250-mile mark. He was followed by Johncock, Andretti, Bobby Unser, Smiley, Schuppan, Foyt, Firestone, Brabham, and Tony Bettenhausen. Bettenhausen was the only newcomer.
The last car out of the race before 100 laps was Tom Sneva. Tom had the fastest qualifying time of the year, had started 20th, and moved up quickly during the race. His car was a new Bignotti-Cotter creation, and it started having clutch problems and had to be retired after 95 laps. In his eight years at the Speedway, this was only the second time he was forced out with mechanical problems.
Johncock regained the lead on the 105th lap and held it through lap 112 when he made a pit stop. This put Bobby Unser back in the front for six laps and then Johncock again for four laps. At 300 miles, the first ten positions were held by Johncock, Andretti, Garza, Bobby Unser, Smiley, Foyt, Firestone, Brabham, Schuppan, and rookie Kevin Cogan.
The relatively long period of green flag ended at 49 laps when rookie Pete Halsmer crashed into the third-turn wall. He was uninjured but out of the race, and the yellow light remained on for seven laps.
The crowd had hardly sat down when the yellow light came on again after only four laps of green. This time, the reason for the caution light was Josele Garza. He was running fourth when he crashed in the third turn after 138 laps with a broken rear suspension. Josele had become immensely popular in just three weeks with his good looks and his 195.101 mph qualifying speed, which was good for sixth starting position. In the race, he was never out of the top 10 after the 20-lap mark until he crashed.
Following the Garza crash there was one green-light lap, and then the yellow appeared again when Gordon Smiley also crashed in the third turn. This brought out the yellow for six laps. Just as Smiley’s mess was cleaned up, the caution light returned when Bill Whittington stalled and had to be towed in.
Tom Bigelow was the next driver out of the race, and this brought out the yellow flag again when his car stalled on the track after completing 152 laps.
Rookie Bob Lazier was the next entrant to take the exit route when his machine blew its engine and was finished after 154 laps.
At 400 miles, the first 10 positions were held by Bobby Unser, Johncock, Andretti, Schuppan, Firestone, Cogan, Brabham, Foyt, Sheldon Kinser, and Tony Bettenhausen. It was Kinser’s first time in the top-10 listing. Unser had regained the lead on the 149th lap and kept it though lap 178.
In the meantime, Larry Dickson was out after 165 laps with a burned piston, and former winner Al Unser had to leave with 166 laps. It had been a long day for Al. He had to make several unscheduled pit stops, and this eliminated any chance of his finishing near the front of the field. His pit area was within sight of my seat, and his No. 88 Longhorn Special had become a common sight with all of its pit stops.
Another rookie, Scott Brayton, was the next driver out of the race when he pulled into the infield after 174 laps with engine failure.
The top 10 positions at 180 laps were the same as 160 laps, but some of the names were in different positions.
As the race entered the last 20 laps, the yellow flag came out again when A.J. Foyt ran out of fuel and had to be towed to his pit. The yellow remained on for four laps, went off briefly, and then came on again for four laps when debris was removed from the track.
With only six laps remaining, Gordon Johncock’s STP Oil Treatment Special quit on him. He was in second position and certain to finish no lower than third. This left Andretti as the only serious challenger to Bobby Unser.
Bobby was able to maintain his lead as the remaining laps ticked away. As he completed his 199th lap, he was given the white flag by Duane Sweeney, and the next time around was given the winning checkered flag as the fans waved to and applauded him. He had won his third Indy 500 — or so he thought.
Just 5.3 seconds later, Andretti was given the checkered flag indicating he had finished the race in second place. The red flag was then waved ending all racing on the track. The drivers finished the lap they were on and then returned to their pits for the last time. This time, they could take their time and relax. The pressure was gone. No longer was it necessary to get in and out as quickly as possible.
The remaining positions behind Andretti were held by Schuppan, Cogan, Brabham, Kinser, Tony Bettenhausen, Krisiloff, Johncock, Firestone, Bill Alsup, rookie Michael Chandler, Foyt, Tim Richmond, and Jerry Karl.
Unser made one more lap at full speed and then slowly decreased his speed while waving to the audience and making his way to Victory Lane.
While Unser was basking in the glory of victory and the remaining pit crews were pushing their cars back to Gasoline Alley, Barbara, Malcolm, and I got out our fried chicken dinners and had a late dinner. Because many of the people were already gone, we had plenty of room without being in anybody’s way, plus not having to worry about missing any action on the track. I hadn’t felt hungry until now, but now the chicken really hit the spot.
