Indianapolis 500 was held at the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Speedway, Indiana on Sunday, May 24, 1981. The race is widely
considered one of the most controversial races in Indy history.
Bobby Unser took the checkered flag as the winner, with Mario Andretti
second. After the conclusion of the race, USAC officials ruled that
Unser had passed cars illegally while exiting the pit area during a
caution on lap 149. Unser was subsequently issued a one-position
penalty. The next morning, the official race results were posted, and
Unser was dropped to second place.
Mario Andretti was elevated to
first place and declared the race winner.
After a lengthy protest and appeals process, the penalty was
rescinded, and Unser was reinstated the victory on October 9.
Officially, it became Unser's third-career Indy 500 victory and his
final win in Indy car competition. Unser stepped out of the car at the
end of the season, and ultimately retired from driving.
The race was officially part of the 1981–82 USAC season. However,
most of the top entrants participated in the 1981 CART PPG Indy Car
World Series. Championship points for the 1981 Indy 500 were not
awarded towards the CART title.
The hectic month of May 1981 was interrupted several times by rain.
Pole qualifying stretched over three days due to inclement weather,
and several days of practice were cut short or lost due to rain. The
1981 race is also remembered for the horrifying crash of Danny Ongais,
and a major pit fire involving Rick Mears. Ongais was seriously
injured, and Mears suffered burns, but both drivers would recover.
Another major pit fire occurred later in the season at the Michigan
500, prompting new rules and standards to be put in place regarding
the safety of fueling rigs.
2 Race schedule
3 Practice and qualifying
3.1 Practice – week 1
3.2 Time trials – weekend 1
3.3 Practice – week 2
3.4 Time trials – weekend 2
3.5 Carburetion Day
4 Starting grid
4.3 Failed to Qualify
5 Race recap
5.2 Mears pit fire
Danny Ongais crash
5.4 Unser pit incident
6.1 Post race
6.2 Television controversy
6.3 Official results
7 Protest and appeals
8 Race Results
9 Aftermath and lore
12.1 See also
12.3 Works cited
Three years into the first open wheel split, the sport of Indy car
racing began settling into a mostly stabilized environment by 1981.
The upstart CART series sanctioned the season of races. The
Indianapolis 500 itself became an invitation-only race sanctioned by
USAC, involving the CART regulars and various one-off entries. USAC
kept alive their own "Gold Crown" championship, running Indy and the
Pocono 500 in June 1981.
A record total of 105 entries were expected to shatter the previous
records for drivers on the track and qualifying attempts.
Speed-cutting measures were still in place, and no drivers were
expected to challenge the track records in 1981. The biggest rule
change by USAC during the offseason was the banning of ground effects
side skirts on the sidepods.
Mario Andretti, as he had done in previous years, planned to race at
Indianapolis in-between his busy, full-time
Formula One schedule. His
plans included qualifying at Indy on pole day weekend (May 9–10),
then flying to Europe for the Belgian Grand Prix (May 17). After
Belgium, he would fly back to
Indianapolis in time for race day (May
For the first time, USAC held a special test session for first-time
drivers. The first-ever Rookie Orientation Program was organized and
held over three days in early April. It allowed newcomers the
opportunity to take their first laps at the Speedway and acclimate
themselves to the circuit in a relaxed environment. It would be held
without the pressure of veteran drivers crowding the track, without
the distraction of spectators, and with minimal media coverage. The
drivers were allowed to take the first phases of their rookie test
during the ROP. then return to complete the final phase of the test
during official practice in May.
Since the 500 had been moved to the Sunday of
Memorial Day weekend,
the 1981 race marked the earliest date (May 24) on which the race had
ever been held. According to the calendar, May 24 is also the earliest
date in which it can be scheduled.
Race schedule — April 1981
Race schedule — May 1981
No track activity
* Includes days where track
activity was significantly
limited due to rain
ROP – denotes Rookie
Practice and qualifying
Practice – week 1
Practice started on Opening Day, Saturday May 2. The two most notable
rookies of the field made most of the headlines for the afternoon.
Josele Garza (actually 19 at the time, lied on his entry form to
say he was 21) and
Geoff Brabham both passed their rookie tests.
On Sunday May 3,
Al Unser became the first driver to practice over
190 mph (310 km/h). A day later, his brother Bobby Unser
pushed the speeds over 197 mph (317 km/h). The first
incidents of the month occurred Monday, when
Gordon Smiley spun, and
Pete Halsmer crashed in turn 4.
Tuesday (May 5) was completely rained out, and Wednesday (May 6) was
windy, keeping the speeds mostly down. A record 50 cars took to the
track on Thursday (May 7), with
Mario Andretti fastest of the day at
194.300 mph (312.696 km/h).
