1979 Indianapolis 500

Last updated
63rd Indianapolis 500
Indy500winningcar1979.JPG
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indianapolis 500
Sanctioning body USAC
Season 1979 USAC
1979 CART
DateMay 27, 1979
Winner Rick Mears
Winning team Penske Racing
Average speed158.899 mph (255.723 km/h)
Pole position Rick Mears
Pole speed193.736 mph (311.788 km/h)
Fastest qualifier Rick Mears
Rookie of the Year Howdy Holmes
Most laps led Bobby Unser (89)
Pre-race ceremonies
National anthem Purdue Band
"Back Home Again in Indiana" Peter Marshall
Starting Command Mary F. Hulman
Pace car Ford Mustang
Pace car driver Jackie Stewart
StarterPat Vidan [1]
Estimated attendance350,000 [2]
TV in the United States
Network ABC
Announcers Jim McKay, Jackie Stewart
Nielsen Ratings 13.5 / 24
Chronology
PreviousNext
1978 1980

The 63rd 500 Mile International Sweepstakes was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana, on Sunday May 27, 1979. Second-year driver Rick Mears took the lead for the final time with 18 laps to go, and won his first of four Indianapolis 500 races. It was also Mears' first of a record six Indy 500 pole positions. Brothers Al and Bobby Unser combined to lead 174 of the 200 laps, but Al dropped out around the midpoint, and Bobby slipped to 5th place at the finish nursing mechanical issues. It was also Roger Penske's second Indy 500 victory as a car owner.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motorsport track in the Indianapolis, IN, USA

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an automobile racing circuit located in Speedway, Indiana, in the United States. It is the home of the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, and formerly the home of the United States Grand Prix. It is located on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, approximately six miles (10 km) west of Downtown Indianapolis.

Speedway, Indiana Town in Indiana, United States

Speedway is a town in Wayne Township, Marion County, Indiana, United States. The population was 11,812 at the 2010 census. Speedway is home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it is an enclave of Indianapolis.

Rick Mears American racecar driver

Rick Ravon Mears, also known by the nickname "Rocket Rick", is a retired American race car driver. He is one of three men to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, and is the current record-holder for pole positions in the race with six. Mears is also a three-time Indycar series/World Series champion.

Contents

The race was sanctioned by USAC, and was part of the 1979 USAC National Championship. However, many of the participants entered the race only as a one-off, and instead broke off and took part in the inaugural 1979 SCCA/CART Indy Car Series. It was the beginning of the first open-wheel "split."

United States Auto Club Auto racing sanctioning body in the United States

The United States Auto Club (USAC) is one of the sanctioning bodies of auto racing in the United States. From 1956 to 1979, USAC sanctioned the United States National Championship, and from 1956 to 1997 the organization sanctioned the Indianapolis 500. Today, USAC serves as the sanctioning body for a number of racing series, including the Silver Crown Series, National Sprint Cars, National Midgets, Speed2 Midget Series, .25 Midget Series, Stadium Super Trucks, TORC: The Off-Road Championship, and Pirelli World Challenge.

The 1979 USAC Championship Car season consisted of seven races, beginning in Ontario, California on March 25 and concluding in West Allis, Wisconsin on August 12. The USAC National Champion was A. J. Foyt and the Indianapolis 500 winner was Rick Mears. With the exception of the Indianapolis 500, most top drivers instead competed in races sanctioned by CART.

1979 SCCA/CART Indy Car Series

The 1979 SCCA/CART Indy Car Series was the inaugural season for the CART Indy car series. It was the first national championship season of American open wheel racing sanctioned by CART. The season consisted of 14 races. Rick Mears was the national champion, and the rookie of the year was Bill Alsup. The 1979 Indianapolis 500 was sanctioned by USAC, but counted towards the CART points championship. Rick Mears won the Indy 500, his first of four victories in the event.

The month of May 1979 was filled with controversy on and off the track. A court injunction was issued after USAC initially denied entries by some teams that were part of the CART series. During time trials, several cars were disqualified due to illegal wastegate exhaust pipes. Qualifying closed with the traditional 33 cars in the field. However, the day before the race a special qualifying session was held to allow certain entries a last chance to qualify. Two additional cars were added to the field, for a total of 35 cars (the most since 1933).

A wastegate is a valve that diverts exhaust gases away from the turbine wheel in a turbocharged engine system.

Indianapolis 500 traditions

Due to the longevity of the Indianapolis 500, numerous traditions surrounding the race have developed over the years. Traditions include procedures for the running of the race, scheduling, and pre-race and post-race festivities. For many fans, these traditions are an important aspect of the race, and they have often reacted quite negatively when the traditions are changed or broken.

The high tensions and numerous technical squabbles during the month attracted considerable negative criticism from sports writers and media. The race itself, however, was competitive and entertaining, and completed without major incident or controversy.

