By Christopher DeHarde, Contributing Writer
1991 was a pivotal year for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 75th running of the Indianapolis 500 would be run on May 26 and the IndyCar season got off to an interesting start as it led up to the month of May.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. was without a ride as the Alfa-Romeo program signed Danny Sullivan as its main driver, relegating Roberto Guerrero to the sidelines until Alfa-Romeo picked Guerrero up for the race. Unser Sr. was unable to find a ride with another team as a lack of competitive engines available sidelined the elder Unser. Meanwhile, Porsche shelved its IndyCar effort as Walker Racing switched to running Scott Goodyear full time and Willy T. Ribbs part time.
Jim Hall got back into IndyCar team ownership with John Andretti driving and they won the first race of the 1991 season in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia.
Arie Luyendyk was without a ride heading into the season as Doug Shierson sold a large portion of his team to Bob Teak before he closed the doors. However, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner found a new ride with Vince Granatelli’s team after Granatelli partnered up with Tezak. The partnership came to fruition in the third race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway as Luyendyk earned his second career IndyCar win.
May 1991 started with the opening weekend of practice being lost to rain showers, but practice began in earnest on Monday May 6th. Friday, however, was when the major action began to take place.
Rick Mears hit the first turn wall after a mechanical failure sent his Penske car into the wall in what was his first ever accident at Indianapolis. Mears then went out in his backup car and turned his fastest lap of the month, but his accident wasn’t the worst one of the day.
Rookie Mark Dismore lightly brushed the wall coming off of the fourth turn, causing him to spin and hit the inside retaining wall. His car bounced into the north end of the pit wall and the car came to a stop inside pit road. Dismore suffered a broken neck and didn’t race at Indianapolis until 1996.
Pole day began with A. J. Foyt qualifying for his 34th consecutive 500. Randy Lewis, the next driver to attempt to qualify, had an accident just after he started his qualifying run, delaying the proceedings.
Foyt sat on the pole for most of the day, surviving at attempt at his position by Mario Andretti, but Mears made a run for the pole just before 1:00 PM. Despite not setting a new track record, Mears was able to claim his sixth pole position at Indianapolis before rain eventually washed out the remainder of pole day.
The front row was set as one of the most memorable front rows in Indianapolis 500 history, but history was still being made as qualifying continued on the following weekend.
On Saturday May 18th, Hiro Matsushita became the first Japanese driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. The next day, with less than an hour to go in qualifying, Ribbs became the first African-American driver in the Indianapolis 500, as he bumped 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva out of the field.
Race day began much like the month of May began. A rain shower in the morning delayed proceedings by an hour, but the race got under way with Mears taking the lead at the first turn.
Behind the first few rows, Gary Bettenhausen got sideways coming out of the first turn but recovered, and in avoidance, Buddy Lazier spun and hit the wall with the nose of his car, relegating Lazier to 33rd place.
On the restart, Ribbs’s engine developed a misfire and the engine could not be fixed, making his finishing position 32nd. Only a few laps later, Eddie Cheever’s engine failed, dropping him out of the race.
On lap 25, Kevin Cogan and Guerrero got involved in an incident when Cogan’s car understeered into Guerrero’s, causing both to head into the turn one wall. A tire from one of the cars went across the track and Foyt was unable to avoid it, hitting the tire with the left front corner of his car, damaging his car and causing his immediate retirement from what everyone thought would be his final Indianapolis 500.
The first half of the race was dominated by Michael Andretti, as he led 60 of the first 100 laps. However, a cut tire made him stop early, preventing him from lapping Mears.
As the second half of the race began, Emerson Fittipaldi started to emerge as a frontrunner, but a failing gearbox halted his race after he failed to get up to speed following his final pit stop.
Michael Andretti remained as the leader of the race but would have to make a late stop for fuel. His opportunity for that stop came as a former winner’s run came to a close.
Sullivan’s Alfa Romeo engine expired with a large cloud of smoke trailing from his car as he coasted down the front straightaway. Andretti stopped briefly for fuel and went back out on track for the restart on lap 187.
Coming to the green flag, Al Unser Jr. was leading the pack, albeit one lap down, with John Andretti behind him, followed by Mears and Michael Andretti. Mears went around Unser Jr. and John Andretti before Michael was able to overtake Mears on the high side through the first turn.
Michael Andretti had the lead, and it didn’t seem like Mears would be able to catch him, as Mears didn’t really have any ability to challenge the leaders during the day.
However, the very next time around, Mears made a run on the leader going through the first turn. Mears did it exactly the same way Michael Andretti had done so on him the previous lap.
Mears actually burned some rubber off of his right rear tire while making the move, which wasn’t surprising given that his entry into turn one on that particular lap was his fastest entry of the day.
The race wasn’t over yet.
Mario Andretti stopped in a precarious position near the top of the main straightaway, bringing out another caution, allegedly so son Michael could catch up to Mears and have another shot at him.
However, Mears got a better restart and was able to pull away from Michael Andretti over the last remaining laps to win his fourth Indianapolis 500.
Behind the top two finishers, Luyendyk came across third, Unser Jr. was fourth and John Andretti was fifth.
The 1991 Indianapolis 500 was the final one for Randy Lewis, Tero Palmroth, Bernard Jourdain and Pancho Carter. Foyt would return in 1992 to finish ninth in his last Indianapolis 500.
1. Rick Mears
2. Michael Andretti
3. Arie Luyendyk
4. Al Unser Jr.
5. John Andretti
6. Gordon Johncock
7. Mario Andretti
8. Stan Fox
9. Tony Bettenhausen Jr.
10. Danny Sullivan