On Friday, the final day of practice before pole day, Penske teammates
Bobby Unser and
Rick Mears were hand-timed just a tick below
200 mph (320 km/h).
Mario Andretti was a close third over
198 mph (319 km/h).
Time trials – weekend 1
On Saturday May 9, rain delayed the start of pole position time trials
until 3:34 p.m. An abbreviated session saw only 9 cars finish
A. J. Foyt
A. J. Foyt was the fastest of the nine, sitting on
the provisional pole at 196.078 mph (315.557 km/h). Rain
stopped qualifying for the day at 5:49 p.m., and pushed pole
qualifying into the next day.
On Sunday May 10, pole position qualifying was scheduled to resume.
Rain fell all afternoon, however, and canceled all track activity for
the day. 27 cars were still eligible for the pole position, and the
resumption of pole day qualifying was scheduled for the following
Among the cars not yet qualified was Mario Andretti, who due in
Belgium for the Grand Prix. His plans to put the car safely in the
field on pole weekend were thwarted, and a contingency plan would have
to be made.
Practice – week 2
Rain continued to fall, and washed out practice on Monday (May 11). On
Tuesday May 12, the 200 mph (320 km/h) barrier was finally
broken in practice for the month by Danny Ongais.
Mario Andretti took
his final practice run of the week, and departed for Belgium. Two
major crashes occurred, involving
Phil Caliva and Phil Krueger. Tim
Richmond and Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon both were involved in spins, but
suffered no contact.
On Wednesday May 13,
Rick Mears pushed the fastest speed of the month
to 200.312 mph (322.371 km/h). Retired veteran driver Wally
Dallenbach climbed into Mario Andretti's car, and began to take some
shake down laps. Due to Andretti's absence for the rest of the week,
Patrick Racing team decided to have Dallenbach qualify the car for
him. On race day, Andretti would take over the cockpit once again.
Dallenbach was quickly up to speed, over 191 mph (307 km/h)
on his first day.
Rain closed the track on Thursday. On Friday,
Bobby Unser upped the
speed even further, turning a lap of 201.387 mph
(324.101 km/h). A record 63 cars took to the track on the final
full day of practice.
World of Outlaws
World of Outlaws star, and Indy rookie Steve
Kinser crashed in turn 1.
Time trials – weekend 2
Pole day time trials resumed on a sunny Saturday May 16. About a
half-hour into the session,
Bobby Unser took over the pole position
with a four-lap average of 200.546 mph (322.748 km/h).
Meanwhile, Wally Dallenbach put Mario Andretti's car safely in the
field at over 193 mph (311 km/h).
Mike Mosley squeezed
himself into the front row posting a 197.141 mph
(317.268 km/h) run. Moments later,
Rick Mears took to the track.
After a lap over 200.9 mph (323.3 km/h), his car developed a
vibration, and he was forced to wave off, giving up his chance for the
pole position. Pole qualifying continued until 2:00 p.m., when
the original qualifying line was finally exhausted.
Bobby Unser was
awarded the pole, and the next round of qualifying began.
After pole qualifying was over,
Tom Sneva qualified his car at
200.691 mph (322.981 km/h). It was the fastest speed of the
month, but since it did not take place in the pole round, he was not
eligible for the pole position. Later in the day,
Rick Mears took a
back-up car out to qualify, but had to settle for a slower speed, and
22nd starting position.
On Sunday, bump day time trials were very busy. Ten cars were bumped
during 25 attempts.
On Thursday May 21, the final scheduled practice session was held. All
33 qualified cars, along with 2 alternates that took laps. Mario
Andretti returned from Belgium, and practiced in his already-qualified
Jerry Karl was arrested during the week, but would be released on
bond in time for race day.
Bob Harkey practiced his car for him.
The starting grid was altered slightly after qualifying. Wally
Dallenbach, who qualified Mario Andretti's car 8th, stepped aside as
planned, and the car moved to the rear of the grid. In addition,
George Snider vacated his ride in favor of Tim Richmond.
Bobby Unser continued his dominance of the month, and led the speed
chart for the afternoon, with a hand-timed lap of 197.6 mph
(318.0 km/h). Later in the afternoon, hoping to sweep the month,
Penske Racing pit crew also guided him to a victory in the Miller
Pit Stop Contest.
