Ringing In The New At Indy

Off-road champion Rick Mears showed he belonged on the same track as the old pros by running circles around them at the Speedway
Off-road champion Rick Mears showed he belonged on the same track as the old pros by running circles around them at the Speedway
June 03, 1979

It was the cleanest thing that happened all month. The 63rd running of the Indianapolis 500 roared out from under the cloud of legal hassles and inter-organizational acrimony that had poisoned the scene since the beginning of May and became one of the finest, safest and swiftest races ever run. In fact, it was two races for the price of one, and each of them a beaut.

Overall victory went to a fresh face at the Speedway, 27-year-old Rick Mears of Bakersfield, Calif., in Roger Penske's red, white and blue Gould Charge. Mears, a onetime off-road-racing champion who was in only his second year at Indy, had sat on the pole, but for most of the going the lead belonged to either Al or Bobby Unser. Aside from three laps at the front during a spate of fuel stops early in the grind, it wasn't until the final 18 laps that Mears had the lead. By then, four-time Indy winner A. J. Foyt had worked his way back up from a long mid-race pit stop that had put him a lap down to the leaders, and he was the only other driver on the same lap with young Mears. But A.J. had overtaxed his engine playing catch-up and there was no way he could mount much of a final charge.

"I just don't know what to say," Mears said in the hubbub of celebration in the garage area. "This is totally unbelievable to me." As well it might be. It has been only eight months since he graduated from a school that specializes in honing race drivers' skills.

Usually, the main concern of fans and drivers alike as race day approaches is the flighty Indianapolis weather, and this year was no exception. But worse than the threat of rain was the legal situation, which culminated on Thursday with an army of process servers invading Gasoline Alley and serving subpoenas on nearly everyone in sight. Then on Saturday, to placate the 11 car owners who had brought the latest legal action—they felt the United States Auto Club had changed rules midway through the two previous weekends of qualifying and therefore had not given them a fair chance to get into the field—a unique extra qualifying session was held. Two more drivers went fast enough to enlarge the field from the traditional 33 cars to 35. The added starters were Billy Vukovich (who finished eighth) and George Snider (who went out on the seventh lap with a broken fuel line).

The weather turned perfect for racing by sunrise on Sunday—cool, clear and nearly windless. With former Grand Prix champion Jackie Stewart at the wheel of the pace car, the start was almost letter-perfect. Al Unser, sitting on the outside of the first row in Jim Hall's new Chaparral-Cosworth, showed his savvy at the drop of the green flag. He dived down off the high line through Turn 1 and hit the short chute in the lead. The new Chaparral had been the center of attention since it showed up at the Speedway. For one thing, there was its eye-grabbing chrome-yellow paint job, but more important was the fact that it was the only true "ground effects" car in the race, its underside sculpted to produce suction that not only held the car tight through the corners and reduced aerodynamic drag on the straights, but also caused less wear on the tires, which cuts down on time-consuming tire changes.

"The Chaparral is 100% ground effects," said one Chaparral team member. "The new Penske car, the one driven by Bobby Unser, is about 65%." The Chaparral's advantage showed clearly through the first half of the race. By the ninth lap of the 200 that comprise the race, Al Unser had opened up a five-second lead on Mears, who had chosen to drive a more conventional, older Penske, and at times his bulge stretched out to 15 seconds.

One of the more nagging worries during the early going was what Danny Ongais would do. The former drag racer knows no fear when it comes to speed. But he had hit the wall in Turn 4 during practice for qualifying, spent two days in the hospital and was forced to qualify back in the pack on the second weekend. Many Ongais watchers feared that he would make a banzai charge from his starting spot on the outside of the ninth row. But the rugged Hawaiian behaved himself and went on to run a smart, smooth race. Despite handling problems with his car late in the race, Ongais finished third behind Mears and Foyt and ahead of Bobby Unser, who came in fourth.

Another worry was driver behavior during the inevitable yellow-flag caution periods. In recent years, when the yellow came out, automatic pacing lights flashed around the track, and drivers were supposed to keep the same interval between cars throughout the caution period. This year USAC decided to borrow a leaf from Grand National stock car racing. When the yellow came out, so did the pace car. Thus, drivers could dive into the pits under the yellow, refuel, change tires, fix minor glitches, then charge back out into the pack swarming behind the pace car. This kind of ruling permits races within races, and a clever driver can close gaps in a manner that was impossible under the old procedure. The fear was that drivers might try to sneak past the pace car and pick up a "free" lap. But it happened only once. Wittingly or unwittingly, Vern Schuppan of Australia slipped past the pace car and was penalized two laps.

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While Al Unser built up his lead, the casualties began among the lesser machines. Janet Guthrie, normally a fine conservator of engines and chassis, was the first starter to go, with a burned piston on the fourth lap (Jim McElreath had been unable to get his car running long enough to even take the green flag). She disappeared into Gasoline Alley with tears in her eyes, but then composed herself and took the disappointment, er, personally. Wally Dallenbach was soon to follow, but more spectacularly. With the yellow caution lights blinking as a tow truck dragged Cliff Hucul's car off the track with a broken engine, Dallenbach lost his right rear wheel in Turn 2 and limped into the pits with his wheel hub spewing sparks.

