The 67th Indianapolis 500 was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana on Sunday, May 29, 1983. After finishing second three times (1977, 1978, 1980), winning the pole position twice (1977–1978), and being the fastest qualifier one additional time (1981), Tom Sneva finally shook his "bridesmaid" status and won his first Indianapolis 500.
In the final twenty laps, three-time winner Al Unser, Sr. was leading Tom Sneva, looking for his record-tying fourth Indy victory. His son, rookie Al Unser, Jr. was several laps down, but was running right behind his father. Al Jr. created a firestorm of controversy when it appeared he was blocking Sneva intentionally to aid his father. After several anxious laps, Sneva finally slipped by both Unsers, pulled away, and claimed his long-awaited first Indy victory.
Rookie Teo Fabi headlined time trials by winning the pole position, and on race day he led the first 23 laps. Fabi's day was short, however, as he dropped out with a bad fuel gasket. The effort earned him the rookie of the year award. Fabi would go on to win four races during the season and finish second to Unser, Sr. for the CART championship.
The 1983 Indy 500 ushered in a new era of civility and stability in the sport of Indy car racing. After four years of conflict and organizational disputes between USAC and CART, the two sanctioning bodies came to an amicable truce. The Indianapolis 500 would be sanctioned singly by USAC, and officially would be part of the ceremonial Gold Crown. However, the race was now recognized on the CART schedule, and counted towards the 1983 CART PPG Indy Car World Series points championship. The field for the Indy 500 going forward would consist primarily of CART-based teams, along with numerous one-off entries. This arrangement would remain in place through 1995.
The USAC technical committee issued a rule change for 1983, scaling back side skirts and declaring that "all bodywork or aerodynamic devices must be at least one inch above the bottom of the car's tub." During time trials, a total of 15 cars in the qualifying line would fail pre-qualifying technical inspection, raising tempers and drawing the ire of competitors. Some teams charged that USAC was inconsistent in their enforcement and their measuring, since they used a different (and possibly less-accurate) tool than the CART series officials utilized at other races. In addition, some teams claimed the first several cars in line were not scrutinized as heavily as those deeper in line.
The evolving aerodynamic rules coincided with the emergence of the Robin Herd-designed March chassis becoming the vehicle of choice for the mid-1980s. Coupled with the widely used Cosworth DFX engine, the "customer car" era began to dominate the sport of Indy car racing. Penske, among other teams, chose to abandon or scale back their in-house chassis programs in favor of the English-built March for the next few seasons. The March's aerodynamic advancements, downforce, and affordable cost were among the reasons it emerged as the favorite amongst the competitors. The "customer car" era also was very popular with the smaller-budget teams, as it allowed them access to top equipment, leveling the playing field, and shrinking the differences between haves and the have-nots. The 1983 race would be the first of five consecutive Indy 500 victories for March Engineering.
Pole day time trials was scheduled for Saturday May 14. Rain, however, kept cars off the track nearly all day. At 4:15 p.m., the track finally opened for practice, but it was brief and interrupted by several yellow lights. Officials closed the track at 5:49 p.m., without a single car making a qualifying attempt. On Sunday May 15, rain washed out the entire day. It was the first time since 1978 that not a single car qualified on the first weekend. Pole day time trials was moved to the second weekend.
Three-time winner Johnny Rutherford was sidelined after two major crashes. On May 8, he crashed in turn one, suffering minor injuries. On May 18, he suffered a more serious crash in turn 3. He broke his left foot and left ankle, and was forced to sit out the 1983 race.
Pole day started with Mike Mosley (205.372 mph) taking the top spot early on. Rick Mears, a favorite for the pole, had his effort fall short, and he qualified at 204.301 mph.
Tom Sneva was the next shot at the front row, but his speed of 203.687 mph was only third-fastest at the moment. The next car out was rookie Teo Fabi, who had raised eyebrows during the week, posting practice speeds near the top of the speed chart. Fabi set a new one-lap track record of 208.049 mph, and set a four-lap record of 207.395 mph, securing the pole position. Fabi became the first rookie to win the pole since Walt Faulkner in 1950.
A very busy day saw 42 attempts and 33 cars complete qualifying runs. For the first time in modern history, the field was filled to 33 cars in one day.
On a sad note, Tony Foyt, Sr., the father of A. J. Foyt as well as his former chief mechanic, died after battling lung cancer. After qualifying on Saturday, A. J. Foyt flew to Houston to visit his ailing father. At 8 p.m., Tony Foyt, Sr. lapsed into a coma, and died at 10 p.m.
The day opened with John Mahler (180.022 mph) on the bubble. Rain again hampered time trials, and the track did not open until nearly 2 p.m.
Phil Krueger wrecked during a practice run, and Gary Bettenhausen waved off a run after one lap over 193 mph.
At 4:14 p.m., Dennis Firestone completed a run of 190.888 mph, bumping Mahler. Moments later, rain began to fall, and the track was closed for the day. The 6 o'clock gun fired with several drivers, including Bettenhausen, Bill Alsup, Dick Ferguson all left sitting in line.First alternate: John Mahler (#92) – Bumped
Second alternate: none
Rookie Teo Fabi took the lead from the pole position and led the first 23 laps. A. J. Foyt, who earlier in the week had attended his father's funeral, dropped out early with a broken transmission u-joint linkage.
