The car that won the
longest Indianapolis ‘500’
The 1981 ‘Norton Spirit’ Penske PC9B owned by the Malloy Foundation was part of the tribute to Penske Racing’s 50th anniversary at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in the Indiana Convention Center. This was the car Bobby Unser used in 1981 to notch his (and car owner Roger Penske’s) third Indianapolis 500-mile race in what proved to be the longest 500-mile race ever contested. Thirty-five years later it remains the most controversial Indianapolis 500-mile race.
Even before the 1981 ‘500’ there was controversy, as the sport of championship auto racing was entering the third turbulent year of the sanctioning war between Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the United States Auto Club (USAC). The initial skirmish had been resolved in CART’s favor by a temporary injunction issued by United States District Judge James Noland on the first day of practice for the1979 Indianapolis ‘500.’
The war intensified as CART and USAC each issued their 1980 season schedules. CART planned 13 races that included many events at former USAC tracks, while the 10-race USAC schedule contained some surprises with new 500-kilometer races scheduled at Talladega International Speedway, Road Atlanta, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway tried to bolster USAC’s position by providing “automatic invitations” for the ‘500’ to teams which had been loyal to USAC during 1979, but eventually concern over a lack of entries led to the Speedway also inviting the CART teams. In the early months of 1980 Leo Mehl of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company struggled to get the two feuding groups to compromise, and finally Goodyear’s threat to charge teams for race tires brought about an agreement.
On April 13 1980, the two groups jointly announced the formation of the ‘Championship Racing League’ (CRL) to be governed by a six-member board (five of which were car owners) to present a combined 1980 schedule to consist of “about 15 races.” The races would be run with USAC as the officiating body and use 1979 USAC rules with the proposed races at Talladega Atlanta and Charlotte dropped.
Alas, the truce did not hold. After the running of the 1980 “500,’ new Indianapolis Motor Speedway President John Cooper publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with USAC’s “lack of independence” due to the stacking of car owners on the CRL board. After Cooper requested proposals to sanction the 1981 Indianapolis ‘500’ from NASCAR, IMSA (International Motorsports Association), the SCCA, and even the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), USAC panicked.
After the fifth race of the 1980 CRL season the ‘Red Roof Inns 150’, USAC President Dick King issued a statement in mid-July, that USAC was withdrawing from the Championship Racing League and that the organization was dissolved. CART continued the 1980 season under their own sanction and ran seven more races, while the USAC 1980 schedule abruptly ended after five races.
For 1981, the USAC championship racing division really sanctioned only two IndyCar tracks – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono International Raceway and the remainder of the new USAC ‘Gold Crown’ schedule consisted of three one-mile dirt tracks. The 1981 CART 11-race schedule did not include the Indianapolis 500-mile race but it did not have any races scheduled during the month before the ‘500’ or against it.
The 106-inch wheelbase aluminum monocoque PC-9 rode on special 4-spoke Penske magnesium wheels fitted with Goodyear tires. In 1980, Ferris won the annual Louis Schwitzer Award from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers SAE for his innovation and engineering excellence in the design of the PC-9 chassis.
On the second day of May practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Unser ran the fastest lap of the month so far at 197 miles per hour (MPH). Unser and Mears then upped their pace to over 200 MPH on Friday afternoon before the first scheduled weekend of time trials. Due to rain the first weekend both Penske drivers were forced to wait until May 15 to make their time trial runs.
Unser averaged 200.546 MPH for his four-lap qualifying run, then the defending pole winner Rick Mears took to the track and posted a first lap of 200.9 MPH. Mears’ PC-9B ‘Gould Charge’ developed a vibration during the second lap so Mears wisely aborted that attempt and Unser held onto his second career ‘500’ pole position start.
Bobby Unser and the #3 ‘Norton Spirit’ dominated the running of the 1981 ‘500,’ as he led the first 21 laps and eventually the most laps, 89, as he led on eight different occasions. Teammate Rick Mears led once on lap 57 before he pitted, then a pit fire eliminated the ‘Gould Charge’ and sent Mears and four of his crewmembers to the hospital with burns.
On Lap 149, under caution due to a crash by sophomore driver Gordon Smiley, race leader Mario Andretti and second place runner Bobby Unser both made a pit stop. The pair swapped positions as they emerged from the pits. As Andretti prepared to slot his #40 STP Oil Treatment-sponsored WIldcat into the middle of the pack in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2, he watched as Unser passed eight cars before blending into traffic. ”Bobby’s going right to the front!” Andretti told his Patrick Racing crew chief, Jim McGee via radio.
Unser led 47 of the remaining 50 laps and Andretti crossed the finish line 5 seconds behind Bobby who had backed off to save his car in the later laps. When the race was over, Andretti’s team owner U.E. “Pat” Patrick told Chief Steward Tom Binford that he wanted to file a protest, but Binford replied that a protest could not be lodged until the official results were posted at 8 AM the following day.
Back in 1981, the ABC television broadcast of the ‘500’ was tape-delayed, with commentary added during post-production rather than recorded live which has led to much confusion and false claims of bias against Unser years later as fans watch the replay. ABC producers knew there was a potential controversy so they included footage of Unser passing cars under caution on the broadcast and commentator Jackie Stewart uttered “oh, that’s a no-no.” ABC television pit reporter and veteran racing journalist Chris Economaki asked Binford to comment on Unser’s documented violation and Binford stated on the broadcast that “right now and later on this evening, we will be reviewing all the facts.”
