Controversy hovered over the month, regarding new aerodynamic rules. All teams utilizing 1989 (or older) model year chassis were required to affix a "diffuser" to the underbody ground effects tunnels, to reduce their depth by 2 inches - a rule intended to reduce downforce and curtail speeds. Competitors complained that the diffusers made their cars unstable and unbalanced, and were responsible for the increased number of practice crashes involving the older cars. Despite voiced complaints and meetings with officials, no changes were made to the rules. Ultimately, no major crashes occurred amongst the older cars during the race itself.
The Porsche Indycar team, led by Derrick Walker, was fresh off their first victory at Mid-Ohio in September 1989 with driver Teo Fabi. They planned to roll out a new March chassis for 1990, the first all-carbon fiber monocoque Indy car. Rules were evolving by the CART series (and likewise USAC) to eventually allow for all-carbon fiber chassis. Porsche interpreted the rules as permitting the car for 1990, provided they were granted a waiver, and embarked on the project. However, in January, the board of directors voted to disallow the chassis for competition in 1990. The Porsche team was forced to utilize a March chassis that was constructed with a then-standard aluminum bottom to adhere to the rules. All-carbon fiber monocoques would be delayed until 1991.
With the Pocono 500 disbanded after 1989, the 1990 Indy car season and beyond would no longer feature a "triple crown" of 500-mile races. The triple crown would not return until 2013.
Team and driver changes for 1990 were highlighted by Emerson Fittipaldi (and sponsor Marlboro) departing Patrick Racing and joining Penske Racing. The Penske team would be a three-car effort with Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, and Danny Sullivan.
Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi took over the assets of the former Patrick Racing, and it became Chip Ganassi Racing. Eddie Cheever, who had spent the past decade in Formula One, and was the United States' lone F1 participant, switched to the CART series for 1990 and took the seat. Target was brought in as the new sponsor for the budding team, beginning one of the longest tenures for an Indy car sponsor (still active as of 2016) in the history of the sport.
Bobby Rahal's team owned by Maurice Kranes merged with Rick Galles's and it became a two-car effort known as Galles-KRACO Racing. Al Unser, Jr. returned in the Galles Valvoline-sponsored entry, and Rahal got use of the Chevy Ilmor V-8 engine for the first time.
Arie Luyendyk left Dick Simon Racing, and joined Shierson Racing to drive the #30 Domino's Pizza "Hot One" Chevrolet entry. After two years with Judd power, Shierson also was granted a lease for the Chevy Ilmor engine.
Truesports driver Scott Pruett, who won the rookie of the year award in 1989, had a serious crash at West Palm Beach during preseason testing. He suffered serious leg injuries, and was forced to sit out the season for rehabilitation. Raul Boesel was hired to drive as a substitute. The Truesports team was already in development of their in-house "All American" chassis, which was scheduled to debut in 1991. For the 1990 season, the team utilized 1989 Lola/Judd machines to save cost. However, they re-fabricated the underbody of the cars in order to adhere to the new rules specifications, and avoided the need to use the aforementioned "diffusers."
The Alfa Romeo Indy car effort was now taken over by a re-booted Patrick Racing, with Roberto Guerrero as driver. Al Unser, Sr., released by Penske, was brought in for a second car at Indy and the other 500-miler at Michigan.
During the offseason, the Tower Terrace Extension grandstand was razed at the north end of the pit area. In its place, a new 900-foot long, 17,000-seat permanent double-decker grandstand was constructed. It featured aluminum chair-back bench seating, as well as modern restroom facilities and storefront space on the lower level. On the upper deck, 38 luxury suites were built, each with seats for 80 people.
In the south short-chute, near the museum, the first dedicated Wheelchair Accessible grandstand was constructed. With seating for 302 persons, (including non-handicapped "companion" seating), the Speedway introduced its first ADA-compliant grandstand.
Across the street from turn one, a famous Speedway landmark, the brick smokestack of the former Prest-O-Lite company was demolished. For decades, the smokestack was said to be used by drivers to see clues about wind speed and direction.
During rookie orientation, driver Steve Barclay was injured in a crash, and was forced to sit out practice.