After showing speed early, Fabi dropped out with a bad fuel gasket. During a pit stop, the refueling mechanism failed, and fuel spilled around the car, but did not ignite.
On lap 81, Johnny Parsons spun in front of Mario Andretti in turn one, and both cars crashed hard into the outside wall. It was Andretti's first ride at Indy with Newman/Haas Racing, and yet another misfortune at the 500.
First half contender Bobby Rahal dropped out with a punctured radiator. The lead in the second half was maintained by Tom Sneva and Al Unser, Sr. Sneva's teammate Kevin Cogan, as well as Geoff Brabham were also contenders for the top five.
On lap 172, Tom Sneva led, with Al Unser, Sr. second. Sneva was right behind the lapped car of Mike Mosley when his pit crew put out the sign board for him to make his final pit stop. Going into turn one, Mosley spun right in front of Sneva, and crashed into the outside wall. Sneva veered to the inside, and narrowly avoided the incident. Mosley's notable "Indy jinx" continued, and it would be his final lap at the Speedway - he was killed in a car accident less than a year later.
With the yellow out, Sneva pitted the next time around, his final pit stop of the day. Al Unser, Sr. was also in the pits. Unser had a much faster pit stop, and came out in the lead. Sneva was now second.
The green flag came back out on lap 176 with Al Unser, Sr. leading and Tom Sneva in second. As the cars were going through turn four, the lapped car of rookie Al Unser, Jr. (10th place) jumped the restart, and passed both Sneva and his father Unser, Sr. A lap later, Unser, Jr. let his father by, and settled in between his father and second place Sneva.
Over the next several laps, it became clear that Unser, Jr. was trying to play the role of "blocker" for his father. Unser, Jr. was known to openly root for his father, and incidentally it was "Big Al's" 44th birthday. As the race hit lap 180, officials started giving "Little Al" the blue flag.
While many feel Al Jr. did not actually make many onerous and intentional "blocking" moves, he did create a significant amount of "dirty air" for Sneva, and did not yield the preferred racing line. Despite the impedance, Al Sr. was not pulling away nor seemed able to extend his lead. The three cars continued to run very close together. As the laps dwindled, the controversy began to grow.
With 13 laps to go, Sneva pulled alongside Al Jr. on the frontstretch. The two cars went side-by-side into turn one, but Al Jr. refused to give up the ground.
With ten laps to go, the three cars started to catch up to lapped traffic. Al Jr. got stuck behind the car of Dick Simon, and Sneva immediately pounced on the moment. Sneva veered down low, passed Al Jr. and Simon at consecutive corners, and set his sights on the lead. Down the backstretch, Sneva set up his pass and easily got by Al Sr. going into turn three. He took the lead for good in turn 3 and immediately began pulling away. While Sneva began getting away from Unser, Unser Jr. got by his dad in turn 1.
With an open track ahead of him now, Sneva picked up the pace and put considerable distance between himself and the Unsers. Tom Sneva cruised to victory, by a margin of 11.174 seconds. It was Sneva's first Indy 500 victory (after three previous runner-up finishes) and chief mechanic George Bignotti's record 7th Indy 500 victory.
After stirring up all the controversy, Al Jr. ended up running out of fuel on the final lap, and stalled on the course before reaching the finish line.
In post-race interviews, Al Unser, Jr. admitted to trying to run interference for his father, claiming he was trying to create "dirty air" and turbulence for Sneva. He stopped short, however, of calling it "blocking." Unser, Jr. was highly criticized for the actions, by both competitors and media. However, after the race USAC examined the incident, and issued no penalty to Unser, Jr., citing the fact that he did not actually break any written rules. Al Unser, Sr. claimed he did not know what was going on behind him, and that he lost one rear-view mirror, and the other was broken.
Sneva charged Unser, Jr. with jumping the restart and illegally passing the two leaders before the green came out. After the race Unser was issued a 2-lap penalty for passing 2 cars before the green,(5) but the penalty didn't cost him his position and Unser still finished in the top ten.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Paul Page served as anchor for the seventh year. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. The crew saw little change from 1982, but some of the assignments were shifted. Longtime radio veteran Luke Walton assumed his customary duty during the pre-race ceremonies of introducing the starting command. However, he did not serve as a pit reporter during the race itself. Walton would continue on the broadcast, but only in a limited role, through 1989.
Bob Forbes rode in one of the pace cars during the parade lap.
Lou Palmer maintained his traditional location at the far south end of the pits. However, the other pit reporters appeared to have lesser-defined zones for 1983. During the first half of the race, all pit reporters congregated around the leaders' pits, including roving reporter Bob Forbes. During the second half of the race, Jerry Baker moved up to the north pits and Chuck Marlowe covered the center pits. Forbes then moved to the garage area and track hospital, while Palmer stayed in the south end. Sally Larvick returned for her second race, conducting interviews throughout the broadcast.
For 1983, after a brief one-year change, the famous commercial out-cue was restored back to "Now stayed tuned for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. Jackie Stewart reprised the host position in "ABC Race Central." Sam Posey returned to the booth as driver expert, while Jim Lampley (garages and medical center) and Anne Simon (in-depth features) joined the crew.
For the first time ever, the broadcast featured a RaceCam mounted on a car at the Indianapolis 500.
The broadcast has re-aired on ESPN Classic starting in May 2011.