Among those in attendance was former president Gerald Ford. Ford also served as the grand marshal of the 500 Festival Parade. [3] The 1979 race is also notable in that it was the first to utilize the pace car during caution periods.

Gerald Ford 38th president of the United States

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. was an American politician who served as the 38th president of the United States from August 1974 to January 1977. Before his accession to the presidency, Ford served as the 40th vice president of the United States from December 1973 to August 1974. Ford is the only person to have served as both vice president and president without being elected to either office by the United States Electoral College.

Grand marshal is a ceremonial, military, or political office of very high rank. The term has its origins with the word "marshal" with the first usage of the term "grand marshal" as a ceremonial title for certain religious orders. The following are some additional usages of the term grand marshal:

Safety car

In motorsport, a safety car or pace car is a car which limits the speed of competing cars on a racetrack in the case of a caution period such as an obstruction on the track or bad weather. The aim of the safety car is to enable the clearance of any obstruction under safer conditions, especially for marshals and/or await more favourable track conditions weather-wise.

Race schedule

Race schedule — May 1979
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat

 

 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
Opening Day
6
Practice
7
Practice
8
Practice
9
Practice
10
Practice
11
Practice
12
Pole Day
13
Time Trials
14
Practice
15
Practice
16
Practice
17
Practice
18
Practice
19
Time Trials
20
Time Trials
21
 
22
 
23
 
24
Carb Day
25
Mini-Marathon
26
Time Trials
27
Indy 500
28
Memorial Day
29
 
30
 
31
 

 

 
ColorNotes
GreenPractice
Dark BlueTime trials
SilverRace day
RedRained out*
BlankNo track activity

*Includes days where track
activity was significantly
limited due to rain

Controversies

USAC/CART "Split"

Following the death of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony Hulman in 1977, and the tragic 1978 USAC plane crash, owners and participants in Indy car racing were anxious to reorganize the sport. By 1978, a growing dissent amongst the participants was based on many factors, including poor promotion and low revenue. [4] In addition, the venerable 4-cylinder turbo Offenhauser (a favorite of the USAC-loyal teams) was at a horsepower disadvantage to the new V8 Cosworth DFX. [4] USAC began retooling turbocharger boost rules to ensure the Offy and the "stock block" engines remained competitive, which caused new disagreements about equivalency formulas and favoritism. Though some think the plane crash was used as an opportunistic way to force change in the sport, it was merely a coincidence, more aptly described as a concomitant result. The seed of dissent had been growing for several years before the accident, [5] and claims the crash was an immediate cause for the 1979 USAC/CART "split" are considered for the most part unfounded.

Tony Hulman Businessman, philanthropist, Auto racing executive

Anton "Big Bone Tone" Hulman Jr. was an American businessman from Terre Haute, Indiana who bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 and brought racing back to the famous race course after a four-year hiatus following World War II.

Inline-four engine Inline piston engine with four cylinders

The inline-four engine or straight-four engine is a type of inline internal combustion four-cylinder engine with all four cylinders mounted in a straight line, or plane along the crankcase. The single bank of cylinders may be oriented in either a vertical or an inclined plane with all the pistons driving a common crankshaft. Where it is inclined, it is sometimes called a slant-four. In a specification chart or when an abbreviation is used, an inline-four engine is listed either as I4 or L4.

Turbocharger forced induction device for internal combustion engines

A turbocharger, colloquially known as a turbo, is a turbine-driven forced induction device that increases an internal combustion engine's efficiency and power output by forcing extra compressed air into the combustion chamber. This improvement over a naturally aspirated engine's power output is due to the fact that the compressor can force more air—and proportionately more fuel—into the combustion chamber than atmospheric pressure alone.

Indy car events outside of Indianapolis were suffering from poor attendance, and few events were even televised. Robin Miller even accused the Speedway of offering a purse that was too low considering the stature of the event and the costs of racing at the time. [4] In late 1978, several existing Indy car owners broke off and created the CART series, with some initial assistance from the SCCA [4] (in order to be recognized by ACCUS). Immediately there was conflict and disagreement. Further complicating the issue were rumors that Goodyear was considering pulling out of the sport. [4] Driver, owner, and advocate Dan Gurney then published his infamous "White Paper," [6] lobbying several complaints and charges against USAC and IMS, concluding that new organization (i.e., CART) was necessary to ensure the success of Indy car racing into the future.

Robin Miller (journalist) American journalist

Robin Lee Miller is an American motorsports journalist. He was an Indy car pit crew member and drove in the USAC midget series in the 1970s.

Champ Car Defunct North American open wheel auto racing organization

Champ Car was the trade name for Open Wheel Racing Series Inc., a sanctioning body for American open-wheel car racing that operated from 2003 to 2008.

Sports Car Club of America American automobile club

The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is an American automobile club and sanctioning body supporting road racing, rallying, and autocross in the United States. Formed in 1944, it runs many programs for both amateur and professional racers.

