Veteran Al Unser, driving a brand new Chaparral that had been entered by a rookie owner, led most of the way to win his third Indianapolis 500
June 04, 1978

Each May it comes back to life: a great rough beast, howling, snarling and belching. Each May it must be tamed, and it is in the style of that taming that the drama of the Indianapolis 500 takes shape.

Last Sunday the shape was sleek and cerebral, fraught with strategic overtones. There was little of the blood-and-burnt-rubber èlan of earlier races, though the 500 miles sizzled at times with 190-mph speeds.

The man who tamed the brute proved to be one who was long familiar with the craft—Al Unser of Albuquerque, winner at Indy in 1970 and '71 but considered a long shot at best this 500. For the second straight year, pole sitter Tom Sneva, driving for the polished Roger Penske organization, finished second, and was the only one credited with being on the same lap with Unser's First National City Lola/Chaparral. Other favorites fell back or out for one reason or another. A.J. Foyt got no closer to the front than seventh where he finished. Bobby Unser was sixth, Gordon Johncock third, Johnny Rutherford 13th. Janet Guthrie, the only woman in the field, drove a steady, smooth, unspectacular but typically competent race to finish eighth, a performance that may finally silence Indy archtraditionalists.

Ironically, it was Penske, whose cars constituted the greatest threat to Unser, who had predicted Al's victory. The night before the race, Penske stood and fidgeted in the humid darkness in front of the Speedway Motel outside of Turn Two. His blue suit was crisp as always, but the dark tie hung loose at his throat. With Sneva and Rick Mears, both his drivers, on the front row, Penske was in the best position of any car owner to play Clyde Beatty in this year's circus. Out in the gloom, the beast muttered, letting off intermittent bellows (firecrackers) as is its wont. Sirens rose and fell on 16th Street. A whiff of dope and stale beer drifted past on a wayward breeze, then recoiled and fled when it bumped into Penske's cologne.

"With Mario all the way at the back of the pack because he didn't qualify the car himself," Penske was saying about Andretti, the star driver of his third car, "it would be pointless to have him charge. He could get knocked out in traffic. He'll lay back and pick his shots, and if the race goes the distance he should be up with the leaders at the end. The first row will be a drag race at the start between Sneva and Danny Ongais. I told Mears to let them race, just drop back in and stay up near the front. Foyt will charge sure enough—being in the seventh row isn't as bad as being in the last row, like Mario. But the guy I'm really afraid of is Al Unser in Jim Hall's car. He's done it before, and the car is quick and steady, and it could darn well be ready."

It was—and so was Al when the green flag dropped on the day before his 39th birthday. It had been a long time between victories. Unlike his older brother Bobby, also a two-time winner, Al drives with a cool, unspectacular persistence, the kind that makes for dull races but big purses when the car holds together. Still, Unser's win was doubly surprising because he was driving a new creation designed by Eric Broadley of England and modified for Indy-style racing by former sports car driver and designer Jim Hall. Not only was this Hall's first time at the Speedway as a competitor, but the machine that Unser had qualified fifth, more than 5 mph slower than Sneva's 202.156, did not represent the best that Broadley and Hall had to offer. Another, more thoroughly developed car crashed earlier this year at the Texas International Speedway—a wipeout that Unser admitted "put us really far behind. In tire testing with that car here at Indy in April, we hit 202 mph and I finally felt I'd be competitive again. Then came the wreck at Texas and I didn't think we stood much of a chance."

Not many of the 300,000-odd fans who fed the beast on Sunday thought so, either. The A.J. Foyt fanciers, always legion, pulled for their champion to take his fifth Indy, after having made it a record four last year. Ongais, the stocky former hot rodder in Parnelli Jones' stark black new car, had the support of the drag-racing crowd, and his starting position in the middle of the first row made a victory by Ongais entirely credible. Former winners Bobby Unser, Rutherford, Johncock and, of course, Andretti all had their claques.

Race day broke hot and humid, with temperatures soaring toward 90 but no clouds in the offing. A minor mystery was resolved just before the start. Since track owner Tony Hulman's death last year, everyone had wondered who would say, "Gentlemen, start your engines." Betting men gambled on a tape of the famous phrase, but it was Hulman's widow, Mary, who brought the beast to a roar, and acknowledged Guthrie's second appearance in the 500 by saying, "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines." Her delivery—for the benefit of connoisseurs of pre-race oratory—was loud, smooth and almost fierce.

At the fall of the flag, the drag race Penske had predicted became a screaming reality. Ongais showed the USAC drivers how the quarter-milers do it: he leaped ahead even as Starter Pat Vidan began his swing with the green flag, and by the time the front-row cars reached the scoring pylon 100 yards downtrack, he had a three-car-length lead.

But Penske's crystal ball must have been clouded when it came to Andretti. Mario charged. Disappearing into Turn One on the first lap, he gobbled up the slowpokes like a growing boy in a gooseberry patch. Coming around again, he had reached 23rd place, up 10 spots from the start. By the eighth lap, despite a two-lap time-out for a yellow flag, he lay 16th, and on lap 19 he nipped ahead of Foyt, who had scarcely been lazing along.

