By: Spencer Neff
May 23, 2019 | 10:40 AM
For 2019, Team Penske celebrates the 50th anniversary of their debut at the Indianapolis 500. In the last half-century, Roger Penske’s cars and drivers have won more pole positions (18) and race victories (17) than any other team.
This year, the four-car outfit has already gotten off to a strong start. On Sunday, Simon Pagenaud earned his first career Indianapolis 500 pole, extending the team’s record to 18.
With Penske celebrating their golden anniversary at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, Open-Wheels asked the fans which of Penske’s wins they wanted to be commemorated. For this week’s IndyCar Flashback, the fans chose the 1991 Indianapolis 500.
In a race filled with milestones, the winner battled through adversity for a history-making win.
Mears fends off Andretti for record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 win
The 1990s started off with record speeds in qualifying and the race, as track records were shattered in both.
1991 would get off to a rough start for three-time race winner Rick Mears. During “Fast Friday” practice, the five-time polesitter suffered a violent crash in Turn 1. Although he suffered wrist and foot injuries, Mears continued on.
A day later, Mears’ first crash at the speedway proved to have not affected his psyche. With a four-lap average of 224.113 mph, he earned his record sixth pole.
Rounding out a legendary front row would be four-time winner A.J. Foyt (who came back from a violent crash at Road America in September) and Mario Andretti.
Further back on the grid, there was more history made. By qualifying 24th on the third day, Hiro Matsushita became the first Japanese-born driver to make the race.
On Bump Day, Willy T. Ribbs’ month of frustration finally turned around. With less than an hour remaining, Ribbs bumped 1983 winner Tom Sneva out to become the first African-American driver to qualify.
After a 55-minute rain delay, the race finally got underway. On Lap 1, fastest qualifier Gary Bettenhausen and Buddy Lazier tangled in the south chute, ending the day for the latter. On pit road, the drama continued. 1985 winner Danny Sullivan rejoined the race after an early issue, while Ribbs’ historic day ended just five laps into the race with an engine issue.
Upon the restart, Mears continued to lead. On Lap 11, Andretti drove past for the top spot – from there, the Newman-Haas driver proved to be the early favorite. After Mario led 22 laps, his son and teammate Michael took control of the race on Lap 34 and led 71 of the next 75 laps (Al Unser Jr. led the other 4).
Early on, the race was run at a blistering pace – similar to the year before. On Lap 25, Roberto Guerrero and Kevin Cogan crashed in the south chute.
Although the two-time runner-up suffered a bruised shoulder, Guerrero walked away. Cogan would not be so lucky. The California native was taken to the hospital with a broken foot and thigh.
Also involved in the collision was Foyt. With many expecting this to be his last race, the legendary racer was given a standing ovation before heading to the garage.
As the race progressed under green (138 of the next 150 laps), Mears’ teammate and 1989 winner Emerson Fittipaldi entered the fray. Including a lap led by 1986 winner Bobby Rahal, the lead changed hands eight times over the next 150 laps.
When the Alfa Romeo engine in Sullivan’s car let go, Mears took the lead from Andretti during the ensuing yellow. With the restart scheduled for Lap 187, the stage was set for a classic finish.
Heading into Turn 1, Andretti made a daring pass on the outside of Mears to take the lead, using his cousin John as a “pick.” A lap later, Mears returned the favor with a pass on the outside of Andretti.
Just as Mears looked primed for the victory, Mario stalled near pit lane three laps later. After a four-lap caution, Mears sped away from Andretti and into the record books. In just his 14th start, Mears had equaled what had taken Foyt and Unser 20 and 22 starts respectively.
Despite leading a race-high 97 laps, Michael Andretti settled for second, his best career Indianapolis 500 finish. For the first time, Jeff (Michael’s brother) joined his father, brother and cousin in the race. The youngest Andretti was named Rookie of the Year. With an average speed of 176.457 mph, it was also the second-fastest “500” in history.
The 1991 Indianapolis 500 presented a time of transition for the stars of the race. Within three years, the front row of Mears (1992), Foyt (1993), and Andretti (1994) would all retire.
Since then, Mears has been heavily involved with Penske, while Foyt moved on to car ownership and Mario Andretti remains a major ambassador for IndyCar.
Despite leading 160 laps in 1992, Michael Andretti dropped out with fuel pressure issues. In 1993, he left IndyCar to join McLaren in Formula 1 but returned in 1994. Since retiring from full-time driving in 2003, Andretti has become a successful owner, with five Indianapolis 500 titles to his credit – second only to Penske.
After not running in 1992, Willy T. Ribbs started 30th and finished 21st in 1993, his second and final start in the race. In 2002, George Mack also ran the “500,” adding his name alongside Ribbs in the history books.
As for Matsushita – who finished his debut 48 laps down in 16th – he would compete in CART until 1998. In 1995, he started and finished 10th, his career-best effort at the track. With the impending CART/IRL split on the horizon, it was also his last of four starts in the race. In 2017, Matsushita’s countryman Takuma Sato won the race.
Note: Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our poll on Twitter to select this week’s IndyCar Flashback.
There will continue to be a poll on our Twitter page (@Open_Wheels) to determine the race profiled for IndyCar Flashback prior to each race weekend. Keep an eye out each race week for the poll to cast your vote.
Header image by Indianapolis Motor Speedway/INDYCAR.
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.