Speedway management resurfaced the entire track with asphalt in the summer of 1988, which would result in higher overall speeds for 1989. The last time the track had been paved was in 1976. The apron at the bottom of the track, which was previously known to be bumpy, relatively flat, and usually avoided by drivers, was also repaved. The smooth and re-profiled apron was now tempting drivers to dip below the white line in practice and during the race. Drivers were starting to treat the apron as an extension of the track width. USAC announced penalties would be assessed for driving with four wheels below the white line excessively, other than to make routine passes in heavy traffic.
The rough and bumpy concrete pit lane was also paved over in asphalt and a guardrail was installed to protect the crew members in the sign board area. The newly paved pit area made egress and ingress to the pits smoother and safer, but also sharply increased entrance and exit speeds, potentially putting crew members at risk. Within a few years, after a series of incidents on the Indy car circuit, as well as in NASCAR, pit road speed limits would be implemented to curtail speeding through the pit lane. In addition the pneumatic jacks on the cars were embedding themselves into the soft asphalt of the pit lane. This necessitated crews to affix steel plates on the pit lane to accommodate the jacks (a practice that was also later deemed unsafe). In 1994, this would be finally be solved when the individual pit boxes were resurfaced in concrete.
Team and driver changes were highlighted by Bobby Rahal's departure from Truesports. For 1989, Rahal switched to the Maurice Kranes Kraco Racing Team (which would later merge with Galles). Rahal, along with Arie Luyendyk (Dick Simon Racing) fielded the new updated Cosworth DFS "short stroke" version of the mainstay DFV.
Rookie Scott Pruett moved to the Indycar ranks, and took over the vacated seat at Truesports. The team would continue to field the Judd powerplant.
Patrick Racing dropped down to a one-car effort for 1989, after periodically running two cars in previous seasons. Pat Patrick had announced that he was planning to retire after the 1989 season, and Chip Ganassi joined the team as co-owner. After the season, Ganassi would take over the team and it would become Chip Ganassi Racing. As part of the arrangement, the Marlboro-sponsored Patrick Racing would run Penske chassis (PC-18), while Penske Racing would receive sponsorship money from Marlboro to run a third car for Al Unser, Sr.
Newman Haas Racing also made headlines, expanding to a two-car team for 1989. Mario Andretti was joined by his son Michael to form a two-car Andretti effort. It was also Michael's first opportunity to field the Chevrolet engine.
Alfa Romeo joined the CART series in 1989, however, they were not yet ready to compete at Indianapolis. Their debut would actually come a couple weeks later at Detroit. As a result, Roberto Guerrero, driving for the Alex Morales Alfa Romeo team, would miss the 500 for the first time since he arrived as a rookie in 1984.
Opening day was Saturday May 6. Only eleven cars took to the track on a cold 45 °F day, which saw snow flurries in the morning and the afternoon. Arie Luyendyk (213.657 mph) led the speed chart for the day.
Practice picked up on Sunday May 7, with 44 cars taking to the track. Emerson Fittipaldi (221.347 mph) set the fastest lap of practice thus far. Michael Andretti was also over 220 mph.
Rick Mears set an-time unofficial track record at 225.733 mph, the first ever practice lap over 225 mph at the Speedway. His teammate Al Unser, Sr. was close behind at 224.831 mph.
Rain washed out practice.
Rookie Steve Butler crashed in turn 4, suffering a broken collarbone. The speeds were slightly down from Monday, with Al Unser, Sr. topping the chart at 223.380 mph.
At 4:11 p.m. on Thursday May 11, Danny Sullivan's car lost the engine cover, causing him to break into a 180° spin in turn three. The car hit the wall hard with the right side. Sullivan suffered a mild concussion and a fractured right arm. Sullivan would be forced to sit out the first week of time trials. High winds kept the speeds down, with Jim Crawford in a Buick V-6 (221.021 mph) the best lap of the day.