For a brief moment, Mario looked like the man who would tame the Speedway, but his surge into ninth place would be as far as he climbed. On the next lap, he coasted into the pits with electrical problems and a dead engine. Chief mechanic Jim McGee quickly replaced the coil and the car came alive again—seven minutes and six seconds too late. Though he was eight laps down, Andretti drove as fast as the leaders and eventually regained ninth. Then near the end of the race his engine refused to rev as high as it should, and he dropped back to 12th at the checkered flag.

Two caution periods triggered by stalls and spinouts, courtesy of Sheldon Kinser, had allowed Sneva to stay on Ongais' tail in the early going, and when the green light came on after the second, Sneva snapped ahead of Ongais for a momentary lead. But by the time they reached Turn Three at the far end of the backstretch, Danny had recaptured the lead. That pattern held for most of the race's first half. Ongais clearly had the straightaway edge in the two-car duel, while Sneva was quicker in the corners, and in the pits. Penske had drilled his pit crews with a discipline that would have delighted Frederick the Great.

But this was a strong field, with fully eight cars capable of taking the lead should either Ongais or Sneva falter. The 33 qualifiers had set a record with an average speed of 192.584 mph—a shade faster than the mark set by the cars that ran in the wreck-marred 1973 race. Back of the dueling leaders lay a pack of watchers and waiters, and among them was Al Unser. By the 70th lap he was ready to make his move.

"Even last night I was very worried about the chassis setup," Al said later of his Chaparral. "I didn't want to take any chances in the early laps for fear of bad handling, but as we wore along I knew she was holding real good."

Unser screwed up the boost in his turbocharger—a cockpit maneuver that increases horsepower but decreases gas mileage—and blew past first Sneva and then Ongais. With 75 of 200 laps gone, Roger Penske's dire forecast of the night before had come true.

Turning laps in the high 180-mph range and occasionally bursting past 190, Al opened a lead that had grown to 23 seconds by the time he neared the race's halfway mark. "The car kept getting better and better," he said. "I could see Sneva's signal board when the pit crew flashed him his speeds, and I knew he was turning laps at 190, but all I really knew was that I was passing everyone. I was pretty certain we had enough fuel left to finish the 500 miles, and probably enough to turn up the boost even higher."

Still, half a race in the bag does not a Borg-Warner Trophy make, as many a leader has learned through the years. Ongais was still holding a steady second, with Sneva and Johncock also on the same lap with Unser. Yellow caution periods—there were six all told—aided Ongais in his pit stops for fuel and tires, and with less than one-third of the race to go, Al's fat lead had gone to Weight Watchers as he and Ongais pitted simultaneously with the race at full speed. This was one of those classic pit-crew duels that delight the true Indy fan—a man who has nicked many a knuckle working on his own car. Both cars boiled into the pit road and braked only at the last instant. Wrenches thumped, methanol whooshed into the 40-gallon fuel tanks and then they were off again. This time around, Unser's lead was only 5.8 seconds. But this was to be Ongais' last gasp. With 55 laps to go—137½ miles—Ongais' engine suddenly spurted a gout of blue smoke. His turbocharger had popped, and the car was finished after a fine and nearly victorious day.

With Ongais gone, that left only Sneva on the same lap as Unser. Mears, who had followed orders and run a conservative seventh, had gone out 41 laps earlier than Ongais with a blown turbocharger. Johncock, struggling every mile of the way in his four-cylinder-powered Wildcat, simply had not been able to keep pace with the leaders and their Cosworth V-8 engines over the long haul although he ran third or fourth throughout most of the race because of masterful driving. There was further frustration for Gordy. He overshot his pit on one occasion, and when his crew pushed his Wildcat back, Johncock was penalized one lap.

Gordy was not alone in being docked. Two-time winner Rutherford was assessed a one-lap penalty for a similar pit infraction during a stop to repair a faulty exhaust system, and Johncock's teammate Steve Krisiloff, who finished fourth, was fined a lap for passing a car when the yellow caution lights were on. As for Foyt, he had the power he needed, but he had no chance for a fifth Indy because his Coyote handled poorly and frequently stalled on pit stops.

The misfortunes and foul-ups of others aside, Al Unser continued to build his lead over Sneva on his own. Then on his final pit stop Al almost did himself in. Braking too late in his time-shaving rush, he overshot the pit and slammed into a replacement tire laid out by his crew on the pit road. The chassis of his red, white and blue Chaparral was badly bent just aft of the right front wing. "I came in too fast," he lamented later. "I came in too hard. I was fortunate to have a cushion over Sneva. That damaged wing could have killed us."

Sneva, lying 28 seconds—nearly half the track—behind Al, made one final charge. The margin shrunk rapidly—20 seconds, 15, 13, then fewer than 10. But time and distance were now Al's pals and his car had enough left to make it to the finish still in front, its weakened wing sagging perilously on every turn. "I didn't know I had it made until I saw the checkered flag fall," he said. "How do I feel? I tell you what, when you win this race it don't make a dang bit of difference how you feel."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWith the smoke that signaled a broken turbocharger—and the end of his duel with Unser—still drifting through the pits, Danny Ongais climbs out of his car.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)