The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

On Sunday, hundreds of millions of eyes across the globe were concentrated on a former field in Indiana. The same could be said on May 28th, 1989.

The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

On Sunday, hundreds of millions of eyes across the globe were concentrated on a former field in Indiana. The same could be said on May 28th, 1989. 28 Years ago, with half a million people were in attendance, millions watching on TV, two of the greatest drivers in the world battled for the ultimate prize in motorsport, an Indianapolis 500 victory.

On May 28th, 1989, ABC started their broadcast with their now familiar “Delta-Force” intro for the Indianapolis 500, 500,000 people crammed into the stands at the track to watch 33 drivers duel for 200 Laps to figure out just who could win. Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr and Emerson Fittipaldi lined the front row for the race. Mears had won the race 3 times, Unser had won 4, Fittipaldi was searching for his first win.

The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

As they came to the start, Indy claimed its first victim. Gary Bettenhausen would suffer a broken valve on the pace lap, and was towed back to the garage from the main straightaway. He would finish 33rd. When the green flag flew, the front row raced 3 wide into Turn 1. Rick Mears and Unser Sr both backed out, leaving Fittipaldi to roar around the outside and to the front of the pack by Turn 1. Fittipaldi would stretch his lead out to a second by Lap 5, when Kevin Cogan suffered a horrific accident on the front straightaway. He would, remarkably, walk away.

After the cleanup and restart, Fittipaldi pulled away from the pack. The race seemed littered with mechanical issues. On Lap 19, Gordon Johncock, the 1982 Winner, dropped out of the race in his Lola. Quickly after, Teo Fabi’s Porsche and Randy Lewes’ Cosworth both suffered issues on Lap 23. Strong contenders like Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr., and Arie Luyendyk all dropped out by Lap 150 of the 200 lap event.

Even with 3 caution periods during this span, Fittipaldi could hold off all challenges. His Chip Ganassi car was holding together when it seemed everyone was dropping away. However, about Lap 75, Newman/Haas driver Michael Andretti was in sight of Fittipaldi. His Lola chassis was holding together perfectly. By Lap 83, he was on Fittipaldi’s tail. Andretti had already led laps earlier, but he struck again, ripping the lead from Fittipaldi’s grasp.

The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

Fittipaldi was ready, however, and took the lead back by Lap 93. Andretti then struck back on Lap 112, taking the lead again. The pair spent the next 125 miles trading the lead. The pair swapped the lead 4 more times before Lap 150. Andretti snatched the lead back from Fittipaldi for the last time on Lap 154. It seemed to be Andretti’s race from that point forth. He pulled a second, then two seconds, then, disaster.

On Lap 162, Andretti’s Chevrolet powerplant expired, sending his Indy 500 hopes up in smoke. Fittipaldi took the lead, but quickly making a pit stop, gifting the lead to Al Unser Jr. in his Rick Galles entry. Unser would pit 2 laps later, leaving Fittipaldi to take a huge lead, and set a blistering pace. By Lap 166, Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi were the only cars on the lead lap.

Fittipaldi seemed as if he would cruise to an easy win. Tero Palmroth’s right front spindle derailed those plans. The safety car was brought out for officials to safely recover the lost wheel, and Fittipaldi’s advantage was erased. The race would restart on Lap 185, with Fittipaldi having a huge gap to Unser, who was stuck behind many lap down cars. Fittipaldi, however, would get hung up on 3rd place driver Raul Boesel. His lead shrunk more, giving Unser a chance at glory.

The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

After Fittipaldi and Unser had cleared lap down traffic, Unser began closing. The gap shrunk lap after lap. By Lap 193, Unser was directly behind Fittipaldi. As Fittipaldi approached slower traffic, Unser closed more. Coming to Lap 195, Unser made his move while Fittipaldi was hung up on a lap car. He slipstreamed off the Malboro entry and swung to the inside, trying to pinch Fittipaldi behind another slower car. Fittipaldi either could lift or give Unser the position, or make an incredible move. He used the slipstream off the lap car and cleared Unser by inches by the start/finish line. He then moved inside of the lap car, coming within inches of Unser.

Neither driver lifted. Fittipaldi’s entry to the corner was compromised by the lap car, allowing Unser to take the faster line. Fittipaldi went defensive into Turn 2, and, once again, allowing Unser to take more speed through the corner. Unser slipstreamed up the backstraight. When he got to Fittipaldi, he faked high, then darted to the inside of Fittipaldi. Unser and Fittipaldi raced into Turn 3. Unser kept to the inside and shot to the lead. Only 5 laps remained.

Unser pushed hard, but the gap stayed a stagnant 6 tenths of a second. Neither driver could gain an advantage. Coming to 2 Laps remaining, Unser came up on a pack of lap down cars. The first blocked Unser into Turn 1, allowing Fittipaldi to close. As they came out of Turn 2, Fittipaldi made the move. He dove to the inside, then tried to pinch Unser behind the lap car again. Unser saw through it, and moved towards Fittipaldi. The former Formula 1 World Champion then allowed Unser to slide into the hole. They raced 3 wide down the back straightaway, neither driver lifting.

The 1989 Indianapolis 500: A Legendary Duel #BlogPost

The lap cars attempted to make way for the leaders. Both weren’t giving each other an inch. The pair raced into Turn 3, Unser squeezed Fittipaldi onto the apron. Neither were going to lift. Fittipaldi’s car understeered on the apron, unbeknownst to Unser. The pair touched wheels. Both cars went sideways. Unser and Fittipaldi fought for control, but Unser’s was too far gone. His car spun round and slammed into the outside wall. Fittipaldi was able to continue on. Fittipaldi had won the Indianapolis 500.

But the drama wasn’t over. Unser was okay and got out of his car. Fittipaldi only had to make 1 more lap under the safety car to become an Indy 500 winner. When he rounded Turn 3 there stood Unser. Many expected something to be thrown at Fittipaldi, or at the very least have Unser show him the bird. However, Unser gave Fittipaldi a thumbs up. A sign of respect. Both drivers had driven as hard as they could, and only 1 had came through. Unser knew this, and knew it was not to be.

Emerson Fittipaldi would go on to win the event again in 1993, but never again. Unser Jr. would prevail in 1992, winning by less than a car length over Scott Goodyear. Unser would go on to win again in 1994, with Penske Racing. Ironically, after Fittipaldi had crashed while leading with only 8 Laps remaining. Rick Mears would win his 4th and final Indy 500 in 1991. Michael Andretti would never win an Indianapolis 500.


Tomislav Celić

Nice blog

05/30/2017 - 19:29 |
18 | 0

True sportsmanship

05/30/2017 - 19:40 |
8 | 0
🇮🇩Mk7Golfer 🇦🇺

Never got to CARTs until the late 90s. Never had disappointing races (exc. for that Firestone Firehawk 600K). It’s great to have a post about races that I haven’t watched! Indy always put on a show. Unfortunately, Tony George and his ego had to ruin everything.

I’m just patiently waiting for the day Tony George and his ego die, just like how my favorite American race series’ fate.

05/30/2017 - 21:18 |
2 | 0

Great story. Al Unser’s show of respect really got to me.
That’s what racing’s all about,

05/30/2017 - 22:27 |
6 | 0
ShadowHuayra (HemiPower)

Great post. Very well written

05/30/2017 - 23:22 |
4 | 0

Really thorough and had my eyes hooked onto each and every single character…even though it’s 1am GMT.

05/30/2017 - 23:55 |
4 | 0
Sayanth Manohar

Great read. Gripping.

05/31/2017 - 10:20 |
2 | 0

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