The first major salvo was made on March 25, 1979, when the CART-based teams boycotted the USAC Datsun Twin 200 at Ontario. A. J. Foyt, who at first sided with the CART contingent, retracted his loyalty, and crossed back over to the USAC side. [4] After the boycott, Foyt suggested that USAC should penalize the CART-based teams, and refuse their entries to the Indy 500. [4] [7] Among the drivers affected were Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Sr., Johnny Rutherford, Danny Ongais, Gordon Johncock, Steve Krisiloff, and Wally Dallenbach – some of the top names in the sport.

Three days before the published deadline, CART president U. E. "Pat" Patrick delivered a block of 44 entries to the 1979 Indianapolis 500 for the CART-based teams. On April 19, however, the USAC board of directors voted unanimously to reject the entries of six key teams: Penske, Patrick, McLaren, Fletcher, Chaparral, and Gurney. These six teams (19 cars) were alleged to be "harmful to racing" and "not in good standing with USAC." [4] USAC sent the owners a telegram informing them of the situation while they were participating in the CART race at Atlanta, the Gould Twin Dixie 125s. [8]

On April 26, the "rejected six" teams filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, requesting an injunction to allow the teams to compete in the 1979 Indy 500. They cited antitrust and restraint of trade. [4] On May 5, judge James Ellsworth Noland issued the injunction, but restrained the teams from disrupting or interfering with the running of the event.

Illegal wastegate manifolds

During the month, a second controversy erupted regarding the technical regulations of the turbocharger wastegate. The specifications called for wastegate exhaust pipes to be a minimum of 1.470 inches (inside diameter). The standard pipe diameter was typically 2 inches. In addition, the pop-off valves affixed to the cars were to be set at 50 inHG of "boost" for qualifying (down from 80 inHG). USAC issued a last-minute ruling that in-car adjustments of the boost dial would be banned during time trials.

Diagram illustrating wastegate "loophole" issue. d1 is equal to 1.470 inches, and d2 was equal to roughly 2.0 inches (or greater). Washer quoted.svg
Diagram illustrating wastegate "loophole" issue. d1 is equal to 1.470 inches, and d2 was equal to roughly 2.0 inches (or greater).

A few CART-based teams discovered what they considered a "loophole" in the rules. They utilized a larger diameter wastegate pipe, but welded a washer inside of it that had a circular opening of exactly 1.470 inches. This had the effect of creating back pressure, in hopes of over-riding the pop-off valve, and thus over-boosting the engine, and increasing horsepower. [9]

On May 19 (the third day of time trials) the cars of Dick Ferguson, Steve Krisiloff, and Tom Bigelow were disqualified and fined $5,000 because they "had altered their wastegate exhaust pipes by the addition of restrictions which significantly affect the air flow." USAC charged that the teams had tampered with the wastegate exhaust pipe, thus illegally over-riding the pop-off valve, and potentially over-boosting the engine. An appeal was made the next morning, but USAC denied the appeal. Furthermore, they released a memo which stated that any cars qualifying on Sunday May 20 must have unrestricted wastegate pipes (no washers were allowed to be welded inside) that are exactly 1.470 inches in diameter or greater.

The ruling created controversy in the garage area, as a further examination of the rules showed a "gray area" regarding the inlet opening configuration. In addition, several complaints surfaced when teams charged USAC with essentially changing the rules in the middle of qualifying – a move which actually affected other already-qualified cars from the first weekend.

The controversy ultimately led to a fifth day of time trials, held the day before the race. Eleven entries that were identified as being denied a fair attempt to qualify were allowed to participate. Each car was allowed one attempt, and if they completed their run faster than the slowest car already in the field, they would qualify for the starting grid. The ruling allowed for a potential 44-car field on race day. Only two cars accomplished the feat, and they were added to the back of the grid for a field of 35 cars.

Practice – Week 1

The 1978-79 Indiana license plate featured an Indy 500-related design In79platelg.jpg
The 1978–79 Indiana license plate featured an Indy 500-related design

Saturday May 5

Opening Day saw sparse activity. Only three cars took to the track, with Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon earning the honor of first car on the track. Later in the day, judge James Ellsworth Noland issued the injunction requested by the CART teams, and all entries were allowed to practice. Dick Simon, who was subpoenaed to testify downtown at the hearing, spent enough time at the track to run a lap of 174 mph, the fastest of the day.

Sunday May 6

Hurley Haywood (181.452 mph) was the fastest of the day. The previously rejected CART teams arrived at the garage area, but none took to the track.

Monday May 7

The "Rejected Six" CART teams took their first laps of the month, with Rick Mears (187.578 mph) the fastest of the day. Danny Ongais (187.188 mph) was a close second. Spike Gehlhausen had the only incident of the day, when a water line broke, spewing hot fluid into the cockpit. He suffered first and second degree burns, but was cleared to drive.

