Countdown to Indy: 99 Races, 99 Problems (Chapter 3: 1967-1991)

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is making preparations for the historic 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it is a wonderful time to take a trip down memory lane and examine the rich history of this uniquely American event.

Each of the 99 previous races has produced a winner that will forever have his name etched in motor racing history. 67 race winning drivers, and two relief drivers have their images on the Borg-Warner Trophy. There are, however, an untold number of heartbreaking stories of missed opportunities, bad luck, and tragedy.

This is the third of four installments as we examine 99 races and 99 problems. Previous entries may be found here Chapter 1: 1911-1937, Chapter 2: 1938-1966.

51 ) 1967 Parnelli Jones : With a radical four-wheel drive turbine-engined car, Parnelli Jones qualified in the seventh position. Many in the pits felt that the team was sand-bagging all month long, and the car had more to offer. This proved to be correct when Jones dominated the race, leading 171 laps. Three laps shy of the finish, Jones’ car lost power and came to a stop, the result of a failed transmission bearing.

52) 1968 Joe Leonard: The STP Oil Treatment team of Andy Granatelli arrived at the Speedway with four Lotus-Turnine cars for 1968. Joe Leonard started from the pole and had the turbine car in the lead on lap 191, anticipating the restart. Seeing the flag, Leonard hit the pedal and found that the car would not accelerate, due to a broken fuel pump shaft. At the same moment, the car of his teammate, Art Pollard, suffered an identical failure.

53 ) 1969 Jigger Sirois : With rain looming on the horizon, Leon ‘Jigger’ Sirois was the first car to make a qualifying run for the 1969 Indianapolis 500. Feeling that the lap times were too slow, he waved off the attempt. The rains came quickly afterward, washing out track activity for the day. Had he completed the attempt, he would have been awarded the pole position based on the qualifying procedures of that era. Instead, he ended up not being able to qualify at all. As a matter of fact, he would try to qualify for the next six years, never making the field.

54 ) 1970 Lloyd Ruby : Having qualified in the 25th position, Lloyd Ruby began a spirited drive towards the front. Having passed ten cars on the opening lap, he worked his way into the top ten in short order. By lap 50, Ruby was able to take the lead of the race. A few laps later, smoke began pouring out of the back of Ruby’s car, the result of transmission failure.

55 ) 1971 Eldon Palmer : On virtue of his local Dodge dealership supplying the pace cars for the 1971 500, Eldon Palmer was given the job of driving the pace car. He had taken the time to practice the procedure, and felt that he had it down. On race day, he led the field to green, and entered the pit lane as the cars roared off. Rather than slow, Palmer accelerated down the pit lane, as if he was in the race. When he slammed on the brakes, the car spun out of control, careening into a photographer’s stand. 29 people were injured in the process.

56 ) 1972 Gary Bettenhausen : Entered in  the Roger Penske-prepared Sunoco car, Gary Bettenhausen had the dominant car during the race. He was able to lead at will racking up a total of 138 laps led. With only 25 laps remaining, Bettenhausen’s car slowed down the backstretch. He limped it to the pits and retired the car with an ignition failure. He watched as his teammate, Mark Donohue, took the win.

57 ) 1973 Swede Savage : Popular California-born driver, Swede Savage, was entered in his second 500 with the Pat Patrick team. The initial start of the race was marred by an eleven car crash at the green. Rain then delayed the race for two days. Savage had raced into the lead by lap 43.  After making a pit stop, his car jerked violently and slammed the inside wall, seeing his car explode into pieces. Savage, miraculously, survived the brutal impact. Sadly, he died from complications 33 days later.

58 ) 1974 Wally Dallenbach : The STP Pat Patrick entry for Wally Dallenbach arrived at the Speedway with an oversized blower that they dubbed the “King-Size Turbocharger.” This prompted protests from a number of other teams. USAC found the innovation to be within the rules, and allowed it. The competitor’s fears were confirmed when Dallenbach left the field in the dust at the start, setting a record race-lap in excess of 191 mph. Unfortunately, the extra boost caused the engine to drop a piston by lap 3.

59 ) 1975 Wally Dallenbach : After the short-lived 1974 shot at Indy glory, Dallenbach returned in 1975 with a conventional turbocharger. He had the dominant car of the race, leading four times for a total of 96 laps. In the final third of the race, Dallenbach dropped out while leading with a failed piston for the second consecutive year.

60 ) 1976  A.J. Foyt: The early stages of the 1976 Indy 500 featured a duel between A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford. Just past half-distance, rains hit the Speedway and the race was halted with Johnny Rutherford in the lead. The rain subsided, and track drying began. During the red flag, A.J. Foyt’s crew noticed a broken anti-roll bar link. With the repair being made, Foyt was certain that his car would now have a better shot at Rutherford. The rains came again, and the race was never restarted. At 255 miles, it is the shortest Indy 500 on the books.

61) 1977 Gordon Johncock : With a dominant car in the race, Gordon Johncock began to feel ill behind the wheel, suffering from the effects of heat exhaustion. Rather than call for a relief driver, he soldiered through, as his crew dumped buckets of ice cold water over him during each pit stop. Johncock had led 129 laps when his engine expired in a cloud of smoke just 16 laps short of the checkers.

62 ) 1978 Danny Ongias : A relative newcomer to the Speedway, Danny Ongias qualified in the middle of row one in the Interscope car. In the race, the ‘Flyin’ Hawaiian’ led from the green and dominated the first half of the race. Battling with both Al Unser and Tom Sneva, Ongias put on quite a show, leading 71 laps before his engine gave up on lap 145.

