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Original Issue

The Block Party That Backfired

Even teamwork by the two Unsers could not put a stop to Tom Sneva's run to his first Indianapolis triumph

For a while there last Sunday it looked as if blood might prove thicker than methanol. But in the final laps of another hyperdramatic Indianapolis 500, Tom Sneva shot past a whole branch of the Unser family—the two Als, Big and Little—to win his first Speedway victory after three painful second-place finishes in six years. Emerging from a lengthy 27-second pit stop that allowed Al Unser Sr. to take the lead with 70 miles to go, Sneva found himself astern of Al Jr., lying in 10th place but traveling directly in back of—albeit a lap behind—his father and thus conveniently situated to run a little interference.

Every time Sneva closed up the straightaways preparatory to passing Little Al, the younger Unser would twitch his steering wheel and ease out into Sneva's path. Lap after lap the carrot-topped 21-year-old shut the gate on his father's pursuer. "Yes, I did try," he admitted later with his Huck Finn grin. "Sure I saw the flag guy"—the race official flashing a yellow-striped blue flag at Al Jr., requesting that he keep his line and thus allow Sneva to pass—"but I wasn't going to move over."

Then on the 191st lap, with less than 25 miles remaining, Sneva made his move. Bellowing along the main straight at more than 200 mph, he nipped down toward the inside apron, almost running his left wheels onto the infield grass, shot past Little Al's Eagle-Cosworth and set his sights on Big Al. In the backstretch he gobbled him up: Unser's yellow Hertz-sponsored Penske PC-11 fell behind like a pooped-out rental car. In his final pit stop. Big Al had decided against a change of tires for the dash to the checkered flag. He'd saved time—his stop took only 16 seconds—and gained the lead, but with Sneva coming at him, he sure could have used the extra traction of fresh rubber. Once past Big Al, Sneva was home free. His white March 83C with Cosworth V-8 turbo crossed the finish line with an average speed for the 500 miles of 162.117 mph, only a tick slower than the late Mark Donohue's record 162.962 for the race set 11 years ago.

Sneva, who would turn 35 three days after Indy, has known more frustration at the Speedway than any other current top-line driver. In 1975 he was cruising nicely toward the end of the race when he tipped another car's tire and crashed in flames in Turn 2. Bobby Unser, Big Al's brother, now retired, said it was the most violent crash he'd ever witnessed. In 1977, while driving an impeccably prepared Penske car, Sneva, who had become the first driver to exceed 200 mph at the Brickyard, sat on the pole and led much of the race, only to lose by less than half a minute to A.J. Foyt Jr., as the great man won his unprecedented fourth Indy. A year later, he was nipped by Al Unser—thus making this year pleasant revenge—and two years after that he was edged by Johnny Rutherford, who had to sit out this year's Indy with crash-crunched lower leg bones. But everyone knew Sneva would eventually stop being snakebit, and by the halfway point Sunday it was clear the time was at hand. His car was decidedly the quickest in what remained of a record-fast field.

There was a muted tone to the start of this 67th 500. Speedway veterans couldn't remember a quieter prerace crowd. That omphalos of obstreperousness, the intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road at the track's southwest corner, is normally abrawl with drunks, dopers and nightstick-happy cops on the night before the race. This year there was scarcely a word spoken in sufficient anger to be heard over the whine and bang of Screaming Meemie firecrackers or the gentle gurgle of retching bacchanalians. Perhaps it was better crowd control, perhaps a still sickly economy in the industrial Middle West—or perhaps it was fear over what promised to be a deadly dangerous start.

Fully 10 cars had qualified at speeds of more than 200 mph, led by rookie Teo Fabi of Milan, Italy at 207.395, and four more had clicked single laps at 200 or better. Fabi, a quick study, had used Car-buretion Day—the Thursday before the 500—to run with a race set-up and again was fastest of the 33-car field, at 201 and change. He also discovered that his car handled poorly in the turbulent wakes of other racers. Small wonder he still insisted that to win the pole had been more important to him than winning the race would be. "After all," he explained through an interpreter, "it will require enormous good fortune to last 500 miles and win the race." His team, he knew, was still relatively inexperienced in Indy-car racing, and even the most meticulous planning does not guarantee victory at this car-and man-killing track. Cool and crisply professional though he was, Fabi nonetheless found that his forebodings were correct.