Tuesday May 8

Rick Mears ran the fastest speed of the month thus far, with a hand-timed lap of 193.5 mph.

Wednesday May 9

A. J. Foyt moved to the top of the speed chart, completing a lap at 194.007 mph. Al Unser, Sr. was second-fastest at 193.382 mph.

Thursday May 10

A. J. Foyt (194.890 mph) bettered his speed from Wednesday, maintaining his grasp on the fastest lap of the month.

Friday May 11

Bobby Unser became the latest driver over 190 mph, and Al Unser, Sr. (193.341 mph) was the fastest of the afternoon. Moisture kept the track closed until 1:10 p.m., meaning only 2 hours and 10 minutes were lost due to weather all month thus far. A. J. Foyt finished the week with the top practice speed, and Rick Mears had several hand-timed laps in the 193 mph range.

Time Trials – Weekend 1

Pole Day – Saturday May 12

Rain kept the track closed on pole day until after 4 p.m.. At 4:19 p.m., the track opened for practice, with the temperature 55 °F and winds up to 12 mph. During the first practice session, Danny Ongais, a favorite for the front row, wrecked in turn 4 after completing a lap of 191.205 mph. He was pinned in the car for over 20 minutes, and suffered a concussion. He was taken to Methodist Hospital for observation, and returned to his home in Costa Mesa, California, for a few days to recuperate.

Ongais' crash kept the track closed for 40 minutes as crew rescued him from the car and cleared the debris. Two other yellows closed the track for another 10 minutes, and the day came to a close at 6 p.m. without a single qualifying attempt made.

Second Day – Sunday May 13

Pole qualifying shifted to Sunday, with partly sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s. Due to the new technical rules for 1979, including pop-off valve settings and wastegate regulations, the speeds in time trials were not expected to reach those set in 1977–1978 (over 200 mph). A hectic, non-stop day of qualifying occurred, with no less than 45 cars pulling away for qualifying attempts.

Johnny Rutherford (188.137 mph) was the first driver to complete a run, and became the coveted 'first driver in the field.' Wally Dallenbach was the next car out, and temporarily put himself on the pole with a speed of 188.285 mph. Shortly before 1 p.m. Al Unser, Sr. took over the provisional pole position with a four-lap average of 192.503 mph. A little over an hour later, Al's brother Bobby Unser (189.913 mph) put himself temporarily in second position.

At 4 p.m., Tom Sneva (who won the pole position in 1977–1978) took to the track looking for his record third consecutive Indy 500 pole. He took over the top spot with a four-lap average of 192.998 mph. There were only two cars left in line with a legitimate shot for the pole: A. J. Foyt and Rick Mears.

At 4:32 p.m., Foyt's run of 189.613 mph was far short of being fast enough for the pole, but secured him a spot in row 2. The final qualifier for the pole round was Mears. His four-lap average of 193.736 mph won him his first of what would be record six career Indy 500 pole positions. Sneva was bumped to second on the grid.

At 4:50 p.m., the original pole qualifying round was over, and "Second Day" qualifying commenced. At the end of the day, the field was filled to 25 cars.

Practice – Week 2

Monday May 14

USAC announced that for the first time, the "pack-up rule" would be used during caution periods at the Indy 500. [10] Like the format used in NASCAR and at other Indy car races, when the caution flag came out, the pace car would enter the track and pick up the leader. The remainder of the field would bunch up behind the pace car. The previous system, the Electro-PACER Light system, was scrapped.

Johnny Rutherford, who was already in the field, posted the fastest lap at 192.185 mph. Bobby Unser shook down a Penske back-up car, which some speculated would be for Mario Andretti. Andretti was participating in Formula One full-time in 1979 to defend his 1978 World Championship, and a scheduling conflict with Monaco was expected to keep Mario away from Indy in 1979.

Tuesday May 15

Vern Schuppan was the fastest of the non-qualified drivers at 181.561 mph. Bobby Unser continued to practice in the back-up car, but insisted it was to test nose configurations and not being prepared for another driver.

Wednesday May 16

Eldon Rasmussen crashed in turn three, but was not injured. Later, Roger Rager spun in turn 3, but did not make contact. Johnny Rutherford (191.775 mph) was the fastest of the day.

Thursday May 17

Billy Engelhart wrecked in turn 1, suffering a broken leg, and was sidelined for the rest of the month. Speeds dropped off for the day, with A. J. Foyt (189.036 mph) the best lap of the day. Heavy activity amongst the numerous non-qualified cars was noted.

Friday May 18

The final full day of practice saw heavy activity with no incidents reported. Danny Ongais returned to the track to get ready to qualify, but Dr. Thomas A. Hanna, the Speedway medical director, would not clear him to drive for the day.

