Remembering the 1979 Indianapolis 500 …

Posted: November 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

By winning the Indianapolis 500 in just his second start in 1979, Rick Mears established himself as a rising star in Indy cars — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

By: Jeff Majeske —

Managing Editor /

Initially published on May 9, 2019


A personal reminiscence of a sometimes confusing and cranky May:

This May, the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s lone Indianapolis 500 victory is being celebrated, and rightly so because it is one of the most historic wins in all of auto racing.

But May marks another anniversary of sorts, one that is much less pleasant and one which Andretti wasn’t a part of, as he bypassed the 500 that particular year to try to defend his Formula 1 World Championship. Even though Andretti didn’t come close to winning another F1 title, he probably was glad he wasn’t at the Speedway that year.

May 1979 was a time of change for me. I was 11 years old and had only a few more weeks at Indianapolis Public Schools Flackville School 100 before graduating from the sixth grade. Next fall, I would be attending junior high at Willard Gambold School 108, going from somewhat big fish to guppy and all that.

As the school year wound down, interest in the month of May, practice, qualifying, and the Indianapolis 500 itself began to heat up. Although the term didn’t exist, I was a voracious consumer of content across multiple channels, reading all the articles in the Indianapolis News and Star, listening to the trackside reports on WIBC, and watching all the coverage on the TV stations.

For some strange reason, I couldn’t quite identify; however, my collection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, which I used to create the lineup for the race and play with on a braided oval rug, no longer held much interest.

I didn’t realize it then, but my days of playing with toys were at an end, a chapter of childhood about to close. So in some ways, the often-contentious nature of the events of 1979 made a perfect backdrop to this transition and the accompanying loss of innocence.

New words like injunction and summons joined my growing racing vocabulary alongside Chaparral and ground effects. Off-track developments were a vital part of the news, along with practice speeds.

A House Divided …

Unrest in Indycar, or Championship, racing that had been brewing for a few years finally came to a head before the 1979 race. The genesis for just about everything that transpired that May sprang from Dan Gurney’s so-called “White Paper.”

This particular document, which at its heart proposed a new and better business model for the series and in particular its owners, spurred several key car owners to break away from the United States Auto Club (USAC), the governing body for Indy car or Championship racing since 1956, and form Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) in late 1978.

This divide came roughly a year after the death of Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction after World War II and through his presence and demeanor unified Indy car racing – or at least kept the house more or less in order. Dissatisfied though they might have been, it’s unlikely the car owners would have staged this coup while the beloved Hulman was alive.

(In subsequent years, Hulman’s legacy in auto racing has come under fire. As the proprietor of the World’s Largest Single-Day Sporting Event, some felt, in retrospect, he should’ve been a more forceful leader and some sort of czar of the series, somewhat akin to Bill France Sr. in NASCAR.

This conclusion overlooks the fact that Hulman, although a very forceful businessman in his other interests, saw himself more of a caretaker of IMS and didn’t want the responsibility of running the rest of the circuit.  It also overlooks the fact that Hulman embraced the idea of a triple crown of 500-mile races at new tracks in Ontario, California, and Long Pond (Pocono), Pennsylvania. He threw his support behind both facilities and even tried to right Ontario Motor Speedway’s sinking financial ship in the mid-1970s. Alas, Ontario’s unique and, as it turned out, wildly optimistic financing plan doomed it to receivership after the 1980 season.

Essentially an idealized version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ontario, was wider than Indy and had an elevated backstretch so fans on the front stretch could see all around the track. Of all the tracks that have come and gone, Ontario’s demise is perhaps the saddest.)

