Three years into the first open wheel split, the sport of Indy car racing began settling into a mostly stabilized environment by 1981. The upstart CART series sanctioned the season of races. The Indianapolis 500 itself became an invitation-only race sanctioned by USAC, involving the CART regulars and various one-off entries. USAC kept alive their own "Gold Crown" championship, running Indy and the Pocono 500 in June 1981.
A record total of 105 entries were expected to shatter the previous records for drivers on the track and qualifying attempts. Speed-cutting measures were still in place, and no drivers were expected to challenge the track records in 1981.
Mario Andretti, as he had done in previous years, planned to race at Indianapolis in-between his busy, full-time Formula One schedule. His plans included qualifying at Indy on pole day weekend (May 9–10), then flying to Europe for the Belgian Grand Prix (May 17). After Belgium, he would fly back to Indianapolis in time for race day (May 24).
For the first time, USAC held a special test session for first-time drivers. The first-ever Rookie Orientation Program was organized and held over three days in early April. It allowed newcomers the opportunity to take their first laps at the Speedway and acclimate themselves to the circuit in a relaxed environment. It would be held without the pressure of veteran drivers crowding the track, without the distraction of spectators, and with minimal media coverage. The drivers were allowed to take the first phases of their rookie test during the ROP. then return to complete the final phase of the test during official practice in May.
Since the 500 had been moved to the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the 1981 race marked the earliest date (May 24) on which the race had ever been held. According to the calendar, May 24 is also the earliest date in which it can be scheduled.
Practice started on Opening Day, Saturday May 2. The two most notable rookies of the field made most of the headlines for the afternoon. Young Josele Garza (actually 19 at the time, lied on his entry form to say he was 21) and Geoff Brabham both passed their rookie tests.
On Sunday May 3, Al Unser became the first driver to practice over 190 mph (310 km/h). A day later, his brother Bobby Unser pushed the speeds over 197 mph (317 km/h). The first incidents of the month occurred Monday, when Gordon Smiley spun, and Pete Halsmer crashed in turn 4.
Tuesday (May 5) was completely rained out, and Wednesday (May 6) was windy, keeping the speeds mostly down. A record 50 cars took to the track on Thursday (May 7), with Mario Andretti fastest of the day at 194.300 mph (312.696 km/h).
On Friday, the final day of practice before pole day, Penske teammates Bobby Unser and Rick Mears were hand-timed just a tick below 200 mph (320 km/h). Mario Andretti was a close third over 198 mph (319 km/h).
On Saturday May 9, rain delayed the start of pole position time trials until 3:34 p.m. An abbreviated session saw only 9 cars finish qualifying runs. A. J. Foyt was the fastest of the nine, sitting on the provisional pole at 196.078 mph (315.557 km/h). Rain stopped qualifying for the day at 5:49 p.m., and pushed pole qualifying into the next day.
On Sunday May 10, pole position qualifying was scheduled to resume. Rain fell all afternoon, however, and canceled all track activity for the day. 27 cars were still eligible for the pole position, and the resumption of pole day qualifying was scheduled for the following Saturday.
Among the cars not yet qualified was Mario Andretti, who due in Belgium for the Grand Prix. His plans to put the car safely in the field on pole weekend were thwarted, and a contingency plan would have to be made.
Rain continued to fall, and washed out practice on Monday (May 11). On Tuesday May 12, the 200 mph (320 km/h) barrier was finally broken in practice for the month by Danny Ongais. Mario Andretti took his final practice run of the week, and departed for Belgium. Two major crashes occurred, involving Phil Caliva and Phil Krueger. Tim Richmond and Larry "Boom Boom" Cannon both were involved in spins, but suffered no contact.
