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1989: Last lap collision decides Indy 500

For a long time the 73rd Indianapolis 500 was all about Emerson Fittipaldi. But with four laps to go Al Unser Jr seized the lead with a daring move in Turn 3. On the penultimate lap, Fittipaldi dived inside Unser as they fought to lap Ludwig Heimrath Jr. The two cars came together: Fittipaldi on the inside, Unser to the outside. Junior spun smartly into the wall - race over; Emerson artfully caught a giant slide and drove home a winner

A magnificent race then, this year's Indy 500 with scorching lap speeds at 220mph and better. Fittipaldi was the master of the day, running most of the field into the ground; but it was the efforts of Indycar racing's superlative pair of second-generation superstars, Unser Jr and Michael Andretti, which made it such as memorable afternoon. And the fact that Penske Racing had its worst Indy 500 in 15 years: not one of the team's three cars was left running after 350 miles.

The weather in Indiana last weekend was delightful: sunny and mild with little or no wind or humidity. In these conditions with the added benefits of this year's resurfaced track and latest Goodyear radials, there was no doubt that lap speeds in the race were going to be uncommonly fast. Indeed, the race's opening lap was run at 208mph and by the second lap the pace was up to 216mph where it was to stay for most of the afternoon!

Many people had made book that Fittipaldi would make a storming start from the outside of the front row and the Brazilian proved the experts right. Timing it perfectly, he edged ahead of poleman Rick Mears and second-starting Al Unser on the run into the first turn and then slashed across their noses, cutting a bold swath through the top of the groove.

"I was for sure planning to have a good start," commented Fittipaldi after the race. "I wanted to get in front and be able to run out of the turbulence of any other car so that the balance of the car would be the same as in all the testing we had done. And that's exactly what happened."

Right away Fittipaldi was able to jump clear of Mears and Unser Sr with the Lolas of Mario Andretti, Unser Jr and Bobby Rahal latching onto the leading trio of Penske PC18s. To everyone's relief the field got through the first and second laps without trouble but as Fittipaldi completed his third lap there was a big accident coming off Turn 4.

Ninth row-starting Kevin Cogan was trying to make ground by running at the dusty, top of the groove when his car appeared to get away from him at the exit of the corner. Cogan's car spun backwards toward the infield, T-boning the inner wall and then ricocheting into the end of the pitwall. The second impact tore engine from chassis and sent both pieces across the entrance to the pitlane and into the pitwall itself. What was left of the monocoque slid bottom-first into the inner pitwall with the engine slamming to a stop just beyond.

It was a powerfully explosive accident which scattered people in all directions at that end of the pitlane. Miraculously, Cogan was able to scramble out of the wreckage and after a quick trip to hospital was released suffering some scrapes and pain but without a single broken bone.

It took a long time to clean up the mess in the end of the pitlane. The green flag waved once again at the start of lap 16 with both Andretti Sr and Unser Jr making fierce restarts. Mario was able to get by Mears on the run into the first turn while Al Jr muscled his way inside his Dad. Out front Fittipaldi was repeating his opening lap form, streaking away from the others and immediately running laps at 216-218mph.

At that pace it took only six laps under the green for Fittipaldi to catch and start lapping the backfield. Chasing him hard and looking like a very strong contender was Mario Andretti with Mears another couple of seconds behind and under heavy pressure from the Unsers - son leading father - Rahal, Luyendyk and a charging Michael Andretti.

Further back Fabi was making places with the March-Porsche only to suffer some kind of electronic failure as the car passed the pits after 22 laps. Fabi coasted all the way around to the end of the pitlane and was then retrieved by his crew. The car was retired.

Also in trouble at this early stage of the race was Mears. From the start he had been unable to get maximum boost, his manifold pressure gauge fluctuating between 42 and 44ins Hg. With consequently restricted horsepower and straightline speed, he had to work hard to stay with the leaders.

Lap 25 and Al Jr was able to duck inside Mears in the first turn and over the next few laps Junior began to close in on second-placed Andretti while Mears' mirrors were jammed full with the likes of Al Sr, Rahal, Michael Andretti and Luyendyk. Meanwhile Fittipaldi was beginning to break away on his own, stretching his cushion over Andretti Sr to 8 seconds by lap 28.

Over the next handful of laps everyone made their first pitstops under the green. Hitting trouble during these stops was John Andretti who had run well from the fourth row, despite a distinct lack of straightline speed. As he tried to leave he got sideways on the metal jack pad in team mate Tom Sneva's pit.

The car half-spun and John stalled the engine so that he had to be pulled back and restarted. Team mate Sneva came into the pits while this was happening and needed a good push by his crew to get underway, all of which contrived to lose Bobby Rahal some time as he had to weave his way between the pair of partially-distraught Granatelli cars.