Bobby Unser (W)
A. J. Foyt
A. J. Foyt (W)
Gordon Johncock (W)
Johnny Rutherford (W)
Josele Garza (R)
Bill Alsup (R)
Al Unser (W)
Kevin Cogan (R)
Bob Lazier (R)
Geoff Brabham (R)
Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. (R)
Rick Mears (W)
Pete Halsmer (R)
Michael Chandler (R)
Scott Brayton (R)
Tom Klausler (R)
Mario Andretti (W)
Mario Andretti qualified 8th by Wally Dallenbach (moved to 32nd
on grid for race day)
George Snider qualified 29th, sold to
Tim Richmond (moved to
33rd on grid for race day)
Herm Johnson (R) (#28) – Bumped
Bill Engelhart (#29) – Bumped
Failed to Qualify
George Snider (#84) – Sold qualified car to Richmond
Steve Chassey (R) (#64) – Bumped
Larry Cannon (#96, #99) – Bumped
Tom Bagley (#43) – Bumped
Tim Richmond (#21) – Bumped; purchased Snider entry
Roger Mears (R) (#98) – Bumped
John Mahler (#92, #93) – Wave off
Dick Simon (#22) – Wave off
Bill Tempero (R) (#15) – Wave off
Harry MacDonald (R) (#45) – Wave off
Bob Frey (R) (#71) – Wave off
Phil Caliva (R) (#47, #87) – Wave off
Bill Vukovich II
Bill Vukovich II (#42) – Wave off
Ken Hamilton (R) (#63) – Wave off
Johnny Parsons (#8, #12, #18) – Wave off
Jerry Sneva (#17, #34, #72, #74) – Wave off
Spike Gehlhausen (#23, #34) – Wrecked during qualifying attempt
Phil Krueger (R) (#89) – Wrecked during qualifying attempt
Roger Rager (#21, #66) – Blew engine during qualifying attempt
Jim Hurtubise (#65) – Blew engine during qualifying attempt
Tom Klauser (#51) – Incomplete attempt
Chip Mead (R) (#49) – Incomplete attempt
Rich Vogler (R) (#44, #46) – Incomplete attempt
Steve Kinser (R) (#78) – Practice crash
Joe Saldana (#24, #69) – Practice crash
Steve Ball (R) (#85)
Dick Ferguson (#95)
Bob Harkey (#71, #89, #96)
Bubby Jones (#58)
Greg Leffler (#43, #44)
John Martin (#57)
Jim McElreath (#26)
Larry Rice (#52)
Phil Threshie (#67)
Frank Weiss (R) (#93)
Dale Whittington (R) (#91)
Jim Buick (R) (#86) – Practice only
Jerry Miller (R) (#65) – Passed rookie test
Pat Bedard (R) (#17) – Passed rookie test
Lee Brayton (#35) – Passed rookie test
As the field came through turn 4, the field began accelerating,
anticipating the green flag. To the shock of many drivers in the back
of the field, the green flag wasn't waved until
Bobby Unser neared the
start-finish line, and many of the back-row markers did not see the
green flag until the front-runners accelerated away through turn 1.
Because of the controversial start,
Bobby Unser took the lead at the
start, and pulled away from the field, with
Johnny Rutherford moving
up from row 2 into second place. Mike Mosley, the #2 starter, blew a
radiator on lap 16 and finished in last place. Tom Sneva, with the
fastest car in the field, charged from the 20th starting position to
third place by lap 20. Rutherford took the lead from Unser on lap 22,
but three laps later went out with a broken fuel pump. Sneva led for a
lap, then pitted under the yellow flag for Rutherford's tow-in. Unser
made his first pit stop on lap 32 when Don Whittington's wreck brought
out another yellow. Sneva inherhited the lead after pit stops.
On lap 39, the field anticipated the green flag and started
accelerating between turns 3 and 4. Just then, USAC changed their
minds and ordered the pace car back onto the track. By then, Tom Sneva
had driven through turn 4 and passed the pace car. Realizing his
mistake, Sneva slowed down and blended back behind the pace car.
Citing that Sneva had blended back behind the pace car and that the
infraction was unintentional, USAC decided not to impose any
penalties. Sneva held the lead until the second round of pit stops
began on lap 56. Sneva pitted first, but the car stalled as he tried
to pull away. As Sneva's crew tried to re-fire the engine, new leader
Rick Mears pulled into his pit directly behind Sneva.
