Ground(ed) Effects

Indycar and general autosport opinion

Something recently rekindled my interest in listening to The Talk of Gasoline Alley radio show in May wherein Donald Davidson takes calls about the Indy 500 and fills in many blanks, detailing races and drivers past with astounding clarity and recall.

It is, therefore, pertinent to note that I am, in fact, not Donald Davidson.

He is a living treasure trove of Indycar and Indy 500 knowledge, but that doesn’t relieve the rest of the universe of Indycar fans of the ability and, dare I say, duty, to spend just a little time in sharing our own personal moments and experiences which add color to the specifics of the race.

The upcoming race of 2018 will be the 102nd running and 107th anniversary race. I do consider myself a mere fledgling race veteran with 31 races and the 39th anniversary of my first.

From the vantage point of a single seat on race day, among the throngs of people, there is precious little that you actually get to experience compared to the expansive pantheon that is IMS. So many stories and experiences yet to be told.

These stories, tagged with #IndycarLore by myself and several other bloggers/fans began in earnest from a twitter conversation with “inside the ropes” Indycar veteran, Pat Caporali in 2011.  You will find some of our stories here and also at The Pit Window by Mike Silver, and Another Indycar Blog by Eric Hall. Check them out when you want to read more #IndycarLore about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Today I offer my small slice of trivia from the 1988 race which I, and a few hundred others witnessed in person: May 29, 1988 – Al Unser and the unlucky rabbit.

Hot, Hot, Hot! – There is always the tendency to embellish the details of an event for effect when storytelling, but it is totally substantiated that raceday of 1988 was the hottest I could recall. Air temps peaked at 98 degrees F and the percentage of humidity was nearly as high. Sitting in the baking sun with minimal clothing that day was a chore and I c an o nly imagine how the drivers suffered under two layers of clothing that day.

After the race, the air conditioning in my car failed, leaving us in the slowest of traffic marches, with the windows and doors open in an effort to collect any breeze and relieve the build-up of suffocating heat inside the car. While stopped in traffic, we paid a slightly exorbitant $1 each for an 8 ounce cup of warm water sold by some neighboring kids on the side of the road. Desperate times for sure.

A fifth 500 for Unser a possibility – Defending champion Al Unser retained a ride in 1988 with Roger Penske after not having one for 1987.  Due to a hard practice crash at Indy, Danny Ongais was deemed unfit to drive at Indy the remainder of the month.  Big Al got the call from Penske and along with teammates Rick Mears on pole, and Danny Sullivan middle of Row 1, Al started on the outside of the front row.

(c) 1988, IMS photo

A new race record Big Al had been near the front or leading for a great portion of the first half of the race, dueling largely with Sullivan and Jim Crawford. He lead briefly during pit stops on laps 31-33 and again at Lap 105 after Sullivan’s Turn 1 crash and Crawford’s pit under yellow. When the race went green on lap 107, Al need only to complete that lap in the lead to surpass the all-time leading-laps leader, Mauri Rose, to up his career total to 614.  What is not officially known is if Rose, from the great beyond, attempted to preserve his record by sending a rabbit onto the track in and into the path of the onrushing Unser and Mears during that lap 107 restart.

My seats on that sweltering day were squarely in the middle of the backstretch bleachers not far from the USAC tower just to our south and across from some maintenance buildings. At this mid-race point, we clearly noticed a rabbit hopping along the bleachers and venturing through the first fence to the concrete wall which lined the inside of the track. 

USAC tower right, Armco barrier wall opening, left (c) 1988, D. Zehr

Back and forth it ran and during the lull of Sullivan’s yellow, more fans began to notice the rabbit and cheered as it darted north and south often along the concrete wall. The track action had quieted a bit as pit stops were made, but the rabbit became increasingly frantic as the cheers grew louder from the stands. Soon the rabbit traveled farther south near a section of steel Armco barrier and the rabbit was now free to enter the track side of the wall.

Unlucky Rabbit’s Foot – Many became concerned as we knew it wouldn’t be long before the cars would exit the pits and be heading down the backstretch. The rabbit stayed to the inside of the track during the first pass of the pace car and field, but as people became more vocal and pointing as if to alert someone of the rabbit’s presence, the rabbit made its worst possible decision as it darted to the outside track wall and began to run against the flow of traffic. As the race went green on lap 107, the field came around a full speed and leader Al Unser’s front outside wing dealt a fatal blow to the rabbit which then passed under his car and was again struck by Mears’ front inside tire.

ABC TV footage screen grab

Unser continued on but his wing was damaged, making it loose-handling. Perhaps the ghost of Mauri Rose directed the rabbit or perhaps it was all a large coincidence, but Al’s day at the lead was effectively halted from the damage. Al continued to lead for another lap, but the yellow again came out for the debris (rabbit carcass) and was passed on the restart by the undamaged chassis of Mears.

All-time Lap Leader – Big Al would stay out as long as possible to remain on the lead lap instead of pitting to change the wing, so he managed to lead one more lap during a subsequent caution and pit cycle, then went a lap down in the pits due to an error with the right rear tire gun and nut install, effectively ending his chance for an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 title. Mears pitted under a later yellow for fresh tires, but stayed ahead of Unser before a final yellow ended the race.
That day was my first race as an adult and first I had attended since my father took me as a child in 1980 when the bright yellow Pennzoil car also won that day, driven by Johnny Rutherford.

Brickyard Legend – Al did finish third in 1988, with all other cars at least one lap down to Mears and second-place Fittipaldi. Al finished the 1988 race leading 14 laps. He later led in 1992 (4 laps) and 1993 (his final 14 laps) finishing his career with a record 644 laps lead. Big Al currently sits at or near the top of the major statistical charts for Indy:
Tied for most Indy 500 wins (4, with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears);
Third in Starts (27, to Mario Andretti’s 29 and A. J. Foyt’s 35);
Second in Miles driven (10,890, to Foyt’s 12,272.5)
Tied for fourth in number of races led (11, with Mario and Scott Dixon, trailing 12 by Helio Castroneves, and 13 by Tony Kanaan and Foyt).

 

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