Defending champion Rick Mears suffered serious leg injuries in a crash at Sanair Super Speedway in August 1984. He missed the rest of the 1984 season, and would participate only in limited events in 1985. The 1985 Indy 500 was his first race back after recovery.
Danny Sullivan joined Penske Racing for 1985, and Al Unser, Sr., who was filling in for Mears during the rest of the season, took the wheel of the third Penske entry for Indy.
Willy T. Ribbs entered the Rookie Orientation Program in April, hoping to become the first African American driver to qualify for the Indy 500. However, after 20 laps of testing, he managed only 172 mph, and withdrew, citing his inexperience. He would return in 1991
This would be the final Indy 500 broadcast on television in tape-delay. Later in the summer, ABC-TV signed a deal to broadcast the Indy 500 live for the first time starting in 1986. It would also be Jim McKay's final Indy 500 as play-by-play anchor.
A. J. Foyt announced during the month he was planning to retire after the 1987 race, which would be his 30th start. The decision was later retracted. Foyt entered the month of May 1985 with the opportunity to pass the 10,000 mile mark in competition at Indy, and the race would mark his record 300th career Indy car start.
At the conclusion of the race, the Speedway planned to tear down the legendary Gasoline Alley garage area, in preparations for construction of a new, modern garage facility. This would be the final Indy 500 field to utilize the famous landmark green and white "barn-like" garages.
Pole day was sunny and warm, with temperatures in the low 80s. Mario Andretti (214.285 mph) and Bobby Rahal (214.183 mph) were the fastest cars in practice, and were early favorites for the pole position.
Qualifying began promptly at 11 a.m. The first car to take to the track was Scott Brayton in one of the Buick V-6 stock block engines. He set new one and four-lap track records, as well as track records for stock block engines. His four-lap average of 212.354 mph put him on the provisional pole position.Lap 1 – 42.490 seconds, 211.815 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 2 – 42.216 seconds, 213.189 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 3 – 42.017 seconds, 214.199 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 4 – 42.905 seconds, 210.256 mph
Total – 2:49.523, 212.354 mph (new 4-lap track record)
Brayton's final lap dropped off due to transmission trouble. Not to be upstaged, less than 20 minutes later, Pancho Carter took to the track, also driving a Buick V-6.Lap 1 – 42.351 seconds, 212.510 mph
Lap 2 – 42.309 seconds, 213.721 mph
Lap 3 – 42.222 seconds, 213.159 mph
Lap 4 – 42.464 seconds, 211.944 mph
Total – 2:49.346, 212.533 mph (new 4-lap track record)
Carter could not eclipse Brayton's one-lap track record, but his run was more consistent, and his four-lap average of 212.533 mph was faster overall than Brayton. Carter clinched the pole position, and completed a 1-2 sweep for the Buicks on the starting grid. Only a half-hour had passed, but the Buicks had firmly established their dominance of time trials, and distanced themselves from the rest of the competition. After the record-setting run, Brayton picked up the sponsorship of Hardee's during the week.
With the pole position basically out-of-reach, the rest of the field battled out to see who would fill out the front row. Emerson Fittipaldi (211.322 mph) put himself tentatively in third, but Mario Andretti (211.576 mph) later bumped him off the front row. At 1:13 p.m., Bobby Rahal, the last driver with a legitimate shot, turned in a run of 211.818 mph, securing the outside of the front row.
A busy day saw 27 cars qualify. Rick Mears returned from his 1984 leg injuries to qualify 10th. Danny Sullivan put his car in the field in 8th. No driver from 1911–1984 had ever won the race from 8th starting position, and it was often nicknamed the dreaded "8-ball spot."
Only two cars, Steve Chassey and Chet Fillip, made qualifying attempts, both late in the day. At the end of the first weekend of time trials, the field was filled to 29 cars.
The second weekend of time trials saw cooler weather, and better conditions. Rookie Raul Boesel was the first car to take to the track, and put in a solid run of 206.498 mph.
Late in the day, George Snider continued the trend of stock block engines, putting a Foyt V-6 in the field. In doing so, the field was filled to 33 cars. John Paul, Jr. squeezed in a qualifying run between his IMSA commitments, and bumped Derek Daly from the field.
