- 1981 Indianapolis 500
The 65th Indianapolis 500 was held at the
Indianapolis Motor Speedwayon Sunday, May 24, 1981. A hectic month of May was interrupted several times by rain. Bobby Unsertook the checkered flag as the winner, with Mario Andrettisecond. The following morning, USAC officials ruled that Unser had passed cars illegally while exiting the pit area on lap 149, and issued him a one-lap penalty. The official results posted scored Unser finishing second, and declared Andretti the winner.
After a lengthly protest and appeals process, the penalty was rescinded, and Unser was reinstated the victory on
October 9. The race is widely considered one of the most controversial races in Indy history.cite news |url=http://www.indystar.com |title=Controversy nothing new for 500
Three years into the first open wheel split, the sport of Indy car racing began settling into a mostly stabilized environment by 1981. The upstart CART series sanctioned the season of races, while the Indianapolis 500 itself became an invitation-only race sanctioned by USAC.
A record total of 105 entries were expected to shatter the previous records for drivers on the track and qualifying attempts. Speed-cutting measures were still in place, and no drivers were expected to challenge the track records in 1981.
Mario Andretti, as he had done in previous years, planned to race at Indianapolis in-between his busy, full-time Formula Oneschedule. His plans included qualifying at Indy on pole day weekend (May 9-10), then flying to Europe for the Belgian Grand Prix (May 17). After Belgium, he would fly back to Indianapolis in time for race day (May 24).
Practice and qualifying
Practice - week 1
Practice started on Opening Day, Saturday May 2. The two most notable rookies of the field made most of the headlines for the afternoon. Young
Josele Garza(actually 19 at the time, lied on his entry form to say he was 21) and Geoff Brabhamboth passed their rookie tests.cite news |url=http://www.indy500.com/images/stats/pdfs/dtr/1981.pdf
title=1981 Indianapolis 500 Daily Trackside Report
May 3, Al Unserbecame the first driver to practice over 190 mph. A day later, his brother Bobby Unserpushed the speeds over 197 mph. The first incidents of the month occurred Monday, when Gordon Smileyspun, and Pete Halsmercrashed in turn 4.
May 5) was completely rained out, and Wednesday ( May 6) was windy, keeping the speeds mostly down. A record 50 cars took to the track on Thursday ( May 7), with Mario Andrettifastest of the day at 194.300 mph.
On Friday, the final day of practice before pole day, Penske teammates
Bobby Unserand Rick Mearswere hand-timed just a tick below 200 mph. Mario Andrettiwas a close third over 198 mph.
Time trials - weekend 1
May 9, rain delayed the start of pole position time trials until 3:34 p.m. An abbreviated session saw only 9 cars finish qualifying runs. A. J. Foytwas the fastest of the nine, sitting on the provisional pole at 196.078 mph. Rain stopped qualifying for the day at 5:49 p.m., and pushed pole qualifying into the next day.
May 10, pole position qualifying was scheduled to resume. Rain fell all afternoon, however, and canceled all track activity for the day. 27 cars were still eligible for the pole position, and the resumption of pole day qualifying was scheduled for the following Saturday.
Practice - week 2
Rain continued to fall, and washed out practice on Monday (
May 11). On Tuesday May 12, the 200 mph barrier was finally broken in practice for the month by Danny Ongais. Mario Andrettitook his final practice run of the week, and departed for Belgium. Two major crashes occurred, involving Phil Calivaand Phil Krueger. Tim Richmondand Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon both were involved in spins, but suffered no contact.
May 13, Rick Mears pushed the fastest speed of the month to 200.312 mph. Retired veteran driver Wally Dallenbachclimbed into Mario Andretti's car, and began to take some shake down laps. Due to Andretti's absence for the rest of the week, the Patrick Racingteam decided to have Dallenbach qualify the car for him. On race day, Andretti would take over the cockpit once again. Dallenbach was quickly up to speed, over 191 mph on his first day.
Rain closed the track on Thursday. On Friday,
Bobby Unserupped the speed even further, turning a lap of 201.387 mph. A record 63 cars took to the track on the final full day of practice. World of Outlawsstar, and Indy rookie Steve Kinsercrashed in turn 1.