Despite some unfounded rumors circulating around the garage area, Mario Andretti decided not to skip Monaco, and would miss the Indy 500 for the first time since arriving as a rookie in 1965. Meanwhile, Indy rookie and NASCAR regular Neil Bonnett flew to Dover to qualify for the Mason-Dixon 500. He planned on putting in a qualifying time for the Winston Cup race on Friday, then returning Saturday to Indianapolis in order to qualify for the Indy 500. [11] However, it rained in Dover on Friday, washing out Cup qualifying. [12] NASCAR qualifying was shifted to Saturday, and due to the time constraints, Bonnett decided to withdraw from Indy. Jerry Sneva took over the car. [13] Bonnett went on to win the Dover NASCAR race, and never returned to Indy.

Time Trials – Weekend 2

Third Day – Saturday May 19

The third day of time trials saw heavy activity. The day opened with 8 spots available on the grid. Hurley Haywood was the first car to go out, and he ran his first lap over 190 mph. His second and third laps, however, dropped off drastically, and his crew waved off.

Several cars went out in the first hour, and at 1:15 p.m., Jim McElreath filled the field to 33 cars. Larry Cannon was the first car on the bubble. Dick Simon bumped him out with ease. Tom Bigelow was now on the bubble. He survived three wave offs, but Jerry Sneva managed to bump him out at 2 p.m. Jerry Sneva's run was not without excitement, as he suffered a stuck throttle. Rather than wave off, he managed to control the engine with the kill switch, and completed the four laps without incident. [14]

With John Martin now on the bubble, Dick Ferguson took to the track. His speed of 184.644 mph bumped Martin from the field. However, in post-inspection, Ferguson was disqualified and fined $5,000 for an illegal wastegate inlet. Rather than welding a washer inside of the wastegate like others had done, his mechanic Wayne Woodward had welded a complete obstruction in the pipe, [9] attempting to illegally over-ride the popoff valve. Martin was re-instated to the field. Meanwhile, Tom Bigelow bumped out Steve Krisiloff as this was going on.

Martin didn't last long, as Steve Krisiloff got into his backup car and bumped him out a few minutes later. The day concluded with Larry Rice bumping out John Mahler.

After the track closed, USAC disqualified Steve Krisiloff and Tom Bigelow for the same infraction that Dick Ferguson was disqualified for earlier – illegal wastegate exhaust pipes and attempting to over-ride the pop-off valve. As a result, the bumped cars of John Mahler and John Martin were re-instated to the field.

Bump Day – Sunday May 20

After the disqualification of three cars on Saturday, USAC issued a memo clarifying their wastegate specifications. Some teams began to voice their complaints that it was not fair for USAC to essentially change the rules midway through time trials. With the increased scrutiny on the wastegate inlets, drivers claimed it was difficult for a legal car to bump out a car already in the field that had cheated, and that the officials were not policing it properly.

The final day scheduled for qualifying began on time around noon. Bill Alsup was the first car to make an attempt, and John Martin was bumped out of the field once again. Danny Ongais, who returned to the cockpit after his crash last weekend, followed suit by "re-bumping" John Mahler. Ongais had complained that USAC officials were deliberately preventing him from returning to the cockpit after his injury. However, after lobbying from his co-competitor and friend Al Unser, officials finally cleared him to drive.

Tom Bigelow and Steve Krisiloff, both whom were disqualified on Saturday, returned to the track, and bumped their way into the field. Dick Ferguson, however, was too slow, and exhausted his three attempts. Further complicating the day, USAC disqualified Bill Alsup for using the same engine that Bobby Unser had already qualified with.

The day ended with John Mahler taking the track at 5:59 p.m., and bumping his way back into the field.

Carburetion Day – Thursday May 24

After qualifying was closed, eight teams that failed to qualify filed a protest on Monday May 21. They charged that the turbocharger wastegate inlet rules were unfair, and there was too much of a gray area to begin with. In addition, they claimed that many cars that qualified during the first weekend of time trials were technically illegal, but that officials were only closely checking the cars that made attempts on the second weekend.

The protest was denied, but USAC president Dick King announced that the 11 cars that were bumped from the field would be allowed a special qualifying session if all 33 cars in the field signed a special agreement. Dick Ferguson was not among the 11 drivers named as eligible for the special session, so his car owner filed suit in county court on Tuesday to have the race halted until his car was re-instated. Part of the suit called for all 33 qualified cars to be summoned to court to have their wastegate pipes measured. The suit was dropped.

On Carb Day, Gordon Johncock led the speed chart with a lap of 192.555 mph. A total of 34 cars took laps, without any major incidents. Howdy Holmes blew an engine, Mike Mosley blew a transmission, and Salt Walther suffered a broken oil scavenger pump.