On Wednesday May 13, Rick Mears pushed the fastest speed of the month to 200.312 mph (322.371 km/h). Retired veteran driver Wally Dallenbach climbed into Mario Andretti's car, and began to take some shake down laps. Due to Andretti's absence for the rest of the week, the Patrick Racing team decided to have Dallenbach qualify the car for him. On race day, Andretti would take over the cockpit once again. Dallenbach was quickly up to speed, over 191 mph (307 km/h) on his first day.
Rain closed the track on Thursday. On Friday, Bobby Unser upped the speed even further, turning a lap of 201.387 mph (324.101 km/h). A record 63 cars took to the track on the final full day of practice. World of Outlaws star, and Indy rookie Steve Kinser crashed in turn 1.
Pole day time trials resumed on a sunny Saturday May 16. About a half-hour into the session, Bobby Unser took over the pole position with a four-lap average of 200.546 mph (322.748 km/h). Meanwhile, Wally Dallenbach put Mario Andretti's car safely in the field at over 193 mph (311 km/h). Mike Mosley squeezed himself into the front row posting a 197.141 mph (317.268 km/h) run. Moments later, Rick Mears took to the track. After a lap over 200.9 mph (323.3 km/h), his car developed a vibration, and he was forced to wave off, giving up his chance for the pole position. Pole qualifying continued until 2:00 p.m., when the original qualifying line was finally exhausted. Bobby Unser was awarded the pole, and the next round of qualifying began.
After pole qualifying was over, Tom Sneva qualified his car at 200.691 mph (322.981 km/h). It was the fastest speed of the month, but since it did not take place in the pole round, he was not eligible for the pole position. Later in the day, Rick Mears took a back-up car out to qualify, but had to settle for a slower speed, and 22nd starting position.
On Sunday, bump day time trials were very busy. Ten cars were bumped during 25 attempts.
On Thursday May 21, the final scheduled practice session was held. All 33 qualified cars, along with 2 alternates that took laps. Mario Andretti returned from Belgium, and practiced in his already-qualified car. Jerry Karl was arrested during the week, but would be released on bond in time for race day. Bob Harkey practiced his car for him.
The starting grid was altered slightly after qualifying. Wally Dallenbach, who qualified Mario Andretti's car 8th, stepped aside as planned, and the car moved to the rear of the grid. In addition, George Snider vacated his ride in favor of Tim Richmond.
Bobby Unser continued his dominance of the month, and led the speed chart for the afternoon, with a hand-timed lap of 197.6 mph (318.0 km/h). Later in the afternoon, hoping to sweep the month, his Penske Racing pit crew also guided him to a victory in the Miller Pit Stop Contest.Car of Mario Andretti qualified 8th by Wally Dallenbach (moved to 32nd on grid for race day)
Car of George Snider qualified 29th, sold to Tim Richmond (moved to 33rd on grid for race day)
First alternate: Herm Johnson (R) (#28) – Bumped
Second alternate: Bill Engelhart (#29) – Bumped
As the field came through turn 4, the field began accelerating, anticipating the green flag. To the shock of many drivers in the back of the field, the green flag wasn't waved until Bobby Unser neared the start-finish line, and many of the back-row markers did not see the green flag until the front-runners accelerated away through turn 1.
Because of the controversial start, Bobby Unser took the lead at the start, and pulled away from the field, with Johnny Rutherford moving up from row 2 into second place. Mike Mosley, the #2 starter, blew a radiator on lap 16 and finished in last place. Tom Sneva, with the fastest car in the field, charged from the 20th starting position to third place by lap 20. Rutherford took the lead from Unser on lap 22, but three laps later went out with a broken fuel pump. Sneva led for a lap, then pitted under the yellow flag for Rutherford's tow-in. Unser made his first pit stop on lap 32 when Don Whittington's wreck brought out another yellow. Sneva inherhited the lead after pit stops.