When the green flag flapped after early morning's gray, rain-heavy skies had turned midsummer blue, Fabi leaped to a quick, long lead—reminiscent to old-timers of Duke Nalon's lightning starts in the marvelous Novi of 30 years ago. Indeed, the Duke was driving the pace car for this year's race, the scars from his fiery 1949 crash long since faded into the leather of honorable age. Instead of crashing into one another in a mad dash for Turn 1, as they are too often wont to do, the remaining drivers strung out in smooth order at the start, providing a balm to anxious spectators' hearts. Fabi's March-Cosworth—The Flying Green Snuffbox, as it had come to be called by the cognoscenti—opened up a five-second lead by the 10th lap, attaining that margin at a record-tying average of 194.966 mph, and a seven-second bulge by the time he first pitted, for 24 seconds to take on tires and fuel, on the 24th lap. Back on the road again, he was closely followed by Rick Mears, Mike Mosley and a surprisingly fast Bobby Rahal, whose well-drilled crews gained valuable seconds in the fueling stop. The Unsers, p√®re et fils, were lurking within striking range on the same lap as Fabi, but Foyt, whose car had never been really right during the month of prerace practice, was clearly out of contention. He would retire on the 24th lap with a broken gear-shift linkage, having been preceded two laps earlier by his Gilmore teammate, George Snider, with a failed ignition system.

The first of the day's five yellow caution flags came out on Lap 27 when racing journalist Patrick Bedard ticked the wall in Turn 4 and with commendable aplomb checked his car's slide down into oncoming traffic and parked it neatly against the upper wall. Under the yellow, there was mass pitting for fuel and tires. When the green light came on again five laps later, Big Al had grabbed the lead, and Sneva had shown his car's ultimate promise by closing up to second place while Fabi had slipped to a still-swift fifth. Then Sneva snapped around Al Sr. through Turn 2, the corner that had burned him so badly eight years ago, and the crowd began to take notice of him.

Fabi had moved back up to third place when the next yellow popped: Roger Mears, Rick's older brother and himself a talented but bad-luck racer, hammered the wall in the short chute between turns 1 and 2, emerging unhurt from the wreckage. Fabi pitted with the others, but suddenly he sprang from the car as his crew grabbed for fire extinguishers. Memories of Rick Mears's chaotic—and nearly fatal—pit fire of two years ago ignited in many minds, but there were no invisible methanol flames in Fabi's parking lot. The dry brake seal—the sphincter at the mouth of his car's fuel tank—had pulled off when the fuel nozzle was extracted, and methanol poured out, saturating Fabi's fire-suit and forming a murderous pool in the pit. Too dangerous to continue.

Fabi's square shoulders sagged in disappointment—he said he'd been running at little more than half-throttle, his engine, the sweetest sounding at the Speedway this year, getting an unheard-of 2.2 miles per gallon—but he said nothing as he doffed his helmet and walked briskly out of contention and back to Gasoline Alley for a change of clothes. Still, he had won the respect of the Indy gang by his professionalism, and with March mastermind Robin Hard building a new Formula I car for Fabi next year to go with his already amazing Indy machine, Fabi is sure to be heard from again.

The race evolved in its middle reaches into a high-speed chase among Big Al; Rahal, a dour, balding man known as Bobby Ray Hall when he races down South; Rick Mears; road-racer Howdy Holmes; Geoff Brabham, son of Black Jack, the former Grand Prix great; and Sneva. At one point about a third of the way into the race, the seven leading cars were on the same lap, a tribute to this year's exciting equality of designs. One design that didn't work was Eric Broadley's Lola, entered by Lola importer Carl Hass and movie star Paul Newman and driven by a disgruntled Mario Andretti. Andretti hasn't won at Indy since 1969, 14 long, frustrating years ago. On the 80th lap, as he chased Johnny Parsons Jr. into Turn 1, Parsons suddenly lost it, spun directly in front of Andretti and set up the day's worst tangle.