Of the 33 cars thus qualified, 31 took practice laps. Bill Vukovich II and Dana Carter were assigned as the alternates, and both took practice laps as well. Bob Harkey, however, was not eligible to practice, and pulled out on the track anyway. USAC officials black-flagged him, and made him return to the garage area.

By mid-day Thursday, only 31 of the 33 cars in the field signed the waiver agreeing to extend time trials. The proposal offered Monday was considered void since two teams refused to sign on.

Also that day the 3rd annual Miller Pit Stop Challenge was held. Team McLaren with driver Johnny Rutherford and Chief Mechanics Phil Sharp and Steve Roby won the contest. Runner up was team Jerry O'Connell with driver Tom Sneva.

Special Qualifying Session – Saturday May 26

On Friday May 25, USAC reversed their decision, and declared that in the best interest of the event, they would hold a special qualifying session Saturday morning for the 11 cars that were bumped from the field. The 33 cars that were already in the field were "locked in," and could not be bumped. Each of the eleven cars would be allowed only one attempt. There were no wave offs allowed, and if the run was incomplete, or if the driver missed their turn in line, the attempt was forfeited. If the driver completed the four-lap qualifying run faster than the slowest car in the field (Roger McCluskey at 183.908 mph), he would be added to the rear of the grid. That potentially meant that up to a record 44 cars could start on race day.

Only two cars, Bill Vukovich II and George Snider ran fast enough, and the final grid comprised 35 cars. Despite the record number of entries and expanded field, only one rookie, Howdy Holmes, qualified for the race. He would win the rookie of the year award by default.

Starting grid

RowInsideMiddleOutside
1 Flag of the United States.svg Rick Mears Flag of the United States.svg Tom Sneva Flag of the United States.svg Al Unser (W)
2 Flag of the United States.svg Bobby Unser (W) Flag of the United States.svg Gordon Johncock (W) Flag of the United States.svg A. J. Foyt (W)
3 Flag of the United States.svg Wally Dallenbach Sr. Flag of the United States.svg Johnny Rutherford (W) Flag of the United States.svg Johnny Parsons
4 Flag of the United States.svg Sheldon Kinser Flag of the United States.svg Lee Kunzman Flag of the United States.svg Mike Mosley
5 Flag of the United States.svg Howdy Holmes (R) Flag of the United States.svg Janet Guthrie Flag of the United States.svg Tom Bagley
6 Flag of the United States.svg Salt Walther Flag of the United States.svg Pancho Carter Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Cliff Hucul
7 Flag of the United States.svg Jim McElreath Flag of the United States.svg Dick Simon Flag of the United States.svg Jerry Sneva
8 Flag of Australia (converted).svg Vern Schuppan Flag of the United States.svg Larry Rice Flag of the United States.svg Larry Dickson
9 Flag of the United States.svg Roger McCluskey Flag of the United States.svg Joe Saldana Flag of the United States.svg Danny Ongais
10 Flag of the United States.svg Steve Krisiloff Flag of the United States.svg Phil Threshie Flag of the United States.svg Tom Bigelow
11 Flag of the United States.svg Spike Gehlhausen Flag of the United States.svg John Mahler Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Eldon Rasmussen
12 Flag of the United States.svg Bill Vukovich II Flag of the United States.svg George Snider  

Failed to Qualify

Participated in the special qualifying session

Others

Race summary

Ticket stub 1979 Indianapolis 500 ticket.jpg
Ticket stub

First half

Rain fell the night before the race, and the weather forecast for race day was bleak. However, in the morning, the skies cleared, the track dried, and the race began on-time as scheduled.

At the start, Al Unser Sr. swept from the outside of the front row, and led the field into turn one. Unser was driving Jim Hall's radical new Chaparral 2K chassis. He pulled out to a commanding lead, and proceeded to lead the first 24 laps. Heavy attrition early on saw seven cars out with mechanical problems by lap 22.

Cliff Hucul stalled on lap 28, bringing out the first caution during the first sequence of pit stops. As the field went back to green, Al Unser again dominated. On lap 43, Wally Dallenbach lost a wheel down the backstretch, and had to precariously guide his car back to the pits on three wheels.

With Al Unser still dominating, the rest of the top five was Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, and Johnny Rutherford.

Rutherford then headed to the pits with a broken gear. After lengthy repairs, he returned to the race. Leader Al Unser came in for a routine pit stop under the caution on lap 97. Moments later, he was back into the pits after it was reported that something may have been leaking or smoking from the back of the car. Still under the caution, after a quick consultation, Unser returned to the track. The green flag back came out with Bobby Unser now leading.

Second half

On lap 103, Al Unser Sr. was running second to Bobby Unser when heavy smoke and flames started coming from the back of the car. The Chaparral 2K experienced a failed transmission oil fitting, and Unser was out of the race. After mutual differences, Unser decided to leave the team at season's end.

With Al out, his brother Bobby was now in control. Rick Mears was holding second, and A. J. Foyt was moving up to third, one lap down.