Rick Mears blistered the track on the final day of practice before time trials. His lap of 226.231 mph was the fastest practice lap ever run at the Speedway. Jim Crawford and Al Unser, Sr. also topped 225 mph. Mears finished the week as the favorite for the pole position.
Pole day was scheduled for Saturday May 13. Rain, however, washed out the entire day. All time trial activities were postponed until Sunday.
On Sunday May 14, pole day time trials were held. The cars would be allowed one trip through the qualifying draw order, and the pole round would be concluded. Al Unser, Sr. drew first in line, and was the first driver to make an attempt. Unser set a track record on all four laps, and put himself on the provisional pole position with a track record run of 223.471 mph.
A busy hour of qualifying saw several cars complete runs. Scott Brayton, Scott Pruett, Bernard Jourdain, Teo Fabi, and Michael Andretti were among those who completed runs. Bobby Rahal and A. J. Foyt followed, and the field was already filled to 11 cars by 1:30 p.m.
At 2 p.m., Mario Andretti (220.486 mph) tentatively put himself third. The next car out, however, was pole favorite Rick Mears. Mears set a one-lap track record of 224.254 mph, and a four-lap record of 223.885 mph to secure the pole position. Minutes later, Michael Andretti's car was disqualified for being 4.5 pounds underweight.
With Mears and Unser, Sr. firmly holding the top two spots, the rest of the session focused on which driver would round out the front row in third starting position. Jim Crawford, in the Buick V-6, set a stock block track record of 221.450 mph to sit in third at 2:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later, though, Emerson Fittipaldi took to the track, the final car eligible for the pole round. His run of 222.329 mph put him on the outside of the front row, and bumped Craford back to row 2.
After the pole position round was settled, the "second day" of time trials commenced at 3:15 p.m. Michael Andretti re-qualified at 218.774 mph (the 8th fastest car in the field), but was forced to start 22nd as a second-day qualifier. Andretti complained he could not get to the proper level of turbocharger boost due a possibly malfunctioning pop-off valve, but USAC took no action. Tom Sneva had an impressive first lap of 223.176 mph, but blew his engine before the run was completed. At the end of the day, the field was filled to 26 cars.
Practice during the second week was light, with many qualified drivers practicing in back-up cars. Most of the focus was on the non-qualified drivers, and the recovery status of Danny Sullivan. The Penske Team started preparing a back-up machine for Sullivan, with Geoff Brabham selected to shake the car down.
Danny Sullivan returned to the cockpit on Thursday May 18. He completed about 10-12 hot laps, with a top speed of 213.118 mph. Jim Crawford crashed his already-qualified car in turn 3. A suspension piece broke as he entered the turn, and the car spun into the outside wall. The team would repair the machine.
Rain washed out practice on Friday May 19, the third day overall lost during the month.
On the third day of time trials, Danny Sullivan qualified comfortably at 216.027 mph. Sullivan was the fastest car of the day, followed by Kevin Cogan and Rocky Moran. Two crashes occurred during the day, involving Buddy Lazier and Steve Saleen. Neither would manage to qualify. At the end of the third day, the field was filled to 31 cars.
On Bump Day, much of the attention was focused on three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford, the biggest name who had yet to qualify. As the day opened, Billy Vukovich III (216.698 mph) put his car in the field with an impressive run, ranked 16th-fastest overall. The second car to qualify was Johnny Rutherford, who completed his run at 213.097 mph. The field was now filled to 33 cars. Davy Jones (211.475 mph) was the slowest car and now on the bubble.
John Paul, Jr. bumped Davy Jones out of the field at 12:45 p.m., However, now Paul himself was now on the bubble at 211.969 mph. At 3 p.m., Davy Jones returned to the track and bumped his way back into the field. The move put Phil Krueger (212.458 mph) on the bubble. At 4:45 p.m., Pancho Carter bumped out Krueger. At that point, Johnny Rutherford (213.097 mph) had now slipped down to the bubble spot.
