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Two hundred miles into the Indianapolis 500, Rick Mears, the record-setting pole sitter and prerace favorite, was languishing in fifth position, a lap behind leader Danny Sullivan. Mears's car was oversteering, which is to say the tail was sliding all over the track, and he had his hands full just keeping the car off the walls, where six cars had already been rudely deposited. Mears was reporting on the situation over his radio to Roger Penske, owner of Penske Racing, the outfit for which both Mears and Sullivan drive. "Don't worry about it," replied Penske. "It's a long, long day. Just use your head."
Well, if you're going to have a long, long day, it might as well be as nice as the one Penske had on Sunday. It was his 20th anniversary at the Brickyard, and by the time the racing part of the day was done, Mears had won his third Indy 500 and Penske his seventh, making him the winningest car owner in Indy history. Finishing third was another one of his cars, a Penske PC 17-Chevy driven by defending Indy champion Al Unser Sr. So why wasn't Penske smiling? Said Penske, claiming that he was smiling inside, "We don't even like to have our own cars running ahead of us." Life is hard when you're a perfectionist.
Penske's reminder to Mears to use his head had hardly been necessary. Mears was way ahead of him in dealing with the imperfect race car. "I thought it would be better to slow down and let the others go, rather than stick it in the fence," Mears would say in Victory Lane. "Now I'm glad I did."
The others went, all right—many of them right into trouble. Mario Andretti's and Al Unser Jr.'s cars gave out on them. Notables who went more spectacularly—sticking their cars into the fence, that is—were Tom Sneva, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Sullivan. All told, the race had 14 yellow flags, which meant that 67 of the 200 laps were run at caution speeds behind a pace car. As a result, Mears's average speed of 144.809 mph was the lowest in seven years.
Most of the caution periods were caused by crashes, but this year's 500 was also slowed for other reasons, the most prominent of which were to clear the track of debris ranging from a squashed rabbit to sundry auto parts. Indeed, this wild race ended in a sedate parade of race cars trailing the pace car, which had come out onto the track after much of the right side bodywork on the car of Michael Andretti, who would finish fourth, had blown off on the front straight with three laps remaining.
As the contenders fell one by one, Penske and Mears tuned the chassis of the Pennzoil Special with each pit stop. In any race it's no small feat to take a car that's not handling well and turn it into a winner. But Penske and Mears have been working together for 10 years. and they mesh almost as smoothly as Mears drives. By the end of the 500, no other car could touch Mears's bright yellow Penske-Chevy.
Before that a couple of guys came pretty close. In fact, Mario Andretti had been faster than Mears almost every time except when it counted. On Thursday during the final practice, Andretti went 215.105 mph with his Lola-Chevy in full race trim, and he actually pronounced himself happy with his car. Maybe that was his mistake. Andretti's team manager, Tyler Alexander, sounded more the way racers are supposed to when he said, "Happy? How can you be happy when you've got a guy like Rick Mears [whose final practice best was 213.118] biting at your butt?"
But Mears wasn't what bit Andretti. It was the Brickyard snake, which has gotten Mario ever since he won the 500 in 1969. Although Paul Newman, the co-owner (with Carl Haas) of Andretti's car. had expressed the hope that this year they might outrun the jinx, it was not to be: Andretti's gearbox began to go up in smoke early in the race. He pitted for repairs and went back out, 22 laps behind, driving around and around, as if trying to run the jinx into the ground. Andretti drove on determinedly until his ignition quit and his car had to be towed in.
But Andretti was still better off than Roberto Guerrero, a driver the Brickyard snake has only recently struck. Guerrero finished second last year after having lost a one-lap lead during a disastrous final pit stop. In a test session last September, Guerrero crashed heavily and spent 17 days in a coma before recovering. When he made his appearance on pit row for qualifying this year, he was met with a standing ovation. "It was overwhelming, for sure," said Guerrero of the reception. But that would be the high point of the month for him, and he seemed to know it. Before the race he said, "I'd hate to think that I'm unlucky, but I'm not really sure that we're all done with the bad luck yet."
It reappeared on the very first lap of the race. The skyrockets signaling the start hadn't even finished exploding when cars began thudding into the concrete. Scott Brayton did what Indy drivers have had hammered into their skulls never to do: He tried to win the 500 on the first lap. Brayton spun right in front of Guerrero, in Turn 2, taking them both into the wall and out of the race, along with Tony Bettenhausen.