SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
October 19, 1981
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October 19, 1981


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When Bobby Unser got the startling news last Thursday morning that a three-member United States Auto Club appeals panel had restored his victory in last May's Indianapolis 500, he was on an elk hunt near Chama, N. Mex. With him was Staff Writer Sam Moses, who reports:

Unser was jouncing along a rugged trail in his four-wheel-drive Bronco when the call came on his CB radio from his wife, Marsha, at their 125-acre ranch 20 miles away. "You've just won your third Indianapolis 500—again," she said. Unser was too amazed to respond. "Bobby? Did you read me?" his wife persisted. Finally Unser said, "What's the catch?" Came the reply, "You've also been fined $40,000."

It was too late for justice ever to be fully done in the hopelessly botched 1981 Indy. Nevertheless, even with that curious $40,000 fine, the panel's ruling was an agreeable surprise. Several hours after Unser crossed the finish line at Indy 5.3 seconds ahead of Mario Andretti, USAC Chief Steward Tom Binford had penalized him one lap for passing several cars on the pit apron on the 150th lap while the field was under a cautionary yellow flag. That resulted in Andretti's being named the winner the next day. Unser's team owner, Roger Penske, appealed, but few expected USAC to be overruled by a panel that USAC itself had appointed. It was duly noted that Penske and Pat Patrick, the owner of Andretti's car, had been instrumental in founding CART, USAC's young and formidable rival.

But all this was before the investigation began into USAC's mishandling of the race. The main problem was that details concerning the circumstances under which a car may leave the pit area and blend into the pack under a yellow flag had been covered only in an imprecisely worded bulletin and interpreted orally by Bin-ford, who loftily said, "Anything we tell them is a rule." Unser didn't deny having passed cars under the yellow flag, but testified at the appeal hearings that he didn't think it was a violation. Five drivers told the panel they had understood the rule as Unser did. One of them, Johnny Rutherford, said he had been guided by that interpretation while winning Indy last year. Even assuming Unser had violated the rules, the appropriate punishment would have been a one-lap penalty imposed during the race. By waiting until afterward, USAC deprived Unser of the opportunity to try to make up that lap. Binford explained that he couldn't determine soon enough that an infraction had occurred. However, testimony indicated that several official observers and scorers had seen Unser passing on the apron but that this information never reached the control tower. Andretti's crew chief complained immediately that Unser had passed illegally, but Binford testified he "jumped to the conclusion" that the transgressor was Al Unser, Bobby's brother. Only after scoring sheets were consulted and after he viewed videotapes following the race did Binford lower the boom. It was as though the officiating crew for the Super Bowl had decided to determine the game's outcome by waiting until after the final gun to view films of a disputed touchdown.

Testimony by USAC officials was contradictory and seemed calculated to obscure just how badly USAC had fouled up. Two race officials told SI they saw Unser pass on the apron and tried to inform the control tower; neither of them was asked to testify at the hearing. A USAC steward, Art Myers, told SI he queried observers during the race about a possible passing infraction as requested by Binford, and that no violation was reported. In his testimony, however, Myers hadn't seemed so sure that he'd queried, and the communications log contained no mention of any such query.

The vote to restore Unser's victory was 2-1, the majority holding that while he had indeed passed illegally, USAC had acted "improperly" in penalizing him a lap after the race. The $40,000 fine was apparently a face-saving concession to USAC. Annoyed by the fine, an otherwise elated Unser said, "I suspect USAC came up with that amount because that's what their legal fees were." Meanwhile, Andretti was bitter. While the failure to impose the one-lap penalty during the race robbed Unser of the chance to make up that lap, it also robbed Andretti of the possibility that Unser's engine might have blown in the effort.

Andretti's owner, Patrick, is close to Penske and Unser. He was in Unser's hunting party when last week's decision was announced, and he joined Bobby and Marsha Unser at their house for a victory dinner of chili, pumpkin pie and champagne. That evening Patrick expressed the belief that USAC had seen the dispute as a way of undermining CART by driving a wedge between himself and Penske. He said the ploy hadn't worked. Unser added, "USAC played with the biggest sporting event in the world like a crazy man plays Russian roulette." For one sitting there in Bobby Unser's New Mexico ranch house, 1,135 miles and 137 days from the place and event called Indy, it was hard to disagree.


The fuss over the recent Fifth Avenue Mile (SI, Oct. 5) served to confirm the obvious: This has been the Year of the Mile. For one thing, the world record at that distance has been broken an unprecedented three times in one year—all in a 10-day period in August when the mark was traded back and forth between Steve Ovett and current record holder (3:47.33) Sebastian Coe. What's more, 23 of the 28 fastest miles of all time have been run in 1981.

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