Last car to pit was Danny Sullivan who had run unspectacularly from the ninth row. Handicapped by his injured arm, Sullivan was unable to make any ground in traffic and was lapped by Fittipaldi before the first round of pitstops. More serious trouble was in store for Sullivan however as he was soon in and out of the pits to investigate a slipping clutch. He was soon out of it, a precursor of things to come.

At the front Fittipaldi was looking stronger and stronger, apparently without peer on this day. He and Patrick's engineer Mo Nunn had worked hard to find a good set-up for the race, running more wing area than Penske's own PC18's but with smaller wicker or trim tabs. As the race unfolded it was clear that Emerson and Mo had solved the riddle of drag versus downforce in a more effective race day manner than Penske's three-car fleet; the Brazilian began to dominate the day.

Meanwhile a quick, first pitstop got Michael Andretti up to third place in pursuit of his father. Steadily, Michael reeled in Mario and when they were confronted by a thick knot of traffic, Michael was able to pass and run away from his Dad. Mario went into the race with less downforce than Michael and it was in traffic that he now paid a penalty, unable to make anything like Michael's speed.

As Michael established himself in second place, Mario fell back. Soon he was passed by Al Jr and came under intense pressure from Mears and Al Sr. Then came the race's second yellow when Rahal suddenly coasted to a stop, a piston burned. Everyone stopped during the yellow and there were a couple of rounds of excitement when first, Raul Boesel spun as he tried to stop at his pit. Then Sneva's car caught fire and Tom had to bail out after struggling from the early laps with a sick engine.

Away from the restart Fittipaldi continued to set the pace from Michael Andretti, Al Jr, Mears, Al Sr, Mario and Jim Crawford. Right away Fittipaldi was running laps at 218mph and only nine laps into the restart with at least two-thirds of a load of fuel on board he was lapping at 220mph! The amazing pace was beginning to tear the heart out of most of the rest of the field. Shortly after the restart John Andretti came in to retire with a blown engine. Then Unser Sr was in trouble with a fading clutch, like team mate Sullivan. After a couple of inspection stops, Unser's car was similarly retired.

From lap 65 through 128 there wasn't a single yellow to interrupt the race and Fittipaldi continued to lead. This stretch was long enough for most people to make two stops under the green and in between those two stops, exactly at half-distance, Fittipaldi emphasised his strength by lapping third-placed Unser Jr.

Twelve laps earlier Andretti Sr came limping into the pits with a dead engine. He had been struggling for a long time it now transpired, with an engine which refused to run at anything less than full throttle. This made Mario's difficulties in getting through traffic even more problematical. Then he was coasting into the pits, engine dead - typically bad Andretti luck at Indianapolis. After a change of ECU, spark box and battery, Mario was on his way once again although seven laps behind.

Then, lap 113, and Mears came coasting down the pitlane trailing smoke. A piston had burned and the last of Penske's three cars was out of it. Later Penske himself admitted that even if Mears' engine hadn't given out, he probably would have suffered a clutch failure like his team mates. There was little pleasure chez Penske last Sunday evening and with the street racing shortcomings demonstrated by the PC18s at Long Beach last month and Sullivan's arm injury likely to restrict his performance for a handful of races, it's already beginning to look as if the team's CART title may not be defendable.

Ten laps after Mears' demise we watched Luyendyk's DFS Cosworth burn a piston on the front stretch. Luyendyk's car belched smoke as he crossed the start/finish line, coasting to a stop on the backstretch. Two DFSs in the race and neither able to go the distance. Luyendyk's retirement ultimately triggered a yellow but most cars stayed on the track, having stopped for fuel and maybe tyres within the previous 15 laps. One of the few to come in during this yellow was leader Fittipaldi who therefore fell to the tail of the restart line. This handed the lead to Michael Andretti who at that point was the only other man on the same lap.

Away from the restart Michael was chased and then passed by Al Jr, therefore getting himself back on the same lap as Andretti Jr and Fittipaldi. Then, another yellow when Crawford coasted to a stop on the track. Unable to run full boost and get the necessary fuel mileage from his Buick, Crawford spent much of his race trying to keep from being lapped by Fittipaldi. First of all he lost the use of his clutch and then his engine expired, although the good folk from Buick preferred to call it a "drive train failure".
Away from the restart Fittipaldi continued to lead but young Andretti was right there and five laps after the green he stole the lead in Turn 3. Running laps at 216-218mph, Michael began to edge clear of Emerson. Sud-denly there was new life to the race.

While Michael was enjoying himself, Fittipaldi was struggling, unhappy with the set of tyres he was running on and unable to lap much quicker than 215-216mph.

