Indycar Lore – 1988 Indy 500

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).

 

The Second Race I Attended

If you’re currently an Indycar fan or just a fan of the Indy 500, a vast majority of us would recall with great reverence, that first race we attended and became hooked on the entire sensory experience.

How many of us recall the second race in a similar manner, however?

My second race came in 1980, one year after my first. 1979, while a fantastic experience and cementing a lifelong love of the speedway (and also strengthening my bond with my father), left me wanting in the racing department because my favorite driver (Al Unser) in what was the best car on that day (the new ground-effect Chaparral), dominated only to drop out with a minor part failure (transmission seal).

The following year I was even further disappointed to learn that Johnny Rutherford would be piloting that formidable and glorious yellow machine for 1980. Al had moved to a new team with a rather squarish, white (Longhorn) car spectacularly unadorned with sponsors and terrifically average on the speed charts all month. This was not a good sign for “my man Al”, I thought.



It was the dawn of a new decade. The newly-inaugurated president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, seemed to symbolize the promise of unity and common good needed for much of a country that was hurting from the recession years of 1978-1980. In a reflection of the times (which I continue to note to this day), the uncertainty people felt in the economy was also felt in the racing community. 

Much uncertainty existed for the USAC, fledgling upstart series CART, the cobbled-together CRL (Championship Racing League), and IMS. Tony Hulman had been gone less than three years and the power vacuum was being filled by multiple, divergent sources. 

Teams raced on though. Some preferring the traditional USAC trail which was in decline with cancelled events later in the year, and some teams joining CART and attempting to grow their own series. This was the original “split” that fewer discuss when looking at the history of open-wheel racing in the US. Despite the uncertainty, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes was an unquestioned titan and, for the time being, remained steadfastly on the schedule of both sanctions. 

Race Day 1980 was quite beautiful, hot, and sunny making that Pennzoil Chaparral gleam even more brightly than the previous year. I knew better who this no-name Mears guy was who’d won the race in just his second try the year before. The cast of legends were all there and fairly competitive with a myriad of chassis and engines as the dawning of ground effects seemed to inject some optimism into experimenting.  

The new decade seemed to give hope that the future in general was brighter. Around 29 eligible drivers and over 40 cars missed the field for the 1980 race which seems incredible to imagine in this age.



The domination that we were expecting of the “Yellow Submarine” in 1979 bore fruit in 1980 as Rutherford had a nearly flawless day at the lead of the race for 118 of 200 laps. Tom Sneva, who wrecked his 14th-quickest and already qualified primary Phoenix chassis in practice after qualifying, used a backup McLaren to drive from 33rd to 2nd, even leading the race twice for a total of 16 laps.

It was a day that wasn’t particularly notable for the racing, aside from Sneva’s excellent run from the back of the pack to 2nd and Rutherford gaining his third 500 crown.

While we waited to leave the infield parking location, my two friends and I left the three fathers back in the vehicle to go stretch our legs (and alleviate some of the boredom of sitting in a hot car going nowhere). Wandering about provided an education of things heretofore unforeseen by these eyes.

This would be the year that I (quite innocently) had wandered too close to the infamous Snake Pit of yore where my first-person accounts of the adult female anatomy would be made much more complete than ever before. And displayed in incredible fashion. Live and in color, the details of which aren’t exactly suitable for public discussion. Perhaps someday, if we meet and you’re truly interested, I’ll provide the event’s details.

My 12-year-old self could scarcely believe what we were seeing and I am still quite incredulous to this day. I’m quite certain that if our fathers knew what we were witnessing, they’d have preferred to keep us in the vehicle.

Also, of particular note was my first live-action brawl between adults. Only in recent years did I see a picture of this incident captured by the Indianapolis Star and posted in their annual flashbacks.  Part of me wants to discount some details of the event I saw as boyhood embellishment, but I DO have certain elements reconciled in my brain as correct based on this photo, so while sparing some of the lengthy details, I can say that I witnessed this moment of Snake Pit lore from a range of approximately 30′ which seemed far too close once all hell broke loose:


Again, perhaps someday I may regale you in person with my memories of this alcohol-fueled contretemps but safe to say, my second Indy 500 was nearly as memorable as the first, just for vastly different, non-racing-related reasons.




End of Season Thoughts, Part 1.


