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From the archive: The confusing aftermath of Unser’s 1981 Indy win

The debacle that was this year’s Indianapolis 500 didn’t really come into proper focus until the day after the race. After all, charges of inept officiating and stories of confusion and controversy have become part of the curious folklore of the Indy 500 and when everyone went to bed on Sunday night it seemed that Bobby Unser’s well-deserved third win at The Speedway had been a sufficiently notable event to gloss over complaints about bad fire-fighting, a botched start and overzealous (yet often misdirected) use of both the yellow flag and the pace car.

There was talk of a protest by the Patrick team to the effect that Unser had illegally passed a batch of cars while he and Mario Andretti raced out of the pits at the start of the 150th lap, but as the evening wore on it looked less and less likely that the protest would even be lodged. Andretti echoed most people’s sentiments with a cryptic answer to a wire service reporter’s late-night question about he chances of a change in the results.

“At this joint?” came Mario’s reply. “Nil”.

But on Monday morning at eight o’clock, when USAC posted the official results on the window of their office in Gasoline Alley, there was a change. Unser had been penalised a lap and Andretti was the winner.

So began a morning filled with forlorn statements and blank stares as reporters chased drivers from garages to appeal hearing to press conferences. Slowly, layer on layer, the story built up and by mid-day both reporters and race drivers realised that the 65th running of the Indy 500 had been an unmitigated disaster.

Bobby Unser, Penske PC-9B Cosworth leads

Photo by: Motorsport Images

First of all, the discussion of Unser’s one-lap penalty turned up a series of precedents that cast serious doubt on the procedure employed in levying the penalty a full 16 hours after the chequered flag had fallen. Penalties for passing under a yellow flag, after all, are almost always imposed immediately, usually by blackflagging the offending car so that it can be held in the pits for a timed penalty. That very thing happened to AJ Foyt in this year’s Daytona 500 and to Tom Sneva in the California 500 a few years back. In last year’s Indy 500 a one lap penalty was levied against Pancho Carter during the race without bringing him into the pits.

A handful of reporters then began to figure out how Unser might have made out if he had spent those last 50 laps trying to recover the lap that the race officials subsequently decided to subtract from his total. Most people agreed that Unser had been quicker than Andretti whenever they ran together during the race and that the Penske driver had also looked pretty conservative in steadily setting the pace of the race.

Nobody seemed to be anywhere near controlling this mess. As far as the Indy and USAC officials were concerned, everything around them was all rumour and innuendo. But where on earth was the rulebook? Where were the decisions based on fact?

Then there was a problem with a deflating rear tyre which Mario had to fight for some 10 laps around the 170-lap mark, and a final problem with an engine that had lost its edge. It all seemed to add up that Unser could have made up the deficit and still won the race.

When chief steward Tom Binford defended the stewards’ delayed decision by saying they had to have the time to study ABC’s television video of the incident, a flock of reporters were quick to cross-examine him. Andretti had already told them that he had radioed a complaint about Unser’s passing manoeuvre along the apron of the first turn to his crew, and that they, in turn, had immediately passed the information on to Binford.

Binford reluctantly agreed that this had been the case, although he tried to sidestep a question about whether the disputed passing move was reported at the time by the observers in the first turn. It turned out there had been no report.

Beyond that, the question of using video as a means of ‘back-up’ officiating has been roundly objected by all Big Time sports in America and elsewhere. That Binford and the stewards were to take an entirely opposite position seemed to the reporters gathered there in the empty grounds of the giant, old Speedway to be thoroughly small-time and even oafish. By now they were getting ready to tell their editors and their readers what a joke this race had become. “The Greatest Race Course in the World,” isn’t that what they call it? So the bad joke rolled loosely around the press room.

Mario Andretti poses with the Borg-Warner Trophy after Unser's one-lap penalty, 1981

Mario Andretti poses with the Borg-Warner Trophy after Unser’s one-lap penalty, 1981

Photo by: IndyCar Series

It then become clear that there was never much consensus over the ‘blending in’ rule that Unser was said to have violated. Binford, Andretti, [Gordon] Johncock and Foyt seem to agree that as soon as any car leaving the pits clears the pit wall at the start of the first turn he must not pass any cars on his right, and must attempt to ‘blend in’ as quickly as possible.

Many drivers however, including Johnny Rutherford, Sheldon Kinser and Tony Bettenhausen, who were called by the stewards to talk about the matter at Unser’s initial (disallowed) hearing on Monday morning, said you can argue it’s legal to race out of the pits all the way to Turn 1. Rutherford added that the business of ‘blending in’ was discussed endlessly and without resolution at various drivers’ meetings during the month.

By now it was all becoming a farce. Farce and Mad Hatters at tea time. Nobody seemed to be anywhere near controlling this mess. As far as the Indy and USAC officials were concerned, everything around them was all rumour and innuendo. But where on earth was the rulebook? Where were the decisions based on fact?

