1980: (Winner: Johnny Rutherford)
In 1980 there were 10 rookies (just like me) in the race – nine more than the previous year. Johnny Rutherford won the pole, led 118 laps and took his third Indy 500 win. It was a great triumph for owner Jim Hall and his radical Chaparral 2K ground effects chassis.
Tom Sneva set another record when he became the first driver to start last and lead the race (Scott Goodyear would also do it in 1992). He led the race for 16 laps on two occasions and finished second for the third time in four years. This matched Bill Holland’s efforts in 1947, 48 and 1950.
1981:(Winner: Bobby Unser)
1981 was a great year for Australians and my family at the Indy 500 – but probably one of the most controversial in history.
My father, Geoff, made his Indianapolis 500 debut qualifying 15th and finishing fifth – a terrific result for the rookie, missing Rookie of the Year honors by just one place. South Australian Vern Schuppan became the highest placed Australian finisher at the 500 in third – a feat that would remain unbeaten until 2015! Dennis Firestone was 10th – 3 Aussies in the top 10? A dream day.
Meantime, at the head of the field, Bobby Unser took the checkered flag from Mario Andretti. After the race USAC officials ruled that Unser had passed illegally while exiting the pit area during a caution period on lap 149.
When the results were issued the following day, Unser had been penalized one spot and Andretti declared the winner. After a lengthy protest and appeals process, the penalty was rescinded, and Unser was reinstated the victory more than four months later.
It was Unser’s third-career Indy 500 victory and his final win in IndyCar competition. This race is also remembered for the horrifying crash of Danny Ongais, and a major pit fire involving Rick Mears. Ongais was seriously injured, and Mears suffered burns, but both drivers would recover.
Another major pit fire occurred later in the season at the Michigan 500, prompting new rules and standards to be put in place regarding the safety of fueling rigs.
1982: (Winner: Gordon Johncock)
Starting from the middle of the front row in 1982, Team Penske’s Kevin Cogan (who beat Dad to that Rookie of the Year title the year before) applied too much throttle approaching the green flag and veered right, smacking A.J. Foyt’s car, then taking out Mario Andretti and Dale Whittington.
It was an eventful start to a race which would end with a fantastic 40-lap battle to the flag between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears. Johncock hanging on by 0.16 of a second which was the closest finish in the race’s history at that point.
For the first time a trio of brothers qualified for the race – Don, Bill and Dale Whitington. Unfortunately, the first-lap incident ended Dale’s day before he took the green. This was A.J. Foyt’s 25th consecutive race and his day ended on lap 96 with transmission problems.
1983 (Winner: Tom Senva)
A late call up in 1983 for Dad to join Team VDS resulted in one of the great days of his career and the best result for our family in this amazing race – fourth.
Tom Sneva finally shook the bridesmaid tag and won his first Indy 500 after having been runner-up three times – but again it wasn’t without its dramas.
In the final 20 laps, three-time winner Al Unser Sr. was leading Sneva. Rookie – Al Unser Jr. was several laps down – but was running right behind his father.
“Little Al” created controversy when it appeared he was blocking Sneva intentionally to aid his father. After several anxious laps, Sneva finally slipped by both Unsers, pulled away, and claimed his long-awaited first Indy victory. This was the year the 500 became a part of the CART Championship and points counted towards the championship.
1984: (Winner: Rick Mears)
The 1984 Indy 500 was the biggest ever in regards to entries with 117 cars, 87 of which were actually in the garage area at the same time. Rick Mears won his second 500 for Roger Penske after his main rivals Mario Andretti and Tom Sneva retired on laps 153 and 168 respectively.
Three months later, Mears would suffer severe leg injuries in a practice accident at Sanair. Amazingly three rookies – Roberto Guerrero (2nd), Al Holbert (4th) and Michael Andretti (5th) finished inside the top five.
