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The recent disastrous reversal in fortune that was the Kentucky Derby has caused a flurry of interest in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Apparent winner Bobby Unser was penalized after the race was long over and stripped of the victory with second-place driver Mario Andretti elevated to first-place status when USAC’s “official” results were posted the next morning.
As Mario and his STP/Patrick Racing team posed for the winner’s photographs on the “Yard of Bricks”, Roger Penske, owner of Unser’s Norton Spirit entry, began preparing the appeals process that would eventually — over four months after the race — return the victory to Uncle Bobby and the Penske organization.
The incident that caused the controversy was well documented: Bobby Unser passing numerous cars that were following the pace car as Unser exited the pits on lap 149 and accelerated up to speed, finally blending into line in turn two. The delayed ABC prime-time broadcast made everyone aware of the alleged transgression and, although Mario also passed cars in a similar fashion at the same moment, Bobby’s “crime” was treated as first-degree murder and though unpunished during the race, the victory was purloined. Rarely, however, does anyone offer any explanation as to WHY the incident happened, so permit me to offer up my opinion.
Prior to the 1972 race, drivers were supposed to maintain a slower pace during yellow-light periods and not advance their track position — a form of the “honor system”. In 1972, a multitude of scoreboards were placed at intervals around the track in an attempt to maintain order during yellows. Called the “Electro-PACER light system”, the devices would flash a numeral in a timed sequence and the driver was supposed to maintain a speed that would keep them seeing that same number all the way around the track.
Again, the drivers found ways to circumvent the “PACER lights” (such as repeatedly ducking into the pits, which had no speed limit at the time), so it was decided that for the 1979 race the pace car would be brought onto the track ahead of the leader during yellow flag periods and the field would bunch up directly behind. This practice was used at other Indy/Champ car races but had never been employed at the Speedway.
So, is it just possible that the rules regarding the “blend line” and exiting the pits had NOT BEEN RE-WRITTEN prior to the removal of the “PACER lights” and the subsequent introduction of the pace car pack-up? Wasn’t Bobby Unser just following the letter of a rule that obviously needed to be updated and/or clarified?
Yes, the decision was reversed and Bobby Unser returned to his rightful position as 1981 Indy 500 champion, but he lost all desire to compete again, spending ’82 serving as Team Manager for Josele Garza, then making a half-hearted attempt at driving for Patrick Racing that began and ended before the 1983 season even started. Factor in the strain placed on the friendship between Bobby and Mario and I’m sure that Mr. Unser wishes that the Mustang pace car would have already been on the backstretch on that fateful lap 149.