By: Spencer Neff
January 3, 2019 | 8:30 AM
Updated May 8, 2019
IndyCar Flashback makes its 2019 debut. With over 100 years worth of historical moments to choose from, it’s often tough to decide which ones to profile.
This race has been etched in the annals of history for its late-race battle between two legendary racing names. As its 30th anniversary approaches this May, we take a look at that race.
For this week’s IndyCar Flashback, we take a look at the 1989 Indianapolis 500.
Fittipaldi Wins First 500 after Late Tangle with Unser Jr.
For 1989, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is repaved for the first time since 1976. As a result, speeds increase dramatically.
Not surprisingly, defending race winner Rick Mears would be the one to lead the field to green.
In his record-breaking fifth pole, Mears sets a new one- and four-lap record. The four-lap average speed of 223.885 MPH places him ahead of Penske teammate Al Unser.
Alongside Mears and Unser would be Patrick Racing’s Emerson Fittipaldi. Fittipaldi is also running the Penske-Chevrolet combo that proves successful for Mears and Unser. 1988 CART champion Danny Sullivan overcame a broken arm to qualify 26th.
Fittipaldi uses the outside lane to his advantage, gaining the lead at the start. On Lap 2, near-disaster strikes. 1986 runner-up Kevin Cogan spun off Turn 4 and slams into the inside wall. With parts spewing across pit lane, Cogan miraculously walks away.
Once racing resumes, Fittipaldi continues to pace the field before his first pit stop on Lap 34. The two-time Formula 1 champion continues to lead until another stop on Lap 88. Newman-Haas driver Michael Andretti emerges as a contender.
Andretti, whose father and teammate Mario had led during the first sequence of stops, swaps the lead with Fittipaldi eight times over the following 76 laps.
During this time, the race continue at a blistering pace, with only four cautions for 16 laps slowing the field in the 147 laps after Cogan’s accident.
On Lap 164, the “Andretti Curse” that had befallen Mario many times strikes a blow to Michael. The engine in his Lola-Cosworth expired, dropping him, out of the race after leading 35 laps, finishing 17th.
Galles Racing driver Al Unser Jr. led two laps under the preceding caution. Fittipaldi retakes the lead on Lap 166 and held serve for 30 laps. With five laps to go, Unser Jr. dove to the inside of Fittipaldi and took the lead in his Lola-Chevy.
Over the next three laps, Unser Jr. holds a solid lead over Fittipaldi. With two laps to go, the pair hits lapped traffic. Fittipaldi returns the favor to Unser Jr for his earlier pass, but the two make contact.
Unser Jr. spins and crashes into the Turn 3 wall. Meanwhile, Fittipaldi speeds toward the caution flag, the white flag and the victory.
For the second year in a row, the Indianapolis 500 ends under yellow. Fittipaldi becomes the first foreign-born winner since Graham Hill in 1966. The victory also became significant in the payday. 1989 marks the first year the winner’s purse tops the $1 million mark.
Fittipaldi’s win would also hold special value for his car owners. Pat Patrick visited victory lane for the third and final time as a car owner at Indianapolis.
One of the team’s co-owners, Chip Ganassi, began to field his own team in 1990 . Today, Ganassi boasts one of the most successful teams in racing, all thanks in part to Roger Penske’s team, who rivals Ganassi as one of IndyCar’s perennial contenders.
The lessons of 1989 serve Unser Jr. well in 1992. That year, he held off Scott Goodyear in the closest finish ever, winning his first Indianapolis 500 by .043 seconds.
Two years later, Fittipaldi and Unser Jr became teammates at Penske Racing. Unser Jr won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and Fittipaldi led 145 before crashing out late.
Unser went on to win the race and the CART title. A year later, both drivers failed to qualify for the race. It would be Fittipaldi’s last. Unser Jr. returned in 2000 and made his final appearance in 2007.
As for Fittipaldi’s legacy, the main story is the continued influx of Brazilian drivers. Since 1989, Fittipaldi added another win in 1993.
Wins by Helio Castroneves (2001-02, 2009), Gil de Ferran (2003) and Tony Kanaan (2013) have made Brazil the second-winningest foreign nationality for the Indianapolis 500.
Lastly, the financial significance of the 1989 race. The purse Fittipaldi brought home in 1989 swelled to $3,048,005 for 2009 winner Helio Castroneves. Castroneves’ purse still holds the record.
As with many races, the 1989 Indianapolis 500 is most remembered for its final laps. However, that barely begins to tell the story of its place in history.
Header Image by buckeyes.smugmug.com
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.