Just a few laps before the end of the race, the sun disappeared and clouds replaced it. The temperatures also dropped a few degrees and a slight breeze started blowing — a definite prelude to rain. As we were finishing our dinner, I felt a few light drops hit my arms. A couple minutes later, it started increasing as we hurriedly got our belongings together and rushed to the nearest rain shelter.
It rained hard for several minutes and then diminished considerably, which gave everybody a chance to progress a little bit to his next destination. My destination was the garage area, and when I arrived there, I discovered several hundred other people had the same idea.
Cars still running at the finish of the race are inspected by members of the USAC technical committee, and this is done in the garage area. I watched a couple cars receive their inspection while looking to see if any drivers were around.
While I was doing this, the rain, which had almost stopped, started increasing again, and the fans again rushed for shelter. I hurried to the tunnel just north of the start-finish line and got away from the downpour for a few seconds. When I left the tunnel I ran into the rain again, and this time there was little protection from it. The wind was blowing it around, and it was rushing down the pavement in torrents. Everybody was getting drenched but could do almost nothing about it.
After what seemed an eternity it slackened a little, and I decided to take my chances and started again. A couple minutes later, I was outside the Speedway grounds and starting the long walk to the car. Water abounded in the ditch along the road as well as every other low spot. By the time I reached Lynhurst Drive, I was soaked and uncomfortable. The traffic was quite heavy, but I found an affable State Policeman who stopped the traffic for a few seconds to allow me to dash across to the other side.
As I got into my car and shut the door, I let out a huge sigh of relief. I was soaked including my hair and feet, but for the first time in over an hour my condition was getting better instead of worse. I took the rag from under the driver’s seat and wiped my arms, head, and neck dry. It was almost 5:00, so I left immediately for my return trip to the motel.
I followed 20th Street to its intersection with Crawfordsville Road and was lucky to hit a moment of light traffic. The traffic moved right along, and a few minutes later I was on I-74 going to Danville.
I had been on the road only a few miles when the rained stopped, but the sky remained cloudy and threatening. It was a few minutes after 6:00 when I crossed the Illinois line, and at 6:20 I turned off the engine in front of my motel room.
There was little activity at the motel, so I brought in my equipment, did some unpacking, did a little reading and TV viewing, and then walked to the Eisner store and bought my supper of macaroni salad, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, and a quart of milk.
At 7:00, one of the Indianapolis TV stations had a rerun of yesterday’s 500 Festival Parade, so I watched it until 8:00 while I sat and ate my supper. I wanted to see all of the program, but at 8:00 I changed stations to watch ABC TV’s same-day telecast of the big race. It was a good program, and I was able to see highlights I couldn’t see at the Speedway, including close-ups of the Mears and Ongais episodes. The program lasted for three hours and was well worth my time spent watching it.
By the time the program ended at 11:00 I had put in a long day, so a few minutes later I turned off the TV and the lights and called it a day.
Shortly before 6:30, I awoke to start my day after the big race. I lay in bed for a few minutes and stretched my arms and legs before arising to start the day. Then I arose and tried several TV stations before I decided on one to watch. After that, I took a bath and groomed myself for a new day. That helped wake me up and make me feel better. With that important job completed, I now did my packing and watched TV for a few minutes. I put my equipment in the car, checked to be sure I hadn’t left anything, checked out of the motel, and at about 9:15 I drove out of the motel parking lot and started my trip home.
As usual, I saw little activity in Danville on Memorial Day morning as I was leaving the city. The traffic was light on Route 1 all the way to Chrisman, where I arrived about 10:00. Business wasn’t booming at the Colonial Kitchen, but there were about a dozen or so customers there. I surveyed the menu and ordered pancakes, hash brown potatoes, and toast, with coffee and orange juice to drink. It was a good meal, and when I left at 10:45 I felt as if I wouldn’t need anything to eat for a few hours.
When I arrived at Decatur a few minutes before 12:00, activity increased considerably as the annual Memorial Day boat show was attracting its usual large crowd. I drove through the city and then took old Route 36 and followed it to the Camp Butler turnoff. I drove through Springfield and arrived home at 1:10.
I brought in all of my equipment and put it away. This took several minutes, but I always like to get everything put away right away and get back to normal. I had completed another safe and enjoyable trip to see the big race. It would certainly be a race to remember as determined by actions taken in the next few days.