Time trials - weekend 2
Pole day time trials resumed on a sunny Saturday
May 16. About a half hour into the session, Bobby Unsertook over the pole position with a four-lap average of 200.546 mph. Meanwhile, Wally Dallenbachput Mario Andretti's car safely in the filed at over 193 mph. Mike Mosleysqueezed himself into the front row posting a 197.141 mph run. Moments later, Rick Mearstook to the track. After a lap over 200.9 mph, his car developed a vibration, and he was forced to wave off, giving up his chance for the pole position. Pole qualifying continued until 2:00 p.m., when the original qualifying line was finally exhausted. Bobby Unserwas awarded the pole, and the next round of qualifying began.
After pole qualifying was over,
Tom Snevaqualified his car at 200.691 mph. It was the fastest speed of the month, but since it did not take place in the pole round, he was not eligible for the pole position. Later in the day, Rick Mearstook a back-up car out to qualify, but had to settle for a slower speed, and 22nd starting position.
On Sunday, bump day time trials were very busy. Ten cars were bumped during 25 attempts.
May 21, the final scheduled practice session was held. All 33 qualified cars, along with 2 alternates that took laps. Mario Andrettireturned from Belgium, and practiced in his already-qualified car. Jerry Karlwas arrested during the week, but would be released on bond in time for race day. Bob Harkeypracticed his car for him.
The starting grid was altered slightly after qualifying.
Wally Dallenbach, who qualified Mario Andretti's car 8th, stepped aside as planned, and the car moved to the rear of the grid. In addition, George Snidervacated his ride in favor of Tim Richmond. Bobby Unsercontinued his dominance of the month, and led the speed chart for the afternoon, with a hand-timed lap of 197.6 mph. Later in the afternoon, hoping to sweep the month, his Penske Racingpit crew also guided him to a victory in the Miller Pit Stop Contest.
Mears pit fire
Danny Ongais crash
Unser pit incident
On lap 146,
Gordon Smileycrashed in turn 4. Three laps later, leader Mario Andrettiand second place Bobby Unserwent into the pit area for service. Unser finished his pit stop first, and was the first driver to exit the pit area. Andretti followed a few seconds behind.
While the two cars were exiting the pits, the pace car was leading the field at reduced pace through turn 1 and turn 2. Unser stayed on the track apron, below the painted white line, and proceeded to pass by 14 cars and blend into the field at the exit of turn two. He took his place in line immediately behind the pace car as the leader. Andretti appeared to pass two or three cars before he blended into the field in the south short chute.
The moves went largely unnoticed at the time. Andretti claims that he immediately called his pit crew on the radio and told him that Unser had passed cars under the yellow. Though no action would be taken, he wanted it observed for the record. During the live radio broadcast, no announcers made note of the incident, nor was it yet reported that any penalty was under consideration.1981 Indianapolis 500 live radio, IMS Radio Netowkr,
May 24, 1981]
Gordon Johncockled late in the race, but slowed and eventually suffered a blown engine with less than 10 laps to go. Bobby Unserassumed the lead on lap 182, with Mario Andrettisecond. Unser held on to win by 5.18 seconds, one of the closest finishes at Indianapolis to that point.
Shortly after the race was over, ramblings over a possible protest or penalty were surfacing. Andretti's team,
Patrick Racing, was voicing concern over Bobby Unserpassing cars under the yellow on lap 149. At the time, it was the policy of USAC to post official results for the Indianapolis 500 at 8 a.m. the morning after the race. USAC officials announced that the scoring and video tapes would be reviewed overnight.
