By Christopher DeHarde, Contributing Writer
On April 2nd, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Phoenix International Raceway for the first time since 2005, and it is with this upcoming race that we will take a look back at the start of another era in open wheel racing’s history at Phoenix.
CART was formed in late 1978 as a response to USAC’s rejection of a change in philosophy for top level open wheel racing in America. As such, CART proceeded to host its own races in 1979 that were sanctioned by the SCCA as CART was not a member of ACCUS, the American liaison to the world motorsports governing body.
The first race for CART, the Arizona Republic/Jimmy Bryan 150, was at Phoenix International Raceway on March 11th and featured 21 drivers taking the green flag. All but Bill Alsup had taken part in previous USAC champ car races.
The race was the first for the new Penske PC-7, the first ground effects Indy car. New side pods were affixed to the cars of Bobby Unser and Rick Mears, and for Unser they helped him secure pole position with Tom Sneva alongside. Johnny Rutherford and Danny Ongais filled out row two while Mears and future CART chief steward Wally Dallenbach occupied row three.
The first caution in CART competition came on the second lap of the race, as future 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Vern Schuppan broke a universal joint and went off in the first turn.
The field was briefly slowed when another car stalled on lap 15, but the green was out two laps later. Unser maintained the lead until his first pit stop on lap 64, when Gordon Johncock took over the top spot.
Johncock’s lead was short lived as pitted the next time around. Soon after his pit stop, the caution flag waved, and Unser regained the lead for the next 20 laps.
Danny Ongais picked up the lead on lap 87, but his engine went south late in the race and he finished 15th after his engine blew, causing the race’s final caution.
Ongais’s dismay was Johncock’s gain, as Johncock completed 150 laps first over Mears, Rutherford, and brothers Al and Bobby Unser completing the top five.
Four cars finished on the lead lap while fourteen cars finished the race and all retirements were mechanical.
There were seven different chassis makers in the first CART race with eight different chassis. There were two Penske PC-6s and two Penske PC-7s, leading to the discrepancy between chassis and chassis makers.
This was the first time a Penske chassis won when it wasn’t owned by Roger Penske.
There were three different engines in the race. The Offenhauser powered seven cars with Larry Rice leading them home in tenth, completing 143 laps. Tom Frantz drove the singular DGS Offenhauser to a 14th place finish and was flagged as the last car running with 139 laps completed. Cosworth filled out the field and would win every CART race in 1979.
1. Gordon Johncock
2. Rick Mears
3. Johnny Rutherford
4. Al Unser
5. Bobby Unser
6. Mike Mosley
7. Wally Dallenbach
8. Tom Bagley
9. Lee Kunzman
10. Larry Rice