IndyCar Flashback: 1978 California 500

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Al Unser's 1978 Triple Crown-winning car.

The 500-mile race has been synonymous with open-wheel racing in America for over a century, with the Indianapolis 500 being the most notable event of them all.

IndyCar racing has seen memorable finishes, legendary winners and more throughout the history of these events. This week on IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at one such race, where one of the sport’s best reaches a milestone that to this day has yet to be matched.

Unser Survives for Historic IndyCar Triple Crown

Going into the 1978 California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway, the big focus was on Al Unser’s quest for the Triple Crown. The Chaparral driver kicked off his chase for the Crown by winning a third Indianapolis 500 in dominating fashion, leading 121 laps and winning by more than 20 seconds over Tom Sneva.

The following month at Pocono, Unser passed Johnny Rutherford with ten laps to go to notch his third 500-mile race win in a row.  Unser, who had won in 1977 at Ontario, became the just second driver in four seasons to win multiple 500-mile races in a season.

The Albuquerque native entered the September 3 event with a shot at history. On pole for the event was Tom Sneva, who had been dubbed “The Gas Man” in part for winning pole for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977 and 1978. He recorded the first one- and four-lap averages over 200 miles per hour in successive years.

Unser would start seventh in the 31-car field, the lowest number in a USAC-sanctioned 500-mile race in thirty years. Trouble broke out almost instantly in the race, as Salt Walther and Phil Threshie were involved in a crash in turn one that took both out of the race.

During the caution, A.J. Foyt and George Snider were forced out of the race with separate mechanical issues, reducing the field size even further.

Upon returning to green flag racing, Danny Ongais took the lead from Sneva and held serve until Johnny Rutherford inherited the top spot on lap 15. Attrition continued to mount, this time claiming the Penske machine of Sneva, who crashed in the first turn and finished 23rd.

After the caution, Unser worked his way to the front by grabbing the lead on lap 20. Unser and Rutherford would swap the top spot eight times from lap 14 all the way until lap 129.  Rutherford’s McLaren-Cosworth dropped out of the race on that very lap with engine trouble.

Unser would take advantage and continue to lead until lap 177. With 24 laps to go, 1973 Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock broke up the Unser and Rutherford dominance. Johncock and his Pat Patrick-owned Wildcat-DGS seemed destined for victory until a fuel pump ended his day six laps from the finish.

The veteran Unser snatched the lead from Johncock and never looked back, winning by five laps over Pancho Carter. The win marked not only the historic IndyCar Triple Crown, but also a record four straight 500-mile race wins for Unser.

Al Unser at the 1978 Indianapolis 500

Al Unser with his Indianapolis 500-winning car in 1978. He would eventually win IndyCar’s Triple Crown with that car.

Analysis

Forty years have passed since the incredibly memorable year for Unser. Here is a look at some of the race’s key players and factors, as well as their history since that event.

Al Unser
It would be nine years before Unser would return to victory lane in a 500-mile race, but it would again be a historic victory. Unser claimed his last win in the 1987 Indianapolis 500, the 39th victory in his storied career and a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500.

Tom Sneva
Sneva would go on to win his second straight championship that season, also being the first two for team owner Roger Penske’s IndyCar team. Five years later, Sneva would finally break through and win his first Indianapolis 500, with Unser finishing second.

In 1984, the Spokane native added to his impressive list of speed records with the first one- and four-lap averages over 210 miles per hour.

United States Automobile Club (USAC)
The IndyCar sanctioning body from 1956, USAC would lead its last 500-mile race outside of Indianapolis with the California 500. After the season, the race teams separated from USAC and formed CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams).

By 1985, the USAC IndyCar schedule had deteriorated as such that the Indianapolis 500 would be the only championship car race that they sanctioned in the calendar year. They would do so until the IRL (Indy Racing League) took over Indianapolis sanctioning duties in 1998.

Ontario Motor Speedway
The 2.5-mile oval would play host to a handful of IndyCar races before closing its doors after the 1980 season.

Following Riverside’s departure from the schedule in 1983, southern California would be left without IndyCar racing until 1997. In September of that year, California (now Auto Club) Speedway would open, hosting 500-mile IndyCar races from 1997 to 2002 (CART) and 2012 to 2015 (IndyCar).

IndyCar Triple Crown
Despite the USAC/CART split, the IndyCar Triple Crown would continue through 1989, with Michigan replacing Ontario.  No one has been able to match Unser’s feat in 1978.

Multiple drivers have come close, with A.J. Foyt (1979), Johnny Rutherford (1980), Rick Mears (1991), and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000) winning  multiple 500-mile races. After a 23-year absence, the Triple Crown returned in 2013 when Pocono was added back to the IndyCar schedule.

The comeback was short-lived, as Auto Club Speedway left the schedule following 2015.  At this time, the only 500-mile races on the IndyCar schedule are May’s Indianapolis 500 and the Pocono 500 held in August.

The Triple Crown may just be a note in IndyCar history now, but for years drivers chased history at some of the toughest tests in oval-track racing. With that, they continue to chase Al Unser’s historic mark from 1978.

Images courtesy of IndyCar.  Check out the rest of our IndyCar Flashback articles by clicking here.

Spencer Neff

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