As the race approached the halfway point, it appeared that defending champion Al Unser would be home free for back-to-back victories, matching his triumphs in 1970 and '71. But no one is ever home free at Indy. Suddenly, Unser's Chaparral began spewing oily blue smoke through the corners. Unser pitted quickly, then went back out. This time a trail of flame burst out from the back of the Chaparral. That was all for Al. He had led 85 of the 96 laps the car had run. Race No. 1 was over. The sophisticated Chaparral had sprung a transmission seal, one of the most unpredictable sorts of failures and one usually associated with poorly prepared cars. Yet Unser, who had won four straight 500-mile races dating back to 1977, remained philosophical, at least in public. "It's a shame to have a race car as good as this one," he said, "and then to have something so small happen to put it out. But it's one of those bad days of work."

With one Unser down, the other took charge. Bobby grabbed the lead, with Mears right behind him, and Race No. 2 was on. Tom Sneva and Foyt lay a bit farther back, with Ongais closing in on them. Bobby Unser had started on the inside of the second row, but he hadn't looked particularly quick in practice. Evidently, he was saving it for the real thing. Turning laps in excess of 187 mph, he burned through the groove as if on rails.

Meanwhile, back in the pits, another of the Speedway's patented frustration scenes was being played. Two-time winner Johnny Rutherford had been running a canny race and, using the yellow caution periods to full advantage, he had made his way up to third place. Then, pulling out of the pits under the yellow flag that had been caused by Al Unser's flameout—crunch-o.

"I shifted into fourth and there was nothing," said Gentleman Johnny. While Rutherford waited in the car for 31 minutes his crew fixed the transmission. "I started counting the laps people were running," said Rutherford, "but I gave that up after 10 or so." The car did get back out, and Rutherford finished in 18th place, completing 168 laps.

By the three-quarter mark, Penske was beginning to permit himself a three-quarter smile. With his cars in train, a Bobby & Rick Choo-Choo, and with no one else on the same lap, it began to appear—well—just possible. Penske has been competing at Indy for 10 years, bringing top sponsors into the sport and a standard of excellence unmatched in any form of motor racing, yet his only victory in the race came in 1972, with the smooth hands of the late Mark Donohue at the wheel. For that reason alone, a victory would be sweet indeed. But with the added factor of Penske's being one of the leaders of Championship Auto Racing Teams, the organization that is challenging USAC for control of Indy car racing, it would be pure ambrosia.

Still, not far to the rear lurked three very real threats: Ongais, Foyt and Sneva. Then Larry Rice put his car into the wall and emerged unhurt simultaneously with the yellow flag. When the green came back on, Bobby's lead over Mears had shrunk from nine to two seconds. A few laps later and the orange No. 14 of A. J. Foyt squeezed by Unser. But that merely got A.J. back on the same lap as the leaders. Foyt's car had stalled while taking on fuel midway through the race and he had lost 49 seconds in the pits getting it restarted.

At this point, things really began to be tense for the Penske team. On Lap 183 Unser suddenly slowed drastically and went into the pits, only to quickly reappear. But his pace was visibly slower. What had happened to Unser was the same thing that had put Rutherford out of contention: his fourth gear, the high-speed running gear, had broken and was soon joined by his third gear.

Mears nipped into the lead, but if another yellow came out it would allow Foyt to close up right behind him. And sure enough, Sneva clouted the wall in Turn 4 on Lap 190. But it did Foyt no good. His comeback charge had been too much for his Cosworth engine and it had swallowed a valve. Now Foyt could be seen pointing to the rear of his car, indicating the trouble to his crew even as the field motored along at reduced speed behind the pace car. The green came on with four laps to go, and Mears nailed the race down. His average speed of just under 159 mph was four mph off the race record, but he didn't mind that a bit.

For more than a decade, Indy has been dominated by an aging band of overly familiar veterans: the Unsers, Foyt, Rutherford, sixth-place finisher Gordon John-cock and Mario Andretti, who was in Monaco in the process of defending his Grand Prix racing title. The average age of those former 500 winners is 42. It's a long way from the boojum trees of Baja California, where Mears competed in the Baja 1,000, to the hallowed "yard of brick" at Speedway, Ind. But Mears has handled the transition smoothly. And so had his family. Before the race Sherry Mears, his aunt, had been selling T shirts with THE MEARS GANG printed on them for $5; after the race the price had gone up to $10.

Another new face, and a most puckish one at that, also emerged from Sunday's melee. Rookie Howdy Holmes, 5'4" and 29 years old, came out of Formula Atlantic racing to finish seventh in his first Indy. As the man said, youth will be served. And after a month of unseemly wrangling, the Speedway was well served by youth.

PHOTOMears' older Penske car (9) outlasted the "ground effects" version his teammate Bobby Unser drove. PHOTOMears is the 10th man to qualify on the pole and finish first in the 500. PHOTOAl Unser's Chaparral was clearly the quickest car at the Speedway in the first half of the race. PHOTOUnser (left), who sought to win back-to-back 500s, despairs after his car conked out on the 96th lap.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)