500 facts: the '80s and '90s 

Up until the split

click to enlarge 500facts_webheaders15.jpg

350. Two fans died during the Month of May in separate incidents in the 1980s.

On Carb Day in 1980, a man named Tim Vail died after flipping his Jeep in the infield. Spectator Lyle Kurtenbach was killed during the 1987 500 when a wheel from Tony Bettenhausen, Jr.'s ride got loose and was subsequently struck by Roberto Guerrero, launching the tire into the stands and striking Kurtenbach.

351. The race was permanently moved to Sunday in 1981.

Aren't you happy you have a day to recover before you go back to work?

352. Speaking of 1981, Rick Mears and Danny Ongais had a horrible 500.

Lori Lovely wrote for NUVO in May of 2015:

Rick Mears suffered extensive burns from a pit fire on Lap 58 when fuel spilled out of the hose, drenching Mears, his mechanics and the engine, which caused it to burst into flames. Danny Ongais' fiery crash on Lap 63 in the Turn 3 wall left him unconscious and with compound fractures to both legs that kept him from competing for the rest of the season and left him with a permanent limp.

353. And while we're on the subject, did anybody actually win the '81 race?

Back to Lori:

As he left the pits [under yellow, Bobby] Unser passed anywhere from seven to 14 cars on the apron, eventually blending into the queue at the exit of Turn Two. [Mario] Andretti followed Unser until he realized the illegality of the move and tucked into line in the short chute. He radioed his crew that Unser had passed under yellow.

No penalty was assessed to either driver, but both moves were caught on film and commented on by the TV announcers (after the fact, since commentary was added later for tape-delayed airing). Despite reports from observers, USAC officials declined to issue penalties. Unser took the checkered flag just 5.3 seconds ahead of Andretti. He was the winner that day.

The next morning he wasn't. After reviewing the tape, officials issued a one-lap penalty for incorrectly exiting the pits. This dropped Unser to second place, making Andretti the winner. It marked the first time a 500 winner had been stripped of victory.

Roger Penske, Unser's team owner, launched a lengthy protest and lawsuit, arguing that the wording of the code Unser violated, the "Blend Line Rule," was vague. (The "Blend Line" was a new rule that supposedly instructed the drivers where to get in line under yellow conditions as they exited the pits, but the wording was so unclear that everyone had a different interpretation.) Unser reasoned that as long as he stayed below the white line, he could pass cars until the Turn Two blend line.

Although some people believe both Unser and Andretti should have been disqualified and the win given to third-place finisher Vern Schuppan, Unser's penalty was rescinded, partly due to ambiguity in the blend rule and partly because officials believed that the call should have been made during the race in order to allow Unser an opportunity to overcome a penalty. As Penske's lawyer put it, the penalty had to fit the crime.

Unser was fined $40,000 for the passing infraction when his win was reinstated on Oct. 9. It was his third career Indy 500 victory — and the last time he raced at Indianapolis. Bitter over the controversy and subsequent loss of commercial endorsements, the 47-year-old, Indy's oldest winning driver, retired from racing at the end of the season, stating in a 1982 interview: "Regardless of the outcome, it's been ruined for me."

According to rumor, Mario kept the winner's ring. He told Motor Trend, "Maybe I didn't deserve to win the race, but neither did he. The rule was clear, and a rule is a rule. Bobby won the race, but he cheated. There's an asterisk next to that one."

354. Gordon Smiley was the last driver to perish during quals to date.

Coming out of the third turn, Smiley began sliding during his second warm-up lap before taking green for a run at the 1982 500. The correction sent Smiley's ride into the wall head-on at somewhere between 185 and 200 mph. On impact, the car exploded, and flew into the catch fence, coming to rest in the north chute. Smiley's helmet was pulled off by the force of the impact, and the driver died as a result of massive trauma as his car broke into multiple pieces.

355. Rick Mears won his second 500 in 1984.

After Tom Sneva was knocked out of the race due to a mechanical issue, Mears cruised to victory with a two-lap lead over second-place finisher Roberto Guerrero.

356. Danny Sullivan spun his car — and still won the '85 500.

Passing Mario Andretti on lap 120, Sullivan spun the car completely around — but avoided making contact with the wall, and even more miraculously, without "flat-spotting" his tires. Sullivan would go on to "spin and win."

click to enlarge Danny Sullivan, Mr. "Spin and Win." - PAUL WILLIS
  • Danny Sullivan, Mr. "Spin and Win."
  • Paul Willis

357. Rick Mears took his third Borg-Warner in 1988 — and broke  220 mph in quals.

Mears made the '88 field with a speed of 220.453.

358. Yellow flew for the 100th time in 1988.

The caution flag came out on lap 167 after Rocky Moran's engine failed.

359. The Flying Dutchman won his first 500 in 1990.

Arie Luyendyk, who still holds the record for the fastest laps at the 500, started in the third position that year.

360. Rick Mears won his fourth Indy wire-to-wire.

Mears took the pole and win number four in 1991. As we've mentioned, no one's won four since.

361 An Indy native named Stephen White went for a fatal joyride at IMS in 1991.

White decided to lap the track a few days after the '91 500 in his pickup. White hit speeds of roughly 100 mph before a maintenance worker tried to block White's truck by parking a minivan by the yard of bricks. White hit the van and died.

362. Jovy Marcelo died practicing for the '92 500.

The Filipino native crashed in turn one on May 15.

363. And Nelson Piquet saw his career end in 1992.

The F1 champion lost a foot in a wreck in practice — with speeds on the track that could top 240 "in the tow" that year.

364. Roberto Guerrero broke 230 in quals in 1992.

His speed was good enough to take the pole. His performance in the race itself, though ...

365. Roberto Guerrero crashed on the second parade lap in the '92 500.

Roberto spun the car on Indy's backstretch and finished 33rd.

366. Scott Goodyear nearly became the only worst-to-first finisher in the 33-car field in Indy history, a record he missed by .043 seconds.

Goodyear had started in 33rd in 1992, a race — and a month — filled with crashes (totaling 12 driver injuries) and a fatality. By the end of that 500, he'd be edged by Al Unser, Jr., in the closest finish at Indy ever recorded.

click to enlarge Mario, late '80s. - PAUL WILLIS
  • Mario, late '80s.
  • Paul Willis

367. The Andretti "curse" was also in full effect in '92.

Both Mario and son Jeff Andretti were injured in the 1992 race, and while those Andrettis were being treated at Methodist hospital, Michael began pulling away from the field.

As Ed Hinton wrote for ESPN:

With 11 laps left, the dominant Lola-Ford suddenly slowed. Michael Andretti came to a stop in the infield grass off the short chute between Turns 3 and 4. He climbed out.

A tiny belt that ran the fuel pump had broken. A lousy little belt, worth a few dollars. All that Ford research and development, all those millions to engineer the finest power plant the company had ever sent to Indy, and one little accessory had failed.

368. Lyn St. James was the '92 Rookie of the Year.

She finished 11th after starting in 27th.

369. NASCAR came to Indy in '94.

The inaugural Brickyard 400 was won by Jeff Gordon, and Gordon — who'd lived in Pittsboro for a time — would win four more Brickyards.

370. A Canadian won the 500 for the first time in 1995.

Jacques Villeneuve grabbed the lead after 194 laps after USAC officials stopped scoring Scott Goodyear — officials determined Goodyear passed the pace car on a restart, then ignored a black flag directive to serve a "stop-and-go" penalty for the infraction.

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About The Author

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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