The first crash of the day involved Larry Rice on lap 156.

With twenty laps to go, Bobby Unser led his Penske teammate Rick Mears by a few car lengths. A. J. Foyt was in third, one lap down. Suddenly on lap 181, Bobby Unser veered to the inside of the track. He was off the pace with gearbox trouble. That handed the lead to Rick Mears with 19 laps to go. Less than a lap later, A. J. Foyt (now in second) got by Mears to un-lap himself. Bobby Unser would stay out and nurse his car to a 5th-place in third gear.

Finish

Rick Mears made his final pit stop on lap 185. He took on fuel only, and no tires. Foyt followed, completing a fast 8.5-second pit stop. The leaders pits stops were over, and Mears held a 38-second lead over Foyt.

Suddenly with 8 laps to go, Tom Sneva wrecked in turn four, bringing out the yellow, and bunching up the field. The green came back out for one last sprint to the finish with four laps to go. Rick Mears led, with A. J. Foyt at the tail-end of the pack. Mike Mosley was one lap down in third place, however, an early-race scoring error was tentatively showing him two laps down in 5th place. Foyt was mired in heavy traffic, and needed to pass at least 14 cars to catch up to Mears. With Foyt struggling to make up the ground, his engine lost a cylinder. Down on power, Foyt began to slow. Third-place Mosley, fighting to stay ahead of fourth-place Danny Ongais, un-lapped himself on the final lap and continued to charge. Meanwhile, Mears cruised safely to the finish line, and won his first of four Indy 500 victories.

Coming off of turn four with the checkered flag waving, A. J. Foyt's engine quit. He pulled to the inside and was coasting down the frontstretch towards the finish line. Mike Mosley was storming down the frontstretch at full speed, but Foyt nipped him at the finish line by 2.3 seconds to hold on to second position. Though it was not known at the moment, Mosley's charge on the final lap nearly gave him second place. After the race, officials discovered a scoring error, and realized that Mosely was not credited with a lap at the start of the race. In the official results, Mosely was credited with third place, just behind Foyt.

Bill Vukovich II, who was one of only two drivers to make the field during the special Saturday qualifying session, charged all the way from 34th starting position to 8th at the finish.

Born in 1951, Rick Mears became the first Indy 500 winner born after WWII. It was also the final checkered flag for USAC chief starter/flagman Pat Vidan. This was also the final Indianapolis 500 checkered flag for Team McLaren who left IndyCar racing as a team all together until the 2017 Indianapolis 500 where they aligned with Andretti Autosport for a one off with 2 time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso and as a full team effort entry in the 2019 Indianapolis 500 with Alonso again driving.

Race results

FinishStartNoNameQualLapsStatusPoints
119 Flag of the United States.svg Rick Mears 193.736200Running1000
2614 Flag of the United States.svg A. J. Foyt (W)189.613200Running800
31236 Flag of the United States.svg Mike Mosley 186.278200Running700
42725 Flag of the United States.svg Danny Ongais 188.009199Flagged600
5412 Flag of the United States.svg Bobby Unser (W)189.913199Flagged500
653 Flag of the United States.svg Gordon Johncock (W)189.753197Flagged400
71346 Flag of the United States.svg Howdy Holmes (R)185.864195Flagged300
83422 Flag of the United States.svg Bill Vukovich II 187.042194Flagged250
91511 Flag of the United States.svg Tom Bagley 185.414193Flagged200
103119 Flag of the United States.svg Spike Gehlhausen 185.061192Flagged150
11287 Flag of the United States.svg Steve Krisiloff 186.287192Flagged100
121677 Flag of the United States.svg Salt Walther 184.162191Flagged50
132572 Flag of the United States.svg Roger McCluskey 183.908191Flagged25
143044 Flag of the United States.svg Tom Bigelow 185.147190Flagged25
1521 Flag of the United States.svg Tom Sneva 192.999188Crash T425
162669 Flag of the United States.svg Joe Saldana 188.778186Flagged25
172997 Flag of the United States.svg Phil Threshie 185.855172Flagged20
1884 Flag of the United States.svg Johnny Rutherford (W)188.137168Flagged20
192331 Flag of the United States.svg Larry Rice 184.218142Crash T220
201710 Flag of the United States.svg Pancho Carter 185.806129Wheel Bearing20
212234 Flag of Australia (converted).svg Vern Schuppan 184.341111Transmission15
2232 Flag of the United States.svg Al Unser (W)192.503104Transmission15
233350 Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Eldon Rasmussen 183.92789Header Pipe15
242480 Flag of the United States.svg Larry Dickson 184.18186Fuel Pump10
253292 Flag of the United States.svg John Mahler 184.32266Fuel Pump10
262017 Flag of the United States.svg Dick Simon 185.07157Clutch10
2776 Flag of the United States.svg Wally Dallenbach Sr. 188.28543Lost Wheel10
281024 Flag of the United States.svg Sheldon Kinser 186.67440Piston10
291829 Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Cliff Hucul 186.20022Rod5
301189 Flag of the United States.svg Lee Kunzman 186.40318Scavenger Pump5
312173 Flag of the United States.svg Jerry Sneva 184.37916Piston5
32915 Flag of the United States.svg Johnny Parsons 187.81316Piston5
333559 Flag of the United States.svg George Snider 185.3197Fuel Pump5
341445 Flag of the United States.svg Janet Guthrie 185.7203Piston0
351923 Flag of the United States.svg Jim McElreath 185.8800Valves0

