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).

 

Here I Go Again

Once again, it’s that time of year that many of us struggle with. Mere hours after the checkers fall for the newest driver to add their name and likeness to the century-old legend, Indy 500 Seasonal Affective Disorder engulfs those for whom “364 days to the Indy 500” is quite possibly the saddest sporting phrase uttered at any point during the year. Instead of wallowing, I’ll somewhat wistfully recap my view of the 101st Indy 500.

Tres Amigos de la 500 – 2017

Aside from my raceday attire, for which my son grows increasingly unimpressed, and those of my two Indy 500 compatriots (who you may have seen in the IndyStar, et. al.), I’ve learned to simply take in the events we choose to attend as they’re presented.

Admittedly, the ominous daily weather forecast required that we have at least some idea of contingencies and ingress/egress plans. It was one of the worst Indy 500 weekends for weather forecasts I’ve seen in a very long time. Fortune allowed us some really terrific weather for being at the track and we were able to catch all the events and nearly all of the people we wanted. 


This year was my 30th race.


I didn’t have any specific plans to celebrate the milestone, other than my tried and true mantra of simply “being present” without trying to manufacture genuinely good times. 

In reflecting on 30 races I’ve attended, 1979-’80, ’88-’17 (except for 1997 and 1998 when I protest-voted with my wallet to not attend because of my view that the sport was fractured and severely diminished), I find myself currently relatively healed from much of the heartbreak and tragedy during the last 20 years. I grow more weary of that process each time I’ve done it but, after the thrilling race that was the 2017 edition, here I go again, starting to fall in love with modern Indycar racing and the 500 in a new way. 


Firstly, I am extremely thankful and aware that the Howard-Dixon crash in the South Chute was perilously close to a result that would have many again calling into question a great many things about the sport. I’ve made those thoughts and concerns evident on more that one occasion both here and via Twitter over the last six years, so I won’t take up that banner again, except to only state that we should all be well-aware that we were lucky in the extreme to have the result we did. 

During our slow progress through traffic back to our hotel, I kept thinking about this Indy 500, and the word that kept popping up in my head was “prototypical”. 

In more current terms of the racing anyway, the myriad of storylines and strategies coming into raceday, the speed, pageantry, excitement, and spectacle of it all seemed more natural and just as amazing as most any previous, culminating in 10 of the most riveting closing laps of drama I’ve seen in 30 races. Takuma Sato’s redemption from the slightest of miscalculations 5 years earlier was a classic heroic story which will only grow with time. 


It is perhaps a blessing and a curse that each race of this legendary event gets compared and contrasted to the many before it every year, but I revel in the fact that the old Brickyard seems to always produce something amazing and unpredictable along the way. 

The 101st running was no different in that manner. 

“Here I Go Again” is an oft-used phrase in music over several generations and genres to describe that degree of yearning and even helplessness one feels when experiencing a similar love or situation again that, for whatever reason, once ceased to be. So whether it be Ricky Nelson, or Whitesnake, or Salt N Pepa, or The Hollies, or Country Joe and the Fish, or Dolly Parton, or Bobby Wright, the theme of loss and re-connection with someone or thing once precious feels most apt for my most recent experience with The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

I guess I have no choice now but to do my best to wait patiently for the coming 51 weeks to pass until the next Indianapolis 500.



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.




One small suggestion to those that run the Indy 500


I’ve been going to the Indianapolis 500 for many, many years now and almost nothing about Indy and it’s changes have caused me any angst.

Nothing except for one seemingly small but ignominious detail, which I humbly submit for reversion back to its previous form, for your review…

There are precious few truly outstanding and hallowed moments in all of sports and the 30 minutes preceding the drop of the green flag of the Indy 500 is one of them.  Much like the reverence given the Masters grounds, or the call to post of the Kentucky Derby, those final moments leading to the command to start engines is truly stuff of American legend and should be treated as such.  The herky-jerk schedule of today does a disservice to one of the greatest traditions in all of sports and is only, I presume, due to the television’s coverage demands for last-minute commerical inserts before the green flag.  This, to me, is simply appalling.

It is in the spirit of the highest traditions that I submit to revert back to the days (as recently as the late 90s) when the television coverage did not dictate the flow of those traditional proceedings: The National Anthem, America the Beautiful (lets shelve the God Bless America for now, please), the Invocation, the playing of Taps, the Flyover, Back Home Again in Indiana (long live Jim Nabors), Balloon Release, and “Start Your Engines” (merely typing this recalls goosebump-producing moments of Indys past).

There always was an order for these events which created a palpable crescendo of anticipation, nerves, and excitement that culminates in the sensory overload of 33 cars screaming by on that first lap.  It’s almost as if summer itself waits reverently for this moment before signaling the official end of spring.

I propose that any schedule be continuous as in years past and that should live TV coverage desire to catch all the aforementioned grand moments, that it be commercial-free from The National Anthem through at least the first 5 laps or so.  

TV, you must rethink your desire to dictate for it is not you that made this tradition, you are merely one of its witnesses.  You do not command the proceedings and I submit the Masters TV coverage as the example the Indy 500 should follow – even if for only 30 minutes.

Also, please remove the unnecessary pit road exit booth.  I sit on Pit Road each raceday and the mad rush to remove the staging, lights, booms, and talent after the command and prior to the green flag is both ridiculous and unnecessary.

Dear TV, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway asks you to do the aformentioned, humble yourself ever so slightly and show proper reverence for this great American tradition and its grounds by complying.  Your fans and your public (and thereby your advertisers) will thank you.

For just a dollar a day…

…you too could be going to the Race of all races – THE Greatest Spectacle in Racing – the one and only 2010 Indianapolis 500 , if you start today!

Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to, at least once, go to this esteemed American sporting event?

I do.

With only 175 or so days left until that glorious weekend, don’t put off until spring what you can begin today.  There can never be sufficient time to fully plan your traffic/parking/tailgating/debauchery strategies so I implore you to start right now, you won’t be sorry!

If you cannot attend, please consider finding and sponsoring a unfunded young race fan the ability to see it in person – it is a truly life-changing event for many.

Here’s my Dollar A Day plan if you start today…
– Raceday ticket – $80 (Pit Road terrace – the best value in all of sporting events),
– Fuel to travel from within a 500-mile radius of Speedway, Indiana – $50 (in a reasonable vehicle – assumes no Abrams M1 battle-tanks or ’74 Cadillacs although I have seen the latter abandoned and in flames on the infield in my time),
– Parking in some Speedway entrepreneur’s resident’s yard – $20,
– Food on the grounds – $12 (that’s if you stuff yourself),
– Souvenir program and starting grid – $10 (must have).
– One adult admission to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum – $3 (again, a ridiculously low price for what you get).

If your funds permit, I highly suggest the following upgrade options to the above plan…
– Fuel to return home – $50 although the afterglow of the race itself will have you considering a permanent move to Indy.
– One 12-pack of aluminum-canned American-brewed lager, preferably one of the ‘Light’ variations. – $7. (caveat: Under NO circumstances shall you purchase or attempt to purchase a styrofoam cooler for an additional $.99 for carrying said beverages – you will be better off carving 3 pounds of ice space from your 5-pound ice bag).  Even if you don’t drink, you’ll have the ability to easily befriend those ill-prepared imbibers seated around you with your generous sharing of adult beverages – truly a value which cannot be underestimated.
– Sunblock – $4 (always be prepared),
– Folding plastic rain poncho – $5 (doubles as seat cushion),
– Goodwill and high spirits – free,
– Singing ‘Back Home Again’ with Jim Nabors and 250,000 of your newest friends and racefans,

Absolutely Priceless.