Mears pit fire
Rick Mears pitted on lap 58, fuel began to gush from the
refueling hose before it had been connected to the car. Fuel sprayed
over the car, Mears and his mechanics, then ignited when it contacted
Methanol burns with a transparent flame and no smoke, and
panic gripped the pit as crew members and spectators fled from the
invisible fire. Mears, on fire from the waist up, jumped out of his
car and ran to the pit wall, where a safety worker, not seeing the
fire, tried to remove Mears' helmet. Meanwhile, Mears' fueler, covered
in burning fuel, waved his arms frantically to attract the attention
of the fire crews already converging on the scene. By this time the
safety worker attending to Mears had fled, and Mears, in near panic at
being unable to breathe, leaped over the pit wall toward another
crewman carrying a fire extinguisher, who dropped the extinguisher and
also fled. Mears tried to turn the extinguisher on himself, but at
this point his father, Bill Mears, having already pulled Rick's wife
Deena to safety, grabbed the extinguisher and put out the fire. His
mechanics had also been extinguished, and the pit fire crew arrived to
thoroughly douse Mears' car.(19)
Thanks to quick action by Bill Mears and the fact that methanol burns
at a much lower temperature than gasoline, no one was seriously hurt
in the incident.
Rick Mears and four of his mechanics (including
Derrick Walker, a future crewchief on the Penske team) were sent to
hospital, and Mears underwent plastic surgery on his face,
particularly on his nose. The incident prompted a redesign to the fuel
nozzle used on Indycars, adding a safety valve that would only open
when the nozzle was connected to the car.(20)
Gordon Smiley led lap 57 to lap 58, his first and only lap
led in his career at Indianapolis.(19)
Danny Ongais crash
Only minutes later,
Danny Ongais came into the pits on lap 63 as the
leader of the race, but problems during the stop caused it to drag on
for a disastrous 46 seconds. After finally leaving the pits, Ongais
approached a slower car at the end of the backstretch. Perhaps still
upset about the long stop, he made a late pass going into turn 3.
Carrying too much speed out of the turn, the car drifted out into the
grey and the back end began to slide. Ongais tried to correct the
slide by turning right, and the car hooked to the right and crashed
nearly head-on into the wall. (A year later,
Gordon Smiley lost
control at the same turn in the same way, but crashed directly head-on
and was killed.) The front end of the car was ripped away, leaving an
unconscious Ongais completely exposed in the cockpit as the car
continued around turn 3, trailing a long tongue of orange fire from
burning oil. Safety crews quickly surrounded the car and used the Jaws
of Life to rescue Ongais, who suffered a concussion and badly broken
feet and legs. Remarkably, Ongais made a full recovery and raced again
Indianapolis just one year later.
Unser pit incident
On lap 131, Tom Sneva, who fell 35 laps down after his engine stall on
lap 58, got taken out of the race by a blown engine. He stopped his
car in turn 4, entering the pit lane. He climbed out of his car and
his car was towed off. Sneva, after having the best car, was
frustratedly out of the race with a broken clutch in his engine. In an
Chris Economaki minutes later, Sneva said that the
engine stall happened because he couldn't get the car in gear and once
the problem was fixed the engine began to have problems and finally
came apart on Sneva's 96th lap completed.
Pete Halsmer crashed out of the race on lap 135 and the caution came
out soon afterwards for Josele Garza's accident. Josele hit the wall
head-on but remarkably came out uninjured. Despite crashing, Josele
Garza's effort in the race won him the 1981
Indianapolis 500 Rookie of
the Year award. After 3 laps of caution, the race resumed with Mario
Andretti as the race leader and
Bobby Unser in second.
On lap 146, Tony Bettenhausen had a tire going down, which he at the
time was unaware of. Approaching turn four, the tire deflated, and
Bettenhausen attempted to move out of the groove and out of traffic.
In the process, he touched wheels with Gordon Smiley, sending Smiley's
car spinning and into the wall backwards in turn 4. Three laps later,
Mario Andretti and second place
Bobby Unser went into the pit
area for service. Unser finished his pit stop first, and was the first
driver to exit the pit area. Andretti followed a few seconds behind.
While the two cars were exiting the pits, the pace car was leading the
field at reduced pace through turn 1 and turn 2. Unser stayed on the
track apron, below the painted white line, and proceeded to pass by 14
cars and blend into the field at the exit of turn two. He took his
place in line immediately behind the pace car as the leader. Andretti
himself also passed one or two cars before he blended into the field
in the south short chute. Both drivers' actions went largely unnoticed
at the time. Andretti claims that he immediately called his pit crew
on the radio and told him that Unser had passed cars under the
The race stewards investigated Andretti's claim, but no track
observers had witnessed Unser's infraction. No penalty was considered
for Unser passing under yellow while the race was in progress.
No announcers in the live radio broadcast made note of any yellow flag
passes, nor was it reported that any penalty for doing so was under
The ABC television commentators, in contrast, immediately noticed
Unser's passes as they occurred, then expressed astonishment at
Further information: 1981
Indianapolis 500 § Television
Gordon Johncock led late in the race, but slowed and eventually
suffered a blown engine with less than 10 laps to go. Bobby Unser
assumed the lead on lap 182, with
Mario Andretti second. Unser held on
to win by 5.180 seconds, one of the closest finishes at Indianapolis
to that point.
