A. J. Foyt suffered a crash at Road America in September 1990, which injured his legs and feet. Foyt went through rehab during the offseason, and planned to race at Indy one final time in 1991, then retire from driving.
Few team/driver changes occurred during the off-season, and most of the key fixtures from 1990 remained on the same teams. Among the few changes, Danny Sullivan departed Penske Racing, and joined the Pat Patrick Alfa Romeo effort. Rick Mears' familiar Pennzoil Z-7 Special livery was gone for 1991, as the Penske team (Mears and Fittipaldi) became a two-car team with Marlboro sponsoring both cars.
Doug Shierson Racing, who won the 1990 race with driver Arie Luyendyk, was sold to businessman Bob Tezak. The team was re-organized in a joint effort with Vince Granatelli, and re-booted as UNO/Granatelli Racing. The car's sponsor Domino's Pizza left the sport, and the livery was changed to the classic day-glow orange utilized by Granatelli entries over the years. Luyendyk's services were retained for 1991 (he won earlier in the season at Phoenix), and RCA sponsored the fledgling entry car at Indy.
John Andretti joined the newly rebooted Hall-VDS team, taking over the Pennzoil sponsorship. Andretti kicked off the season by winning his first career CART race at the season opener, the Gold Coast Grand Prix at Surfers Paradise.
Al Unser, Jr. and Bobby Rahal returned together at Galles/KRACO Racing. Unser, the 1990 CART champion, won at Long Beach. Rahal started off the season finishing second at all three of the races prior to Indianapolis.
After sitting out the 1990 season due to injury, Scott Pruett was back behind the wheel at Truesports. The team introduced its brand new "All-American" Truesports 91C chassis, powered by Judd. For the second year in a row, veteran Geoff Brabham was entered at Indy only for a second team car.
Derrick Walker, formerly associated with the Penske and Porsche teams, entered rookie Willy T. Ribbs at Walker Racing. On a shoestring budget, the team was considered a long-shot to make the field.
The pace car for the 1991 Indy 500 was initially chosen to be the Dodge Stealth. However, the UAW, along with fans and traditionalists, protested since the Stealth was a captive import built by Mitsubishi in Japan. Traditionally, the make of the pace car has always been a domestic American brand. In late February, the Stealth was downgraded to be the festival car. The pre-production Dodge Viper RT/10 replaced the Stealth as the official pace car when the track opened in May. Carroll Shelby served as the driver, thought to be the first person to drive the pace car after having a heart transplant. It was Shelby's second appearance at Indy. He also drove the pace car in 1987.
The first two days of practice (May 4 & May 5) were rained out. The only on-track activity was brief. A limited number of cars took "shake down" laps, but no laps were run at speed.
The first hot laps were run on Monday May 6. Penske teammates Emerson Fittipaldi (223.981 mph) and Rick Mears (223.430 mph) led the speed chart.
Rick Mears ran the fastest lap thus far at 226.569 mph. Gary Bettenhausen also gained attention with a lap of 224.888 mph in the stock block Buick V-6.
Jim Crawford hit 225.643 mph in a Buick on Wednesday May 8, and Bobby Rahal became the second driver over 226 mph, with a lap of 226.080 to lead the speed chart for the day.
The speed of the stock block Buicks continued to impress as Kevin Cogan turned a lap of 226.677 mph on Thursday May 9.
On "Fast Friday," the final day of practice before time trials, Rick Mears shocked the establishment, suffering his first-ever crash at Indy. Something broke in the rear of the car, sending him spinning into the turn one wall. Mears suffered an injured right foot, and was cleared to drive later in the day. Later in the day, Emerson Fittipaldi set the fastest lap of the month at 226.705 mph, and became the favorite for the pole. At 5:09 p.m., Mark Dismore suffered a terrible crash coming out of turn 4. The car slid across the track and hit the inside wall near the entrance to the pits and broke into two pieces. Dismore suffered multiple injuries to his arms, legs, and feet, and was sidelined for the year.
As a result of Dismore's crash, officials made a quick change in the pits in the interest of safety for the crews. The two northernmost pit stalls were removed, and replaced instead at the south end of the pit lane. The move added about 80 feet of buffer from the track surface to the first pit box.
