Mario Andretti was awarded the victory today in Sunday's 65th running of the Indianapolis 500 when race stewards took the prize from Bobby Unser, penalizing him one vital lap for illegally passing more than a half-dozen cars.
It was the first time in the history of this race that the river who crossed the finish line first did not occupy the place of honor at the victory banquet held the next night.
Unser crossed the finish line nearly 300 yards ahead of Andretti. He would have won his third Indianapolis 500 were it not for the penalty, assessed for passing and improving his position after a pit stop under a yellow caution flag on the 149th lap.
That decision gave Andretti, 41, his first Indianapolis victory since 1969. It also prompted car owner Roger Penske to file a pair of official protests -- one claiming Unser, his driver, did nothing wrong and the other accusing Andretti of the same thing Unser was supposed to have done: pass cars on the critical 149th lap.
Those protests were denied early this evening after six hours of meetings between U.S. Auto Club stewards and witnesses, including other drivers. However, Andretti's first prize of $262,424 and Unser's second-place check of $168,674 out of record $1.6 million purse were held up pending a final appeal by Penske to the USAC, which sanctions the race. That appeal must be made by Thursday.
Penske said last night he would appeal the decisions. When the appeal is made, Dick King, USAC director, will appoint a three-member panel to hear the case.
"I feel very empty," Unser said as he strode quickly to the privacy of his garage during a break in the protest hearing. "I don't want to make any statement at this time because it hasn't been decided. But if I did anything wrong, then so did a lot of other people. I don't think I did anything wrong -- but they do."
Unser was penalized for not adhering to the "blend-in"rule, which dictates how cars coming out of a pit stop get back into the race.
Tom Binford, chief steward for the race, explaining the rationale behind the decision to bump Unser, said: "We discussed the 'blend-in' rule at some length at our meeting with the drivers last Thursday. When you leave the pits, there is an orange cone there that is the approximate position where you join the field -- blend in with the other cars.
"Obviously, this is not an exact situation. You can pass one or two cars on the way in, depending on traffic. But when you set sail and pass eight or nine cars under that condition, that's not considered blending. This is not an optional penalty. It's mandatory . . . In my opinion, there is not a shred of doubt it was passing under the yellow, not blending in."
The stewards made their decision to penalize Unser after reviewing videotapes of the incident, checking scoring reports and hearing reports from race course observers.
Despite the turn of events, which enriched Andretti and his team by more than $300,000 (they would have won less than $100,000 for finishing second), Andretti, 41, was not all smiles.
"It's supposed to be a delightful experience," he said. "I'm sure in time it will be . . . The unfortunate thing is that Bobby went through all the hoopla, all the things the winners gets to go through. Then it was taken away from him. And I did not get to go through any of that.
"I know how Bobby must feel. The 1978 Italian Grand Prix was taken away from me precisely that way because I supposedly jumped the line at the start. Maybe this makes up for it a little, but I don't know whether anything really makes up for it. And that doesn't make Bobby feel any better."
Andretti, Gordon Johncock and A. J. Foyt all said they saw Unser pass several cars illegally during a caution period in the 149th lap. Unser, they said, made what was determined to be the illegal move as he came out of the pits.
Pat Patrick, the owner of Andretti's Wildcat Cosworth, seemed to be one of Penske's strongest allies in the attempt to reverse today's decision and restore the checkered flag to Unser.
When told his driver was named the winner, Patrick said, "I don't agree. I don't think that's right. I am going to talk to Binford about it. aThey should have penalized him when the thing was reported, not after the damned race.
"We are pleased, but yet disappointed, with the manner in which Mario's victory was recognized . . . If it (the penalty) had been imposed at that time, the final results would have been more fairly determined. That failure deprived Mario, our team and our sponsor, STP, from participating in the appropriate postrace functions."