Unser celebrated his third Indy 500 victory (also 1968 and 1975),
while Andretti was lauded for charging from 32nd starting position to
a 2nd place finish. Unser made a total of ten pit stops, a record
for the most ever by a winner. In victory lane a satisfied Bobby Unser
made no mention of a question about his win when interviewed by ABC's
Bobby Unser finished first but was penalized after the race for an
infraction, and was dropped to second place in the official results.
He was reinstated the victory on October 9.
Mario Andretti finished second, but was declared the winner after
Bobby Unser's penalty was issued. Andretti was returned to second on
October 9 when Unser's victory was reinstated.
Shortly after the race was over, ramblings over a possible protest or
penalty were beginning to surface around the garage area. Andretti's
team Patrick Racing, as well as other drivers, were voicing complaints
Bobby Unser passing cars under the yellow on lap 149. Word of the
incident reached chief race steward
Thomas W. Binford by mid-evening.
At the time, it was the policy of USAC to post official results for
Indianapolis 500 at 8 a.m. the morning after the race, and that
any protest of that result could be filed after the race results were
posted. In a taped interview with
Chris Economaki three hours after
the race ended, Binford announced that he would be reviewing the video
of lap 149 with the board overnight and that based on what he saw,
Unser was likely to get penalized for the passes.
ABC televised the race on same-day tape-delay at 9 p.m. EDT. At the
time, it was the policy of ABC Sports to record live commentary of the
race at the start of the race and at the end of the race. For the
remaining portions of the race, commentary was recorded during
Unlike the live radio broadcast, which did not notice nor mention the
infraction, the television broadcast focused heavily on the
incident, and reported it as it was being aired. It was later
revealed that commentators
Jim McKay and
Jackie Stewart had provided
the lap 149 incident commentary in post-production, and did so with
the knowledge that a protest of Unser's actions was in the
Jim McKay: "Bobby, out again – and Bobby, going out, very – passed
a car – What's he doing? He – oh look at that! He's passed about
half a dozen cars."
Jackie Stewart: "Oh, James, that's a – !"
McKay: "Under the yellow. You can't do that!"
Stewart: "That is a no-no! He has accelerated probably in the haste of
leaving the pit lane, he's certainly overtaken these other cars; I'm
not sure why he did that. I know that you're certainly not supposed to
do it. The regulations say that under yellow flag conditions you must
not pass any other cars, and that certainly has been the case here..."
McKay: "...but you're supposed to blend into the traffic, right? Let's
see if he did that at all."
Stewart: "Yes, you are supposed to...but certainly he's accelerated
all the way down below the double yellow line there, and simply
overtaken a lot of cars there; I'm sure Bobby must know the
regulations, I'm sure he knew what he was doing, whether his mind was
somewhere else I can't say, but he shouldn't have passed these other
— ABC 1981
Indianapolis 500 coverage of the Unser lap 149 incident
After the end of the race and Unser's victory lane interview was aired
on tape delay, a live portion of broadcast concluded ABC's race
coverage at approximately 11:45 p.m. EDT (10:45 p.m. IST). At
that late hour,
Mario Andretti with broadcasters
Jackie Stewart and
Jim McKay in the broadcast booth, announced that a protest was in
"Well, there is a protest in process, mainly because we're talking
about an unusual infraction of the rules. The one particular rule we
dwell on quite a bit during the private and also the public drivers
are passing under yellow. This one instance where Bobby and I were
exiting the pits, I was right behind him... I just lost sight. He went
about 7...8...9 cars in front of me..."
It was followed by the previously taped interview with chief steward
Binford with Chris Economaki, with the assertion that video would be
reviewed overnight, and that Unser was likely to be penalized. The
overall broadcast was considered misleading, and biased against Unser,
for several reasons:
It suggested that Unser's infraction was noticed by – and was
immediately obvious to – ABC's broadcast booth at the time it
occurred, based on the impromptu nature of conversation, and surprise,
both McKay and Stewart emoted. Their remarks were recorded later,
after they had knowledge of both Unser's win, and that a protest of
Unser's infraction in could in fact cost him the race win.
The broadcast focused only on Unser's infraction, as it had earlier
been relayed to them, and did not mention Andretti's. It was later
shown on the official highlight film that as Andretti watched Unser in
front of him passing a dozen cars, Andretti himself had passed one or
two cars too, but A.J. Foyt (a lapped car) claimed that he had waved
Andretti by – which was permissible under the rules – to allow
Andretti to blend in closer to the lead lap drivers. That did not come
to light until later, and was not considered reason to revise the
official standings for a second time.