The result of the schism basically created the Haves vs. the Have Nots. In the CART camp were Gurney, Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Jim Hall, Robert Fletcher, and Team McLaren. This “Big Six” fielded cars for most of the top drivers in the sport:

Dan Gurney

  • Mike Mosley

Penske Racing

  • Bobby Unser
  • Rick Mears

Patrick Racing

  • Gordon Johncock
  • Wally Dallenbach

Chaparral Racing (Jim Hall)

  • Al Unser

Fletcher Racing

  • Steve Krisiloff

Team McLaren

  • Johnny Rutherford

(Daniel S. Gurney was listed as the entrant of Mosley’s car instead of the familiar All American Racers. During this timeframe, Gurney joined forces with the colorful Teddy Yip and his Theodore Racing Hong Kong group. Hopefully, Yip provided some actual financial backing, unlike Chris Vallo in 1972 with the infamous Mystery Eagle.)

A.J. Foyt originally was part of the defectors but returned to the USAC fold before any races. Danny Ongais, with Ted Fields’ Interscope Racing, crossed over to participate in the USAC-sanctioned Pocono 500 later in the year, the only CART star to do so. The other key CART competitor was Tom Sneva, who was in his first year with Jerry O’Connell’s Sugaripe Prune team.

Each group, USAC and CART, conducted its own schedule and had made two stops on their respective trails before the Indianapolis 500 in May – CART ran at Phoenix and had a doubleheader at Atlanta while USAC went to Ontario and the Texas World Speedway.

In addition to Foyt, the USAC contingent boasted a fair amount of talent. Roger McCluskey, Gary Bettenhausen, Jim McElreath, and Billy Vukovich all had won Championship races, while Johnny Parsons, Sheldon Kinser, Tom Bigelow, Larry Dickson, and others indeed were bona fide professional drivers.

Unfortunately, their talent was greater than their ability to attract sponsors and money, leaving them to eke out a career with subpar equipment on the Championship circuit.

The assumption was that despite the divide and struggle for power, everyone would be at Indianapolis for the 500. Even though they were on the “other side,” no one thought the Unsers, Rutherford, Johncock, and Sneva would be missing when the green flag fell.

USAC, though, was smarting from this perceived insolence, and a couple of weeks before the track was to open tried to keep the entries from the “Big Six” from participating in the 500 because they were “not in good standing” with the sanctioning body.

CART, understandably, challenged this action, and soon the names of lawyers & judges were part of the coverage of the Indy 500. In the end, an uneasy truce was reached, and all competitors were allowed in.

Practice Begins …

Once the cars and drivers took center stage, things went reasonably smoothly the first week of practice leading up to the first weekend of qualifications and Pole Day. The car I was most excited to see was Al Unser’s Chaparral, rumored to be unbeatable. One of the first ground effects Indy cars, which used the bodywork as a sort of airplane wing in reverse to produce downforce to keep the car “stuck,” particularly in the turns, its appearance was as distinctive as it was effective. The Chaparral was a true blend of form and function, with eye-catching lines and bodywork.

Al Unser’s Pennzoil Chaparral perfectly blended form and function — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Even the new and advanced PC7 Penske Indy car looked outdated, or at least out of place, compared with the Chaparral. “Baby Al,” as he was sometimes called then in deference to his slightly older brother, Bobby, was the early favorite to win back-to-back again and join Foyt as a four-time winner.

To try to keep the old four-cylinder Drake-Offenhauser engines competitive against the newer eight-cylinder Cosworths, the turbocharger boost had been cut significantly compared with the record-setting 1978 event. The changes decreased top speeds by about 8 mph, so anything above 190 mph or so was a hot lap. The so-called pop-off valve would keep everything in order and level. Or so it seemed.

One afternoon after another exciting day at IPS 100, we went to practice, and everything seemed just fine.  Al Unser’s car was as fast as it was appealing, and most of the other top drivers took practice runs. After the early discord, attention had turned to pressing questions like who would win the pole, what speed would it take to win the pole, and what the bump speed was likely to be.

(School 100 is at 30th Street and Lafayette Road, just a bit east of the track. When we went out for recess or if the teacher opened the windows, we could easily hear the cars. The building is still there, but it’s now been converted to a senior living center.)

For the first time in several years, we didn’t go to Pole Day. I’m not sure why. I do remember the weather forecast wasn’t very good, and also, the country (and our household) was in the midst of a recession. It could be that Pole Day just wasn’t in the family budget that year.

