- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Anchored by the venerable old Indianapolis 500, Indy car racing as we know it today took shape in the 1980s.
After a brief power struggle and a short reconciliation under the Championship Racing League (CRL) banner in 1980, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) had emerged as the sanctioning body of the PPG Indy Car World Series. However, while it counted as a points-paying round of the CART championship, the Indianapolis 500 continued to be sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC). This seemingly minor point would take on great significance in the 1990s.
By the end of the '80s, American participation on the car building side was virtually non-existent. Teams purchased chassis from English manufacturers March or Lola and equipped them with off-the-shelf racing engines designed and built in England by Cosworth Engineering and Ilmor Engineering. Much of the technology was pioneered in Formula One cars and adapted for the comparatively mass production numbers needed to supply the Indy car field.
Like the cars, the race venues developed more of an international flavor. In 1980, nine of 12 Indy car races were staged on oval tracks; in 1989, nine of 15 events were run on road or street courses, along with only six ovals. Many of the participating teams came from road-racing backgrounds, including a large influx from the SCCA Can-Am championship when that series folded in the mid-80s.
So too came an international wave of drivers, led by Italian Teo Fabi, who as a rookie claimed pole position for the 1983 Indianapolis 500.
The most notable import was Emerson Fittipaldi; the 1972 and '74 Formula One World Champion embarked on a second career in America in the 1980s that was capped by victory in the 1989 Indianapolis 500 and the series championship.
If the convergence of Formula One and Indy car racing can be traced to when Lotus sparked the rear-engine revolution in 1963, the Cosworth DFX engine played a similarly important role.
Former Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones became a successful team owner, fielding a three-car USAC "Superteam" in the early '70s consisting of Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard. Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing built a Formula One car in California and fielded it with Andretti driving from late 1974 to early 1976, when costs drove the team out of F1.
However, VPJ came up with the idea of modifying a 3.0-liter Ford-Cosworth DFV engine for Indy car racing. They cut the capacity to 2.65 liters, added a turbocharger and installed it in a modified Parnelli F1 car.
Al Unser won three races in 1976 in the Parnelli VPJ6B-Cosworth; for 1977, McLaren modified an M23 F1 chassis for a DFX installation and was very successful with its M24 in USAC Racing. A year later, Penske Racing turned its PC4-DFV F1 contender into the PC6-Cosworth, winning many races in 1978 and '79. After a 60-year run, the Offenhauser four-cylinder was finally obsolete. By 1981, Cosworth powered 30 of 33 cars in the Indianapolis 500 field.
On the chassis side, March enjoyed similar dominance in the early 1980s, peaking with 30 of 33 cars in the 1984 race, including winner Rick Mears.
March cars won every year at Indy from 1983-87, but competition returned in the latter half of the decade, with Lola claiming the lion's share of the chassis market by 1988. Penske Cars, based in Poole, England, won at Indianapolis in 1981 before a dry spell in the mid-80s, but bounced back to claim Indy 500 victories in 1988 and '89.
The Cosworth DFX was finally vanquished as well. A pair of former Cosworth engineers named Mario Illien and Paul Morgan teamed up to form Ilmor Engineering.
They formed a partnership with Roger Penske and General Motors that resulted in a Chevrolet-badged Ilmor engine for Indy car competition that debuted in 1986. Penske Racing did the development work on the new engine but it was made available to other competitors in 1987.
Mario Andretti dominated the '87 Indianapolis 500, but his bad luck returned; by backing off to save his equipment, Andretti put the engine into a vibration zone that eventually caused a valve spring to fail with 20 laps remaining.
That wasn't Mario's only Indy disappointment in the '80s. He was at the center of the disputed 1981 race -- in fact, after finishing second to Bobby Unser, he was declared the victor when the Official Results were posted the next morning because Unser was judged guilty of passing a line of cars under caution.
But 138 days later, on Oct. 9, the decision was reversed in Unser's favor by a three-man USAC appeal board and the driver was fined $40,000.
In 1985, Andretti's heartbreak came on the track. He was leading at the 120-lap mark of the 500 when Danny Sullivan spun while trying to pass in Turn 1. Sullivan kept his car off the wall, pitted for tires during the yellow flag he caused, then executed a clean pass on Andretti 20 laps later and drove away for the win.
Sullivan's famous "Spin and Win" marked the last time that Indy cars appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
There were other classic stories made at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1980s. Al Unser started May 1987 on the sidelines, but he ended the month as the second four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, having driven to victory in a backup entry that had been serving as a show car in a Pennsylvania hotel lobby.
Mears and Gordon Johncock waged the closest finish in the history of the race in 1982, with Johncock prevailing over Mears' obviously faster car by 0.16 second. The Penske team made a rare mistake, giving Mears a full load of fuel with 17 laps to go instead of performing a timed stop-and-go. Mears made up an 11-second deficit but couldn't get past Johncock's Wildcat-Cosworth, which remains the last American chassis to win the Indianapolis 500.
A poignant moment came at the end of the rain-delayed 1986 race. After prevailing in a late race duel with Mears and Kevin Cogan, Bobby Rahal took a victory lap of the Speedway with frail team owner Jim Trueman, who died of cancer 10 days later. Rahal was a consistent threat throughout the '80s, winning the CART series championship in 1986 and '87.
One of the most violently graphic accidents in the history of any track occurred at Indianapolis on May 15, 1982. Gordon Smiley lost control during his qualifying run and was instantly killed, marking the first fatality at IMS in nine years. One spectator life was lost in the '80s when a wheel was knocked into the grandstands during the 1987 race.
From a star standpoint, Indy car racing was well stocked in the '80s.
With cars much safer than those of the past, the giants of the '60s and '70s saw their careers extended through another decade. Bobby Unser retired in 1982, but Al Unser, Andretti, Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and A.J. Foyt all raced well into their forties. Mears won his second and third CART series championships in 1981 and '82 and earned his second Indy 500 ring in 1984, but he suffered career-threatening injuries in an accident at Sanair Speedway in July 1984 and missed most of the next two years.
But by then, two eagerly awaited newcomers were ready for Indy cars: Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. arrived in 1982, and they quickly became star performers in their own right. There's a common belief that Michael inherited the so-called "Andretti curse" at Indianapolis, because he led and even dominated the 500 on several occasions but never won.
Unser was almost desperate to win at Indianapolis, and he crashed while disputing the lead with Fittipaldi on the 198th lap of the 1989 500. Al Jr. would go on to win at Indianapolis twice in the 1990s, but his friend and lifelong competitor Michael would continue to taste the Andretti family's frustration at the Brickyard for years to come.
Another family even more closely related to the Speedway faced a major decision as the decade drew to a close. IMS President Joe Cloutier died on Dec. 12, 1989; family matriarch Mary Fendrich Hulman was 84-years old and in declining health.
Who would be selected to continue the Hulman family's leadership of Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the 1990s and beyond?
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
The Indianapolis 500 in the 1980s featured a foreign flair from drivers, engines and chassis. More than anything, the '80s helped define what we think of the Indy 500 today.