Penske Team Benz, but It Doesn't Break : Indy 500: Unser Jr. wins for the second time after teammate Fittipaldi crashes with 15 laps to go.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fears that Roger Penske's new Mercedes-Benz-powered cars would run away with the Indianapolis 500 proved well-founded Sunday, but even a powerful engine can't overcome smacking the wall.

Two-time champion Emerson Fittipaldi led with 15 laps to go when he cut a corner too close and his car slid sideways into the fourth-turn wall. Not to worry, the only car on the same lap with him was Al Unser Jr., also in a Penske car.

Unser, who had been a lap down only moments earlier, gave his father, a four-time winner who announced his retirement last week, a 55th birthday present by winning the 78th 500 in a red and white Penske with the Mercedes push-rod engine developed by Ilmor Engineering expressly for Indianapolis.

"I'm happy for Al and happy for our team and our sponsors, but I'm disappointed we didn't finish one-two," Penske said. It was the 10th Indy victory for Penske since he first came here in 1969.

It was also the ninth victory for the Unser family. His Uncle Bobby won three times to go with his dad's four and his own two. Junior also won in 1992 driving for Rick Galles.

Jacques Villeneuve, a Canadian rookie who came to Indianapolis with a reputation for crashing, drove a patient race to finish second in a Reynard-Ford Cosworth.

Michael Andretti finished third, but was penalized a lap for passing under the yellow caution flag and was dropped to sixth. This gave third place to former winner Bobby Rahal, who was driving a Penske-Ilmor that he leased from Penske after his Honda proved too slow. It was the model that Unser, Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy would have driven had the Mercedes experiment not been fulfilled.

Jimmy Vasser was fourth and Robby Gordon fifth, as only 16 of the 33 starters were running at the finish after a series of accidents knocked out nine cars.

Mario Andretti's 29-race Indy 500 career ended in disappointment. A faulty pressure valve on the fuel system sidelined him after only 23 laps--the second driver out of the race.

A third Andretti, Mario's nephew John, finished 10th and immediately hopped in a helicopter for a jet flight to Charlotte, N.C., to drive in the Coca-Cola 600.

Tracy finished 23rd, going out on lap 92.

Fittipaldi's crash was a shocking sight for the more than 350,000 spectators as his car slid to a stop in the middle of the track, near the start-finish line.

On lap 184, Fittipaldi ran too close behind Unser, who was nearly a full lap behind, and the turbulence from Unser's car caused Fittipaldi's front end to lose its grip on the track. "It was a shame, I had everything under control." Fittipaldi said. "The engine did a fantastic job. For sure, we should have finished one-two."

Unser said he almost lost control of his car at the same place, under the same circumstances, a lap earlier when he was running behind Fittipaldi in an attempt to get back on the same lap with the leader.

"I was all elbows in the cockpit, yanking it every which way to keep from losing it," Unser said. "When his turbulence hit me, it just washed out the front end. I was fighting to get back on the same lap with him and he was fighting to keep me a lap down."

Unser was asked if teammates should play turbulence tag late in a race. "Emmo and Paul (Tracy) and I are teammates who work very hard together to get our cars as perfectly tuned as possible, but once the green flag drops, it's every man for himself," he said. "Emmo was just as much the enemy as any other driver when the racing started."

Unser, the pole-sitter with a qualifying speed of 228.011 m.p.h., took the lead as the field raced toward the first turn. It was the seventh time an Unser had led the first lap at Indy.

He and Fittipaldi took turns leading except for a couple of times when Villeneuve took over when the Penske cars were in the pits. Penske cars led 193 of the 200 laps, one more than in 1988 when Rick Mears finished first, Al Unser Sr. third and Danny Sullivan also led 91 laps.

The dominance of the Ilmor-designed and built Mercedes engines became apparent before the race was half over. By lap 75, Fittipaldi and Unser had lapped every car.

Only five accidents, which brought out yellow flags and bunched up the field behind the leader, kept the Penske pair from lapping everyone again.

Roberto Guerrero, the hard-luck kid of Indy racing, was the first casualty. Guerrero, who lost the 1987 race when his engine stalled on his final pit stop, spun across the short chute coming out of the first turn and hit the second-turn wall on the 21st lap.

He was not injured. It was the second time Guerrero finished 33rd in the 500. In 1992, as the pole-sitter, he crashed on the parade lap.

"It caught me totally by surprise," Guerrero said. "For no reason, the back end came around."

Dominic Dobson and Mike Groff tangled in the first turn on lap 29 and the debris from their accident forced Scott Goodyear and rookie Adrian Fernandez from the race and sent Lyn St. James to the pits for nearly 30 laps while her crew repaired damaged suspension.

"I was running in a straight line going into turn one when I felt someone hit me from behind," Groff said after being released from the infield hospital with a swollen left ankle. "Once I was popped, I slid backward into the wall and hit pretty hard."

The day's most bizarre accident occurred after rookie Hideshi Matsuda slid into the wall, bringing out a yellow flag on lap 92. Nigel Mansell headed for the pits but never got there as another rookie, Dennis Vitolo, somehow got his car up on top of the rear end of Mansell's No. 1 Lola.

Mansell, the defending PPG Cup Indy car champion, was livid.

"Apparently he was packing up, (going too fast), and he braked too late, so the next thing he was on top of me," Mansell said. "He probably hit me in excess of 100 m.p.h. more than I was doing."

Mansell leaped from his cockpit and rolled on the ground as the invisible methanol fumes burned around him. After a quick visit to the infield medical center, Mansell declined to be hospitalized and flew home to Clearwater, Fla.

"You don't mind being put out of a race by a mistake by yourself, or a problem in the pits, but I'm almost in shock being put out under a yellow flag," he said.

* SUNDAY DRIVER: After finishing 10th at Indianapolis, John Andretti flew to Concord, N.C., where engine trouble foiled his bid to win a stock-car race. C11

* ORDER OF FINISH: C12

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