"What happened was very simple," Andretti explained when he got back from the field hospital. "Johnny went in too hard, got below the line and bobbled. When he got sideways, I tried to go outside, but he just carried me right into the wall. The side pod hit—it was a hell of an impact. Before that, the car was mediocre at best, but it was drivable and predictable.... I'm sore. I'm hurting in my heart. But this place is just something for me.... Que sera, sera, just another racing accident—what more can I say?"

At the midpoint of the race, Roger Penske's Yellow Peril, a.k.a. the combination of Big Al and Mears, was clutching to a narrow lead over Sneva. But clearly something was gravely amiss with Mears's car. "It started out pushing [oversteering], and then when the fuel got half empty it neutraled," said Mears later. "From half empty to empty it just got loose [understeered]. I had to hit the brakes to stay off the wall. On our first pit stop we lowered the rear flap [wing] and put more stagger in the rear tires, and that helped for a while. The track got slippery as it got warmer, but I was working so hard I couldn't tell much."

Big Al also reported pushing as his main difficulty, and then his car, too, came loose toward the end. Was there a design flaw in this year's Penske creation? Mears rode the brakes so hard all day long that they began to fade on him as the race progressed—the first time that had happened to him on a fast track. "I about spun that thing 15 times today," he said with a wince.

Brabham's fine, charging ride—he blew past the elder Unser on Lap 124, more than 300 miles along the way, to take second place momentarily—was slowed disastrously in the pits on a subsequent stop that lost him more time than he could hope to recover. Rahal, who also threatened from time to time, suddenly felt water sheeting into his cockpit on Lap 110. He thought at first his drinking-water bottle had burst, but then he saw his engine temperature soar and knew the worst: His radiator had split. End of a worthy effort. "I'm probably going to go home and kick the dog," he quipped with unaccustomed wit.

Mike Mosley, No. 2 on the front row at the start, kept up his tradition of running in hard luck. He was lying sixth on Lap 169 when he lost it in the apex of Turn 1. His yellow March-Cosworth seemed to leap sideways into the gray zone above the line and then spun in a cloud of blue burning rubber. He pounded the wall at nearly 194 mph, the car shedding fiber glass in a yellow burst that sounded like a terrorist bomb. He caromed down the banking. Sneva, whipping up from behind, dodged instinctively and cleared Mosley's broken machine by a whisker.

It was during the caution period brought on by Mosley's mishap that Big Al made his momentous tire-change decision while Sneva took extra long in the pits to ensure that his fuel tanks were topped off for the final run. When Sneva took the checkered flag, the tension finally eased in his pits. He and his chief mechanic, George Bignotti, had screamed at each other on Thursday night over an unexplained oil leak during carburetion, and on Saturday about radio communication procedures. Reports filtered out of the garage area of wrenches being thrown by driver and master mechanic. Sneva's win, though, was the seventh in Bignotti's Indy career as the Wizard of Whiz, and its sweetness did much to allay his testiness. And Sneva's as well.

"The marriage between you and George Bignotti has been stormy on occasions," ran a question Sneva was asked at his postrace press conference. "Is a divorce imminent now?"

"We couldn't be more happy with the situation today," said the plump-cheeked winner, his eyes bright behind his spectacles. "It feels a lot better than being a bridesmaid. I want to do this some more—it feels that good."


In the late going, Sneva (5) was chasing Big Al (7)—with Little Al (19) running interference for his dad. On Lap 191, Sneva blew past the son and then the father.


Fabi isn't aware of it yet, but this refueling—and his Indy debut—is going irrevocably awry.


Sneva's win was all the sweeter for his having been runner-up three times in six years.