ABC televised the race on same-day tape-delay at 9 p.m. EDT. At the time, it was the policy of ABC Sports to record live commentary of the race at the start of the race and at the end of the race. For the remaining portions of the race, commentary was recorded during post-production.cite book
last = McKay
first = Jim
authorlink = Jim McKay
title = The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports
publisher = E P Dutton
date = May 1, 1998
isbn = 0525944184 ] Classic "Big Ticket" - 1981 Indianapolis 500,
ESPN Classic, May 23, 2003]
Unlike the live radio broadcast, which did not notice nor mention the infraction, the television broadcast focused heavily on the incident, and reported it as it was being aired.1981 Indianapolis 500 television broadcast, ABC Sports,
May 24, 1981] It was later revealed that commentators Jim McKayand Jackie Stewarthad provided the commentary in post-production, and did so with the knowledge already that Unser had won the race, and a protest was in the works. The broadcast was considered misleading, as it suggested that the infraction was noticed by all parties at the time it occurred. The broadcast was also accused of being biased towards against Unser, as Stewart only pointed out Unser passing cars under the yellow, and not Andretti doing so.
USAC spent the night reviewing race tapes and scoring reports. At 8 a.m. EST, the official results of the race were posted.
Bobby Unserwas charged with passing cars under the yellow, and was penalized 1 lap for the infraction. The penalty dropped Unser down to second place, and elevated Mario Andrettito first place. Andretti was declared the victor, and it made him a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Penske Racing, Bobby Unser's team, immediately protested the decision.
Failed to Qualify
*Steve Ball (#85)
Phil Caliva(#47, #87)
Larry Cannon(#96, #99)
Spike Gehlhausen(#23, #34)
Bob Harkey(#71, #89, #96)
Greg Leffler(#43, #44)
John Mahler(#92, #93)
*John Martin (#57)
*Jerry Miller (#65)
Johnny Parsons(#8, #12, #18)
Roger Rager(#21, #66)
Joe Saldana(#24, #69)
Jerry Sneva(#17, #34, #72, #74)
Rich Vogler(#44, #46)
Bill Vukovich II(#42)
Protest and appeals
Roger Penskefiled an appeal after the official results were posted. A hearing was June 12, 1981. Mid-way through the hearing, the meeting was adjourned, and the resumption was scheduled for July 29.cite news |url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9801E7DB1338F931A25755C0A967948260
title=Appeal Panel on Indy 500 Is Adjourned Until July 29
publisher=New York Times
Bobby Unser's primary argument was based on what he considered to be a vague definition of the "blend rule." When exiting the pit area under caution, drivers were instructed to look to their right and see which car was next to them on the track. After accelerating to sufficient speed, the driver was to "blend" (merge) into the field behind that car.
Mario Andrettiargued that it was an established guideline that the place to look for the car to blend behind was at the south end of the pit straight, where the concrete wall ends. Bobby Unsercountered that he understood that, as long as the car stayed under the white line and in the apron, the place to blend in was the exit of turn two. Unser argued that the warm-up apron was an extension of the pit area. He also contended that Andretti had passed at least two cars himself, and should have also incurred a one-lap penalty.cite news |url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A04E6DA1238F936A35755C0A967948260
title=Attorney for Unser Says Andretti Was in Violation
publisher=New York Times
USAC was faced with a dilemma, as the rulebook was in fact unclear in regards to the blend rule. Officials mulled over the decision for months. On
October 9, 1981, a three-member USAC appeals board voted 2-1 to reinstate the victory to Bobby Unser. [ [http://digitalnewspapers.libraries.psu.edu/Default/Skins/BasicArch/Client.asp?Skin=BasicArch&&AppName=2&enter=true&BaseHref=DCG/1981/10/09&EntityId=Ar01703 Unser ruled winner of '81 500] ] He was instead fined $40,000.
Aftermath and lore
The 1981 Indianapolis 500 was largely considered the most controversial running to date. It was referred to as "The Great Dispute,"1982 Indianapolis 500 television broadcast, ABC Sports,
May 30, 1982] and in some circles was "Undecided."Legends of the Brickyard - 1981 Indianapolis 500, ESPN, 1987] Bobby Unser, who felt the entire ordeal was politically motivated by his USAC enemies, became disillusioned with auto racingcite news |url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507EED7133BF937A3575AC0A967948260
title=Sports People; A Bitter Bobby Unser
publisher=New York Times
1981-09-04] and took a sabbatical from driving. He sat out the 1982 Indy 500, and retired officially in 1983.
Indy 500 Walker
Previous_race = 1980
This_race = 1981
Next_race = 1982
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