On lap 39, the field anticipated the green flag and started accelerating between turns 3 and 4. Just then, USAC changed their minds and ordered the pace car back onto the track. By then, Tom Sneva had driven through turn 4 and passed the pace car. Realizing his mistake, Sneva slowed down and blended back behind the pace car. Citing that Sneva had blended back behind the pace car and that the infraction was unintentional, USAC decided not to impose any penalties. Sneva held the lead until the second round of pit stops began on lap 56. Sneva pitted first, but the car stalled as he tried to pull away. As Sneva's crew tried to re-fire the engine, new leader Rick Mears pulled into his pit directly behind Sneva.
When Rick Mears pitted on lap 58, fuel began to gush from the refueling hose before it had been connected to the car. Fuel sprayed over the car, Mears and his mechanics, then ignited when it contacted the engine. Methanol burns with a transparent flame and no smoke, and panic gripped the pit as crew members and spectators fled from the invisible fire. Mears, on fire from the waist up, jumped out of his car and ran to the pit wall, where a safety worker, not seeing the fire, tried to remove Mears' helmet. Meanwhile, Mears' fueler, covered in burning fuel, waved his arms frantically to attract the attention of the fire crews already converging on the scene. By this time the safety worker attending to Mears had fled, and Mears, in near panic at being unable to breathe, leaped over the pit wall toward another crewman carrying a fire extinguisher, who dropped the extinguisher and also fled. Mears tried to turn the extinguisher on himself, but at this point his father, Bill Mears, having already pulled Rick's wife Deena to safety, grabbed the extinguisher and put out the fire. His mechanics had also been extinguished, and the pit fire crew arrived to thoroughly douse Mears' car.(19)
Thanks to quick action by Bill Mears and the fact that methanol burns at a much lower temperature than gasoline, no one was seriously hurt in the incident. Rick Mears and four of his mechanics (including Derrick Walker, a future crewchief on the Penske team) were sent to hospital, and Mears underwent plastic surgery on his face, particularly on his nose. The incident prompted a redesign to the fuel nozzle used on Indycars, adding a safety valve that would only open when the nozzle was connected to the car.(20)
Meanwhile Gordon Smiley led lap 57 to lap 58, his first and only lap led in his career at Indianapolis.(19)
Only minutes later, Danny Ongais came into the pits on lap 63 as the leader of the race, but problems during the stop caused it to drag on for a disastrous 46 seconds. After finally leaving the pits, Ongais approached a slower car at the end of the backstretch. Perhaps still upset about the long stop, he made a late pass going into turn 3. Carrying too much speed out of the turn, the car drifted out into the grey and the back end began to slide. Ongais tried to correct the slide by turning right, and the car hooked to the right and crashed nearly head-on into the wall. (A year later, Gordon Smiley lost control at the same turn in the same way, but crashed directly head-on and was killed.) The front end of the car was ripped away, leaving an unconscious Ongais completely exposed in the cockpit as the car continued around turn 3, trailing a long tongue of orange fire from burning oil. Safety crews quickly surrounded the car and used the Jaws of Life to rescue Ongais, who suffered a concussion and badly broken feet and legs. Remarkably, Ongais made a full recovery and raced again at Indianapolis just one year later.
On lap 131, Tom Sneva, who fell 35 laps down after his engine stall on lap 58, got taken out of the race by a blown engine. He stopped his car in turn 4, entering the pit lane. He climbed out of his car and his car was towed off. Sneva, after having the best car, was frustratedly out of the race with a broken clutch in his engine. In an interview with Chris Economaki minutes later, Sneva said that the engine stall happened because he couldn't get the car in gear and once the problem was fixed the engine began to have problems and finally came apart on Sneva's 96th lap completed.
Pete Halsmer crashed out of the race on lap 135 and the caution came out soon afterwards for Josele Garza's accident. Josele hit the wall head-on but remarkably came out uninjured. Despite crashing, Josele Garza's effort in the race won him the 1981 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. After 3 laps of caution, the race resumed with Mario Andretti as the race leader and Bobby Unser in second.