ABC's race-end coverage featured Andretti in the booth, live,
announcing his intention to protest the results, while Unser was not
available for comment or interview.
Stewart, in the post-produced coverage, singled out Unser for making a
mistake that he could be penalized for, and suggested both that it was
a severe infraction, and that he should have known better.
Unser took ABC's coverage, and Stewart's in particular, personally. In
answer to this, Stewart said, "Bobby was upset. He said that if it had
not been for me and ABC, USAC wouldn't have had to take action. My job
is not to advise officials, but it is to inform my viewers. Had I not
pointed that out to illustrate an infraction of the regulations as I
understood them, I would have done a great disservice to the
USAC spent the night reviewing race tapes and scoring reports. At 8
a.m. EST Monday morning, the official results of the race were posted.
Bobby Unser was charged with passing cars under the yellow, and was
penalized 1 position (some erroneous reports listed it as a 1-lap
penalty) for the infraction. The penalty dropped Unser down to
second place, and elevated
Mario Andretti to first place. Andretti was
declared the victor, and it made him a two-time
That night, the traditional Victory Banquet was held at the Indiana
Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, with Andretti the new
guest of honor. The mood was subdued, and the event was overshadowed
by large-scale media attention (
Bobby Unser did not attend the
banquet). The winner's share of the purse was announced, but the pay
envelope presented to Andretti was empty. Andretti was presented with
the official pace car but was not given the keys. Ted Koppel's
Nightline focused the evening's program on the controversy and
included a live interview with Andretti who compared the situation to
the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, a race in which he won on the track, but
was stripped of victory when officials deemed he jumped the start.
Andretti stated in an interview during the banquet: "I am glad the
officials did the right thing but it still is sad. When Bobby won he
went through all the hoopla and got to experience victory lane and the
other things a winner gets to experience in victory lane...then it was
taken from him and given to me. And I will never get to experience
Penske Racing, Bobby Unser's team, immediately filed an official
protest of the decision. On the Wednesday(18) after the race, a
five-person panel of officials (led by Tom Binford), denied the
Roger Penske subsequently filed an appeal to the USAC
Bobby Unser refused to take a part willingly in the
"It's already been ruined for me. I'm very bitter. I'm not waiting for
the decision either. The damage has already been done and I will paint
racing out of my future if I was drawing my future."
Protest and appeals
Roger Penske filed an appeal after the official results were posted
which had declared Andretti the winner. A hearing was held on June 12,
1981. The USAC appeals hearing resembled a court case. According to
some in attendance, witnesses who took the stand were subjected to
numerous odd and superfluous questions, many with little or no
relevance to the race itself. The hearings reportedly were dragged
out with considerable wasted time. Mid-way through the hearing,
the meeting was adjourned, and the resumption was scheduled for July
Bobby Unser's primary argument was based on what he considered to be a
vague definition of the "blend rule." When exiting the pit area under
caution, drivers were instructed to look to their right and see which
car was next to them on the track. After accelerating to sufficient
speed, the driver was to "blend" (merge) into the field behind that
Mario Andretti argued that it was an established guideline that
the place to look for the car to blend behind was at the south end of
the pit straight, where the concrete wall ends. Bobby Unser
countered that he understood that, as long as the car stayed under the
white line and in the apron, the place to blend in was the exit of
turn two. Unser argued that the warm-up apron was an extension of
the pit area. He also contended that Andretti had passed at least two
cars himself, and should have also incurred a one-lap penalty. In
addition, it was pointed out that USAC allowed the alleged infraction
to go unpenalized throughout the remainder of the race (instead of
acting upon it immediately after it happened). Binford, the chief
steward, stated that he did receive a complaint after lap 149, but
that track observers had missed Unser's infraction, so he was
powerless to act during the race.
USAC was faced with a dilemma, as the rulebook was in fact unclear in
regards to the blend rule. Officials mulled over the decision for
months. On October 9, 1981, a three-member USAC appeals board voted
2-1 to reinstate the victory to Bobby Unser. He was instead fined
An official of the USAC board told reporters 3 hours after the
reinstatement of Unser's win:
"Based on what we've seen, Thomas Binford and the Indianapolis
officials should have detected the infraction at the moment of it. By
not penalizing Unser sooner they automatically made the passes allowed
because they failed in their responsibility to detect the infraction.
So Unser wins the race but a $40,000 fine will replace the one
The appeal panel said that, since the violation could have been
detected at the time it was committed, a one-lap penalty after the
completion of the race was too severe. In its decision, which resulted
from a 2-to-1 vote, the panel said that race officials had "a
responsibility to observe and report illegal passing in yellow flag
situations and they failed to do so."