Tony Bettenhausen bumped out Chet Fillip, who earlier in the day, had wrecked his back-up car, leaving him on the sidelines for the rest of the month. The day ended as Jim Crawford bumped out Kevin Cogan.
The final day of time trials opened with Steve Chassey on the bubble, and about nine cars looking to make the field. Kevin Cogan got in his backup car, and easily bumped his way back into the field to open the afternoon. After Cogan's run, the track went mostly quiet, as drivers awaited better conditions.
Three-time winner Johnny Rutherford was now on the bubble, the second year in a row he was in danger of not qualifying. At about 5 p.m., Derek Daly (207.548 mph) bumped out Rutherford. A few minutes later, Rutherford got in a backup car, and at 208.254 mph, easily put himself back in the field. Rutherford bumped out Michael Roe in the process.
With a half hour left in the day, Pete Halsmer was on the bubble. He survived an attempt by Tom Bigelow, but Rich Vogler succeeded in bumping him out. Tony Bettenhausen (204.824 mph) was now on the bubble. Michael Roe tried twice to bump him out, but fell short on both attempts.
Going into the race, the top two qualifiers, Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton were considered underdogs, due to reliability issues with the Buick engine. Mario Andretti emerged as the race day favorite.
Race day dawned sunny and warm. Mary F. Hulman gave the command to start engines just before 11 a.m., and the field pulled away for the pace laps. At the green flag, Bobby Rahal got the jump from the outside of the front row, and took the lead into turn 1. Brayton settled into second, but polesitter Carter slipped back to fourth. By turn three, Mario Andretti had picked off Brayton for second, and Rahal went on to lead the first lap.
In the first few laps, Carter slid down the standings, and on lap 6, he pulled into the pits with a failed oil pump. He became the second polesitter to finish last (33rd) after Cliff Woodbury in 1929.
Bobby Rahal led the first 14 laps. On lap 15, George Snider and Josele Garza both suffered blown engine, bringing out the first caution. Mario Andretti had a faster pit stop, and emerged on the track as the new leader on lap 16.
The Buicks' day came to an end on lap 19 when Scott Brayton stopped on the track with a blown engine from a cracked cylinder wall. After keeping a close margin to Andretti, Bobby Rahal went to the pits on lap 52 with a turbocharger wastegate problem. After several long pit stops, Rahal eventually dropped out with 84 laps.
Mario Andretti continued to dominate, with Danny Sullivan now in second. Also, high in contention was Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr. and Al Unser, Sr.
On lap 61, A. J. Foyt came into the pits with a poor-handling car in 20th place. After a heated exchange with his crew, it was determined that the front wing was broken. An angry Foyt stormed around the car, bumped into the fueler, fuel spilled, and fire started in the pit area. The fire was quickly doused. Foyt was out of the race just one lap short of the 10,000-mile career mark at the Speedway. Al Unser, Sr. was penalized for running over his air hose, which dropped him down the standings, Al Unser, Jr., who was in the top five, drop out on lap 91 with an engine failure.
At the halfway point, Mario Andretti led, with Danny Sullivan second, and Emerson Fittipaldi third.
Shortly after the halfway point, Danny Sullivan got a radio call from his crew, but he misunderstood the message. He thought they said there were only 12 laps to go. In reality, there were still over 80 laps remaining. Sullivan quickly turned up the turbocharger boost, and started closing in on Andretti for the lead. On lap 120, Sullivan pulled to the inside down the frontstretch, and took the lead going into turn one. Andretti held his ground, forcing Sullivan to make the pass down below the yellow line in the somewhat rough and flat apron. Suddenly, the car slipped as Sullivan came off the apron, and the back end snapped loose. Sullivan did a complete counterclockwise 360° spin directly in front of Andretti in the south shortchute. Andretti pinched his car down to the inside, and slipped by unscathed. Sullivan spun completely around, did not hit anything, and the engine stalled for an instant. When the tire smoked cleared, Sullivan noticed he was pointing in the correct direction, and he proceeded to put the car in gear, the engine caught, and he drove away to resume the race.