On lap 146, Tony Bettenhausen had a tire going down, which he at the time was unaware of. Approaching turn four, the tire deflated, and Bettenhausen attempted to move out of the groove and out of traffic. In the process, he touched wheels with Gordon Smiley, sending Smiley's car spinning and into the wall backwards in turn 4. Three laps later, leader Mario Andretti and second place Bobby Unser went into the pit area for service. Unser finished his pit stop first, and was the first driver to exit the pit area. Andretti followed a few seconds behind.
While the two cars were exiting the pits, the pace car was leading the field at reduced pace through turn 1 and turn 2. Unser stayed on the track apron, below the painted white line, and proceeded to pass by 14 cars and blend into the field at the exit of turn two. He took his place in line immediately behind the pace car as the leader. Andretti appeared to pass two or three cars before he blended into the field in the south short chute.
The moves went largely unnoticed at the time. Andretti claims that he immediately called his pit crew on the radio and told him that Unser had passed cars under the yellow. Though no action would be taken, he wanted it observed for the record. During the live radio broadcast, no announcers made note of the incident, nor was it yet reported that any penalty was under consideration. The television announcers however expressed astonishment that Unser passed cars under the yellow despite knowing the rules, and even more after he was not penalized. (See "Television controversy" below)
Gordon Johncock led late in the race, but slowed and eventually suffered a blown engine with less than 10 laps to go. Bobby Unser assumed the lead on lap 182, with Mario Andretti second. Unser held on to win by 5.18 seconds, one of the closest finishes at Indianapolis to that point.
Unser celebrated his third Indy 500 victory (also 1968 and 1975), while Andretti was lauded for charging from 32nd starting position to a 2nd place finish. Unser made a total of ten pit stops, a record for the most ever by a winner. In victory lane a satisfied Bobby Unser shrugged off warnings of a possible penalty stating in a post-race interview: "We didn't cheat. We were the best car all day long. I beat Mario all day long. The good lord meant for me to win today and we beat Mario fair-and-square."
After victory lane ceremonies were televised, it was at that point in time, 11:30 PM at night when the late broadcasting ended. In the closing moments of the televised race, Mario Andretti announced to broadcasters Jackie Stewart and Jim McKay that a protest was in process:
"Currently there is a protest in process because we're talking about an unusual infraction of the rules. The one particular rule spoken about during the public drivers meeting about not passing under yellow. To explain what I mean it took place when Bobby and I exited the pits. He passed 9 cars-I counted-under yellow. That's the infraction we're talking about."
Shortly after the race was over, ramblings over a possible protest or penalty were beginning to surface around the garage area. When the television footage of the race was aired, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Mario Andretti announced on-air that a protest was in the works. Andretti's team Patrick Racing, as well as other drivers, were voicing complaints over Bobby Unser passing cars under the yellow on lap 149. At the time, it was the policy of USAC to post official results for the Indianapolis 500 at 8 a.m. the morning after the race. USAC officials announced that the scoring and video tapes would be reviewed overnight. In an interview with Chris Economaki three hours after the race ended, the chief steward Thomas W. Binford announced that he would be reviewing the video with the board and that based on what he saw, Unser was likely to get penalized for the passes.
ABC televised the race on same-day tape-delay at 9 p.m. EDT. At the time, it was the policy of ABC Sports to record live commentary of the race at the start of the race and at the end of the race. For the remaining portions of the race, commentary was recorded during post-production.
Unlike the live radio broadcast, which did not notice nor mention the infraction, the television broadcast focused heavily on the incident, and reported it as it was being aired. It was later revealed that commentators Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart had provided the commentary in post-production, and did so with the knowledge already that Unser had won the race, and a protest was in the works. The broadcast was considered misleading, as it suggested that the infraction was noticed by all parties at the time it occurred. The broadcast was also accused of being biased against Unser, as Stewart only pointed out Unser passing cars under the yellow, and not Andretti doing so. It was later shown on the official highlight film that as Andretti watched Unser in front of him passing a dozen cars, Andretti himself had passed one or two cars too, but A.J. Foyt (a lapped car) claimed that he had waved Andretti by (which was permissible under the rules) to allow Andretti to blend in closer to the lead lap drivers. That did not come to light until later, and was not considered reason to revise the official standings for a second time.