"The court believes," the panel said in a 23-page opinion written by
Edwin Render, its chairman, "that responsible officials knew of the
infraction when it was committed … For these reasons the court rules
that it was improper to impose a one-lap penalty on car No.3 after the
The results below represent the final revision of the 1981
Indianapolis 500 results, as certified on October 9, 1981.
Bobby Unser W
Mario Andretti W
Kevin Cogan R
Geoff Brabham R
Tony Bettenhausen Jr. R
Gordon Johncock W
Bill Alsup R
Michael Chandler R
A. J. Foyt
A. J. Foyt W
Mach 1 Enterprises
Scott Brayton R
Al Unser W
Machinists Union Racing
Bob Lazier R
Josele Garza R
Pete Halsmer R
Lindsey Hopkins Racing
Tom Klausler R
Rick Mears W
Johnny Rutherford W
All American Racers
Indianapolis 500 winner
R Indy 500 Rookie
All teams raced on tires provided by Goodyear.
Aftermath and lore
Indianapolis 500 was largely considered the most
controversial running to date. It was referred to as "The Great
Dispute," and in some circles was "Undecided." Bobby Unser,
who felt the entire ordeal was politically motivated by his USAC
enemies, became disillusioned with auto racing and took a
sabbatical from driving. He sat out the 1982 Indy 500, and retired
officially in 1983 because the $40,000 fine for the win and several
other fines he faced in sponsorship ruined his finances.
After being reinstated the winner,
Bobby Unser was presented with the
miniature Borg-Warner Trophy, while
Mario Andretti had already been
presented with the winner's championship ring. While Bobby Unser
celebrated in victory lane on race day, the morning after the race,
Mario Andretti took part in the winner's photograph session. No
official victory photos were taken of Unser. Months after the race,
Unser's likeness was sculpted and added to the Borg-Warner Trophy
appropriately. A claim was even made at the time that Andretti "threw
away the winner's ring" when he heard that Unser was reinstated the
victory, but the story appears to have been unsubstantiated. In a 2001
Jack Arute and
Bobby Unser on
ESPN Classic's "Big
Ticket", Andretti confirmed that he kept the ring by wearing it during
To this day the race is still controversial.
Mario Andretti has said
in interviews that because both he and Unser passed cars under yellow,
both should be penalized. Unser has retorted that Andretti is being a
sore loser. In a recent interview Unser said that he and Mario were
very close friends until the race finished and now they are still
livid with each other over the controversy, though both maintain a
mutual respect for each other. Both also agree that regardless of the
outcome, USAC mishandled the situation from start to finish and much
of the controversy could have been easily avoided. In retrospect,
drivers and officials often call it "The Undecided Indy 500" or "The
Vern Schuppan (3rd),
Geoff Brabham (5th) and Dennis
Firestone (10th) were the first trio of foreign drivers to finish in
the top ten as since British drivers Graham Hill,
Jim Clark and Jackie
Stewart finished 1st, 2nd, and 6th in 1966.
Mario Andretti was born in
Italy, but was both an Italian and U.S. citizen by that time. Young
rookie Josele Garza, after leading 13 laps during the race, won the
Rookie of the Year award. Two years later it would be revealed that
Garza fibbed about his age, and was actually 19 on race day (rules at
the time required drivers to be age 21). By 1983, he was being
credited as the youngest starting driver ever at Indy, a record he
would hold until 2003. In 1996, the rules were changed to set the
minimum driver age for the
Indianapolis 500 at 18, a rule later
solidified by federal tobacco regulations. Since 2014, drivers as
young as 15 are permitted during the Month of May, provided they are
racing in a lower tier support event on the road course, and the Indy
Freedom 100 support race on the oval allows 17-year old drivers
since 2011 (when all tobacco sponsorship ended in INDYCAR, per Master
Settlement Agreement). In comparison, NASCAR mandates support series
drivers on the
Indianapolis oval to be 18. The youngest winner on the
oval, as of 2017, is William Byron, who won the 2017 Lilly Diabetes
250 NASCAR support series race at 19 years of age. A 15-year old has
won on the road course, Garrett Gerloff, 15 years 27 days, when he won
the USGPRU Moriwaki MD250H support race at the USGPRU support race in
the 2010 MotoGP round.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network.
Paul Page served
as anchor for the fifth year. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane.
Darl Wible departed, and
Bob Jenkins moved to the fourth turn
position, where he would remain through 1989. Larry Henry joined the
crew for the first year, stationed on the backstretch. This was
Larry's only year on the Backstretch, he moved to Turn 3 the following
year. This was Doug Zink's last year in Turn 3.
