One would think that after 69 Indianapolis 500s, a unique one would be hard to come up with. But this year's race will be long remembered for more than its record pace and the closest one-two-three finish in Brickyard history. It will also be remembered for the rain that postponed it twice, for the finish that almost wasn't, for the winning driver who doesn't look like one and, not least, for the winning car owner, a popular and private man who is desperately ill.
A new name was added to the giant silver Borg-Warner trophy listing every winner of the 500—a deserving name, if hardly a household one: Bobby Rahal. One of the brightest of all Indy drivers, he holds a history degree from Denison University and would have liked to be a doctor if he had not become a driver. He's 6'1", balding, wears big wire-rimmed glasses with thickish lenses, has a good-sized gap between his top front teeth and has a dark mustache that hangs in twin eaves over the corners of his mouth. The mustache bristles a bit when he says, as he often must, "What's a race driver supposed to look like?"
That's a moot point, anyway, because Rahal sure performs like a race driver. That he did for two hours, 55 minutes and 43.48 seconds last Saturday, averaging a record 170.722 mph. But it was an electrifying move he made with 90 seconds to go that counted most, when he drove his blood red—or Bud red, as its sponsor would have it—March-Cosworth like a stock car as he executed a classic slingshot pass on hapless Kevin Cogan. That is, if you can call any man hapless who led the Indy 500 after 495 miles, having driven brilliantly and boldly to get to that position.
It was a marvelous finish to a race that took seemingly forever to begin. Six days earlier, on the Sunday on which the race had been originally scheduled, more than 350,000 fans had waited in vain for the ugly oozing clouds to pass. A few returned to sit through even more persistent precipitation the next day. The race was rescheduled for Saturday, which broke blessedly bright and sunny. Another huge throng, estimated at over 300,000, appeared at the Speedway—to be dealt another postponement. This time it lasted only 40 minutes. First, some feckless spectator lobbed a smoke bomb onto the backstraight during a pace lap; seconds later 1983 Indy winner Tom Sneva smacked the wall inside Turn 2 after a suspension component broke on his car. But finally the gentlemen restarted their engines, and it was superb racing from that moment on.
Michael Andretti pounced from his front-row starting spot into the lead ahead of pole sitter Rick Mears, who had set a four-lap qualifying record of 216.828 mph. Andretti had looked lean and hungry all month. Mears would have fought him off had he been able to, but Mears's yellow March—perfect when it was buttoned up after final practice—became hard to handle when in the turbulent wake of any car close ahead. Said Mears, who uses the collective we when he does well but reverts to the singular when things turn bad, "I did not have the car balanced right for traffic and never got it right. I blew it."
As if to show that money, organization, talent and hard work aren't enough, car owner Roger Penske's other front-row entry, that of defending 500 champ Danny Sullivan, handled considerably worse than Mears's. "We changed everything we possibly could on the car during the race and never found anything that worked," said Sullivan, who would finish ninth after one of his longer days.
Mears was by no means out of the hunt, however; when his car was in clean air, it was usually the fastest on the track. So he kept his distance behind Andretti and awaited developments. After 100 miles he was a solid second, with Rahal and Cogan third and fourth.
Andretti lost the lead and then some by pitting twice with the race going full tilt under the green flag. Worse, one of those stops lasted nearly 30 seconds, about twice the time it takes a good pit crew to change three tires and top up the fuel tanks. Meanwhile, other front-runners lucked into less costly stops when the yellow caution flag was flying and the cars were held to speeds of 120 mph with no passing allowed. Racing now in relatively quiet air, Mears was turning laps as fast as 205 mph up front. And his crew was doing everything it could to keep him there; it would be fastest of the day with a total of one minute, 45 seconds pit time for 6 refuelings and 17 tire changes, 26 seconds quicker than Cogan's crew, which was next-best. But Rahal and Cogan were always pushing, making the afternoon's racing something special. At 60 laps (150 miles) it was Mears, Rahal, Cogan. At 90 it was Rahal, Mears, Cogan. At 150 Mears, Cogan, Rahal. At 180 Mears, Rahal, Cogan.
Then Rahal's show hit high gear. With Rahal and Cogan breathing down his neck, Mears came up behind rookie Randy Lanier. Mears made a move to pass high coming out of Turn 2, but Lanier went high, too. Rahal dived low, past Mears. Then Cogan simply powered past as Mears wrestled his buffeting car. "Kevin came right by me on the outside like I was tied to a post," Mears said.
And there was more. "I just saw it was time to take my move," Cogan would say. He angled across the track beneath both Rahal and Lanier, and as Rahal pulled out to go high past Lanier, they headed toward the first turn three abreast at 200 mph, with Cogan having momentum, position and daring on his side. The lead was now his.