Following the conclusion of the IZOD Indycar Championship celebration, as viewed on Versus last night, I was left with several lingering thoughts, some positive, some negative, but all with the future of Indycar in mind:

1. Dario Franchitti has left no question on his status as Indycar legend. His two Indy 500 wins and three Indycar Championships are just the starting point.  He has proven over the course of the last 7 years that he excels with astounding consistency on ovals and road/street courses.  As cursory review of his career accomplishments will quite easily support this and his  latest Championship title shows him the best current example of all-around driver.  Certainly being on one a top-level (if not the best) team in the Indycar series throughout his career hasn’t hurt, but his delivering the goods in the best equipment is what keeps him in the best seats in the business.  He is deserving of every comparison to existing Indycar legends with names such as Meyer, Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Rahal, Mears.


2.The sparse crowds as seen (if seen) on the second-tier television broadcasts are horribly damaging to the image of the Indycar Series, and cannot continue beyond this season. The perception to a worldwide televison audience that ‘nobody cares’ instantly discounts and cements Indycar as a ‘strange and curious’ little niche sport at best. The great difficulty I see is that the action as seen in person is vastly better than the on TV product.  Having seen both, the only thing on TV that has given me those eye-popping moments experienced in person is the action captured by the panning in-car cameras. On TV, one often misses the scale and speed of full action, sound, and smells of these wonderful machines and drivers, traded for intrusive graphics, lacking coverage of on-track stories, and questionable vignettes.  Hopefully the venues and Indycar can begin work immediately on vastly improving attendance next year and TV will provide a more immersive and less distracted experience for it’s viewers.

More thoughts to come…

The Hallowed Grounds

Winter provides an unusual opportunity to see the speedway in its dormancy.

Part of a work-related responsibility is to travel to Indy four times a year and at least three of those trips will involve a waypoint through the Museum and gift shop.  In typical fashion yesterday, I had stopped through on my way out of town and, despite missing the museum closing time, visited the recently remodeled (and very nice) gift shop.  The staff was typically friendly, helpful, and even chatty.  I enjoy this little interlude while perusing the new stock and looking for kids gifts (that they don’t already have).

On my way out of the building, I noticed traces of snow on the track, near the walls in turn 1, the south chute, and turn 2.  I stopped in my tracks, struck at how I had never noticed this before.  Maybe I’ve never see it with snow present.  Very odd indeed I thought with some melting areas recalling the infamous weepers that would crop up nearly every race weekend in turn 3.  I also thought of a promotion photo used on the IMS website a few years ago with the still gorgeous old #32 Marmon Wasp on the snow-covered, front straight and how unusual that seemed. 

It also got my thoughts turned to the warmth of May and what lies ahead.  As I drove out I recalled that Al Unser once said he got chills every time he drives under the tunnel entering the track.

I got them entering and leaving.

Favorite Indy cars III

1970 – PJ (Parnelli Jones) Colt – Johnny Lightning Special
Perhaps the most styled and colorful of all modern eras at Indy, 1970 saw varied chassis designs and bright colors like never before.  Of those designs, one stands out for me which is also the race winner that year: Al Unser’s #2.
The last of the non-winged cars to win at Indy, this car repeated it’s feat in 1971 with Unser at the wheel again.  1972 saw the allowance of ‘bolt-on’ wings (not integral to the chassis shape) which vastly increased cornering speeds while limiting drag.  This Colt chassis was sponsored by Johnny Lightning, a toy car manufacturer was styled based on the company’s logo.  To quote Al Unser, “Hey, that’s perty!”

Favorite Cars of my Indy days…

1979 – Pennzoil Chaparral

The very car from which this blog derives its name and first I saw live in an Indy 500.  While reading about this car in Sports Illustrated (I think it was), I realized this car was the ‘next wave’ of Indy cars which was the beginning of the ground effect era.

Sleek and fast and in the brightest yellow than I’d ever seen, this chassis still holds my title for ‘best looking Indycar nosecone’.  My dad was an Al Unser fan (which pretty much made me al Al Unser fan), and for Al to not win in 1979 with this superior machine was disappointing to the extreme.  That winter I made my Pinewood Derby car in it’s color and numbering treatment.  To see it one year later with the angular red 4 on that nose and some guy named Rutherford driving into victory lane was, to me, a jab that the fates could’ve done without.  That Chaparral that sits in the IMS Hall of Fame museum will always be the No. 2 Pennzoil car in my mind.