1981 Indianapolis 500

1981 Indianapolis 500

The 65th Indianapolis 500 was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 24, 1981. A hectic month of May was interrupted several times by rain. Bobby Unser took the checkered flag as the winner, with Mario Andretti second. 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After a lengthly protest and appeals process, the penalty was rescinded, and Unser was reinstated the victory on October 9.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
publisher=Indianapolis Star


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 One schedule. 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 Brabham both passed their rookie tests.cite news |url=http://www.indy500.com/images/stats/pdfs/dtr/1981.pdf
title=1981 Indianapolis 500 Daily Trackside Report

On Sunday May 3, Al Unser became the first driver to practice over 190 mph. A day later, his brother Bobby Unser pushed the speeds over 197 mph. The first incidents of the month occurred Monday, when Gordon Smiley spun, and Pete Halsmer crashed in turn 4.

Tuesday (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 Andretti fastest of the day at 194.300 mph.

On Friday, the final day of practice before pole day, Penske teammates Bobby Unser and Rick Mears were hand-timed just a tick below 200 mph. Mario Andretti was a close third over 198 mph.

Time trials - weekend 1

On Saturday 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. Foyt was 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.

On Sunday 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 Andretti took his final practice run of the week, and departed for Belgium. Two major crashes occurred, involving Phil Caliva and Phil Krueger. Tim Richmond and Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon both were involved in spins, but suffered no contact.

On Wednesday May 13, Rick Mears pushed the fastest speed of the month to 200.312 mph. Retired veteran driver Wally Dallenbach climbed 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 Racing team 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 Unser upped 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 Outlaws star, and Indy rookie Steve Kinser crashed 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 Unser took over the pole position with a four-lap average of 200.546 mph. Meanwhile, Wally Dallenbach put Mario Andretti's car safely in the filed at over 193 mph. Mike Mosley squeezed himself into the front row posting a 197.141 mph run. Moments later, Rick Mears took 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 Unser was awarded the pole, and the next round of qualifying began.

After pole qualifying was over, Tom Sneva qualified 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 Mears took 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.

Carburetion Day

On Thursday May 21, the final scheduled practice session was held. All 33 qualified cars, along with 2 alternates that took laps. Mario Andretti returned from Belgium, and practiced in his already-qualified car. Jerry Karl was arrested during the week, but would be released on bond in time for race day. Bob Harkey practiced 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 Snider vacated his ride in favor of Tim Richmond.

Bobby Unser continued 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 Racing pit crew also guided him to a victory in the Miller Pit Stop Contest.

Race recap


Mears pit fire

Danny Ongais crash

Unser pit incident

On lap 146, Gordon Smiley crashed in turn 4. Three laps later, leader Mario Andretti and second place Bobby Unser went 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 Johncock led late in the race, but slowed and eventually suffered a blown engine with less than 10 laps to go. Bobby Unser assumed the lead on lap 182, with Mario Andretti second. Unser held on to win by 5.18 seconds, one of the closest finishes at Indianapolis to that point.

Unser celebrated his third Indy 500 victory (also 1968 and 1975), while Andretti was lauded for charging from 32nd starting position to a 2nd place finish.


Post race

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 Unser passing 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.

Television controversy

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 McKay and Jackie Stewart had 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.

Official results

USAC spent the night reviewing race tapes and scoring reports. At 8 a.m. EST, the official results of the race were posted. Bobby Unser was 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 Andretti to 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.