Rutherford survived three attempts, and clung to the bubble spot nervously over the next hour. During that time, he put together a last-minute deal to step into a Foyt back-up car if necessary. He shook down the car with some practice laps, and appeared to be finding speed. It was the second time in recent years that Rutherford was teaming up with Foyt on bump day. In 1984 Rutherford successfully bumped his way into the field in the closing moments of time trials.
With 15 minutes left in the day, Rich Vogler (213.239 mph) bumped Johnny Rutherford from the field. Rutherford scrambled to get in line, and made it to the front with less than two minutes to spare. At 5:58 p.m., Rutherford pulled out onto the track for one final attempt. His warm-up lap was fast enough to qualify, but just after he took the green flag, his engine blew in turn one. Rutherford failed to make the field for only the second time in his career.First alternate: Johnny Rutherford (#98/#14T) – Bumped
Second alternate: Phil Krueger (#77) – Bumped
John Paul, Jr. (#39/#79/#97) – Bumped
Michael Greenfield (R) (#17/#63) – failed to qualify; wave off
Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. (#17/#24) – failed to qualify; wave off
Steve Butler (R) (#61) – crashed in practice
Buddy Lazier (#35) – crashed in practice
Steve Saleen (R) (#59) – crashed in practice
Johnny Parsons (#59/#69) – crashed in practice
Scott Harrington (#44) – practiced, did not attempt to qualify
Tom Bigelow (#66) – practiced, did not attempt to qualify
Stan Fox (#84) – practiced, did not attempt to qualify
Steve Chassey (#79, #97) – practiced, did not attempt to qualify
Dale Coyne (R) (#39) – practiced, did not attempt to qualify
Dick Ferguson (#47) – did not take practice
Bobby Olivero – unknown
During one of the parade laps, veteran Gary Bettenhausen suffered a broken valve, and coasted to a stop on the mainstretch. He would be wheeled to the garage area without completing a single lap, and finished 33rd.
At the start, Emerson Fittipaldi jumped to the lead from the outside of the front row. He pulled out to a sizable lead over the first few laps. On the third lap, Kevin Cogan had a spectacular crash at the pit-entrance section of the front straightaway. His car made slight contact with the outside wall as he exited turn four, spun to the inside and made heavy contact with the inside pit wall. The car rebounded into the attenuating barrier at the pit entrance, broke in two pieces, and slid on its side through the pits. The engine completely separated from the remains of the car and came to a stop in the pit area. Amazingly, Cogan climbed out unhurt.
The race was dominated by Emerson Fittipaldi for the first 400 miles. During that stretch, several contenders retired due to mechanical failures, including all three Penske machines. Top-five contenders Bobby Rahal, Jim Crawford, and Arie Luyendyk also dropped out of the race. Mario Andretti experienced electrical problems, which caused him to lose significant ground to the leader. Michael Andretti, who had started in the seventh row, had been chasing Fittipaldi the entire race and by the 150 lap mark, he was within sights of the leader. Meanwhile, Al Unser, Jr. remained on the leap lap in third place, despite being lapped earlier in the race. By this point, the three leaders had significant distance on the fourth place car of Raul Boesel. With less than 100 miles to go, Michael Andretti passed Fittipaldi for the lead, but his engine expired a few laps later, ending the young Andretti's bid for an Indy 500 win. Fittipaldi regained the lead, with Al Unser, Jr. second. The remainder of the field ran at least six laps behind.
A caution came out with about 20 laps to go. Fittipaldi, leading, pitted for much-needed fuel, but nearly stalled his engine as he pulled away. He lost several seconds on the stop, and was also blocked by a safety truck as he exited the pit area. Al Unser, Jr. was running a distant second place, but the caution came to his advantage. The team decided to gamble on track position, so Unser stayed out and did not to pit for fuel. Team owner Rick Galles made the call not to pit – their fuel calculations were close, they thought they might be able to make it to the finish. Their reasoning was that if Unser ran out of fuel on the final lap, they would still finish no worse than second since third place Raul Boesel was six laps behind.
