Time Machine

INDYCAR Time Machine: 1981 Indianapolis 500

Story Credit: Tobin Enz
Photo Credit: IMS Photo

1981 was a strange year for the sport of IndyCar racing. After an attempted “joint” sanctioned season? CART and USAC were back at odds again. USAC would find itself sanctioning an ill-fated Pocono race which would find itself having to fill the field with Silver Crown Cars. The race would be AJ Foyt’s last American Championship Car Racing win.   Dan Gurney’s All American Racers found success during the season as well with driver Mike Mosley. The Rookie of the Year for the season was Bob Lazier (Yes, Buddy’s dad) and the National Champion was Team Penske’s Rick Mears.
 
The focus of this article though? Is on the Mears’ teammate Bobby Unser and a controversy he was embroiled with against fellow racer (and friend) Mario Andretti.  To explain the controversy in the easiest way possible.  Bobby Unser passed several cars on pit lane on lap 146 in attempt to ensure he had the lead on the restart. Mario Andretti (who also did the same  thing mind you) who’s Patrick Racing Wildcat would wind up finishing 2nd.
 
Ever the person to find the advantage? Mario elected to protest the decision with USAC.  Mario would go on to talk with Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart after the tape delayed race to say he won the race due to the rules infraction. The controversy was so significant that it actually led to the race being discussed on ABC’s “Nightline” the following day. A true moment of truly “National” relevance for the sport that would only be matched by The Finishes of 1982, 1992 and matched by “The Split” of 1996 in terms of the overall buzz generated from controversy.
 
Mario in the short term? Would be declared the winner. His picture was taken in winners circle with the Wildcat and was given the winners ring. However? USAC would later reverse this ruling and award the win to Bobby Unser.  Both would wind up feeling very bitter about the win and ultimately? The race felt like no one truly one in the end.
 
So what if the USAC had not reversed the case and awarded the win to Andretti? Well let’s break down a few things:
 
Bobby Unser could have kept at it for a few more years
 
I mean who is to say he wouldn’t? Racers thrive on that sort of drive and one would say he, Roger Penske would have been eager to avenge the year before.
 
Maybe the big crash at the start of 1982 doesn’t happen
 
Hey remember the above? Well, the cause of the crash was the rookie who wound up replacing Unser, Kevin Cogan (or “COOGIN” if you’re AJ Foyt). So perhaps instead of Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears? Maybe we’re discussing their teammates in one or both of those positions….Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser.
 
“The Hard Charging” Andretti learns patience
 
This is perhaps a major hypothetical but Mario indeed would find himself in two more races where he could have taken the checkers and drank the milk.
 
Perhaps 1985 and 1987 go the other way. Maybe we’re discussing Mario Andretti along with Rick Mears and AJ Foyt as those with 4 wins.
 
 
 
“The Andretti Curse” lore is no more and we sort of miss out on that story line.
 
As silly as that is to type. There’s always an extra amount of attention paid to the race every year because of that. Michael and now Marco have added to the legacy of unfortunate luck for the racing family at the speedway. 
 
While this is source of frustration for them? It’s actually a source of entertainment for the fans of the sport. It will always be there as a result.
 
 
 
Of course I could be completely wrong. These are just guesses made by a fan who loves the sport and has immense respect for both drivers, both teams involved in the conflict.
 
However? It’s fun to imagine.