Influential Races in IndyCar History: 1986 Indianapolis 500


Bobby Rahal wins the 1986 Indianapolis 500

Hello all!  This morning we would like to introduce an additional offseason series titled “Influential Races in IndyCar History,” a group of feature stories that highlight events throughout the life span of North American open-wheel racing.  For the series’ first entry we will take a look at the 1986 Indianapolis 500, a historic day for a host of reasons.  Check it out!

A Look Back: 1986 Indianapolis 500

From 1965 to 1985, the Indianapolis 500 became a cornerstone of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, including having the race broadcast on tape delay from 1971 to 1985. In 1986, the network would bring the great race to the next level, introducing live and flag-to-flag coverage of the event for the first time.

On May 25th of that year, the 70th running of the race was set to begin in front of a nationwide television audience. Mother Nature, as it turns out, was far from ready. Persistent rain on Sunday and Monday delayed the race until Saturday, May 31st.

The national audience was greeted by ABC’s Jim McKay, who had become a fixture for the race as ABC’s lap-by-lap announcer for the 500 since 1971. McKay would guide viewers through the pre-race but this year would hand off lead announcer duties to newcomer Jim Lampley. Joining Lampley in the booth would be Sam Posey, who had become the color analyst alongside McKay in 1982.

On the pole for the race was Team Penske’s Rick Mears, who earned his third career 500 pole while setting one (217.581 MPH) – and four-lap (216.828) track qualifying records.

Rick Mears' Pole-Winning Car in 1986

Rick Mears won the pole for the 1986 Indianapolis 500 with a then-record speed of 216.828 MPH

Prior to the start of the race, 1983 winner Tom Sneva crashed in turn two, prompting a half-hour clean-up delay. Once the race began, Kraco Racing’s Michael Andretti stormed out front and paced the field for the first 42 laps of the race. It would mark the first laps led in the Indianapolis 500 for the second-generation Andretti, who was making his third start.

The first half of the race set a blistering pace, slowed by only two yellow flags and no accidents. After Rich Vogler crashed in turn 3 on lap 135, the leaders all came in to pit. Among them was Bobby Rahal, who started fourth and had led 52 of the 135 laps contested, including the prior 33. Rahal’s team ran into some misfortune on the ensuing pit stop. Their left-front tire, which to that point had not been replaced, was mistakenly left on during the pit stop.

Aided by the yellow flag conditions, Rahal pitted again and only fell from first to fourth. Mears would lead the next 30 laps before another caution due to the stalled car of Roberto Moreno.

Mears led the way until relinquishing the lead to Rahal on lap 187 via a spectacular move on the backstretch, aided by the lapped car of rookie Randy Lainier. Rahal’s time at the front proved to be short-lived. Patrick Racing’s Kevin Cogan used a daring outside pass of Mears and then a thrilling pass inside of Rahal on the front stretch to assume the top spot for the second time in the race.

Cogan would lead the next seven laps, but 1985 Rookie of the Year Arie Luyendyk crashed on the front stretch and brought out the race’s sixth and final yellow flag.

One lap before the green flag was to be waved for a decisive two-lap shootout, Posey dialed up Cogan’s radio to do a quick interview before the racing resumed. Cogan was understandably occupied with finishing the race and potentially redeeming himself from a controversial crash at the start of the 1982 500. The reply to Posey’s request was a quick “I’m kind of busy right now, Sam. I’ll talk to you afterwards.” Cogan later explained that he was experiencing issues with his turbocharger boost and was focused on the impending restart.

As USAC starter Duane Sweeney waved the green flag with two laps to go, Rahal got a strong jump on Cogan for the restart. Rahal used the restart to stretch out his lead and leave Cogan and Mears to fight for second.

Bobby Rahal leads the 1986 Indianapolis 500

Bobby Rahal leads the field during the 1986 Indianapolis 500.

Rahal’s final lap was clocked at 209.152 MPH, the fastest in the history of the race. Cogan would hold off Mears for second. The margin of victory between Rahal and Mears was a scant 1.881 seconds, the narrowest gap between the top 3 finishers in the history of the race.

Rahal also set the record for fastest race, running at an average speed of 170.722 miles per hour, marking the first time the full 500 miles had been run in under three hours.

Awaiting Rahal were a new elevated and rotating victory lane, as well as the first spot on the new base of the Borg-Warner Trophy. Even bigger than the trophy and glamour, was the fact that Rahal’s car owner Jim Trueman, awaited Rahal in victory lane.

Trueman, diagnosed with cancer, had become increasingly ill. Being able to share in the sport’s biggest prize with his driver brought a smile to Trueman’s face. Eleven days later, he would lose his battle with cancer.

Rahal’s lone Indianapolis 500 win spearheaded the first of his back-to-back championships in 1986 and 1987. Cogan, who won the season opener in Phoenix earlier that year, would finish a career-best sixth in the standings, but would prove unable to duplicate the success found that year.

As for ABC, the network’s first live broadcast of the race proved successful netting an 8.8 rating. With a fresh broadcasting contract looming following the 2018 season, it is uncertain what the future holds for the televised broadcast of the Indianapolis 500. The race has brought so many great memories, and as proven first in 1986, live television has played a big part in that.

Images courtesy of INDYCAR and Sports Illustrated.

Spencer Neff

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