As it turned out, the forecast was accurate, and there was no activity until late in the afternoon. Shortly after the mandatory 30-minute practice period got underway, Ongais crashed heavily and was hospitalized for observation. No one attempted to qualify.

The weather was much better on Sunday, though we still stayed home. So I grabbed the qualification scorecard out of that morning’s Indianapolis Star and listened to Lou Palmer’s coverage on WIBC. Palmer described the run and gave the speed for each qualifying lap, which I dutifully recorded.

As expected, Al Unser set fast time about an hour into time trials with a four-lap average of 192.503 mph, just a bit below his best lap in morning practice. Unser’s speed held until Sneva, going for an unprecedented third consecutive pole, nudged him aside with an average of 192.998 mph.

When Foyt failed to beat Sneva’s speed (or Unser’s, for that matter), it seemed that Sneva would, indeed, take the top spot for the third straight year. That is until Mears, the last driver with a chance at the pole, easily topped him with an average of 193.736 mph.

This was the first of Mears’ record six poles at Indianapolis. Looking back now, it’s not a huge surprise, but at the time it certainly was. Penske had let Sneva go after the 1978 season even though Sneva had won back-to-back national championships.

Mears was still an unknown quantity, though he’d sparkled as a part-time driver for Penske in 1978, earning a front-row starting spot at Indianapolis and winning 3 races. His first was particularly memorable, as he nursed his fuel-starved PC6 across the finish line at Milwaukee with Rutherford in pursuit.

Bobby Unser joined Penske Racing for the 1979 season and led the development of the all-new PC7.

Mears had driven the all-new PC7 in the 1st race at Phoenix before going back to the PC6. This left Bobby Unser to do the development work on the PC7, something he excelled at. Uncle Bobby’s efforts paid off, as he won 6 of the 9 races after Indianapolis – and perhaps should’ve won that year’s 500 (more on that later).

The Calm Before the Storm(s) …

So the first weekend of time trials wrapped up with 25 cars qualified, leaving eight spots up for grabs the next weekend. The two big takeaways were that Mears was faster than expected, while Foyt was slower than expected. The low man was Larry “Boom Boom” Cannon with a 180.932 mph average in a circa 1975 Wildcat/Offy.

All the CART “Big Six” had seemingly qualified safely. Krisiloff was the slowest of that bunch with an average of 182.955 mph, but three other cars were slower than that. Plus, of course, eight more had to qualify before bumping began. So he seemed to have a reasonable amount of cushion.

The only big name yet to qualify was Ongais, still recuperating after his crash. Some pit-side chatter linked Andretti to the backup PC7 that Bobby Unser was sorting out. If Penske were going to add a third car, certainly he’d entrust it only to a veteran capable of winning the race, right?

The week leading up to the final two days of qualifications followed the usual pattern: the hot dogs tuned their cars for race day, teams with cars in danger of being bumped brought out their backup cars (if they had any) and the rest strove to wring more speed out of their mounts.

Things Get Weird (again) …

As the 2nd Saturday of qualifying dawned, I was glued to the radio again, a scorecard and pen at the ready. The third day of qualifying in past years tended to be somewhat sedated – at least until late in the day. That wasn’t the case this year. Time trials continued unabated, starting at 11 a.m., with the usual amount of completed runs and wave-offs (remember those?) until Jim McElreath filled the field around 1:15pm.

Dick Simon started the bumping (remember that?) by ousting Larry Cannon with a solid 185-plus average. Jerry Sneva, taking over the car originally assigned to Neil Bonnett, knocked out Bigelow, then-rookie Dick Ferguson, in an Eagle-Offy, eliminated John Martin’s McLaren-Offy.

Ferguson’s run raised a few eyebrows. He had made an attempt earlier in the day but was waved off after a two-lap average at 179-plus. Ferguson came back about two hours later and was about 5 mph faster – a pretty big jump.

