This week on IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at one of the most interesting Indianapolis 500s of the last 40 years. This race is remembered as much for off-track controversy as the on-track action. The 1979 500 would be the start of a new star at the track.
Mears Outlasts Unsers for First 500 Win
The lead-up to the 63rd running of the Indianapolis 500 had been turbulent, to put it mildly. Following the 1978 season, IndyCar team owners split away from the series sanctioning body USAC ( United States Automobile Club). The owners would form CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams).
Following several weeks of controversy, including an injunction to let the CART teams of Penske, Patrick, McLaren, Fletcher, Chaparral, and Gurney participate in the event.
The month of May at Indianapolis in 1979 would start with another controversy. Some teams had found a loophole within USAC regulations to allow more turbocharger boost. Three drivers would have qualifying times disallowed after USAC became aware of the modification.
USAC later reversed their decision, and the day before the race held a special qualifying session. When Bill Vukovich II and George Snider qualified faster than slowest qualifier Roger McCluskey, they were added to the starting grid. For the first time since 1933, more than 33 entries would comprise the field. One other anomaly of note in the race, Howdy Holes was the only rookie running, the first time since 1939 the race would have just one rookie.
‘Looking to defend his 1978 win and become the race’s second four-time winner, Al Unser swept by sophomore pole sitter Rick Mears and Tom Sneva to take the early lead. Unser, driving a radical new Chaparral chassis dubbed “Yellow Submarine” led the first 24 laps. History continued to be made on lap 28. When the caution flew for Cliff Hucul’s blown engine, the field would be gathered behind the pace car under caution for the first time in history.
Back under green, Unser continued to dominate. After leading 85 of the first 96 laps, the three-time winner would pit with smoke coming from underneath his car. Eight laps later, Unser would be black-flagged as smoke continued to accumulate beneath his car and a fire developed. His day would end after 105 laps due to a broken transmission seal.
The misfortune would prove to benefit his older brother. Bobby Unser would take the lead from his younger brother on lap 97. Seeking his third win in the race, the eldest Unser would lead from Lap 97 until Lap 181. Unfortunately for Bobby, he too would suffer transmission issues. Unser and his Penske-Cosworth continued on, but would finish a lap down in fifth. Mears would take advantage of the Unser Brothers’ misfortune.
The California native would inherit the race lead on lap 182 and not look back. Mears earned his first 500 win in his second start. Mears’ Penske-Cosworth beat four-time winner AJ. Foyt by 45.69 seconds as Foyt’s engine failed at the finish. Mike Mosley, Danny Ongais and Bobby Unser would round out the top 5.
Nearly 40 years after the race’s running, the 1979 Indianapolis 500 stands as the start of several new eras in IndyCar Racing. Here’s a look at some of the big headlines from that day.
The 1979 500 would be the start of an incredible run for Mears and Penske at Indianapolis. Wins in 1984, 88 and 1991 along with poles in 1982, 84, 86, 88 and 91 would tie Mears for the most wins and put him in sole possession of the record for most Indianapolis 500 poles all-time. Even after his retirement in 1992, Mears is heavily involved with Penske’s IndyCar team.
The Unser Brothers
Both Unsers would find victory lane at Indianapolis one more time before their careers were over. Bobby would do so in 1981 with Penske and Al would in 1987, again with Penske. Al’s son, Al Jr., would win in 1992 and 94 (the latter with Penske). Bobby’s son Robby would make two starts and finish fifth in his 1998 debut. Al and Bobby’s nephew Johnny (son of Jerry, who was killed in a practice crash for the 1959 race) also made five starts in the race, with a best finish of 18th in 1997.
“Yellow Submarine” and Ground Effects
The new Chaparral design would usher in the “Ground Effects” era of IndyCar racing. The design of the car would have its downforce be produced from the under tray.
This made cornering speeds higher and reduced the need for braking in the corners. Despite the disappointing results for the new chassis, owner Jim Hall would return in 1980 with the “Yellow Submarine”. This time, Hall would hire two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford. Rutherford dominated, leading 118 laps from pole and winning the race. He also would win the CART title that year.
Tensions from the split early in 1979 would boil over for several years. CART drivers and teams would still run at Indianapolis and it would count towards the series championship, but the race itself would be sanctioned by USAC. This would continue until after the “split” between CART and the newly-formed IRL (Indy Racing League) in 1996. In 1998, the IRL (now IndyCar) took control of sanctioning for the race, in addition to all other series races.
Beginning with controversy and ending with a new star beginning to etch his way into speedway lore, the month of May in 1979 will be known as a transitional period for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.
Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.