Then Michael encountered his father and it took a couple of corners of fierce racing to find a way around the old man. In his enthusiasm to get around Mario it seems that Michael may have buzzed his engine for indeed, his engine suddenly gave out - a piston burned - barely half a lap later. "My car was fantastic," commented Michael. "This was a real bummer because I think we could have won it."

With the yellow for Michael's tow-in, Fittipaldi dived into the pits, anxious to change tyres. "At that point of the race, my car was pushing more and more," noted Fittipaldi. "I told the guys over the radio to get out the tyres I had started the race on and go back to them for the last part of the race. So at the pitstop that's what we did and it made the car much better for the end of the race."

When the green waved again with 35 laps to go it all seemed pretty academic: Fittipaldi was leading with Al Jr the only other man on the same lap, at the tail of the restart line. Everyone else in fact, was five laps or more behind! When the starter waved the green Fittipaldi took off on his own, adding to his cushion as Unser worked his way through traffic. Ten laps after the restart he was 15 seconds ahead of Unser and when another yellow came out on lap 181 after Tero Palmroth's car lost a front wheel, the gap was still about the same.

As soon as the yellow came out, Fittipaldi ducked into the pits for his final fuel stop. No tyres were needed and it was supposed to be a quick stop for a limited amount of fuel. However as he tried to leave his pit, Emerson had trouble getting underway, almost stalling. "The engine nearly stalled that time," reported Fittipaldi. "I was playing with the throttle, trying to get the engine to respond and there was no reaction to the throttle until I went down to first gear. That was a relief!"

Meanwhile Unser Jr and the canny Galles team stayed on the track, apparently planning to go the distance without a stop. The team had stopped at the end of the previous yellow after 165 laps and with the five laps yellow for Palmroth's lost wheel, Galles' engineer Alan Mertens reckoned they had enough methanol to run to the finish.

For the restart on lap 187, Fittipaldi and Unser Jr were together on the racetrack about halfway down the restart line. They worked quickly through most of those in front of them, Emmo maintaining a small cushion to Al Jr. Once they were free of traffic however, Unser began to chisel away at the gap. With nine laps to go he was onto Emerson's tail and both of them were using all the road, diving down below the white line with all four wheels.

Mario Andretti had been at the head of the line for the restart and it wasn't until lap 194 that the two leaders finally caught Mario. It took a full lap for them to find a way around him, both doing so in exciting style in the first turn on lap 196. Then, helped by a slower car in Turn 2, Junior made his move, diving to the inside along the backstretch and taking the lead in Turn 3. Down the frontstretch the two dodged and weaved; Unser trying to break the tow, Fittipaldi insistent on staying right there.

For two laps they ran that way before coming upon a clump of lapped cars. Beginning lap 199, running laps of 220mph(!), they were rapidly catching a trio of slower cars. In the second turn Junior had to waffle a little on the throttle in order to avoid hitting Heimrath Jr and Emmo cagily hung back in order to get a cleaner shot out of the corner and a good run down the backstretch. Midway down the back-stretch he jinked to the inside of Unser as both moved inside Heimrath.

"I had one slower car on my right and Emerson on my left," explained Unser. "Because of the car on my right I was able to pull Emerson a little on the last part of the straightaway. I had my front wheels ahead of Emerson as we went into Turn 3. I had been driving those last laps wide-open and neither of us lifted in the corner. I wasn't gonna lift and Emerson didn't lift either. And only one car was going to come out of that and it was Emmo."

Commented Fittipaldi: "I was on the inside line and I wasn't going to back off. We touched wheels and he went up into the wall. I was able to hold my car. I almost spun. It was a very big moment, for sure!" As Fittipaldi collected himself, Unser had spun around and smacked the wall with his left rear corner, ending his race there and then. Out came the yellow and Fittipaldi cruised home as Unser scrambled from his car and removed his helmet and fireproof headsock. Unser walked to the side of the track and when Fittipaldi came by on his victorious cool-down lap. Junior gave him a pair of thumbs up.

So it was that Emerson Fittipaldi became the first foreign-born driver since Mario Andretti 20 years ago to win the Indianapolis 500. He also becomes the first South American driver to win America's biggest motor race. "I feel like today I have achieved the most important victory of my life. But next weekend is Milwaukee and the championship is there to think about. The championship is my next goal."

So far behind was the rest of the field that Al Jr was unchallenged in taking second place with 198 laps completed. Third, no fewer than six laps behind Fittipaldi was Raul Boesel who finished the race without any water in his cooling system thanks to a holed radiator. Fourth place went to the much-delayed Mario Andretti who nosed out AJ Foyt for the position. Highest finishing rookies this year were Bernard Jourdain and Scott Pruett in ninth and 10th places, each of
them respectively nine and 10 laps behind.

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