USAC loyalist Bigelow hopped in his backup car and found an even better increase in speed to average 186.722 mph and bump CART “Big Six” driver Krisiloff. Apparently, the track was getting faster and faster.

The qualifying line ended after Bigelow’s run, opening the track for practice. During the break in qualifying, USAC announced that Ferguson’s qualification was disallowed because of “a deliberate attempt to over-ride the pop-off valve.”

Ferguson’s disqualification put Krisiloff back in the field, albeit on the bubble. Rather than sit and sweat, Krisiloff withdrew his car (putting Martin back in) and qualified his backup car at 188.422 mph. As with the attempts by Ferguson and Bigelow, this was quite a bit faster than Krisiloff had been going. Still, given that Krisiloff was a veteran on a decent team and was usually a reliable qualifier, his speed didn’t seem too out of the realm of possibility.

This left Martin on the sidelines (again); he was joined by John Mahler when Larry Rice squeezed him out. All of this left my scorecard a mess, but certainly, it was exciting and interesting.

More Disqualifications …

The last day of qualifying began with the startling news that the attempts of Bigelow and Krisiloff had been disallowed because of similar shenanigans with the wastegate assembly. This brought back Martin (again) and Mahler.

Poor Martin was bumped shortly after qualifications started, with rookie Bill Alsup driving the much-desired Penske PC7 backup car, now No. 68 instead of 12T, indicative of being Bobby Unser’s backup car.

Ongais was released from the hospital, cleared to drive, and quickly knocked out Mahler for the second time with an impressive 188.009 mph average. A now-legal (presumably) Bigelow bounced Al Loquasto and Phil Threshie, with a great-sounding Chevy mated to one of Grant King’s modified Eagles, took out Joe Saldana.

The fight for the positions was dramatic and exciting as the field average climbed to 186.600 mph, quite a bit faster than predicted and, of course, would only go up from this point forward.

Saldana got his backup car going fast enough to bump Jerry Karl, then Krisiloff (again, presumably now legal) clipped Spike Gehlhausen. This meant that both Gehlhausen cars were on the sidelines, a severe blow for the small team from Jasper, Indiana.

Just to illustrate how much things have changed in the last 40 years, Krisiloff’s run represented the 62nd qualification attempt, and the 45th completed run. Let that sink in for a moment. This year, 36 car/driver combinations are expected for the 2019 Indianapolis 500, with the possibility of maybe three bumps being celebrated by fans and rued by certain car owners, like Penske, who now want a guaranteed spot in the great race in exchange for participating in the other races in the series.

Penske, either knowingly or unknowingly, was part of the final bit of skullduggery that marked the second weekend of qualifications. It seems that the Penske crew forgot (or knew?) that the engine Bobby Unser used to qualify his No. 12 Norton Spirit was attached to his backup 12T/68.

That was a big no-no, so Alsup was disqualified. It was perhaps the biggest attempt of deception attempted since 1973 when the Champ Carr team tried to disguise the already-qualified (but likely to be bumped) No. 34 of Sam Posey as its No. 31 entry.

Penske tried to explain it as an, uh, honest mistake, though anyone who’s ever watched the Penske operation for five minutes knows how precise and buttoned-up his crewmembers are.

There also was the matter of having Alsup drive this machine. Alsup came to Indianapolis with an old McLaren-Offy and did an admirable job. Still, the combination of older equipment and lack of experience made a formidable opponent for the low-buck team. Overall, it seemed kind of strange for Penske to grant this newbie this opportunity at this time.

Eldon Rasmussen did a fantastic job qualifying this car, the genesis of which dated to 1972 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Gehlhausen experienced the John Martin Two-Step, getting reinstated and then bumped (by Eldon Rasmussen) in a matter of minutes. Rasmussen drove what was termed a Manta, which in reality was a heavily reworked Antares chassis.

(The Antares debuted in 1972 and was purported to be the first Indy car designed entirely by computer. Even in the hands of a capable McCluskey, it was no match for the new Eagles, McLarens, and Parnelli’s.)