63 ) 1979 The Unser Brothers : 1979 saw the debut of Jim Hall’s Chaparral car that took design cues from the Formula One world. With Al Unser behind the wheel, the car ran well, leading in the first half of the race until dropping out. Now, with the thought of matching his younger brother’s record of three Indy wins, Bobby Unser took control of the race and began to dominate. With 19 to go, Unser’s car slowed dramatically with gearbox troubles. He nursed it home to an eventual 5th place finish.

64 ) 1980 Tom Sneva : The first man to qualify over 200 mph at the Speedway in 1977, Tom Sneva found himself starting in the 33rd and final position in 1980. During the race he charged through the field made it to the lead of the race by lap 74. In the end, his car was no match for the Chaparral car of Johnny Rutherford, and he took his third second-place finish in four years. Disappointed, Sneva remarked, “The car was good, but it looks like no matter how good I am, or how good the car is, I will always just be finishing second.”

65 ) 1981 Mario Andretti : The disputed finish of the 1981 Indy 500 remains one of the most hotly-contested arguments in Speedway history to this day. Coming out of the pits under yellow, Bobby Unser passed some thirteen cars before blending into the field. There was no call from the officials, and Unser cruised to victory. The following morning, Unser was assessed a one-lap penalty and stripped of the win. Second-place finisher, Mario Andretti was declared the winner. Following a lengthy appeal process, Unser was reinstated as the winner in October, some five months later. Andretti kept the winner’s ring, and still wears it occasionally to this day.

66 ) 1982 Kevin Cogan : Starting on the front row, Roger Penske’s young driver, Kevin Cogan, suddenly veered into the car of A.J. Foyt before the green had waved. He then collected Mario Andretti, as Dale Whittington, Bobby Rahal, and Roger Mears all crashed behind in the chain-reaction incident. “The guy had his head up his ass.” said an unfiltered A.J. Foyt. “This is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job up front,” added Andretti. Cogan’s career never quite fully recovered from the stigma of taking two legends out of the Indy 500.

67 ) 1983 Teo Fabi : Relatively unknown rookie driver, Teo Fabi, made headlines when he dominated practice and won the pole with a speed more than 3 mph faster than second-place qualifier Rick Mears. The Italian driver led the race until the first cycle of pit stops, when it was found that a faulty fuel gasket would not allow the crew to fuel the car properly.

68 ) 1984 Patrick Bedard : A writer for Car and Driver magazine, Patrick Bedard was also a race car driver. He had entered the 500 in 1983, finishing 30th. He came back in 1984, looking for a better result. In the race, Bedard crashed in spectacular fashion on lap 58 with his car tumbling through the grass in the north chute. He survived the crash despite multiple injuries. Going forward, he stuck to writing full-time, leaving his racing career behind.

69 ) 1985 Mario Andretti : The 1985 Indy 500 came down to an epic battle between Mario Andretti and Danny Sullivan. Andretti and Sullivan had swapped the lead several times throughout the day. When Sullivan executed a pass on Andretti on the 120th lap, Sullivan promptly lost the car, spinning it around. Andretti narrowly escaped hitting Sullivan’s out of control Penske machine, and sped into the lead.  Sullivan would come back from the setback, denying Andretti yet another 500 win.

70 ) 1986 Kevin Cogan : Cogan, still finding himself chastised for the events of 1982, was in contention to win the 500 in 1986. He had put a flawless pass on Bobby Rahal on lap 187 and seemed headed for an Indy win, and career redemption. A late caution bunched the field, allowing Rahal another shot at Cogan. Rahal passed him on lap 197, snatching the win right out of his hands.

71 ) 1987 Mario Andretti : The dominance seen by Mario Andretti in 1987 was unlike any seen in the modern era. He led nearly every practice session, and took the pole handily with a speed of 215 mph and change. On race day, Andretti was the class of the field, and had overhauled the back of the field by lap seven.  After leading 170 laps, Mario’s car began to experience mechanical trouble, adding another chapter to the ‘Andretti curse.’   

72 ) 1988 Jim Crawford : In a race that was dominated by Penske cars, Scottish driver Jim Crawford nearly stole the show. Starting 19th, Crawford drove a clean race, and found himself leading on the 100th lap. Later in the event, with Mears holding a comfortable lead, Crawford was the benefactor of USAC’s indecision on a penalty for Emerson Fittipaldi. Running third, he found himself elevated to second when Emmo was served with a penalty for passing under the yellow. USAC changed their mind, dropping Crawford back to third, and then back to second when they second-guessed their own decision. It all became academic when Crawford spun on the track, eventually finishing in 9th place.

73 ) 1989 Al Unser Jr.: Emerson Fittipaldi dominated much of the the 1989 race, but he found himself second to Al Unser Jr heading into the final two laps. Coming up on lapped traffic,  Fittipaldi dove down on the younger Unser to grab the lead. The two cars touched, and Little Al was sent into the wall as Fittipaldi took the win. Unser Jr. walked up to the apron and gave Fittipaldi a thumbs up, congratulating him on a battle well-fought.

74 ) 1990 Emerson Fittipaldi : After his 1989 win with Patrick/Ganassi, Fittipaldi signed with Team Penske for 1990. He dominated much of the race, but found that his car faded in the late stages, as Bobby Rahal and Arie Luyendyk battled for the win.

75 ) 1991 Michael Andretti: The son of a legend, Michael Andretti, was carving out his own legacy in racing history. The 1991 500 goes down as one of the most exciting on record featuring an epic, edge-of-your-seat, duel between Rick Mears and the younger Andretti in the closing stages. Michael executed an outside pass in turn one for the lead on Mears that observers deemed ‘impossible.’ Not to be outdone, one lap later, Mears repeated the very same move on Andretti and sped off to his fourth Indy win.


I hope you have enjoyed this trip through history. Click here for the next segment. Chapter 4: 1992-2015

Image: IMS Photo

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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