I recalled something that Patrick Head had said in the pitlane a few weeks earlier. “I have learned,” he said – and quite proud he was to say it – “that bureaucrats in America are just as ignorant as bureaucrats in Europe.”

It wasn’t much longer before Rick Mears arrived back at the track, released from hospital that morning and protecting the first and second degree burns around his nose and eyes with a Gould cap. His nose was blistered and raw and as he began to talk about his pit fire and the ineptitude which surrounded it, you could see the flock of reporters realising that this time the level of farce at Indianapolis had gone too far.

Talking quietly but very matter-of-factly and nursing some pain, too, Mears described how nobody had come to his aid as he climbed from his car, an invisible methanol fire burning around his head and upper torso. He explained how he could see his fuel man Bill Murphy dancing around the front of his car in similar trouble and how the fire soon began to consume all his oxygen so that he began to have difficulty in breathing.

“I knew I was in trouble then,” he said, “and that I had to put this fire out. So I looked around and made for the first extinguisher I saw.”

Rick Mears grabs a fire extinguisher at the 1981 Indianapolis 500

Rick Mears grabs a fire extinguisher at the 1981 Indianapolis 500

Photo by: Peter Kirles/Motorsport Images

The fire extinguisher was being brandished but not operated by one of the polyester-clothed fire marshals, and as Rick grabbed at the bottle in order to direct the nozzle in his direction he saw the man drop the extinguisher and step back! By then Mears’s father had rushed through from the back of the pit and it was he who now took hold of the extinguisher and put it into action.

By this time one of Mears’ mechanics was fighting the fire around the car and crewmen, and very soon mechanics from other teams were rushing down to throw water on the burning bodies and otherwise attempt to beat out the flames. According to numerous on-the-spot witnesses, only one of the Speedway’s (ill-equipped and untrained) firemen actually fought the invisible blaze.

Mears completed his story by telling reporters about the half-mile walk to the infield hospital which crew chief Derrick Walker and the other injured mechanics had to make in the wake of the fire. Walker completed the trip with all his clothing below his belt burned away and painful burns affecting his rump and legs.

“We need some big changes here. We need a new sanctioning body, we need a complete revision of a lot of things here. The way it is now is bad for racing, bad for the sport, bad for everyone” Johnny Rutherford

Rutherford had been waiting to testify at Unser’s hearing during Mears’ conversation with the press, and he now joined the conversation by joking with Mears and offering his congratulations for finally earning membership to the Burned Race Driver’s Club. But the initial joking between the two men soon faded away and Rutherford’s face began to take on a determined set as he added his own words to the day.

First of all, he talked about the terrible fear of fire that any race driver has, particularly one who has experienced fire and been hurt by it. He went on to talk about the need for proper equipment and training.

“It’s ridiculous that this race track doesn’t have these things. This is a huge, successful place, but they seem to have neglected some things.”

He shifted his head and pushed at his sunglasses.

“It’s got to be clear,” he carefully announced,” that we need some big changes here. We need a new sanctioning body, we need a complete revision of a lot of things here. The way it is now is bad for racing, bad for the sport, bad for everyone. It’s got to change.”

Bobby Unser, 1981 Indianapolis 500

Bobby Unser, 1981 Indianapolis 500

Photo by: Motorsport Images

What happened next?

The wait to determine who had won the 1981 Indy 500 lasted until 9 October when “against all predictions, including those of Roger Penske’s legal advisers” – as Autosport’s 15 October issue put it – Unser was declared the victor.

As Autosport reported: “After 137 days of deliberation, the USAC committee of inquiry announced that Unser, winner of the race on the road in the number one Penske, would be allowed to keep his victory spoils but would have to pay a $40,000 fine for his illegal manoeuvre on lap 150. Unser was accused of overtaking seven cars under the yellow lag while rejoining the race after a pitstop.”

Andretti’s team owner, Pat Patrick, was unavailable for comment – “he was away elk hunting with one B. Unser,” Autosport noted.

Andretti announced his intention to appeal, acknowledging that his chances of success were remote. “He would have to go to the FIA via ACCUS and USAC, who were the very people who made the decision,” explained the 22 October issue of Autosport.

The report added that Andretti was dissatisfied by the precedent it set, for rules should be enforced as written or organisers would “leave themselves open to the best lawyers around, and we will all be in deep trouble if that happens.”

For his part, Unser had been hampered for much of the summer by a stomach ulcer that hampered his performances and he became disillusioned with racing, deciding to step back at season’s end. He was replaced in Penske’s 1982 lineup by Kevin Cogan and although it was planned for Unser to return for the Indy 500, Unser’s sabbatical became a permanent retirement.

However, he would still show his skill by winning the 1986 Pikes Peak hillclimb – his tenth in total – in a Group B Audi Quattro.

Bobby Unser 1981 Indy 500

Bobby Unser 1981 Indy 500

Photo by: IndyCar Series

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