The race that didn't want to end, the 72nd Indianapolis 500, finally ground to a merciful close Sunday in much the way it started - with a yellow Penske car out in front.
Running under the yellow caution flag.Rick Mears, who had won the pole by averaging 219.198 mph and had laps of 207 during the race, won his third Indy 500 while cruising along about 85 mph, following pace car driver Chuck Yeager.
Perhaps it was fitting that Mears took the checkered flag while starter Duane Sweeney was displaying the yellow flag. It seemed like most of the race here at the Old Brickyard was run that way.
Nine crashes, a couple of tow-ins for broken cars and a rabbit that got run down by Al Unser contributed to 14 caution flags for 67 laps, a race record. It also resulted in the slowest winning speed, 144.809 mph, since 1981 when Bobby Unser won with a 139.084 mph average.
After three hours of confusion during which Al Unser, Jim Crawford and Emerson Fittipaldi were thought to have finished second, United States Auto Club officials finally gave it to Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi, the two-time former world champion from Brazil, had been penalized two laps for apparently passing Rich Vogler under a yellow caution period. Because of that, the Penske team felt that Crawford had finished second, but club officials said that Unser was second, a lap back of Mears.
The penalty on Fittipaldi was rescinded after Vogler said that he had waved at him to pass because he had just illegally passed Fittipaldi in a similar situation.
This made Mears' official margin of victory a piddling 7.076 seconds, but that in no way reflected the tempo of the day.
Of the 133 laps run at racing speeds, the Penske domination was complete.
Danny Sullivan, who broke on top from the all-Penske front row, led 91 of the first 94 laps before hitting the Turn 2 wall when a wing collapsed. At times, Sullivan pulled away by as much as 21 seconds.
After his teammate went out, defending champion Al Unser gave himself a 49th birthday present by leading 12 laps in mid-race, making him the Indy 500's all-time race leader. Before the race, Unser and the late Ralph DePalma, who competed between 1911 and 1925, each had 613 laps in front. Now Unser, a four-time winner, has 625.
Then it was Mears' turn.
After Mears fell back more than a lap in the early stages while he and Roger Penske worked out a few kinks in the new Penske PC-17 chassis, he came on to lead 89 of the final 90 laps.
The only non-Penske driver to lead was Crawford, the amazing Scotsman who spent the entire year recuperating from a 237-mph crash during qualifications a year ago that shattered both his legs. Crawford, in a Buick-powered Lola, led eight laps and might have finished second had he not been forced to make a pit stop five laps from the finish with a punctured tire.
The 1:40 pit stop to change all four tires dropped Crawford back to sixth place behind Mears, Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Michael Andretti and national champion Bobby Rahal.
"I feel wonderful just being here," Crawford said. "I knew that as soon as the race started that the Penske cars were out there by themselves. Sullivan passed me so quick one time that he barely would have had time to wave.
"I had a really bad scare about six laps from the end when a tire punctured and almost put me in the wall. I thought about limping around but I decided to bring it in. Whenever your heart comes up to your throat, it's time to come in."
Mears' victory was the fourth in five years and the seventh since Mark Donohue won in 1972 for car owner and dynasty builder Penske, who listed two turning points in the race.
It just wasn't Mario's day. After sharing speed laurels most of the month of May with Mears, on the two days that counted - qualifying and the race - his Lola-Chevy wasn't up to the task.
"At first we had a problem with the gear box," said the elder of three Andrettis in the race. "Then we had a leak in the oil bearing and suddenly the ignition just went dead and then the engine. They changed all the electronics they could, but it must be something more than that."
"Little Al" Unser, who won easily last month in the Long Beach Grand Prix, was running second behind Sullivan when the left-rear CV joint - once known as the universal joint - broke.
"I felt something let go when I left the pits but I didn't know what it was," Unser Jr. said. "I knew when it broke that we couldn't win the race, but the Galles crew worked so hard to fix it that I thought I owed it to them to get back in the race. We were still going for national championship points."
Unser was credited with 13th place, 20 laps behind Mears.
Close communication, built up over a 10-year relationship, between Mears and Penske helped bring the car from a lap down to the lead.
"We were frustrated at why the car would not work as well as it had, but we knew what it was and it was only a matter of time before we got the problem straightened out," Mears said.
The problem was that it ran loose, preventing Mears from running down low in the corners where he could gather up momentum for high-speed runs down the long straightaways.
"I just couldn't go very fast, that was all there was to it," Mears said. "We changed the aerodynamic settings, basically. First, we changed the wheels, from the closed wheels to the open wheels, and that didn't help much, so we changed the tire stagger and then wing settings and it all brought the car back to life."
Mears was driving a new Penske PC-17 chassis that arrived fresh from the team's factory in Poole, England, before the first practice day here three weeks ago. It was powered by a Chevy engine, designed by Mario Ilien, and built in the Ilmor Engineering factory in Brixworth, England.
"This ought to put an end to all that talk that the Chevy engine wouldn't last 500 miles here," said Penske, who was the man who talked Chevrolet into investing $10 million into developing a race car engine.
Chevy-powered cars finished 1-2-3. It was the first time since 1978 that a Cosworth-Ford engine had not powered the winning car.
"After the way we ran all month, we just had to win," Penske said. "It put a tremendous amount of pressure on us, winning the pole, putting all three cars on the front row and running fast every day. I know I was a little more on edge. A little more anxious. I woke up at 3 o'clock today and I usually sleep until 6. I wanted to get out here and get it done."
By winning his third 500 here, Mears joined Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bobby Unser and Rutherford, one win behind Al Unser and Foyt. It also was the 13th time in 72 races that the pole-sitter emerged the winner.
The crashing and the yellow flags started early.
Sullivan, Mears and Unser had no more than led the field through the first turn safely than Scott Brayton spun in the second turn, taking Roberto Guerrero and Tony Bettenhausen with him.
"I feel terrible, especially for the Guerrero team," Brayton said. "All month long we had one of the best cars here and then it all ended on the wall on the first lap."
Guerrero was stoic about his fate.
"Someone spun in front of me and there was nothing I could do," Guerrero said. It ended a remark-able streak for the young Colombian driver w
Bettenhausen was not so charitable.
"I shouldn't have ever been in the wreck," he said. "We're supposed to be professionals and I only got around one turn and wrecked a $150,000 car."
All the other accidents were single car crashes, involving, in order, Teo Fabi, Tom Sneva, A.J. Foyt, Ludwig Heimrath, Steve Chassey, Sullivan, Johnny Rutherford and Vogler.
Two, Fabi's and Vogler's, had unusual twists.
Fabi, in the first Porsche-powered car ever to run at Indy, came into the pits for his first stop, took on fuel and tires, hit the accelerator and smacked the pit wall. Some one had not tightened the lug nuts.
Vogler, late in the race, brushed the wall in the first turn and came in to replace what he thought was a deflated tire. The yellow caution flag came out to pick up the debris from the accident. Vogler came in, took on a new tire and went out and almost immediately crashed.
Vogler had crashed during a yellow flag period brought on by himself.