USAC spent the night reviewing race tapes and scoring reports. At 8 a.m. EST Monday morning, the official results of the race were posted. Bobby Unser was charged with passing cars under the yellow, and was penalized 1 position (some erroneous reports listed it as a 1-lap penalty) for the infraction. The penalty dropped Unser down to second place, and elevated Mario Andretti to first place. Andretti was declared the victor, and it made him a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
That night, the traditional Victory Banquet was held at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, with Andretti the new guest of honor. The mood was subdued, and the event was overshadowed by large-scale media attention (Bobby Unser did not attend the banquet). The winner's share of the purse was announced, but the pay envelope presented to Andretti was empty. Andretti was presented with the official pace car but was not given the keys. Ted Koppel's Nightline focused the evening's program on the controversy and included a live interview with Andretti who compared the situation to the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, a race in which he won on the track, but was stripped of victory when officials deemed he jumped the start.
Andretti stated in an interview during the banquet: "I am glad the officials did the right thing but it still is sad. When Bobby won he went through all the hoopla and got to experience victory lane and the other things a winner gets to experience in victory lane...then it was taken from him and given to me. And I will never get to experience that myself."
Penske Racing, Bobby Unser's team, immediately filed an official protest of the decision. On the Wednesday(18) after the race, a five-person panel of officials (led by Tom Binford), denied the protest. Roger Penske subsequently filed an appeal to the USAC Appeals Board. Bobby Unser refused to take a part willingly in the appeal stating(17):"It's already been ruined for me. I'm very bitter. I'm not waiting for the decision either. The damage has already been done and I will paint racing out of my future if I was drawing my future."
Roger Penske filed an appeal after the official results were posted. A hearing was held on June 12, 1981. The USAC appeals hearing resembled a court case. According to some in attendance, witnesses who took the stand were subjected to numerous odd and superfluous questions, many with little or no relevance to the race itself. The hearings reportedly were dragged out with considerable wasted time. Mid-way through the hearing, the meeting was adjourned, and the resumption was scheduled for July 29.
Bobby Unser's primary argument was based on what he considered to be a vague definition of the "blend rule." When exiting the pit area under caution, drivers were instructed to look to their right and see which car was next to them on the track. After accelerating to sufficient speed, the driver was to "blend" (merge) into the field behind that car. Mario Andretti argued that it was an established guideline that the place to look for the car to blend behind was at the south end of the pit straight, where the concrete wall ends. Bobby Unser countered that he understood that, as long as the car stayed under the white line and in the apron, the place to blend in was the exit of turn two. Unser argued that the warm-up apron was an extension of the pit area. He also contended that Andretti had passed at least two cars himself, and should have also incurred a one-lap penalty. In addition, it was pointed out that USAC allowed the alleged infraction to go unpenalized throughout the remainder of the race (instead of acting upon it immediately after it happened).
USAC was faced with a dilemma, as the rulebook was in fact unclear in regards to the blend rule. Officials mulled over the decision for months. On October 9, 1981, a three-member USAC appeals board voted 2-1 to reinstate the victory to Bobby Unser. He was instead fined $40,000.
An official of the USAC board told reporters 3 hours after the reinstatement of Unser's win:"Based on what we've seen, Thomas Binford and the Indianapolis officials should have detected the infraction at the moment of it. By not penalizing Unser sooner they automatically made the passes allowed because they failed in their responsibility to detect the infraction. So Unser wins the race but a $40,000 fine will replace the one position penalty."
The appeal panel said that, since the violation could have been detected at the time it was committed, a one-lap penalty after the completion of the race was too severe. In its decision, which resulted from a 2-to-1 vote, the panel said that race officials had "a responsibility to observe and report illegal passing in yellow flag situations and they failed to do so."