Box score

Failed to Qualify

*Tom Bagley (#43)
*Steve Ball (#85)
*Pat Bedard (#17)
*Jim Buick (#86)
*Phil Caliva (#47, #87)
*Larry Cannon (#96, #99)
*Steve Chassey (#64)
*Bill Engelhart (#29)
*Dick Ferguson (#95)
*Bob Frey (#71)
*Spike Gehlhausen (#23, #34)
*Ken Hamilton (#63)
*Bob Harkey (#71, #89, #96)
*Jim Hurtubise (#65)
*Herm Johnson (#28)
*Bubby Jones (#58)
*Steve Kinser (#78).
*Phil Krueger (#89)
*Greg Leffler (#43, #44)
*Harry MacDonald (#45)
*John Mahler (#92, #93)
*John Martin (#57)
*Jim McElreath (#26)
*Chip Mead (#49)
*Roger Mears (#98)
*Jerry Miller (#65)
*Johnny Parsons (#8, #12, #18)
*Roger Rager (#21, #66)
*Larry Rice (#52)
*Tim Richmond (#21)
*Joe Saldana (#24, #69)
*Dick Simon (#22)
*Jerry Sneva (#17, #34, #72, #74)
*George Snider (#84)
*Bill Tempero (#15)
*Phil Threshie (#67)
*Rich Vogler (#44, #46)
*Bill Vukovich II (#42)
*Frank Weiss (#93)
*Dale Whittington (#91)

Protest and appeals

Roger Penske filed 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 Andretti argued 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 Unser countered 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
] and took a sabbatical from driving. He sat out the 1982 Indy 500, and retired officially in 1983.

After being reinstated the winner, Bobby Unser was presented with the miniature Borg-Warner Trophy, while Mario Andretti had already been presented with the winner's championship ring.


Indy 500 Walker
Previous_race = 1980
Previous_winner = Johnny Rutherford
This_race = 1981
This_winner = Bobby Unser
Next_race = 1982
Next_winner = Gordon Johncock

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Indianapolis 500 — Indianapolis Motor Speedway Nombre de tours …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Indianapolis-500 — im Jahre 1994 Das Indianapolis 500, oftmals auch nur Indy 500 genannt, wird seit dem 30. Mai 1911 veranstaltet und ist somit das älteste und traditionsreichste Rundstrecken Autorennen der Welt. Es ist der Höhepunkt im Rennkalender der Indy Racing …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Indianapolis 500 — im Jahre 1994 Das Indianapolis 500, oftmals auch nur Indy 500 genannt, wird seit dem 30. Mai 1911 veranstaltet und ist somit eines der ältesten und traditionsreichsten Rundstrecken Autorennen der Welt (das älteste Rennen, das heute nicht mehr… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Indianapolis 500 — Indycar race infobox Name=Indianapolis 500 Track Venue=Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sponsor= [http://www.indy500.com/sponsors/ Various] First race=1911 First IRL race=1996 Distance=500 miles (804 km) Laps=200 Previous names=International 500 Mile… …   Wikipedia

  • Indianapolis 500 records — As of 92nd race, 25 May 2008. Victories by driver: 4 *flagicon|United States A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977) *flagicon|United States Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) *flagicon|United States Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991)Victories by… …   Wikipedia

  • Indianapolis 500 by year — This article discusses the year by year history of the Indianapolis 500 race.1909 1910The first auto races held the Indianapolis Motor Speedway occur on August 19 21, 1909. After a series of races held in the summer of 1910, it was decided that… …   Wikipedia

  • Indianapolis 500 Table — ▪ Table Indianapolis 500 year winner1 average speed in mph 1911 R. Harroun 74.602 1912 J. Dawson 78.719 1913 J. Goux (Fr.) 75.933 1914 R. Thomas (Fr.) 82.474 1915 R. DePalma 89.840 19162 D. Resta (Fr.) 84.001 19193 H. Wilcox 88.050 1920 G.… …   Universalium

  • GP Indianapolis 500 — Indianapolis 500 im Jahre 1994 Das Indianapolis 500, oftmals auch nur Indy 500 genannt, wird seit dem 30. Mai 1911 veranstaltet und ist somit das älteste und traditionsreichste Rundstrecken Autorennen der Welt. Es ist der Höhepunkt im… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • 1982 Indianapolis 500 — The 66th Indianapolis 500 was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 30, 1982. Gordon Johncock, who had previously won the rain shortened 1973 race, was the winner. Rick Mears finished second by a margin of 0.16 seconds, the… …   Wikipedia

  • 1951 Indianapolis 500 — The 1951 Indianapolis 500 was held on Wednesday, May 30, 1951 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The event was part of the 1951 World Drivers Championship. Classification Notes * Pole position: Duke Nalon 4:23.74 * Fastest Lead L Lee Wallard… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.