Pole day was held on Saturday May 11, and conditions were hot and humid. A. J. Foyt drew #1 in the qualifying order, and was the first car out on the track. Foyt put himself on the provisional pole position, with a four-lap run of 222.443 mph. The second car out to qualify was Randy Lewis, who wrecked in turn one on his first lap.
About an hour into the session, Mario Andretti completed a run of 221.818 mph, which put him tentatively on the front row. Several cars waved off their runs, and others simply pulled out of line, preferring to wait until later in the day, anticipating better conditions. Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, and his brother rookie Jeff Andretti completed runs. By 12:45 p.m., there were only eight cars in the field.
At 12:51 p.m., Rick Mears took to the track, one day after suffering his practice crash. He qualified for the pole position with a speed of 224.113 mph. It was not a track record, but it would be Mears' record sixth Indy 500 pole.
The track went mostly quiet during the heat of the day, and only two cars went out over the next 2½ hours. At 3:52 p.m., Emerson Fittipaldi made his first attempt. After three laps in the 223 range (fast enough for second starting position), his crew waved him off. A few minutes later, John Andretti completed his run under a light mist. The rain continued, and washed out the remainder of the day.
Since the original qualifying order had exhausted before the rains came, pole day was officially over. Only 12 cars qualified, and several drivers were left out, including Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, and Gary Bettenhausen. Meanwhile, the front row was established with Rick Mears on the pole, A. J. Foyt in the middle, and Mario Andretti on the outside. Historians point to this as one of the most storied and historic front rows in Indy history.
Many of the drivers who were left out of qualifying a day earlier returned to qualify on Sunday May 12. The first 45 minutes of the day saw heavy action. Gary Bettenhausen took to the track and completed his run at 224.468 mph, faster than Mears' pole speed, making him the fastest qualifier in the field. Since he was a second-day qualifier, however, he was forced to line up behind the first-day qualifiers, in 13th position.
Arie Luyendyk's qualifying run of 223.881 mph made him the third fastest car in the field, but his second-day status lined him up 14th. Emerson Fittipaldi finally made the field, qualifying 15th at 223.065 mph. The three cars of the 5th row (Bettenhausen, Luyendyk, Fittipaldi) ended up qualifying faster than the three cars of the front row.
The rest of the day saw light action, and at the end of the day, the field filled to 22 cars.
The second week of practice focused on the non-qualified drivers, and those still looking for rides. Rookie Willy T. Ribbs passed his drivers test on Monday, but suffered through multiple engine failures during the week. Ribbs managed a practice lap of 213.230 mph, but as practice came to a close, it appeared doubtful he might be able to qualify.
Among the drivers named to ride during the week were Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, and Roberto Guerrero. Al Unser, Sr., however, was unable to secure a competitive ride, and decided to sit out the race. Initially Unser, Sr. was expected to drive a back-up car to Arie Luyendyk at UNO/Granatelli Racing, but engine lease issues, and the lack of adequate preparation time precluded the deal from coming to fruition. Unser missed the race for the first time since 1969, the year he broke his leg in a motorcycle crash in the infield the night before time trials.
Rookie Hiro Matsushita led the speed chart for the non-qualified drivers most of the week, with a top lap of 216.570 mph. Roberto Guerrero quickly got up to speed in the Alfa Romeo, with the fastest lap of the week (216.941 mph).
Two days during the second week of practice, Tuesday (May 14) and Thursday (May 16), saw limited track activity due to rain.
Twelve car made attempts in the first hour, and the field was filled to 29 cars. Rookie Hiro Matsushita was the fastest car of the day, qualifying at 218.141 mph, officially becoming the first Japanese driver to qualify for the Indy 500. Other notable qualifiers included Roberto Guerrero, John Paul, Jr., and Scott Pruett. Tom Sneva completed a slow run of 213.189 mph, and he sat as the slowest car in the field.
Two crashes occurred during the day. Dean Hall crashed in the morning practice session, and Ted Prappas wrecked in turn 4 later in the afternoon. Both drivers would miss the race.
Willy T. Ribbs' frustrations continued, as his car revved too high, and he broke a valve on his warmup lap.
