Technology Has Dominated Indy in ‘80s

Associated Press

The Indianapolis 500 began the 1980s in turmoil and controversy, moved into an unprecedented era of high technology and corporate sponsorship and approached the end of the decade with no apparent end to the ever-increasing speeds.

Most of the old guard that had dominated Indy-car racing since the 1960s remained competitive, but a younger crop emerged and Rick Mears became the focus of the most successful Indy team in history.

Safer, more competitive racing was a byproduct of the improvements, notably the crash-worthy chassis designs and more efficient engines.


“The biggest thing is high technology, the carbon fiber tubs . . . basically the ‘80s stuff, the age of technology,” says Bobby Unser, who began his career in the front-engine roadsters of the 1960s and ended it as a three-time winner in 1981.

“This doesn’t mean it’s going to stop (in the 1990s), but probably the biggest gains, the biggest changes can be attributed to technology which has never before been available,” Unser said. “All of a sudden, the cars were jumping in speed. And for a while, they didn’t know why.”

The last time a car took the pole position at Indianapolis with under a 200-m.p.h. average was 1980, when Johnny Rutherford went on to win the 500 for the third time. The speeds have climbed dramatically ever since, with Mears winning the pole this year at record speeds of 224.254 m.p.h. for one lap and 223.885 m.p.h. for four laps.

But you can’t isolate speed without considering safety, says Unser, noting the seeming paradox of faster speeds with fewer dangers. The technology that produced the speed, he said, has “also done the same thing for safety.”

“That’s come right along with it. There are more good fuel cells and breakaway fittings which have almost completely stopped fire (in a crash). Fire is practically non-existent in the ‘80s.

“Then they went through a siege of drivers hurting their feet and legs, but the design (of the newer cars) has taken that away. They’ve gained quite a bit in safety. Today, cars are so much safer than they were in the ‘70s or ‘60s or ‘50s.”


Sixteen drivers were killed in practice or the race from 1953-73. Since then, only one, Gordon Smiley in 1982, has died at the Speedway. And that death was due to the nearly head-on angle of impact into the wall, not the speed.

“Racing made a big gain in the ‘80s,” Unser continued. “It became a more internationally, and without a doubt nationally, accepted sport. It’s gone like a forest fire out of control. It’s really been the sport of the ‘80s. It’s surpassed every other sport in growth.”

That seemed remote as the decade began amid a civil war between the U.S. Auto Club, the sanctioning body for Indy-car racing since the mid-1950s, and the breakaway Championship Auto Racing Teams, which was formed in late 1978 in a dispute over control of the sport.

CART, whose members included the sport’s top drivers and car owners, claimed USAC had not given them sufficient input in making the rules that affected their livelihood. For a while, the two groups banded together under the banner of the Championship Racing League. But the the truce dissolved in 1980, and USAC’s influence in Indy-car racing quickly dwindled to only the Indianapolis 500.

CART, which now sanctions every other Indy-car race, has turned the sport into an estimated $400 million annual business enterprise, and attendance has increased each of the past seven years to more than 2.6 million spectators at last year’s 14 CART events.

“John Frasco (CART chairman) came along at a good time for CART. He probably has done more for motor racing than any other man in history,” said Unser. “CART has been very good for the sport, not because it whipped USAC--it’s not that at all--but because it was just time for a change.


“CART was able to make it a bigger sport. USAC wasn’t ready to grow with it. They’re a good organization but they got stuck in the mud, not willing to change,” he said. “Frasco was able to look far, far above it.”

The most dominant driver of the 1980s at Indianapolis has been Mears, the only one to win the 500 more than once since 1978. Starting with 1979, in Mears’ second race at the Speedway, he has won three times, finished second once and third twice. He has started from the front row eight times and has captured the pole position a record-tying four times.

In 1988, Mears earned a record $804,000 for the Penske Racing team from the first $5 million purse in auto racing history. It also was a record seventh victory for car owner Roger Penske, the sixth since Mears first won in 1979.

Penske also was the owner of Unser’s winning car in 1981, although it took more than four months before he could celebrate.

The 1981 race marked the most controversial running of the 500 because of Unser’s illegal passing of eight cars as he exited the pits under the yellow caution flag. The next morning, after a protest by second-place Mario Andretti, USAC announced a one-lap penalty and reversed the order of finish.

But Unser appealed the penalty, and four months later, a special USAC panel restored Unser’s victory.


Andretti’s frustrations at Indy continued throughout the decade, including the very next year when a pace-lap crash took him and three other drivers out of the race. A bitter Andretti blamed Kevin Cogan, whose car veered to the right, crashed and bounced back in front of Andretti as the cars approached the starting line.

Cogan, meanwhile, another young driver whose entire Indy experience has been in the 1980s, was second four years later in the closest 1-2-3 finish in Indy history. He was apparently locked into first place with two laps to go under the yellow light. But when the green light came on, Bobby Rahal rocketed past him and won by 1.4 seconds. Mears, who lost to Gordon Johncock by .16 second in 1982--the closest 1-2 finish in history--was another .4 second behind Cogan in 1986.

Cogan says the 1980s will be remembered primarily for two things:

“The first thing, the most important, is ground effects,” he said of the aerodynamic designs which keep the cars virtually glued to the track and allow them to go through the corners at almost straightaway speed.

“In 1980, probably less than an eighth of the cars had ground effects. My first year (1981), it was maybe half the field. By 1982, if you didn’t have ground effects, you didn’t race,’ said Cogan.

“The No. 2 thing would be the dominance of the Cosworth, then falling away at the end of the ‘80s,” he said of the engine that replaced the once-dominant Offenhauser.

The famed four-cylinder Offenhauser, which powered 31 Indy 500 winners from 1934-76 faded in the early 1980s as the smaller, lighter, more powerful and more easily turbocharged eight-cylinder Cosworth came into favor.


The Cosworth developed higher horsepower and faster speeds than the Offy, but by the mid-to-late ‘80s, even the Cosworth was being challenged, primarily by the Chevy Indy V8, which won 14 of the 15 Indy-car races in 1988.

“It was just a developmental thing,” Cogan said. “Cosworth hadn’t changed much. The Chevy group of guys were with Cosworth originally, and they knew how to improve the engine. But to do it, they had to do it from scratch, and it had some bugs.”

By the end of the decade, only Unser was missing from the group that had dominated the sport for so long. His brother, Al Unser, won his fourth Indy 500 in 1987, subbing on the Penske team for an injured Danny Ongais. A.J. Foyt, who became the first four-time winner in 1977, also was still active, as were Rutherford, Andretti and Gordon Johncock.

Dick Simon, who in 1988 became the oldest known Indy 500 driver at age 54, says he has seen in the ‘80s “a tremendous marketing tool become available to corporations.”

“What that has created is additional funds to racing, and in doing so, it has created tremendously competitive teams and cars,” Simon said. “Now, instead of four or five people that can vie for the front row, you’ve got probably 15 people here that can qualify for that front row.

“It has evened out the competition a lot,” he said. “The competitors, March, Lola, Penske and a few of the other people that have come in with engines and things are making it very, very highly professional. Not that it wasn’t professional before, but it’s making it possible, through the marketing, I’d say, for other teams to come up with a little bit more money and start matching the test and development dollars and equipment.”