Overnight a committee of five USAC stewards reviewed the videotapes and voted, 3-2, to penalize Unser one lap for the “blend rule” violation which made Andretti the winner, while the same group voted, 3-2, not to penalize Andretti for the same offense as it appeared that some lapped drivers may have legally waved Andretti past.
The official results were posted at 8 AM on May 25 with Andretti listed as the race winner. Unser was furious. "We weren't cheating," Sports Illustrated quoted Unser, "We had the fastest car, no matter what the decision." Unser understandably boycotted the victory banquet where Andretti was given the keys to the silver Buick Regal V6-powered Pace Car and the winner’s ring.
Roger Penske, represented by flamboyant Philadelphia attorney Jimmy Binns, filed his formal notice of appeal of the finish of the 1981’500’ with USAC on May 28. Penske and Unser's primary argument concerned the vague definition of the "blend rule" in the USAC rulebook and USAC’s lax enforcement. USAC appointed a three-man appeals board that included former USAC presidents Charlie Brockman and Reynold MacDonald with University of Louisville law professor Edwin Render as the chairman.
The hearing was held on June 12, but it dissolved into complex legal arguments and personal bickering between Binns and USAC General Counsel Henry Ryder, and mid-way through the hearing, the meeting was adjourned. Due to upcoming races the hearing was scheduled to resume on July 29. Instead of being concluded in an afternoon, the USAC appeal hearing eventually took five days over a two month period, with various drivers, team members, and race officials offering interesting testimony.
Under questioning from Ryder, three time ‘500’ winner Johnny Rutherford said he “probably” passed cars under the yellow on his way to victory in 1980 while fellow three-time ‘500’ winner Al Unser stated that the pits did not end until turn two. USAC official Art Meyers could not recall whether he had asked observers, as Binford had requested, for a report on “blend rule” violations during the race. Bobby Unser had missed the pre-race driver’s meeting and testified on his recollections of a private meeting with Art Meyers in which he claimed Meyers told him “go to the yellow line in turn two and blend in where you can.”
On October 9, 1981, the three-member USAC appeals board voted 2-1 (with Render casting the deciding ballot) to reinstate Unser as the 1981 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner, but fined $40,000 for the “blend rule” violation. The ruling written by Render stated that while Unser gained a competitive advantage by passing cars during the caution flag period, the penalty assessed was inappropriate.
The controversy was not over, as the following day October 10 1981 Mario Andretti with his Indianapolis attorney Forrest Bowman announced their intention to file a protest to the USAC appeals board decision. Mario claimed he had not been given sufficient notice to attend or prepare for the hearings, so by article 22 of the USAC bylaws the unlawful appeals board decision should be set aside.
On November 18 USAC president Dick King denied Andretti's appeal as he said that adequate notice had been given when a telegram was sent and a telephone call placed to Patrick Racing. Pat Patrick and Andretti then took their appeal to the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS) Court of Appeals. On February 2, 1982 ACCUS officially informed Patrick and Andretti that the group declined to hear the appeal because the pair had failed to exhaust all their appeals with the USAC Board of Directors.
On March 4, 1982 Mario Andretti and Pat Patrick announced that they had reached the end of the appeals process and were dropping the matter, although they stated "we have decided to let stand this decision we believe to be unacceptable to the majority of racing fans who love the sport and respect the rules." 35 years later, Andretti told the Allentown Pennsylvania Morning Call "I have the ring, but he cheated and was given the race. It was one race that Roger Penske did not win."
The longest Indianapolis ‘500’ on record ended on March 12, 1982, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway released the prize money which had been held in escrow, 292 days after the start of the 1981 Indianapolis ‘500.’ Unser’s win marked the third consecutive Indianapolis 500-mile race victory from the pole starting position, and at the time Bobby was the oldest ‘500’ winner at 47 years, 93 days but he was later edged out by his younger brother Al who was 47 years, 360 days old when he won in 1987.
It is an often repeated inaccuracy that an embittered Bobby Unser retired at the end of the 1981 season. While it is true that in 1982 Bobby took on the role of team manager and driver coach for the 1981 Indianapolis Rookie of the Year Josele Garza and his ‘Schlitz Gusto’ team., Unser was entered and took some test laps during May 1982.
Bobby might have entertained ideas of racing in the 1982 ‘500’ in the team’s second car but those hopes were dashed when Garza crashed on May 13 and totaled the team’s primary car. After the 1982 season, Pat Patrick offered Unser a ride for the 1983 season but Bobby formally announced his retirement on December 20 1982.
No matter who you think was the winner of the 1981 Indianapolis ‘500,’ collector and vintage racer Tom Malloy is covered. Not only does Malloy own Unser’s Penske PC9B shown at PRI, he also owns the Wildcat chassis that Mario Andretti drove in the 1981 Indianapolis ‘500’ as well as the ‘Red Roof Inns’ McLaren M24/Cosworth that Vern Schuppan used to capture a third place finish for good measure.
photos by the author