With his front wing bent, his steering on the precarious edge of control and his lead dwindling with every lap, Al Unser won the second-closest Indianapolis 500 in history today by 8.19 seconds over Tom Sneva.
"If I hadn't had that 30-second margin, I couldn't have held off that other car," admitted Unser, whose third Indy crown will net him over $275,000 in spending money for his 39th birthday today.
"But, by golly, it doesn't make a dang bit of difference now," Unser crowed over the Brickyard public address system as 350,000 fans cheered.
Janet Guthrie, making her second start in the 500 after failing to finish last year, finished eighth, driving the entire way with a broken wrist that forced her to operate her car mostly with one hand.
Guthrie averaged 152.965 mph for 190 laps, only 10 laps short of completing the race.
Narrow escapes were the theme of Unser's victory. For all of May he had nursed his Chaparral Lola with the Cosworth V-8 engine, knowing that it was the only car he had after a crash in Texas in April destroyed his favorite auto.
"It's been a tight month," Unser said. "I knew I couldn't so much as tap a wall in practice, 'cause we had no backup car."
On lap 25 of the 200 on this hot, sunny day, Unser seemed to have Preserved his Lola in vain. Spike Gehlhausen had the day's only significant accident. But it was a beauty, and right in front of Unser.
"There were pieces of debris and tires everywhere," said the black-haired, rugged-featured Unser, shaking his head. "I thought Spike was gonna come down off that wall right into me.
"How close with it? Too close.Close enough to see tires in the air around me. I drove good enough, and I was going slow enough to miss them.
Unser's other misfortune was his own blunder and it almost cost him the race.
A 70-lap duel for the lead between Unser and Danny Ongais with the Hurryin' Hawaiian constanlty on Unser's tail pipes, came to an end on lap 146 when Ongais came into the pits belching smoke like an extinguished dragon.
Unser, with his near-40-second lead on Sneva, seemed to have a cakewalk. However, on his final pit stop, with just 50 miles to go, Unser overshot his pit, scattereed his crew in all directions, and ran into a huge rear tire, bending his stabilizing wing.
"Didn't know until after the race that the wing was the problem . . . a bad one. It pulled awful in the corners."
Sneva, defending National Racing champion and bellwether of the Roger Penske team, was pouring on the boost, cutting Anser's margin from 30 seconds to the final 8.19 injust 20 laps.
Little did Sneva, or the crowd, know how worried Unser was. "Damn, I figured Al was just coasting for insurance," said Sneva, who now has won the Indy pole in record-setting time two years in a row and finished a cautions, deliberate second both years.
For the second year in a row, Sneva could well blame his pit crew for defeat. In 1977 he finished 27 seconds behind A. J. Foyt, but spent 48 more seconds in the pits.
In the final 200 miles today, with the race on the line, Unser and Sneva each made three pit stops. Unser got back on the track a cumulative 15 seconds faster.
"We were just too slick all day long," a member of Unser's red-white-and-blue pit brigade said with a grin.
Penske, owner of Sneva's car, thought Unser was much too slick. In fact, he thought Unser cheated.
"Unser jumped the pacer lights (improving his position illegally during yellow-flag laps)," charged Penske, talking loudly amid a group of people near Garage 56. "I've got it in writing," added Penske, implying a protest. "We'll see what happens."
Nevertheless, Penske's sour grapes never turned sweet. Speedway officials penalized both third-place finisher Gordon Johncock and fourth-place car Steve Krisiloff one lap each for the same offense - "improving their position during the yellow."
However, a member of the Penske crew said after the race that "Roger despaired of getting a protest upheld and never filed one."
A one-lap penalty would have won Sneva the race, but no such occurence has ever happened at Indy. Protest back in the pack, yes but officials' judgement over a car-length or two with a quarter of a million dollars at stake, never.
"You're not going to let 350,000 people drive back home, maybe 1,000 miles for some, and then find out they didn't even know who won the race," said one veteran speedway official.
Sneva and Penske could not agree on why they ended in second place. "We couldn't run enough power, not more than 70 (manifold pressure), because we couldn't get good enough gas mileage," Sneva said. "We could hace outrun Al all around the track, but we'd have run out of fuel before the end."
"It wasn't gas consumption," said Penske. "We'd have won the race if we hadn't had a stretch in the middle when we started running unbelievably slow.
"We has the wrong stagger (balancing of weight on the wheels). As soon as we made adjustments and changed tires on our next pit stop, Tom went back to running 188 miles per hour.
"When Tom could drive (with the car set up properly), he was flying."
The indisputable human-interest story of the day was Guthrie. She broke her right wrist just two days before the race playing in a Celebrity Tennis Tournament, but told no one. She ignored the pain, inconvenience and the humid day, staying on the tail of four-time winner Foyt for almost the last 250 miles and finishing just one spot behind Super Tex.
"A great day," beamed Guthrie," but not a surprise. I know I can drive. The first time we went from low boost to high boost, I was turning 300 rpm's around the corners.
"Flames were coming out of my nostrils."
This 62nd Indy had its comic relief. Gary Bettenhausen couldn't even finish the pace laps without two pit stops. Salt Walther's crew changed a clutch and worked with No. 77 for two hours - the longest pit stop in history - before kicking the recalcitrant beast back to Gasoline Alley in shame.
Bobby Unser, who has won two Indys himself in 1968 and 1975 to go with his brother's previous pair in 1970 and 1971, almost had a 100-mhp fender-bender in the pits as he bombed in the another car swerved out.
Nevertheless, the elder Unser brother still finished sixth, just behind determined Wally Dallenbach.
However, Johnny Rutherford and Foyt tied for goofiest performances. Rutherford set a record for Most Crewmen in the Air Simultaneously when he shot right through his pit area at 50 mph and gunned back onto the track after his over-shoot.
Once Foyt ran out of gas and sputtered toward his pit, waving an angry fist as his men to get-back-three - I'll make-it. Later, Foyt stalled coming out of the pits and had to be pushed back to recharge.
With zero injuries, only 24 laps under the yellow flag and a remarkably cautions stampede to the first turn, this was a vintage Indy day from the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana to Al Unser's final flash across the original yard of brick finish line.
As Unser came through the final straight, giving it one last vrooom at the top to nudge his speed up to a 161.363 - second fastest in Indy history - he punched the air with his orange glove.
Whatever Lola wants . . . as long as the wings stay on and the stewards don't catch you fudging on the yellow lights.