Tero Palmroth of Dick Simon Racing earned the honor of first car out on the track on opening day. The first day of practice saw moderate activity, with Tom Sneva in a Buick-powered entry setting the fastest lap (215.646 mph).
Several drivers (Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Geoff Brabham, Bobby Rahal, and Danny Sullivan) were not present for opening day due to their participation in the first round of IROC XIV at Talladega. Unser, Jr., who finished second in that race, along with Rahal, did make it to Indianapolis in time to take a few practice laps.
History was made at Indy when four members of the same family practiced on the track at the same time. Mario, Michael, John, and Jeff Andretti all were on the track together for a brief time at 3:35 p.m.
Jim Crawford crashed in turn one 20 minutes before the track closed for the day.
Emerson Fittipaldi, taking his first laps of the month, topped the speed chart with a lap of 222.607 mph.
Three crashes occurred on Monday. Johnny Rutherford, rookie Buddy Lazier, and Bill Vukovich III all suffered wall contact. Lazier hit the outside wall at the exit of turn four. Rutherford went high exiting turn two, and brushed the wall. Vukovich was the most serious, crashing hard in turn one, suffering a concussion.
Rick Mears (224.398 mph) set the fastest lap, with Arie Luyendyk (222.816 mph) second and Emerson Fittipaldi (222.211 mph) third.
Emerson Fittipaldi (223.286 mph) was the fastest of the day. Steve Chassey crashed in turn three.
Johnny Rutherford had his second crash of the month. He spun in turn three, and crashed hard into the outside wall, suffering a concussion and knee injury.
Al Unser, Jr. (220.507 mph) was the fastest of the day. Arie Luyendyk was second-fastest once again.
A cold, windy afternoon kept most cars off the track. Jim Crawford, driving his back-up car, was the fastest of the day at only 208.686 mph. Only two cars turned laps over 200 mph, and of the 12 drivers that completed laps, few took any laps at speed.
The track was closed 51 minutes early due to weather conditions. Only 74 laps were turned all day.
On the final day of practice before time trials, the speeds climbed, and activity was heavy. At least 40 drivers took to the track, completing 1,517 laps.
Two minor crashes occurred early in the afternoon. Rookies Jeff Wood and Jeff Andretti both suffered accidents. Wood hit the outside wall exiting turn one, then brushed it three more times as the car came to a stop. He was uninjured. Andretti spun in turn four, hitting the outside wall. The car was heavily damaged, but Andretti suffered only a bruised knee.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Emerson Fittipaldi rans laps of 227.101 mph and 227.181 mph. They were the fastest unofficial laps in Indy history. Not to be upstaged, at 5:09 p.m., Al Unser, Jr. blistered the track with a lap of 228.502 mph, the fastest practice lap ever run at Indy.
At 5:24 p.m., Jim Crawford suffered his second crash of the week. This accident, which occurred in the south short chute, was spectacular. He spun in turn one, hit the outside wall, then as the car came off wall, debris lifted the chassis airborne. It flew approximately 15–20 feet off the ground for as much as 280 feet, then came to the ground, upright. It continued to slide for another 360 feet and came to rest along the inside wall. Crawford was not seriously injured.
The first week of practice ended with Unser, Jr., Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, and Mario Andretti topping the speed chart. All four had run laps over 225 mph.
Pole day was scheduled for Saturday May 12, with Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi the favorites for the pole position. Rain washed out the entire day. Pole qualifying was rescheduled for Sunday.
On Sunday, rain threatened to wash out the entire weekend. Continuing rain, cool temperatures and "weepers" kept the cars off the track until after 2:30 p.m. Emerson Fittipaldi was the first driver to make a qualifying attempt, as time trials finally got underway at 4:34 p.m.
Fittipaldi set new one and four-lap qualifying records to secure the provisional pole position. Each lap increased in speed. He became the first driver to officially break to 225 mph barrier at Indy.Lap 1 – 39.999 seconds, 225.006 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 2 – 39.954 seconds, 225.259 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 3 – 39.935 seconds, 225.366 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Lap 4 – 39.898 seconds, 225.575 mph (new 1-lap track record)
Total – 2:39.786, 225.302 mph (new 4-lap track record)
A hectic, abbreviated qualifying session saw 16 attempts before the track closed at 6 p.m. Rick Mears (224.215 mph) and Bobby Rahal (222.694 mph) tentatively rounded out the front row. The day ended when Rich Vogler wrecked in turn two on his third qualifying lap.