The reporting location for Turn 2 shifted slightly, although still on
the roof of the VIP Suites, the station was moved southward towards
the middle of the turn. Howdy Bell, the longtime turn 2 reporter,
celebrated his 20th year on the crew. This was Howdy's last year in
Turn 2 until 1985. In Turn 3, the reporting location moved to a
platform on the L Stand.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network
Chief Announcer: Paul Page
Driver expert: Rodger Ward
Statistician: John DeCamp
Historian: Donald Davidson
Turn 1: Ron Carrell
Turn 2: Howdy Bell
Backstretch: Larry Henry
Turn 3: Doug Zink
Turn 4: Bob Jenkins
Jerry Baker (north pits)
Chuck Marlowe (north-center pits)
Luke Walton (south-center pits)
Lou Palmer (south pits)
Bob Forbes (garages)
The race was carried in the
United States on ABC Sports on a same-day
tape delay basis.
Sam Posey rode along and reported live from inside
the pace car at the start of the race.
The broadcast has re-aired on
ESPN Classic since 2003. On May 24, 2003
the race was featured on
ESPN Classic's "Big Ticket" series, hosted by
Jack Arute featuring interviews with
Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti.
On July 30, 2003, an expanded edit of the "Big Ticket" version aired.
Host: Dave Diles
Announcer: Jim McKay
Color: Jackie Stewart
Wikimedia Commons has media related to 1981
Buick Regal pace car
The controversial 2002
1981-82 USAC Championship Car season
^ Fox, Jack C. (1994). The Illustrated History of the
1911-1994 (4th ed.). Carl Hungness Publishing. p. 22.
^ Miller, Robin (May 25, 1981). "Bobby U. wins 3rd '500'; Ongais badly
hurt in crash". The
Indianapolis Star. p. 1. Retrieved June 2,
2017 – via Newspapers.com.
^ a b c "Controversy nothing new for 500".
^ a b c d "1981
Indianapolis 500 Daily Trackside Report" (PDF).
Indy500.com. 1981. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
^ a b c d e f Classic "Big Ticket" - 1981
Indianapolis 500, ESPN
Classic, May 23, 2003
^ a b McKee, Craig (May 29, 1982). "'81 Indy 500: Bobby...Finally".
Indianapolis Star. p. Souvenir 3. Retrieved 2017-08-20 –
^ a b 1981
Indianapolis 500 live radio, IMS Radio Network, May 24,
^ Mr. Autosportfan (2017-07-12), 1981
Indianapolis 500, retrieved
^ 1981 Carl Hungness 500 Yearbook
^ McKay, Jim (May 1, 1998). The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports. E
P Dutton. ISBN 0-525-94418-4.
^ a b c "Idol Of The Indy Airwaves". Sports Illustrated.
Indianapolis 500 television broadcast, ABC Sports, May 24, 1981
^ Mr. Autosportfan (2017-07-12), 1981
Indianapolis 500, retrieved
^ Vincent, Charlie (May 25, 1982). "Unser, Mario '81 feud simmers".
Detroit Free Press. p. 1D. Retrieved 2017-08-20 – via
^ a b c "The
Talk of Gasoline Alley – Sunday 5/14/2006, 1070 WIBC-AM
Indianapolis 500 Yearbook – Carl Hungess Publishing, pp. 83
^ "Appeal Panel on Indy 500 Is Adjourned Until July 29". New York
^ "Attorney for Unser Says Andretti Was in Violation". New York Times.
^ Unser ruled winner of '81 500
^ "Jack Rhoades Obituary - Myers-Reed Dignity Memorial Chapel
Columbus IN". obits.dignitymemorial.com. Retrieved 2017-08-19.
^ "05/24/1981 race:
Indianapolis 500 (USAC) - Racing-Reference.info".
racing-reference.info. Retrieved 2017-08-20.
^ "1981 Paint Schemes". The Open Wheel. 2016-02-18. Retrieved
Indianapolis 500". Motor Sport Magazine. 2017-06-12. Retrieved
^ "1981 CART PPG IndyCar World Series TEAM CHART & SCHEDULE - RuRa
Message Board". www.rubbins-racin.com. Retrieved 2017-08-20.
Indianapolis 500 television broadcast, ABC Sports, May 30, 1982
^ Legends of the Brickyard – 1981
Indianapolis 500, ESPN, 1987
^ "Sports People; A Bitter Bobby Unser". New York Times.
Indianapolis 500 Day-By-Day Trackside Report For the Media
Indianapolis 500 History: Race & All-Time Stats – Official Site
Indianapolis 500 Radio Broadcast,
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Track and race information
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Orange juice instead of Milk
The Millenium 500
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The 100th 500
Indianapolis 500 race summaries and box scores
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World War I
World War I and World
War II, r