Gehlhausen reached a deal to drive a Patrick backup car, increased his speed dramatically on each lap, and bumped Dana Carter, brother of Pancho. Ferguson made a last-ditch try and might have set a record for qualification attempt with the widest variance in speed: His first lap was 181.378 mph (much too slow), and his last was 161.725 mph (even more much too slow).

Ferguson probably should have been flagged off after his second lap, when it was apparent he couldn’t muster the speed to bump Billy Vukovich (this would happen today). The rapidly slowing speeds left just enough time for Mahler, in this spare car, to knock out Vukovich.

Whew. Another crazy day of qualifications. Over the four days of time trials, there were 70 attempts and 51 run to completion – impressive numbers, especially considering no one qualified on the first Saturday. Despite all the twists and turns of the past 48 hours, the field was set, and we were (finally) ready for the race.

One More Twist …

The final preparations included getting the driver and car names painted on the walls of their respective pits and so-called Carburetion Day, although all engines were fuel-injected and had been so for many years. Johncock, who had kept a low profile most of the month, was fastest in the final practice.

Buzzing in the background were attempts by some teams to get their cars added to the back of the field, claiming that there were cars in the field that had qualified illegally. An additional qualifying session for the 11 bumped cars was suggested, but without a waiver from all 33 cars already in the field, this seemed doomed to die. McElreath and Rasmussen were the two holdouts.

Such attempts to alter or expand the field had been tried before, most notably in 1974, but usually withered and died well before the green flag for the race. Not this time.

Surprisingly (or not, considering how the month yet), qualifications were re-opened THE DAY BEFORE THE RACE.

Yes, really.

The compromise reached was amazingly reasonable, logical, and practical – three words in short supply during the month. In brief:

  • Cars that were bumped would be allowed one attempt
  • Those that bettered McCluskey’s speed average of 183.908 mph, which was the slowest speed, would be added to the back of the field
  • No one who already had qualified would be bumped

Conceivably, an 11 (!) additional cars could’ve been added; however, three were eliminated before the practice period ahead of Saturday’s final qualifications:

The No. 12T/68 Norton Spirit, which had been disqualified

The No. 81 Eagle of Dick Ferguson, which had used up its three attempts

The No. 7T of Fletcher Racing, which apparently had been disassembled (according to an article in Carl Hungness’ 1979 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook)

This made the qualifying order:

  • No. 22 with Bill Vukovich
  • No. 69 with George Snider
  • No. 19 with Bill Alsup
  • No. 39 with Al Loquasto
  • No. 38 with Jerry Karl
  • No. 95 with Larry Cannon
  • No. 20 with John Martin
  • No. 32 with Dana Carter

Veteran George Snider took advantage of the fifth day of qualifying to nail down a spot in the 1979 Indianapolis 500 — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Other than Snider and Alsup, the car-driver combinations reflected previous qualification attempts. Hoffman Racing, which ran with CART, crossed party lines to give Snider a shot in what originally was Saldana’s primary car. Snider was an excellent choice because he had an uncanny ability to get a car up to speed in a minimum amount of time. In 1973, he qualified a Foyt backup car in the final minutes of the last day of time trials. Snider’s “practice” consisted solely of one lap before his qualifying attempt. It was nice to see ability trump politics in this instance.

Alsup somewhat controversially got the nod ahead of veteran Bob Harkey, who had attempted to practice the car on Carburetion Day.

Vukovich and Snider took advantage of the reprieve and made the field. The rest fell short, with reasons ranging from inadequate speed to mechanical failure to accident. Alsup appeared to be a shoo-in, averaging 189-plus after two laps, then spun and smacked the wall in the short chute between Turn 1 and 2.

The wreck put a fitting cap on a frustrating month for Alsup, who was derided for not easing off a bit when he was a good 5 mph better than needed. Of course, such judgments are easily made from the comfort of the stands, couch, or press box.