Several drivers including Danny Sullivan, Al Unser, Jr., Arie Luyendyk, and A. J. Foyt, were left waiting in line at the 6 o'clock gun. They would have to wait until the following Saturday to have a shot at the pole position. Time trials was scheduled to pick up with the remainder of the pole round on Saturday.
Scott Brayton took to the track for his attempt, but his crew forgot to wave the green flag to start the run. His run was negated, and he lost his opportunity to qualify in the pole position round.
Arie Luyendyk, who was not able to qualify yet, was the fastest car of the day at 221.773 mph. Al Unser, Jr. concentrated on race day setups instead, and ran a lap of 220.496 mph.
Practice was rained out.
Practice was rained out.
Arie Luyendyk again led the speed chart, with a lap of 217.854 mph. Rookie Guido Daccò passed his rookie test, and Salt Walther took to the track for the first time.
Al Unser, Jr. re-established himself as a threat for the pole position, running a lap of 224.995 mph, the fastest of the day. But before the day was over, he blew his qualifying engine, and the team was forced to install a back-up engine for time trials.
Arie Luyendyk was second-fastest at 223.586 mph, also making him a threat for the front row. Bernard Jourdain wrecked twice in three hours, first in his backup car, then in his primary car, requiring surgery and ending his month.
On Saturday May 19, pole qualifying resumed, with 16 cars still eligible for the pole round. Arie Luyendyk (223.304 mph) squeezed onto the front row, bumping Bobby Rahal back to row two. The highly anticipated run by Al Unser, Jr. was a disappointment, as he only managed 220.920 mph, putting him in 7th starting position.
By holding on to the second starting position, Rick Mears qualified on the front row for a record 10th time in his career. A total of 23 cars qualified during the pole round, and at 11:45 a.m., the original qualifying draw had exhausted. Emerson Fittipaldi officially won the pole position. It was the second year in a row the defending champion had won the pole, and Penske Racing swept 1st-2nd on the grid.
"Third day" qualifying commenced at 11:50 a.m., with Johnny Rutherford waving off a slow run. Scott Brayton, who missed his chance to qualify on Sunday, put in a solid speed, as did Teo Fabi, who also missed out on the pole round. The two Alfa Romeo entries of Roberto Guerrero and Al Unser, Sr. put their cars safely in the field, as did Tom Sneva in a Buick.
At 5:45 p.m., the field was filled to 33 cars, Mike Groff (203.643 mph) on the bubble. Jim Crawford then easily bumped out Groff. After two crashes, and two slow qualifying attempts, Johnny Rutherford (204.801 mph) was now on the bubble. Stan Fox bumped him out by over 9 mph, and for the second year in a row, Rutherford was in a position to miss the race.
Bump Day saw rain in the morning, and the track did not open until 2:30 p.m. As the day opened, rookie Buddy Lazier (209.418 mph) was on the bubble. After two attempts, John Paul, Jr. was able to bump out Lazier.
In the final 20 minutes, Salt Walther (attempting to make a comeback to racing) took to the track for his first qualifying attempt in ten years. Rookie Jeff Andretti (210.268 mph) was on the bubble. Andretti was trying to qualify for the first time, and also be the fourth member of the Andretti family to qualify for the same race. Walther completed his run at 210.558 mph, just fast enough to bump Andretti.
In the final 8 minutes, Walther was on the bubble, trying to hold on to the 33rd and final starting position. Johnny Rutherford made one last futile effort to bump his way in, but waved off after only two laps. That allowed just enough time for Rocky Moran to take to the track. His speed of 211.076 mph bumped out Salt Walther at the 6 o'clock gun, and the field was set for race day.Salt Walther (#77) – Bumped (first alternate)
Jeff Andretti (#98) – Bumped (second alternate)
Guido Daccò (R) (#66) – Bumped
Mike Groff (#10/#50) – Bumped
Buddy Lazier (#91) – Bumped
Johnny Rutherford (#17T/#23) – Bumped
Steve Chassey (#93/#96) – Wrecked practice/bumped
Rich Vogler (#8/#12/#50) – Wrecked qualifying/bumped
Jeff Wood (R) (#44) – Wrecked practice
Bernard Jourdain (#69) – Wrecked practice
George Snider (#51) – Withdrew, replaced
Hiro Matsushita (#10) – Passed rookie orientation
Steve Barclay (R) (#51) – Wrecked, rookie orientation
Kenji Momota (R) (#98) – Did not appear for rookie orientation
After rain on Saturday, race day dawned sunny and warm. Temperatures were higher than expected, which ultimately led to poor chassis set ups and handling problems for many drivers.