The race is also unfortunately remembered for a terrible crash by sportswriter-turned-racer, Pat Bedard, who rolled through the in-field at Turn Four on lap 58 after being the only journalist to qualify for the race. Emerson Fittipaldi also made a quiet rookie debut – while my dad Geoff caught fire on the opening lap after a mechanic forgot to tighten an injector line.
1985 (Winner: Danny Sullivan)
1985 was the year of the famous “spin and win” – one of the most memorable events in Indy 500 history. Danny Sullivan took the lead from Mario Andretti on lap 120, but as he was completing the pass, his car stepped out, and he lost control. He spun directly in front of Andretti in turn one, doing a complete 360°.
Andretti veered to the left and slipped by unscathed, while Sullivan’s car somehow avoided contact with the concrete wall. Sullivan continued in the race, and about 20 laps later, managed to re-pass Andretti for good.
Sullivan led the final 61 laps, and scored his lone Indy victory, driving for Penske. Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton qualified 1-2 using a new “stock block” V6 Buick, but did not have the reliability in the race lasting six and 19 laps respectively.
1986 (Winner: Bobby Rahal)
The 1986 race was washed out and held the following weekend. Bobby Rahal won the race and became the first driver to take the checkered flag in less than three hours. The whole race was virtually a three-way battle between Rick Mears, Rahal and Kevin Cogan, who took the lead with 13 laps remaining.
His lead evaporated when a caution came out on lap 194. They got the green with two laps remaining and Rahal got the jump and raced away. His team owner Jim Trueman watched on from the pit lane and died 11 days later of cancer. For the first time, the race was televised live “flag to flag” on ABC Sports for. This was also the 75th anniversary of the race.
1987 (Winner: Al Unser)
After dominating practice, qualifying and most of the race, Mario Andretti was set for his second Indy 500 win when gremlins struck with just 23 laps remaining. Five laps later, Al Unser Sr. assumed the lead and won his record-tying fourth Indy 500. It was regarded as a massive upset because he entered the month of May without a ride.
When Danny Ongais received concussion in a practice accident, Unser Sr. was given the ride by Roger Penske. He won the race in a year-old March chassis and gave Cosworth their 10th consecutive win with the DFX powerplant. The car was on display in a hotel lobby in Reading Pennsylvania just weeks prior.
Sadly, a spectator was killed when a tire was hit into the grandstand during the race. It was the first spectator fatality as a result of a racing incident since 1938.
1988 (Winner: Rick Mears)
1988 was the “Penske Show”. Team Penske dominated the month, sweeping the top three starting positions with Rick Mears winning the pole position, Danny Sullivan, and Al Unser Sr. Mears set a new track record, becoming the first driver to break the 220 mph (352kph) barrier in time trials.
On race day, the Penske teammates proceeded to lead 192 of the 200 laps, with Mears taking the checkered flag, his third-career Indy 500 victory. The race represented the milestone 50th victory in Championship car racing for owner Roger Penske and Penske Racing.
The victory was the first of six consecutive Indy 500 wins by the Chevy Indy V8 engine, and seven overall by Ilmor-constructed powerplants. The victory also marked a triumphant return for the Penske chassis (in this case the PC-17). The Church of Scientology put the Dianetics logo on Roberto Guerrero’s car, marking the first time a faith had sponsored an Indy driver.
1989 (Winner: Emerson Fittipaldi)
In 1989 Emerson Fittipaldi became the first foreign driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966. Though “Emmo” dominated most of the race, he dropped to second in the waning laps. On the 199th lap, Al Unser Jr was leading Fittipaldi down the backstretch.
The two cars weaved through lapped traffic and Fittipaldi dove underneath in turn three. The two cars touched wheels, and Unser spun out, crashing into the outside wall.
Fittipaldi circulated the final lap under caution behind the pace car to score his first Indy 500 victory.Fittipaldi reached a significant milestone, becoming the first Indy 500 winner to earn more than $US1 million as a single-race prize purse. It was the first time since 1976 that a Penske car failed to finish in the top five. Ironically, Fittipaldi won the race in a Penske C-18 chassis. Fittipaldi also went on to win the CART Championship.