Race Day at Last …

Unless you have a ticket, race day in Indianapolis means listening to the 500 on the radio. With the exception of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016, TV coverage is blacked out in Indianapolis and the surrounding area. Of course, there was no live TV coverage back in 1979. ABC had a telecast later in the evening to the rest of the country. Naptown residents had to wait a couple of months before even getting to see that.

So we tuned in Paul Page on WIBC and waited to see if we could see the balloon release from 2828 Kessler Blvd., North Drive. Usually, we did not, and I don’t think we saw them that year.

As anticipated, Al Unser jumped ahead, took off, and appeared headed to another back-to-back Indy victory in the Pennzoil Chaparral. But the Speedway is a harsh taskmaster, especially when it comes to innovative concepts – witness the STP turbines, for example.

And so it was for Al. After dominating the first half of the race, a broken transmission seal sidelined him after 105 laps.

Brother Bobby, with the only other car remotely as advanced as Al’s, took the point and continued the family domination, leading from lap 97 through 181. Then, just as he was poised to join his brother as a three-time champion, the top gear broke – something that seldom happens.

Rick Mears and Tom Sneva dice for position during the race — Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo

This dramatic turn of events handed the race to young Mears, who confidently guided his No. 9 Gould Charge to his first Indianapolis 500 victory and the second for Penske, who has added 15 more Borg-Warners since.

Mears employed what would be his M.O. throughout his career at Indianapolis – stay in the headwaters of the lead pack to be in a position to charge at the end. In retrospect, the Speedway abandoning the pacer light system for the 1979 race proved fortuitous for Mears’ career.

In brief, IMS management felt it was unfair for the leader to lose his advantage during a yellow-flag situation. So instead of a pace car gathering up the field and allowing everyone to pack up behind the leader, the Speedway devised a series of lights that were designed, in theory at least, to keep the cars at the same distance as when running under the green.

The system was hardly foolproof, and race drivers being race drivers found ways to gain an advantage. Like, say, roaring through the pits (which had no speed limit in those days). Or the leader moving at a snail’s pace under caution (as Bobby Unser accused Joe Leonard of during the late stages of the 1968 event. It all evened out for Uncle Bobby, of course, as Leonard broke down with nine laps to go.)

In Mears’ case, with the pack-up rule, he was able to come around to the end of the pack and avoid being lapped in some races when he went on to win, such as 1988.

Postscript …

Mosley finished third, his best finish ever at Indianapolis. Because of a scoring snafu, Mosley was presumed to be running quite a bit farther back during the race.

Janet Guthrie lasted just three laps in what proved to be her last Indianapolis 500 — Photo Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

This was Janet Guthrie’s final 500. She returned in 1980 but was unable to qualify. Her crew waved off a run on the first day with a speed that, as it turned out, would have safely made the field.

Howdy Holmes was the lone rookie to qualify, winning Rookie of the Year by default. He finished seventh in an older car, deserving praise.

Alsup drove for Penske during the 1981 season, serving as a sort of replacement Andretti, who left Penske for Patrick starting that year. Then Kevin Cogan replaced Alsup before Al Unser Sr. joined Penske beginning in 1983.

Mears’ victory broke a seven-year drought for Team Penske and kick-started a decade of dominance, with Mears adding two more victories (1984 and 1988) along with wins by Bobby Unser (1981), Danny Sullivan (1985) and Al Unser Sr. (1987).

USAC and CART formed an uneasy peace after the 1979 season. The result was that USAC continued to sanction the Indianapolis 500 while CART ran the rest of the IndyCar circuit. This lasted until Tony George formed the Indy Racing League before the 1996 Indianapolis 500. The fallout from that split was much more lasting and costly.

For me, 1979 was the year I learned about the business and politics of big-time racing. The headaches from each continue to crop up from time to time, some instances more painful than others.

Sources …

1979 Indianapolis 500 trackside report

1979 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook, published by Carl Hungness

1979 Indianapolis 500 Official Program

May 27, 1979, issue of the Indianapolis Star

CART Official History 1979-98 by Rick Shaffer

100 Years, 500 Miles, published by the Indianapolis Star

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