Emerson Fittipaldi took the lead from the start, and dominated the opening laps. The start was clean, and went 19 laps before the first caution. In turn one, Danny Sullivan's car broke a suspension piece, which sent his car spinning and he crashed hard into the outside wall.
With Fittipaldi continuing to dominate, the top five was being battled amogst Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., and Arie Luyendyk. Rick Mears dropped back with handling issues, and fell a lap down.
Tony Bettenhausen brought out the second caution, when he stalled in lap 45. He was towed back to the pits, and would continue for a time in the race. On lap 63, Mario Andretti and Raul Boesel suffered engine failures, and oil was reported on the track. At the same time, Pancho Carter slowed down the backstretch with a broken CV joint. In turn four, he spun due to the bad handling, and tagged the wall in turn 4. Carter was uninjured.
Emerson Fittipaldi continued to lead, and set a new Indy record by leading the first 92 consecutive laps. He lost the lead on lap 93 when he pitted. Arie Luyendyk took the lead for two laps, the relinquished the lead back to Fittipaldi when he himself pitted.
At the halfway point, Fittipaldi had led 98 laps and was averaging 174.192 mph, just shy of the race record.
Blistering tires began to be an issue with several drivers. The fast pace and the changing weather conditions were both factors. On lap 116, Emerson Fittipaldi ducked into the pits for a scheduled pit stop. That allowed Bobby Rahal to take the lead for the first time. The rest of the leaders cycled through stops, and Fittipaldi once again found the lead.
On lap 136, leader Fittipaldi suddenly entered the pits for an unscheduled pit stop. He was the victim of a blistered right rear tire. Bobby Rahal took over the lead, and began to pull away. Arie Luyendyk was now running second, with Fittipaldi dropping to third, just in front of fourth place Al Unser, Jr.
On lap 140, John Andretti brushed the wall in turn four, damaging the suspension. He continued down the frontstretch, and spun lazily in turn 1. It would be the final caution period of the day. Leader Bobby Rahal pitted under the caution, taking on fuel and only two tires (right sides only). The team was expressing concern about changing all four, as many teams were blistering tires. Luyendyk, however, took on four tires and fuel. Rahal and Luyendyk came back out on the track in that order, a few cars ahead of third place Fittipaldi.
On lap 153, Fittipaldi was forced make another unscheduled pit stop for yet another blistered tire. This time he fell a lap down. He slipped to fourth, with Al Unser, Jr. passing him for third.
Bobby Rahal continued to lead, but handling problems were starting to slow his pace. Having taken on only two tires, coupled with a damaged wing adjuster, was causing a pushing condition. Arie Luyendyk began to reel him in, and took over the lead with a pass in turn three on lap 168. Going into the race, Luyendyk had never led a lap at Indy, and had never won an Indy car race.
Both Luyendyk and Rahal needed one final pit stop to make it to the finish. Rahal pitted first, on lap 171. Luyendyk followed two laps later, and was able to get back out on the track ahead of Rahal. With Al Unser, Jr. 30 seconds behind in third place, and Fittipaldi now a lap down in fourth, the race became a two-man duel between Luyendyk and Rahal - with Rahal seemingly unable to close the gap. Some observers were unsure if Luyendyk and Rahal could make it to the finish on fuel, but neither team planned to pit.
In the final 20 laps, Luyendyk began to pick up the pace, and the average speed began to climb, well above the existing record. Unser, Jr.'s chance at a third place were dashed when he was forced to make a pit stop for fuel on lap 187. Fittipaldi passed him for third, and set his sights on Luyendyk, trying to get his lap back.