"The court believes,
" the panel said in a 23-page opinion written by Edwin Render, its chairman, "that responsible officials knew of the infraction when it was committed … For these reasons the court rules that it was improper to impose a one-lap penalty on car No.3 after the race.
The 1981 Indianapolis 500 was largely considered the most controversial running to date. It was referred to as "The Great Dispute," and in some circles was "Undecided." Bobby Unser, who felt the entire ordeal was politically motivated by his USAC enemies, became disillusioned with auto racing and took a sabbatical from driving. He sat out the 1982 Indy 500, and retired officially in 1983 because the $40,000 fine for the win and several other fines he faced in sponsorship ruined his finances.
After being reinstated the winner, Bobby Unser was presented with the miniature Borg-Warner Trophy, while Mario Andretti had already been presented with the winner's championship ring. While Bobby Unser celebrated in victory lane on race day, the morning after the race, Mario Andretti took part in the winner's photograph session. No official victory photos were taken of Unser. Months after the race, Unser's likeness was sculpted and added to the Borg-Warner Trophy appropriately. A claim was even made at the time that Andretti "threw away the winner's ring" when he heard that Unser was reinstated the victory, but the story appears to have been unsubstantiated. In a 2001 interview with Jack Arute and Bobby Unser on ESPN Classic's "Big Ticket", Andretti confirmed that he kept the ring by wearing it during the interview.
To this day the race is still controversial. Mario Andretti has said in interviews that because both he and Unser passed cars under yellow, both should be penalized. Unser has retorted that Andretti is being a sore loser. In a recent interview Unser said that he and Mario were very close friends until the race finished and now they are still livid with each other over the controversy, though both maintain a mutual respect for each other. Both also agree that regardless of the outcome, USAC mishandled the situation from start to finish and much of the controversy could have been easily avoided. In retrospect, drivers and officials often call it "The Undecided Indy 500" or "The Great Dispute."
Australians Vern Schuppan (3rd), Geoff Brabham (5th) and Dennis Firestone (10th) were the first trio of foreign drivers to finish in the top ten as since British drivers Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart finished 1st, 2nd, and 6th in 1966. Mario Andretti was born in Italy, but was both an Italian and U.S. citizen by that time. Young rookie Josele Garza, after leading 13 laps during the race, won the Rookie of the Year award. Two years later it would be revealed that Garza fibbed about his age, and was actually 19 on race day (rules at the time required drivers to be age 21). By 1983, he was being credited as the youngest starting driver ever at Indy, a record he would hold until 2003. In 1996, the rules were changed to set the minimum driver age for the Indianapolis 500 at 18, a rule later solidified by federal tobacco regulations. Since 2014, drivers as young as 15 are permitted during the Month of May, provided they are racing in a lower tier support event on the road course, and the Indy Lights Freedom 100 support race on the oval allows 17-year old drivers since 2011 (when all tobacco sponsorship ended in INDYCAR, per Master Settlement Agreement).
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Paul Page served as anchor for the fifth year. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. Darl Wible departed, and Bob Jenkins moved to the fourth turn position, where he would remain through 1989. Larry Henry joined the crew for the first year, stationed on the backstretch.
The reporting location for Turn 2 shifted slightly, although still on the roof of the VIP Suites, the station was moved southward towards the middle of the turn. Howdy Bell, the longtime turn 2 reporter, celebrated his 20th year on the crew. In Turn 3, the reporting location moved to a platform on the L Stand.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. Sam Posey rode along and reported live from inside the pace car at the start of the race.
The broadcast has re-aired on ESPN Classic since 2003. On May 24, 2003 the race was featured on ESPN Classic's "Big Ticket" series, hosted by Jack Arute featuring interviews with Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti. On July 30, 2003, an expanded edit of the "Big Ticket" version aired.