Four positions remained open on the final day of time trials. Gordon Johncock was the first driver to complete an attempt, and took a run of 213.812 mph. A few minutes later, Willy T. Ribbs' car started smoking and spewing oil, and suffered a turbocharger failure. Yet another engine-related headache for the team. The team scrambled to replace the turbo, but then discovered a damaged scavenger pump, which delayed them further.
At 2:45 p.m., Pancho Carter filled the field to 33 cars. Tom Sneva (213.189 mph) was now on the bubble.
At about 3:30 p.m., Willy T. Ribbs finally returned to the track to shake down the car. He ran a few practice laps, and was quickly over 214 mph. At 5:05 p.m., the team placed the car in the tech line, and prepared to qualify. With much anticipation from fans and the media, Ribbs miraculously completed the four-lap qualifying run at a speed of 217.358 mph, the fastest laps he had run all month. On his cool-down lap, an ecstatic Ribbs hoisted himself partially out of his seat, waving and cheering with both hands out of the cockpit as he pulled into the pits. Ribbs bumped former winner Tom Sneva, and was comfortably in the field.
Randy Lewis was the final car to complete an attempt, and he bumped Johnny Parsons from the field. In the final 15 minutes, three drivers took to the track, but all three waved off. Gordon Johncock survived the bubble, and held on the qualify 33rd.
Gary Bettenhausen was the fastest qualifier. However, he qualified on the second day of time trials, and thus, was ineligible for the pole position. He lined up as the fastest second day qualifier, behind the 12 drivers who qualified on the first day.
First alternate: Johnny Parsons (#11) - Bumped; standing by as relief driver for Gordon Johncock, who was ill on race day
Second alternate: Tom Sneva (W) (#59) - Bumped
Salt Walther (#77) - Too slow
Didier Theys (#17/#50T) - Too slow
Mark Dismore (#12) - wrecked in practice on May 10, serious leg and foot injuries
Dean Hall (#97) - Wrecked in practice on May 18, knee injury
Ted Prappas (#31) - wrecked in practice on May 18
Guido Daccò (R) (#37) - Completed only 6 practice laps, did not attempt to qualify
Davey Hamilton (#81) - Did not practice
Phil Krueger (#25) - Did not practice
Vinicio Salmi (R) (#36) - Did not practice
Paul Tracy (#90) - Replaced by Randy Lewis
Jeff Wood (R)
Morning rain delayed the start of the race by 55 minutes. Mary F. Hulman gave the command to start engines at 11:46 a.m., and the field pulled away. During the pace laps, Danny Sullivan's Alfa Romeo car suffered a fuel pump problem, and was pushed back to the pits. Observers also noted that Willy T. Ribbs' engine did not sound right.
At the start, polesitter Rick Mears took the lead into turn one. Gary Bettenhausen got sideways in turn 1, causing Buddy Lazier to swerve and kiss the outside wall with his nosecone. The caution came out, and both Bettenhausen and Lazier made it back to the pits. Bettenhausen changed tires and continued, but Lazier's car was too damaged to continue.
After quick repairs, Danny Sullivan joined the race three laps down. On lap 5, Willy T. Ribbs pulled into the pits with a misfire, and dropped out.
Mears gave up the lead to Mario Andretti on lap 12. Michael Andretti then took the lead and dominated most of the first half.
On lap 25, Kevin Cogan clipped Roberto Guerrero in turn 1, and the two cars crashed hard into the outside wall. Guerrero was unhurt, but Cogan suffered injuries to his right shoulder and forearm. Debris from the crash littered the track, and A. J. Foyt ran over a large piece of debris, breaking his left front suspension. Foyt limped back to the pits, waving to the crowd, as he felt his day was done. The crowd gave him an ovation as he walked back to the garage area, but he was still non-committal to his retirement decision.
Cogan assigned Guerrero the responsibility in interviews that evening. Footage from the broadcasting couldn't find any indications of what caused the Cogan-Guerrero crash. Weeks later however footage from a spectator that sat in the same turn, showed that Cogan was to blame for the crash.
Several cars began dropping out due to mechanical problems. Jim Crawford, John Paul, Jr., Mike Groff, Tero Palmroth, and Gary Bettenhausen were all out of the race before the halfway point.