When the race restarted on lap 185, Fittipaldi quickly built a 3-second lead while Unser struggled to get around the lapped car of Raul Boesel (3rd place). After clearing Boesel, Unser began closing dramatically. By lap 193 he was directly behind Fittipaldi, and a lap later he nearly touched wheels with Emerson as the two drivers worked traffic and battled for the lead. On lap 196 he passed Fittipaldi for the lead in turn three and began to pull away.
With two laps to go, Unser approached slower traffic. Fittipaldi closed in, and on the backstretch, pulled inside Unser. Running side-by-side in turn three, the Brazilian’s Penske drifted slightly high and the cars touched wheels. Unser spun around into the turn 3 wall. As the yellow flag came out for the last lap, Unser emerged unhurt and stepped to the edge of the track to give Fittipaldi a sporting thumbs-up as the pace car escorted "Emmo" to his first Indy win. In a post-race interview Unser, Jr. was asked whether the accident could have been avoided. He answered that he believed not as he and Fittipaldi "both wanted to win it badly."
"They're side-by-side, Emmo on the inside, Al covered traffic goes high, they touched wheels, Al Jr. hit into the wall hard, Emerson Fittipaldi keeps on going, they touched wheels, Al Jr. into the wall and Emerson Fittipaldi will lead them back to the yellow flag" – Larry Henry described the crash involving Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi on Lap 198 for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network.
"Fittipaldi comes inside Little Al! A drag race on the back side again. … Slower traffic moves to the right. … Can Fittipaldi get past? Little Al brings it down low. … They touch! Little Al into the wall, Fittipaldi continues on! Little Al slams the wall, as Emerson Fittipaldi screams toward the white flag – the yellow flag comes out!" – Paul Page on ABC television.The field for this race is replicated in the video game format in the 1989 release Indianapolis 500: The Simulation.
The 1989 race was the best Indy 500 result for Rich Vogler (8th place).
This was the only top five finish at Indy for A. J. Foyt in the decade of the 1980s.
Raul Boesel's career-best third place would also be the highest finish ever for the Judd powerplant at Indy.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Lou Palmer served as the chief announcer for the second and final time. It would be Palmer's 32nd and final 500. Bob Forbes reported from victory lane.
Among the changes included Howdy Bell, now becoming the "elder statesman" of the crew. After many years in turn two, then one year as a pit reporter, Bell revived the backstretch reporting location. Bell was utilized sparingly, mostly for observations and brief commentary. The on-air "Statistician" duty was eliminated for 1989. This would also be Bob Jenkins' final 500 as the reporter in turn four.
The biggest departure for 1989 was that of pit reporter Luke Walton, who had joined the crew in the mid-1950s. From 1983 to 1988, Walton reprised his traditional role of introducing the starting command during the pre-race ceremonies, but did not have an active role during the race itself. Pit reporter Gary Gerould took over the duty of introducing the starting command, but it would be the final time that was done on the radio broadcast. Starting in 1990, the radio would instead simulcast the public address system during the pre-race ceremonies. In addition, Chuck Marlowe switched from pit reporter to the garage area duties.
Three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford failed to qualify for the race, and joined the crew as "driver expert." Since Rutherford never again qualified for the race (and subsequently retired in 1994), he went on to become a long-time fixture on the broadcast. The 1989 race began what would be a 14-year run as the resident "driver expert."
After the race, during the off-season, the Speedway and Lou Palmer parted ways. A new Voice of the 500 would debut in 1990.
The race was carried live flag-to-flag coverage in the United States on ABC Sports. The 1989 race celebrated the 25th year of the Indy 500 on ABC. Paul Page served as host and play-by-play announcer, accompanied by Bobby Unser and Sam Posey. At the start of the race, Unser drove the pace car, and reported live from the car during the pace laps.
Pit reporters Jack Arute and Brian Hammons were joined by Dr. Jerry Punch, who appeared at Indy for the first time.
The telecast would go on to win the Sports Emmy award for "Outstanding Live Sports Special."