The spin was immediately considered one of the most electrifying moments in Indy history. Sullivan considered it 50/50 skill and "dumb luck" that he emerged from the spin unscathed. The yellow flag immediately came out, and both Sullivan and Andretti made pit stops for tires and fuel. Moments later, both cars were back out on the track. Andretti's maneuver to remarkably avoid the incident was also lauded. Andretti's split-second decision to veer to the inside (the more difficult move, pinching his own car down) was a result of his experience from an very similar incident two years earlier. In the 1983 race, Andretti was faced with a nearly identical situation when Johnny Parsons spun in front of him going into turn one. Andretti was forced to try to avoid Parson's car to the outside, the two cars collided, and Andretti crashed hard into the concrete wall.
After Sullivan's spin, the top five shuffled slightly. On the restart, Emerson Fittipaldi now was in the lead, and Tom Sneva was second. Going into turn 1 on lap 124, Rich Vogler and Howdy Holmes tangled, sending Vogler hard into the wall right in front of the leaders. Andretti and Sullivan avoided the wreck, but Tom Sneva locked his brakes and was caught up in the crash. Sneva was not injured, but Vogler had to be airlifted to the hospital.
After the cleanup, the race again reverted to Mario Andretti leading, and Danny Sullivan second. On lap 140, Sullivan tried for the second time to get by Andretti, in nearly exactly the same place as he attempted 20 laps before. This time, he made the pass cleanly, and started to pull away.
Danny Sullivan started to pull away at will in the final 50 laps. Mario Andretti was starting to struggle, and was passed by Emerson Fittipaldi for second place for several laps.
After being a factor nearly all afternoon, Emerson Fittipaldi dropped out of the race with low oil pressure and a broken fuel line with only 12 laps to go.
Mario Andretti caught a break on lap 175 when John Paul, Jr. crashed in turn 2. Paul lost a wheel, and spun nearly head-on into the outside wall near the Turn Two Suites. He was not seriously injured. Andretti, meanwhile, bunched up behind Sullivan, and made the race close over the final laps.
On lap 192, Bill Whittington crashed in turn 3. The crash set up a restart with three laps to go. Andretti lined up three cars behind Sullivan, and as the green came out, he was able to quickly pick off both lapped cars. With two laps to go, Sullivan had a comfortable 2.4-second lead. Andretti was not able to close the gap, and Sullivan won his first Indy 500 by 2.477 seconds over Mario Andretti.
Andretti matched his best finish in the race besides his win in 1969. Andretti was disappointed in an interview stating: "Second sucks. This was my best chance to win since my 1969 victory. We got a lot out of the car but it was not good enough. I left Danny plenty of room down on the apron and he just spun out. I picked the way to go and it happened to have been the right way. I knew he was cooked when he went down the apron but...he was just lucky that's all."
On his victory, Sullivan later stated in 1995:
"Mario and I are best friends, but he was so annoyed by the defeat that he didn't talk to me for a year. He would high-five anybody but me for several months. It annoyed him because he felt like he had it won. I had probably the best car of the field and so did he but ultimately I came out on top."First alternate: Pete Halsmer (#59) – Bumped
Second alternate: Michael Roe (R) (#71) – Bumped
Steve Chassey (#56) – Bumped
Chet Fillip (#38, #39) – Bumped; crashed in practice
Tom Bigelow (#24, #42, #50) – Incomplete qualifying runs
Dennis Firestone (#36) – Incomplete qualifying runs
Jerry Karl (#51, #62) – Practiced; did not attempt to qualify
Phil Krueger (#50, #51) – Practiced; did not attempt to qualify
Mike Nish (R) (#41) – Practiced; did not attempt to qualify
Dick Ferguson (#69) – Practiced; did not attempt to qualify
Herm Johnson (#8) – Crashed in practice, injured
Jacques Villeneuve (#76) – Crashed in practice, injured
Gordon Johncock (#20) – Retired May 10; replaced by Don Whittington
Randy Lanier (#57) – Passed rookie test; not approved to compete by USAC
Carter – Buick engine. Valvoline sponsorship.
Brayton – Buick engine. Hardee's sponsorship.
