Indianapolis 500, '81, was a year of firsts, controversy

This was a year of firsts at the Indianapolis 500. Bobby Unser, at 47, was the oldest driver ever to cross the finish line first in the nation's most prestigious auto race. He was also, however, the first unofficial winner ever to be displaced, with top honors awarded to second-place finisher Mario Andretti. The stewards took that action in upholding a protest by other drivers claiming the two-time former winner had passed a line of cars under a yellow caution light as he left the pits. The rules state that a driver may not pass any cars under caution conditions, and after viewing the films, the stewards imposed a one-lap penalty for the infraction, dropping Unser to second place and giving 1969 winner Andretti his second victory here.

In addition to these much-publicized occurrences, there was the annual battle for top honors among the rookie drivers at the famed speedway. The first of this year's 10 rookies to cross the line was Kevin Cogan, who finished fourth overall. His car, massaged into form by Jud Phillips, the only chief mechanic ever to have an entry in 30 successive Indys, held up under the grueling, 500 -mile test with apparent ease. In the voting for Rookie-of-the-Year honors, however, Cogan was beaten out by Josele Garza, the 22-year-old Mexican sensation who led the race for several laps and earned more than $40,000 in prize money even though his car eventually was unable to withstand the long grind and he had to settle for a 23rd-place finish.

Cogan's race illustrates some of the factors which make the Indy the race it is. In the third lap, he knew that something was wrong with his car but could not identify the problem.Thus he made an unscheduled pit stop. His crew quickly discovered a loose nut holding on the right front wheel. The stop took only a few seconds but pushed Cogan from his 12th starting position down to No. 33, trailing the pack.

At that point Cogan, who was driving his first Indy-type race, had to reconsider his racing strategy. He had to drive a thoughtful race, slowly picking his way through the crowd. Fortunately Cogan had what his business partner from southern California referred to as an "academic advantage": he had been an all-A student in school and has a superb ability to understand and retain information. But his car was still not handling properly.

In the event of poor handling, an Indy-type racer can be adjusted three different ways. Two of those adjustments must be made from the pits -- in no more time than it takes to make a normal pit stop. One option is to adjust the angle of the car's "wings," those flap-like appendages on the front and back. The other is to change the rear tires to tires with a greater difference in circumference. Normally the inside rear tire is .1 inches larger than the outside tire. When the differential is increased beyond .1 inches, the handling difference becomes noticeable. The third possible adjustment can be made by the driver from the cockpit. A steel cable controls two "roll bars" on the car's chassis; as the bars turn they become either stiffer or more flexible.

While racing competitively, Kevin tried all of the possible adjustments and still the car did not handle well.But this did not daunt either Cogan or his team. He claimed to have never felt undue pressure before or during the race. One of his sponsors, Parnelli Jones, an ex-Indy winner himself, praised him by saying, "He has a tremendous feel for a car. He knows how to relate to it."

Cogan's skills came to the ultimate test in the 163rd lap. Coming around the fourth turn under a yellow caution light, the right front wheel suddenly came off the car, thus rapidly explaining the nagging handling problem. With a clear head, Cogan managed to maneuver the car to his pit on three wheels. There the quickness of his crewmen became a factor.

Buddy Urbanski was Cogan's right-front-tire-man in the pit. When he discovered the loose nut in the third lap of the race, he thought the nut was bad and replaced it with a new one. Not until the 163rd lap did he realize that the problem lay in a faulty air wrench. It had been rebuilt the week before in preparation for the big race and now was not fully tightening the nut. He screamed for the spare wrench from behind the pit wall. But before it got to him, the rear tire crew had come to the rescue with their wrench. Within seconds the tire had been replaced and Cogan was on his way to beating out an impressive field of Indy rookies -- with no more handling problems.

To Cogan, his pit crew, and his chief mechanic, the tire problem was all in a day's work. But not for Jerry O'Connell who owns the car. O'Connell owns race cars because he loves the thrill of wining. As he described the race, "I was cool all day. Then 15 laps from the end I started shaking. I don't know when I'll stop. When you come in fourth with a rookie it is just like winning."

Those were some of the firsts -- the first places and the first-time occurrences.Other parts of this year's race were not unique, but are repeated in some form annually. They are the mishaps. Early in the race "the greatest spectacle in auto racing" faced the ultimate horror: a pit fire.

Pit road at Indy is one-half mile long. In that distance 33 pit crews and a large cadre of firemen, racing officials, scorers, and press work the race. Each of the 33 spots on pit road has its own fuel tank filled with highly flammable methanol.

In a freak, unexplained accident, 1979 winner Rick Mears's car burst into flames in the pits while being refueled, injuring Mears and two crewmen, even though they were wearing fireproof suits. The accident sent waves of apprehension along pit road when everyone realized what might have happened had the fuel tank exploded.

On the track, Danny Ongais's fire-protected garment worked perfectly. His car slapped the wall on Turn 3 in the 135th mile of the race, exploding and tearing the machine to pieces, leaving Ongais trapped inside. He was not burned , though he did sustain several serious injuries.

Although such events are a common occurrence in racing, the shock and sadness overwhelms even the most hardened veterans. Jim Dent has been working with race cars for almost 30 years, yet his reaction spoke for many. "Something like that really gets to you. It could happen to anyone. More than once you could find the eyes of this old man with tears coming out of them."

As for the controversy surrounding the finish, it isn't over yet. When the official decision dropping Unser to second place was announced, his car owner, Roger Penske countered with two protests of his own -- one claiming that Unser had done nothing wrong, the other charging that Andretti had committed the same infraction by passing at least one car himself during the caution period. Both protests were denied, but Penske still has the option of filing an appeal with the US Auto Club, which sanctions the race, and he has indicated that he will follow that course. This could take several days, and Indy officials have therefore held up the awarding of both first- and second-place money for the time being.

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