Rain, controversy, and an arrest highlighted the crazy month of May 1981. The starting lineup wasn’t finalized until the Thursday before the race. The winner of the race was in doubt for several months. The last row of the lineup in the program was not the last row that lined up on Race Day. Oh- and it rained a lot too.
The 1981 program for the 65th Running had an unusual cover with a black back ground featuring the Borg -Warner Trophy and some strategically placed lettering. The center of the program has a foldout photo of the trophy with some facts about the piece. This was before the base was added. The most interesting bit was that the trophy was stolen from a hotel room in 1938 then returned to the same room two days later.
The Race Day schedule has the opening ceremonies beginning at 10:00, with the National Anthem at 10:44 and the race starting at 11:00. A nice, compact hour with no interruptions. Great idea, NBC?
The program lists 109 entries, 10 without assigned numbers. 90 cars made qualification attempts and 12 were bumped. The first weekend was a virtual washout, which made the last two days rather hectic. The delay in qualifying may have contributed to the chaos.
Seven feature stories include one on the last living participant of the 1911 race. Colonel Ed Towers was a riding mechanic for the Amplex car which finished eighth in the first 500. Towers was 93 years old at the time the article appears in May 1981. Bill Turner drove the car.
The Crazy Month of May
The key word for 1981 was rain. practices got washed out and the forecast for Pole weekend was not promising. Only nine drivers qualified the first Saturday, and not everyone who drew for a qualifying spot had a chance. Pole Day was rescheduled for the next day. Only those who had drawn numbers would be eligible to make a pole run. A. J. Foyt was the fastest of the nine, but would have to wait a week to find out if he would be on the pole again. Rain washed out all track action Sunday.
The rainout created a problem for Mario Andretti, who was committed to race in the Belgian Grand Prix the next weekend. Wally Dallenbach agreed to qualify the car for Andretti, who would start last in the race.
With so many cars and only two days to make the race, tension was high. The following Saturday saw a record 53 qualifying attempts. Bobby Unser won the pole and Mike Mosley also bettered Foyt’s time for the middle of the front row. Tom Sneva had a speed quicker than Unser, but he was not in the original line and was not able to run for the pole. Dallenbach qualified Andretti’s car in 8th place. The field had 33 qualifiers at the end of the day with one full day left for bumping.
Bump Day again featured lots of drama. 37 drivers took the green and 9 were bumped. Jerry Sneva got in the race with about 30 minutes to spare, knocking Jerry Karl out of the field. A protest was lodged against Sneva that a bolt had kept the pop-off valve from opening allowing his car to gain speed. The stewards disqualified Sneva the next day, and Karl was back in the race. Karl’s difficult week was just beginning. He was arrested the following Thursday on contempt of court charges from a case the previous year.
The starting lineup insert in the program was printed very soon after the last day of qualifying. A note on the bottom of the score card portion reads, “At press time USAC advised that a protest involving the starting eligibility of Car No. 17 (J. Sneva) was not resolved, and that an announced driver change and subsequent starting position for Car No. 40 (Dallenbach/Andretti) was unofficial.”
The last row lineup looks this way in the insert:
On Race Day the last row was:
Jerry Karl, Mario Andretti, and Tim Richmond
Brayton and Klausler moved to row 10, and Sneva was not in the field. Richmond had been bumped, but his team rented A. J. Foyt’s number 84 that George Snider had qualified and Richmond took the seat. Race Day would seem relaxing after all the craziness surrounding setting the grid.
Like many days that May, Race Day held a chance of rain. Fortunately it held off until well after the race ended. There was confusion at the start as starter Duane Sweeney misunderstood a signal from a steward and reached for the yellow flag as the field approached for the start. He quickly switched to the green flag as the first two rows passed. The race became a typical 500 of the time with yellows and lead changes on pit stops. The caution flag waved 11 times for 69 laps. The worst accident happened on lap 64 when Danny Ongais slammed the wall in turn 3. The car caught fire. I remember seeing the plume of black smoke from my spot on the front stretch.
During a yellow flag period on 149 leader Bobby Unser and second place Mario Andretti were leaving the pits. The rule is you blend into traffic wherever you return to the track. Unser passed several cars as he reentered the race. Andretti blended in and reported to his pit what he saw.
Unser won the race by 12 seconds, becoming the sixth three time winner. At that time the official results weren’t posted until 8 am the next morning. The posted finish showed Andretti as the winner and Unser second. He received a one lap penalty for passing cars under yellow. Mario was honored at the Victory Banquet that night.
Roger Penske, Unser’s team owner, appealed the decision. Prize money for Unser and Andretti was held until a hearing took place later in the summer. Unser was reinstated as the winner, but received a five figure fine for his actions..
As for the last row starters, they did quite well. In addition to Andretti , Richmond finished 14th and Karl 15th. It was the last 500 for both Karl and Richmond.
It was the first time in 500 history that two drivers became three time winners consecutive races. Johnny Rutherford won his third in 1980.