Tom Sneva won his first Indianapolis 500 race today, only after blowing by a 10-lap buffer set up by rookie driver Al Unser Jr. for his old man, Al Unser Sr., and charging his Texaco Star to the checkered flag 11.19 seconds ahead of the nine other cars still running from a starting field of 33.
"I was trying to help Daddy win the race," Al Jr. said. "And for a while there it was working."
Except for keeping his car between Sneva and history, Unser Jr. was no challenge, finishing 10th after the U.S. Auto Club penalized him two laps for passing two cars under a yellow flag in his effort to keep the win in the family. Rick Mears, a Penske teammate of Unser Sr., finished third, but more than a mile back. Geoff Brabham was fourth, Kevin Cogan fifth. Howdy Holmes was sixth.
The unofficial elapsed time for the winner was 3 hours 5 minutes 3.066 seconds, for an average speed of 162.117 mph, the second-fastest in Indy history. Mark Donohue averaged 162.926 in 1972.
Among those who failed to finish were defending champion Gordon Johncock, four-time winner A.J. Foyt, former champion Mario Andretti and rookie Teo Fabi, the pole sitter.
Until Mike Mosley crashed into the wall at the fourth turn with 30 laps to go, Sneva, 34, had a 22-second lead on Unser Sr., who was driving a Hertz Penske PC-11. But while track crewmen cleared debris from the course, both Unser Sr. and Sneva pulled into their pits for a final stop.
Unser was quicker, much quicker, pulling behind the pace car after only 11 seconds. Sneva took 32 seconds and got stuck behind Unser Jr., who had pushed up the field and positioned himself on his dad's tailpipe. With the green flag, he gradually allowed his father to move a heartbeat, then two, then three, ahead of Sneva. A heartbeat at 190 mph is a pretty good piece, considering an Indy car covers a football field a second.
"I was trying to keep four to five cars behind Daddy to help keep off Sneva," said the younger Unser, the top rookie finisher. "But then we got into traffic, and I couldn't keep it up anymore."
Sneva said, "That kid's gonna be a great racer," but he also said the 21-year-old son of three-time winner Unser Sr. should have been black flagged for passing cars during the four laps the field spent running under that yellow.
Whenever Sneva went high, hoping to hustle by the kid's Coors Light Silver Bullet, all he saw was exhaust pipes. There was no getting around him down on the apron, either. Finally, after losing valuable seconds to Unser Sr., who was gradually pulling away from the herd, Sneva passed Unser Jr. with 10 laps to go. That was on the back straightaway. By the end of the next lap, barreling into Turn One, Sneva overcame Unser Sr. and coasted the last 25 miles, successfully finishing his 10th try for the Borg-Warner Trophy. His purse is expected to be about $325,000.
"Everything seemed to materialize just right," Sneva said. "That little boy made me work hard, though. But that's all part of the game. You have to try to foresee what's happening long before it happens, but you can't always. What gets me is that he (Unser Jr.) knew he wasn't supposed to pass during the yellow. It could have--and it almost did--make the difference in the outcome of the race."
All Unser Sr. had to say about his boy's bid to make him proud was: "If he was trying to help me out, how come he ended up passing me in the end?"
For 100 miles, Sneva and Unser Sr. engaged in a heady high-speed contest for the lead. Although Sneva managed to eventually pull away, the top five cars ran head to head most of the race. "I knew I couldn't mosey on by anybody, especially there in the end," Sneva said. "I had a good handle on the car and the timing was right. The way I got by both of them (the Unsers) in the end was by getting just enough cushion, sitting on the throttle and missing the turbulence. The way I passed them was all a matter of timing. I guess I had that going for me today."
Johncock couldn't finish after his car conked out on lap 163. Leaning against the pit stop wall, Johncock watched disconcertedly as his crew shoved the Day-Glo blue-and-orange machine into Gasoline Alley. "I think the gear box busted on me," he said. "I heard something click and I figured that's what went."
Fabi, who qualified at 207.395 and led for the first 23 laps, could survive only 45 laps before a blunder during a pit stop forced him out. A crewman deposited more Methanol on his Forsythe Racing Skoal Bandit than in the car. Fabi hustled out of the cockpit, shaking the engine fuel off his brand new Alumicron suit before heading behind the grandstand to sulk. Of the 400,000 watching the misadventure, those still sober enough to recognize grief applauded the first rookie in 33 years to start the 500 from the pole.
Foyt, starting for the 26th time here and out to win it for his father, who died last weekend, quit on lap 23 with gear problem. Before leaving the raceway, he dispelled rumors that he would retire: "It's been a tough month. But I'll be here next year if my health is good. Maybe you'll see me soon. Probably beginning in Michigan. I'll be back. Don't worry 'bout that."
During his invocation, an archbishop from Indianapolis called this 67th running of the 500 "the nation's largest annual human gathering." He mentioned the machines, too, but few could doubt the human error Johnny Parsons made on Turn One.
Parsons, trying to pass 1969 champion Andretti on lap 82, dropped down near the apron before pulling in front of Andretti, clipping his Newman-Haas Budweiser Lola and forcing him into the wall. Andretti's car was demolished, smoldering in the middle of the brickyard, and medics took 10 minutes getting him out of the car. Andretti (who went from a 22nd-place finish to 23rd after a one-lap penalty for pit rules violatons on lap 45) walked away from the scene with the aid of Indy crew members.
Parsons, however, banged up his ankle and is under observation now at Methodist Hospital. "It happened again," he said over the public address system, referring to last year's accident at the outset of the race that blew his chances for running just one lap, much less 250. "Bad luck's all."
Roger Mears' luck wasn't any better. He crashed into the wall, too, but on the fourth turn and after only 43 laps. He wasn't injured, though his pride was a little damaged. "Hate to bend up my good car," he said. "Thing gave me a pretty good ride."