1981: Controversial Third Win for Bobby Unser

The decade of the 80s could arguably be called the decade of multiple winners. Only in 1983, 1985, and 1986 did the Indianapolis 500 produce a single time winner. Every other race had a winner that had either won before or would go on to win the race again.

Johnny Rutherford set the tone in 1980 with his third victory. The starting grid for 1981 included three multiple winners and two other former winners. A repeat champion was a distinct possibility.

The 1981 program had a three page article celebrating Rutherford’s win the year before, making him the fourth driver with at least three wins. A. J. Foyt had won his fourth 500 in 1977.

A Pennzoil ad may have been the first ad I had seen which included a driver’s wife.

The program noted the 70th anniversary of the first race in 1911, featuring a photo of the inaugural race’s last survivor, Ed Towers.

The 1941 race also received recognition on it’s 40th anniversary. It was the past race before racing was suspended because of World War II, and it was nearly the last Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.


The starting grid feature four second generation drivers, Geoff Brabham, Gary and Tony Bettenhausen, and Pancho Carter. Also starting was Bob Lazier, father of future winner Buddy Lazier. The second generation would expand in the soon as Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti joined the ranks and competed against their fathers.

The Race

On his way to victory, Bobby Unser pitted under a caution flatg. As he exited the pits, he appeared to blend into the field incorrectly, passing 11 cars and getting an advantageous position, which allowed Unser to beat Mario Andretti to the checkered flag.

Bobby Unser after qualifying on the pole.

The official results the next morning showed Andretti as the winner. Unser was penalized a lap for passing under the yellow. An appeals committee returned the win to Unser but fined him $10,000.

Unser’s third win gave the Unser brothers three wins each in the 500. Al would break the tie six years later, and Al’s son, Al, Jr., would add two more wins to the family total in the 90s.

The following year saw Gordon Johncock win his second Indianapolis 500. For the third in a row the race saw a multiple winner. There were more to come in the decade, with a future multiple winner, emerson fittipaldi, getting his first win in 1989.