At the halfway point, Michael Andretti continued to lead, with Emerson Fittipaldi holding onto second. Teammates Bobby Rahal and Al Unser, Jr. were strong top five contenders. Rick Mears barely clung to the lead lap, and was in danger of being lapped at one point.
Michael Andretti continued his dominance, but Emerson Fittipaldi was now a strong challenger. Fittipaldi took the lead on lap 113, and held it for a total of 46 laps in the second half. Fittipaldi wound up suffering a gearbox failure exiting the pits on lap 182, however, and dropped out the race.
The field dwindled down to only about 13 cars for the final 50 laps. Early contender Bobby Rahal blew an engine on lap 130, followed by Scott Brayton, who also blew an engine on lap 149. Mario Andretti faded in the second half, falling 2 laps down and out of contention for the win. Only two cars remained on the lead lap, Michael Andretti and Rick Mears. Arie Luyendyk moved into third, one lap down, with Al Unser, Jr. also in the top five.
Gordon Johncock, who started 33rd, and was suffering from flu-like symptoms before the race, was now in the top ten.
On lap 183, Danny Sullivan blew an engine down the frontstretch, spewing a huge cloud of smoke. Leader Michael Andretti took advantage of the break, and ducked into the pits for needed fuel. Andretti's stop was quick, and he came back out onto the track in second. He lined up just behind leader Rick Mears for the restart.
As the leaders came down to complete lap 186, Michael diced back and forth down the frontstretch, and passed Mears on the outside of turn 1 to take the lead in dramatic fashion. The move Andretti pulled off was a move that rarely ever succeeded. Immediately after the pass Michael began to pull away, but Mears reeled him in turn 4. At the end of the mainstretch, not to be upstaged, Mears pulled the same move, passing Michael on the outside of turn 1 to re-take the lead. Almost immediately, Mears began pulling away from Andretti, as Andretti's steering began to go away.
With only 11 laps to go, Mears began to lengthen his lead. Suddenly on lap 190, Michael's father Mario stalled at the entrance to the pits. The yellow flag came out for the tow-in and bunched the field for another restart. A controversy erupted, as many felt Mario stopped on purpose in a ploy to aid his son.
The green flag came out with six laps to go, and Mears got the jump on the restart. Michael's handling was starting to go away for good, and he was unable to challenge Mears for the lead. Rick Mears cruised over the final five laps to the finish line, and became the third four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
In a 2011 interview 20 years later, Michael Andretti and Rick's car owner Roger Penske both stated that had he put Rick a lap down, it would have been over for Rick and that what changed the complex of the race was when Andretti suffered a cut tire 2/3 of the way to the checkered flag before he could put Rick a lap down.
(W) – Winner, (R) – Rookie
*C Chassis: L=Lola, P=Penske, T=TrueSports
*E Engine: A=Alfa-Romeo, B=Buick, C=Ilmor-Chevrolet, F=Cosworth-Ford, J=Judd
All cars utilized Goodyear tires.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Bob Jenkins served as chief announcer for the second year. Johnny Rutherford returned as "driver expert" and Bob Forbes conducted the winner's interview in victory lane. The network celebrated its 40th anniversary.
For 1991, the backstretch reporting location was eliminated permanently. Howdy Bell, who revived the position from 1989-1990, moved into the booth to serve as "Statistician." With Ron Carrell's departure, Chris McClure joined the crew as a new pit reporter.
Due to the rain delay, the broadcast signed on at 10:00 EST, but only for a weather report. The airtime was sent back to the affiliates to wait out the delay. Updates were given through the hour, and the network came back on-air for an abbreviated pre-race show. The race itself, however, was carried in its entirety.
Technical director Tom Allebrandi celebrated his 25th year working the broadcast. Longtime network veteran Ralph "Luke" Walton, who served on the crew for the final time in 1989, died on June 18, 1990, 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. The start of the race was delayed about one hour, and ABC filled the time with interviews, highlights, and other features.
The same exact crew from 1990 returned. As a gesture to the 75th anniversary race, Jack Whitaker joined the pre-race coverage as an essayist.
Rick Mears was the first Indy 500 winner to carry a RaceCam for television.