The Indianapolis 500 turned into a torrid five-mile drag race to the finish line this afternoon and, when it did, Bobby Rahal, an emotional, chain-smoking leadfoot who ignored a flashing low fuel light the last several laps, won the closest three-man race in Indy history.
He jumped on his accelerator as soon as a yellow caution flag was lifted for the last two laps, immediately roared past leader Kevin Cogan, and then watched Cogan and one-time leader Rick Mears fade (slightly) in his rear-view mirror as he won his first 500 with a track-record speed of 170.722 mph.
Rahal, Cogan and Mears, who, in fact, all broke the track speed record, finished within 1.8 seconds of each other. Cogan was 1.4 seconds behind Rahal, and Mears, a two-time winner here, was four-tenths of a second behind Cogan. In 1982, Mears lost the closest 500 ever, by 16 one-hundredths of a second to Gordon Johncock, but no three drivers had ever been closer.
Rahal won in 2 hours 55 minutes 43.48 seconds, the first time the race has finished in less than three hours.
"It was one of the toughest races you're ever going to see here," said Jim Trueman, 51, who owns Rahal's car and was cheering from the pit.
Rahal, 33, pulled himself out of his car for a television interview and found himself in tears.
Trueman, who has known Rahal since he was a teen-ager in Ohio, has a body withered by cancer.
"If there's one thing I can give Jim, it is this," said Rahal.
This race, postponed since last weekend because of incredibly persistent rain, evolved into a sun-splashed finish that certainly seemed worth the wait for the estimated 300,000 spectators who returned to the track.
With seven of the 200 laps remaining on the 2 1/2-mile oval, little-known Arie Luyendyk spun his way into speedway trivia history when he crashed out of the track's fourth turn and into the pit -- setting up the great race to the end.
The race's seventh and last yellow flag came out, so no one could pass Cogan, who was leading after a daring double-pass maneuver six laps earlier.
The drivers went around and around, waiting for Luyendyk's car to be cleared. At one point during the wait, ABC-TV color commentator Sam Posey tried to reach Cogan on his radio headset.
"I'm kind of busy right now, Sam," Cogan replied. End of interview.
On Cogan's tail, big as life in his rear-view mirror, was Rahal. Just before the accident, Rahal's red fuel light began flashing. Usually, that requires a pit stop within two laps.
Rahal radioed to his crew. Someone radioed back: "Don't come in. We're going for it."
"Fortunately, those lights are highly erratic," Rahal said later, smiling a gap-toothed grin.
The yellow flag and resulting slower speeds allowed him to conserve his fuel, and, in the end, win the race, he said.
But there was more to it than that. He said, if there is a position to be sitting in during a caution period with so little distance to the finish line, it's second, not first.
"If the guy who is second in line has his wits about him, the advantage lies with him, because he's got the draft," he said.
Cogan, whose sharp left turn caused the haywire crash at the start of the 1982 race, had been having trouble keeping his car low on the track today when his fuel was low.
As they came down the final straightaway with two laps to race, Rahal watched Cogan go wide and cut inside him to take the lead he never gave up.
"Bobby got by me and beat me on the start," said Cogan. "Bobby put it down to the floor before I did. Once it went yellow, I didn't know if I could hang on. I could've held on to win it if the race had not gone yellow."
Mears, the leader for 77 laps who had a full straightaway on Cogan with 50 laps to go, never was a factor in those last two laps. He was having trouble controlling the back of his car, saying it went "loose" on him.
"I just didn't get a real good jump on the restart," he said.
Rahal, who lives in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, said his resume is full of races lost just the way Cogan lost this one.
"You need more than two hands to count the races I've lost in the last five laps or 10 laps," he said. "I'm sure he's frustrated, but . . . "
It went through all three drivers' minds that this race could have ended by default under the yellow. But Rahal figured there would have been "a mutiny in the stands" if that had happened. And there's no telling what would have happened in gasoline alley.
Cogan took his short-lived lead with 13 laps remaining, with the unwitting help of rookie driver Randy Lanier.
Through no fault of his own, Lanier created a traffic jam, bottling up pole sitter Mears and Rahal, allowing Cogan to pass them both. First, Rahal went inside and passed Mears, who was stuck behind Lanier, for first as they neared the start/finish line. Then Cogan passed both of them, again using Lanier as his blocker.
"I held my line," said Lanier, who was not blamed for anything by anyone. "When the other guys wanted to get by me, they had to race me and get around me, which they did very cleanly."
This was one of the safest races in Indy history. There were four single-car accidents, all of them minor. In fact, some of the race's craziest moments occured in pit row. Other than Luyendyk's spin, there were these two items: A.J. Foyt's brakes locked on him and he hit the wall where his crew was standing, waiting for him; and Rahal had to return right after one pit stop to get a new tire after the wrong one was put on the front of his car.
Other than Rahal, perhaps the happiest driver was Dick Simon, who at 52 was also the oldest. He counted a personal victory for finishing the race for the first time in 15 tries; he finished 14th.
Perhaps the two most disappointed drivers were 1983 winner Tom Sneva and 1985 winner Danny Sullivan, Sneva because he didn't get a chance to race, Sullivan because he did.
After the five-day delay, the race was held up another 35 minutes when Sneva hit the wall and damaged his suspension in the pace lap. With 32 drivers, the race was restarted after more fuel was poured into each car.
Sullivan finished ninth today, falling behind by a lap in the first hour.
"It just wasn't there," he said. "We had problems from the very first lap."