Rahal – Cosworth engine. March chassis. Truesports team, Budweiser sponsorship.
Mears – Penske Racing team, Pennzoil sponsorship.
Sullivan – Penske Racing team, Miller American beer sponsorship.
Unser, Sr. - Penske Racing team.
Sneva – Dan Gurney Eagle (All American Racers) team, Skoal sponsorship.
Mario Andretti – Newman/Haas Racing team. Lola chassis. Beatrice Foods sponsorship.
E. Fittipaldi – Patrick Racing team. March chassis. 7-Eleven sponsorship.
Foyt – Gilmore team, Copenhagen sponsorship.
Unser, Jr. - Shierson Racing team, Domino's Pizza sponsorship
Reference: Additional information gathered from 1985 telecast of Indianapolis 500
The '"Spin and Win" result went down in Indy 500 lore as one of the most famous moments in the history of the race. Mario Andretti considered the 1985 race his "best chance to win," and his subsequent failure added to the Andretti curse. A disappointed Andretti refused to speak with Sullivan for almost a year after the race. In post-race interviews, the experienced Andretti claimed he baited the younger Sullivan during the pass, and deliberately pinched him down to the apron.
Sam Posey reflected the win as a "changing of the guard" on the Indy car circuit, as the young 'hot-shot' Sullivan beat the established and long-experienced Andretti. Likewise, Indy legends such as Foyt was not a factor, and Johnny Rutherford, despite a strong finish, struggled to qualify.
With the victory, Danny Sullivan thrust into a superstar on the CART circuit. He guest-starred on an episode of Miami Vice ("Florence Italy") as well as a soap opera.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Paul Page served as the chief announcer for the ninth year. It was Page's twelfth year overall as part of the network crew. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. The 1985 broadcast marked the final time the network featured exclusive live coverage of the race. The following year, ABC Sports would begin covering the race live on network television. Thus, Palmer's live interview with the winner in 1985 was the final time the network was granted exclusive live access to the winner's first interview in victory lane. Veteran Luke Walton introduced the starting command during the pre-race, but did not report during the race itself.
Gordon Johncock, who abruptly retired from driving during the month, joined Rodger Ward and the broadcast featured two driver experts. In addition, the reporting location on the backstretch was eliminated, due to the increasing speed of the cars, and the fact that the Turn 2 and Turn 3 reporters had a sufficient view of the straightaway. Bob Forbes spent the first segments of the race reporting from the center pits, then in the second half of the race, concentrated on the garage area and hospital.
Doug Zink, who had joined the network in 1966, left the crew. Howdy Bell took over Zink's vacant spot in turn 2, which was also Bell's longtime former position. The number of pit reporters was reduced back to four, and Sally Larvick was reassigned back to interviews and features.
This would be the final 500 in broadcasting (radio or television) for Rodger Ward, as well as the final appearance for Ron Carrell as a turn reporter. Carrell's final race reporting from turn one included his call of Danny Sullivan's famous spin on lap 120. In addition, the turn one vantage point was moved from the deck of the Southwest Vista to a platform suspended from the E Stand Penthouse.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. This would be the final time the race was shown in tape-delay, as in 1986, the race would move to a live broadcast. Jim McKay served as anchor, and the separate "host" position was eliminated, in favor of McKay serving as both host and announcer.
With only five individuals serving as on-air talent, it was ABC's smallest crew of the decade. The race earned a rating of 9.7 (18 share), the lowest such rating in the tape-delay/prime time era. Less than three months later on August 19, 1985, ABC Sports signed an initial three-year deal, long-awaited by auto racing fans, to cover the Indianapolis 500 live flag-to-flag starting in 1986. The 1985 race would be final time Jim McKay would anchor the broadcast. For 1986, he would be moved to the host position.
The broadcast has re-aired numerous times on ESPN Classic since 2000.
"The Indianapolis 500 has a new champion, as Danny Sullivan has won the 69th Indianapolis 500" - Paul Page described the finish of the race for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network
"The Old American Hero will lose the race [Mario Andretti], the New American Hero is Daniel John Sullivan III of Louisville, Kentucky who has won the Indianapolis 500." - Jim McKay called the finish during the ABC Sports broadcast.