At 8:00am on Monday, May 25th, the official results of the race were posted by USAC officials as had been the custom for many years. This year, however, was unlike any of the previous 64 runnings of the race. For the first time in the history of the race, the winner was dropped to second place, and the second-place finisher was declared the winner. The finishing positions of Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti were changed by order of Chief Stewart Tom Binford, who claimed Unser passed several cars during a yellow-light condition while returning to the race track on his 149th lap. The penalty was a loss of a lap for Unser, which put him behind Andretti since there was only 5.3 seconds difference between them.
This brought an immediate protest from Roger Penske, Unser’s car owner. He claimed that Unser had not violated any rules and that Andretti had violated the same rule that Unser allegedly had broken. These protests were denied by USAC officials in a hearing held later in the day. Upon hearing the results of the hearing, Penske immediately appealed the ruling to a USAC Appeals Board. This appeals board consisted of Edwin R. Render, a professor at the University of Louisville Law School, and former USAC presidents Charles T. Brackman and Reynold C. McDonald. The board heard many hours of testimony during several meetings from Penske and USAC officials, but it wasn’t until Thursday, October 8th that the final decision was made and the public would finally know who won this year’s Indianapolis 500. I think most people thought it would be a final affirmation of Andretti’s victory and were shocked when the board decided that Bobby Unser was the winner after all.
The controversy over who won the race further damaged USAC’s already-tarnished reputation as a racing sanctioning body. There was no question about whether Unser was guilty of passing several cars during the caution period. This was clearly evident during the ABC-TV telecast of the race. It emphasized the ambiguity of rules pertaining to such a situation.
Andretti had notified his crew chief about the passing violation when it occurred. The crew chief immediately notified USAC officials, but they took no action against Unser. This brought out the main question in everybody’s mind during all of the testimony — why wasn’t Unser penalized at the time of the infraction, thereby giving him a chance to make up the lost lap, instead of after the race when he had no chance to make up the lap?
The long, drawn-out controversy over who won the race and the apparent ineptitude of some USAC officials have caused a multitude of hard feelings, not only among drivers, car owners, mechanics, etc., but among racing fans. I certainly hope some corrective action is taken to prevent a recurrence in the future.
Finishing behind Unser and Andretti in third place was Australian driver Vern Schuppan in the Red Roof Inns car.
Kevin Cogan made the best showing of any rookie by finishing fourth in the Phoenix-Cosworth owned by Jerry O’Connell, a well-known name among car owners.
In fifth position behind Cogan was another rookie, Geoff Brabham, son of former driver Jack Brabham, who started the rear-engine revolution at the Speedway 20 years ago in 1961 when he finished ninth. Geoff was a teammate to another rookie, Josele Garza, on the Psachie-Garza team.
After failing to qualify for last year’s race and having had mechanical trouble in his five previous starts, Sheldon Kinser finally found a reliable ride and drove the Sergio Valente Longhorn Cosworth to sixth position. It was a joy to see him finally have a respectable finish.
In seventh position was another rookie and second-generation driver, Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. He is the son of former driver Tony Bettenhausen, who was killed in a practice accident at the Speedway 20 years ago in 1961 and a brother to racing veteran Gary Bettenhausen. Tony piloted the Provimi Veal McLaren Cosworth.
Veteran Steve Krisiloff took eighth position. Steve missed last year’s race after nine consecutive starts but got back into the action this year in a car that was a teammate to those of Josele Garza and Geoff Brabham.
Although he finished a disappointing ninth after staying with the front-runners almost all the way, Gordon Johncock had one distinction which no other drive could claim. He was the only driver from last year’s first 10 finishers who finished in that group this year. It was also the ninth time he had finished in that group, which is certainly a fine record.
Second-year driver Dennis Firestone finished this year’s group of first 10 finishers. He piloted the Rhodes Racing Wildcat/Cosworth and completed 193 laps.
Another unpleasant facet of the race was the large amount of caution time. A total of 69 laps, slightly more than one-third of the race, were run under the yellow flag. There were 11 caution periods that took one hour, 42 minutes, and 8 seconds, which was the most in the history of the race. They were responsible for the slowest winning speed since 1960. Pace car driver Duke Nalon drove an unbelievable 149 laps during the race.
The return of the 200 mph speeds during practice and time trials created interest among the participants and fans alike, but the Ongais crash, the Mears fire, and the controversy over the winner cast a pall over the race itself. I hope in the future there is no argument over who the winner is and that the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will remain the Indianapolis 500.
Pace Car — Buick Regal
500 Festival Queen — Paula Peelen