Throwback Thursday - 1979 Indy 500

April 28, 2016

The Indianapolis 500 is regarded as the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” for good reason. In addition to being one of the races in the Triple Crown of Motorsports, along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Grand Prix of Monaco, it’s the biggest, single-day sporting event in the world, drawing approximately 350,000 fans. 

Team Penske made its mark on the event by winning the 1972 edition with Mark Donohue, coming through on a promise that Roger Penske made to the Sun Oil Company (Sunoco) that the team would win the race within three years of signing their partnership agreement. 

By 1979, however, the team was still searching for a second Indy 500 win. Donohue, the lead driver and cornerstone of the team, tragically lost his life in a practice accident at the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. The foundation of the team was shaken, but Team Penske would emerge as strong as ever thanks to an off-road racer from Bakersfield, California.

Rick Mears entered the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1979 as a three-time winner in INDYCAR competition with Team Penske, but had only made one start in the Indy 500. While he had shown tremendous potential in his short career, no one within the sport could anticipate the type of career he would have at the corner of 16th St. and Georgetown Road. 

Much of the talk prior to the opening of practice in 1979 surrounded the six newly-formed CART series teams and the litigation between them and USAC, the sanctioning body for the race. Because they were initially rejected from competition the “Rejected Six,” as they were called, were not allowed to practice until the third day. This grouping included Team Penske and Mears. 

Mears wasted little time in showing the speed of his Penske/Cosworth as he shot to the top of the speed charts in his first day of practice. He was continually among the fastest cars for the month, culminating in the first of his record-six Indy 500 pole positions when qualifying concluded on Sunday, May 13

The weather forecast for race day was bleak, but the overnight rain moved out and the outlook significantly improved. The race began with Al Unser Sr., who started on the outside of the front row, sweeping into the lead. He and brother, Bobby, dominated most of the day with Mears maintaining a position inside the top five. 

At Lap 103, Unser, Sr. lost a transmission, handing the lead over to his brother while Mears moved up to second place. Mears took the lead with 19 laps remaining and cruised to the first of his record-tying four Indianapolis 500 wins. Born in 1951, Mears became the first Indy 500 winner born after WWII. 

Since that win by Mears, Team Penske has scored 14 more Indy 500 wins with drivers like Helio Castroneves, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya, along with Mears. The current four-car lineup of Castroneves, Montoya, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud gives the team a legitimate shot in this year’s historic, 100th running of the race.