Race statistics

Points standings after this race

Note: Only top 10 are listed

RankDriverPointsDiffPos Change
1Rick Mears1,565−1
2Gordon Johncock900−665−1
3Bobby Unser875−690−2
4Mike Mosley830−735−6
5Johnny Rutherford730−835+4
6Danny Ongais713−852−5
7Al Unser470−1,095+3
8Tom Bagley413−1,152=0
9Tom Sneva331−1,234+3
10Lee Kunzman270−1,295+3

Broadcasting

Radio

The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Paul Page served as anchor for the third year. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. Billy Scott, who failed to qualify for the race, served as the "driver expert."

After 31 years on the broadcast, fourth turn reporter Jim Shelton retired from the crew. Bob Jenkins debuted on the backstretch, while Darl Wible moved to the vacant turn four position. Bob Forbes' primary duties again involved covering the garage area and roving reports. For 1979, a third level was added to the Turn Two Suites. Howdy Bell's vantage point on the roof of the suites building moved slightly higher than previous years.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network
Booth AnnouncersTurn Reporters Pit/garage reporters

Chief Announcer: Paul Page
Driver expert: Billy Scott
Statistician: John DeCamp
Historian: Donald Davidson

Turn 1: Ron Carrell
Turn 2: Howdy Bell
Backstretch: Bob Jenkins
Turn 3: Doug Zink
Turn 4: Darl Wible

Jerry Baker (north pits)
Luke Walton (north-center pits)
Chuck Marlowe (south-center pits)
Lou Palmer (south pits)
Bob Forbes (garages)

Television

The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. On-air color commentator Jackie Stewart was selected to drive the pace car at the start of the race. Stewart reported live while driving the Ford Mustang pace car.

The broadcast has re-aired on ESPN Classic since May 2011.

ABC Television
Booth Announcers Pit/garage reporters

Host: Chris Schenkel
Announcer: Jim McKay
Color: Jackie Stewart

Chris Economaki
Dave Diles

Notes

See also

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References

  1. Fox, Jack C. (1994). The Illustrated History of the Indianapolis 500 1911-1994 (4th ed.). Carl Hungness Publishing. p. 22. ISBN   0-915088-05-3.
  2. Miller, Robin (May 28, 1979). "Rick Mears Wins 63d '500'". The Indianapolis Star. p. 1. Retrieved June 2, 2017 via Newspapers.com. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  3. Kelly, Paul (2007-01-02). "President Ford Had Unique Connection To Indianapolis 500". Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Retrieved 2012-11-02.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Hungness, Carl (1996). 1996 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook. 24 (1st ed.). Carl Hungness Publishing. ISBN   0-915088-76-2.
  5. The Talk of Gasoline Alley 1070-AM WIBC, May 10, 2007
  6. Wicker, Ned. "In the Beginning". Eagle Eye Feature. All American Racers. Retrieved 2012-05-23.
  7. "With Luck To Spare," The Evening Independent, March 26, 1979
  8. Miller, Robin (2009-05-06). "INDYCAR: CART/USAC Memories – Indy 1979". Indycar. Speed . Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  9. 1 2 The Talk of Gasoline Alley. 2011-05-19. WFNI.
  10. Miller, Robin (May 15, 1979). "500 Decides To Bunch 'Em Up". The Indianapolis Star. p. 22. Retrieved July 14, 2016 via Newspapers.com. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  11. The Talk of Gasoline Alley. July 22, 2014. WFNI.
  12. "A Washout For Bonnett". Sports Omnibus. Evening Independent. 1979-05-19. Retrieved 2012-01-25.
  13. Garrett, Jerry (1979-05-20). "Heywood Fails; Sneva, Bigelow Gain Indy FieldA Washout For Bonnett". Oxnard Press-Courier . Retrieved 2012-01-25.
  14. The Talk of Gasoline Alley WFNI, May 19, 2013

Works cited

Previous race:
1979 Gould Twin Dixie 125
Indy Car Indycar World Series
1979 season
Next race:
1979 Trenton Twin Indy
Previous race:
1978 Indianapolis 500
Al Unser
1979 Indianapolis 500
Rick Mears
Next race:
1980 Indianapolis 500
Johnny Rutherford