With three laps to go, Luyendyk led Rahal by 13.3 seconds. Third place Emerson Fittipaldi caught Luyendyk, and was attempting to un-lap himself. After pursuing Luyendyk for 2 1/2 laps he made his move past Luyendyk. He did so on the mainstretch on the final lap, which distracted Luyendyk, and he did not see the white flag. The next time around, the checkered flag was displayed, and Luyendyk won his first-career Indy car race. Fans roared for Luyendyk-a popular driver amongst competitors and fans- as he displayed a victory fist in turn 2 following the race.
In victory lane an emotional Luyendyk was thrilled over his victory stating in a post-race interview: "I can't believe this. It feels like a dream. This is unbelievable. I don't care if we won by 60 miles per hour we still got first place and that's what counts."
Third place Emerson Fittipaldi was disappointed about not repeating his victory after dominating the race. “I’m very disappointed,” Fittipaldi said. “It was a shame. Everything was under control. The car, she was flying. It’s the third time I’ve been leading and something happened. It seems that for my wins here, I have to be striving and then I can win.”
The record average speed of 185.981 mph (299.307 km/h) marked the fastest 500 in Indy history, and the fastest 500-mile Indy car race to date. The 500-mile speed record would later be broken at the 1990 Michigan 500. The record for fastest Indy 500 would stand until the 2013 running of the race.
Eddie Cheever was named the rookie of the year.
Luyendyk's win marked the lone victory for Lola at the Indy 500 in the 1980s and 1990s. Lola returned to Indy in 1983 with Mario Andretti, and quickly became a competitive chassis on the circuit. Despite the manufacturer's high level of success in the sport during that period, which saw them quickly displace March as the prominent customer chassis, Lola failed to ever win at Indy again. The only previous victories to their credit at Indy were with Graham Hill in 1966 and with Al Unser, Sr. in a modified Lola Chaparral in 1978. They would be upstaged numerous times by March, Penske and Reynard, until ceasing participation at Indy after 1996.
(W) – Winner, (R) – Rookie
*C Chassis: L=Lola, P=Penske, M=March
*E Engine: A=Alfa-Romeo, B=Buick, C=Ilmor-Chevrolet, D=Cosworth DFS, J=Judd, P=Porsche
All cars utilized Goodyear tires.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. A new era arrived at the network for 1990. Lou Palmer and the Speedway management parted ways. Bob Jenkins, a veteran on the crew as a turn reporter, as well as his work on ESPN, was named the new chief announcer and newest Voice of the 500.
Brian Hammons, who previously worked as a pit reporter on the ABC-TV crew, moved over to the radio network for 1990. Bob Lamey moved from turn two to the turn four position (vacated by Jenkins), and would remain there for over a decade. For 1990, the reporting location in turn four was slightly shifted down the track, closer to the exit of the turn. Newcomer Gary Lee took over turn two, still positioned in the Turn 2 Suites.
Longtime broadcast member Ron Carrell, who debuted in 1965 and served as both a turn reporter and pit reporter over the years, would make his final appearance on the crew in 1990. Carrell would die at the age of 75 on the morning of the 2012 race.
Johnny Rutherford failed to qualify for the race again, and returned to serve as "driver expert". Bob Forbes conducted the winner's interview in victory lane. One of the first changes Jenkins made to the broadcast was to eliminate commentary and reporting during the pre-race ceremonies. During the pre-race, the broadcast would instead simulcast the Speedway's public address system (Tom Carnegie, Jim Phillipe, John Totten, and Dave Calabro).
Luke Walton, who was a longtime fixture of the radio network, had only served in a limited pre-race role from 1983 to 1988. He was not part of the crew in 1989 nor 1990. Three weeks after the 1990 race, on June 18, 1990, Walton died at the age of 83.
The race was carried live flag-to-flag coverage in the United States on ABC Sports. Paul Page served as host and play-by-play announcer, accompanied by Bobby Unser and Sam Posey. For the first time, the race was advertised as being broadcast in stereophonic sound.
Pit reporter Brian Hammons departed, and was replaced by Gary Gerould (who switched over from the radio network). Jack Arute and Dr. Jerry Punch returned.
For the second year in a row, the telecast would go on to win the Sports Emmy award for "Outstanding Live Sports Special."