1992: My Return To The Indianapolis 500

There was just something about watching the 1991 Indianapolis 500 that captivated me. I had watched the 1990 race and enjoyed it, even though I was pulling for Bobby Rahal at the end. I had been entranced with the storyline in 1991, of AJ Foyt making a comeback from his horrific accident at Road America. When a crippled Foyt put his car in the middle of the front row, flanked by two other icons – Mario Andretti and Rick Mears; I decided that this would be a race worth keeping, so I bought enough video tape to make high-quality recordings of it. I decided if AJ was going to win his fifth Indianapolis 500, I wanted to have it on tape.

As it turned out, Foyt faded at the start and was collected in the lap 27 crash that involved Kevin Cogan and Roberto Guerrero. But it was a great race, with a fantastic late-race battle between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti, with Mears eventually winning his fourth Indy 500.

I watched those tapes countless times over the next few weeks. I had not been to the Indianapolis 500 since 1972, when I was thirteen. By this time; I was thirty-two, married, had two young kids of my own and had a decent career going. I mentioned to my (then) wife that we should go the next year. Between a few grumbles, harrumphs and “we’ll see’s”; it became obvious she wasn’t thrilled with the prospect.

By pure coincidence, we had already planned a trip to Chicago in July of 1991 to visit friends. On the way back, I thought it would be fun to stop off at the Speedway. We toured the museum and took the bus tour around the track. That’s all it took. The bug bit me and I was hooked. As we exited through the tunnel onto 16th Street, I think my wife knew that she was destined to be returning the following May. She was right.

1991 was the year that I went from being a passive Indy car fan to a rabid one. I had never lost touch with the sport from high school, through college, to being a young adult – but I followed it from a distance. After the 1991 race, my fire was reignited and it hasn’t wavered since. I became a sponge and bought as many books and magazines that I could find. This was before the days of the internet, so information was hard to come by. Still, I immersed myself in anything that was Indy car racing and specifically – the Indianapolis 500.

The race was a longtime sellout in those days. I was not on the ticket list, so I found a ticket broker that advertised in one of my many racing magazines. That February, I called and ordered tickets. Not only that – good tickets. Expensive tickets. And did I mention that I did so without consulting with my wife? I knew she would make me go the cheapest route possible. I figured this may be my only race for possibly another twenty years, so I wanted to do it right. We had tickets about two-thirds of the way up in the Tower Terrace. As luck would have it, we were situated behind the Galles-Kraco pits of Danny Sullivan and eventual winner Al Unser, Jr.

But I couldn’t wait until May. We made a trek to Indianapolis in early March and took our two young kids. My son was not even three, but I had already convinced him that AJ Foyt was the greatest things since…well, me. They had a special Foyt display set up in the museum and he recognized the cars. Although there was snow on the ground and it was about fifteen degrees outside, we bundled up and took the track tour. As you can imagine, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. While the rest of my family was growing bored and impatient, I just wanted to stay and soak it all in. May couldn’t get here fast enough.

When May finally did arrive, it took a gruesome turn. Former Formula One champion Nelson Piquet hit the wall head-on in practice and severely mangled his feet. He was done for the month and his Menard ride eventually went to Al Unser. A couple of days later, Rick Mears had a horrifying crash coming out of turn two and skidded down the backstretch upside down on his helmet. It would eventually be the defining moment to convince Mears it was time to retire at the end of the season.

Tragically, Jovy Marcello lost his life during practice. He was a native of the Philippines and a graduate of the Toyota-Atlantics Series that was attempting to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500. He was on a warm-up lap and was traveling at a relatively slow rate of speed when the car whipped around and the side of the car slapped the solid concrete wall. Marcelo’s head also hit the wall and he was fatally injured. It was the first driver fatality at the Speedway since Gordon Smiley in 1982. The month took on a somber tone, even though speeds were at a record high.

The new Ford-Cosworth was a rocket at the Speedway. The 1992 Lola actually had three configurations, depending on which engine was mated to it. The Lola that housed the Ford-Cosworth had been streamlined immensely since, the power plant had such a low profile. The Chevrolet which powered most of the field, was bulky and required a much more bulbous cowling. The Buick V-6 cowling was sort of a combination of the two.

Roberto Guerrero was on the pole with a new track record speed of 232.482 in a ‘92 Lola-Buick. He was joined by Eddie Cheever in his Target Chip Ganassi Lola-Ford in the middle of the front row, while Mario Andretti was on the outside of row one in another Lola-Ford. You had to go all the way back to Bobby Rahal, who was starting on the inside of the fourth row, before you found a Lola-Chevy. The Buick was fast, but notoriously unreliable. The Ford was new and unproven, but the reliable Chevy was suddenly slow at the Speedway.

My wife and I arrived in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon – just in time for a major weather system to move through. After the storm was over, the balmy temperatures in the upper-80’s gave way to a blast of arctic air. We brought shorts to wear to the race, but also jeans and windbreakers, just in case. It’s a good thing – I had originally put shorts on that morning, but my first trip to the car told me that wasn’t going to work. The temperature at dawn that morning was in the upper-30’s and by the drop of the green flag, the temperature was only fifty-one degrees. With the wind straight out of the north, it felt much colder.

When we parked in the infield – from the moment I stepped out of the car, I was taken back to my childhood. There were marching bands on the track, people grilling breakfast in the infield and college kids tapping a keg right next to us. The sounds and smells immediately came back to me – and then I heard Tom Carnegie’s voice booming over the PA system. There were still many drivers from my youth in the race including Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen, Gordon Johncock, Al Unser and of course…AJ Foyt.

The cold temperature took its toll on the tires. Tire adhesion was minimal at best, at those temps – and it showed. Roberto Guerrero, the pole sitter, embarrassed himself by spinning on the parade lap while warming up his tires. He spun into a grass mound and destroyed his suspension. It was to be a sign of things to come. The race was a crash fest. By lap 110, exactly fifty-five of those laps had been run under yellow. The race had no rhythm – but when there was a green flag, it was completely dominated by Michael Andretti.

There were four Andretti’s in the field that day. Mario crashed on a restart and broke some toes as his K-Mart/Texaco Lola spun around and the nose clouted the outside wall coming out of turn four. Shortly thereafter, son Jeff spun and hit the turn-two wall head-on in a very scary accident after a rear-wheel came off of his car, which was a second car out of the AJ Foyt stable. Jeff’s feet were badly mangled. He would drive again, but the crash effectively ended his driving career. John Andretti was driving a solid race and would eventually finish fifth, but he was never a threat to win. It appeared that Michael Andretti would salvage what had been a very dark day for the Andretti family.

Then suddenly, Michael continued a family tradition as he began slowing on the backstretch. After complete domination, Michael’s day was done on lap 189. This set up an unlikely duel between Al Unser, Jr, and Scott Goodyear. It was unlikely because Little Al had been quiet all month, as his Galmer chassis had proven to be a sled on the giant oval. Goodyear had even lower expectations, as he had been bumped from the field and was moved into a car that had been qualified by Mike Groff. By doing so, he was obligated to start in the thirty-third slot. To this day, Little Al’s margin of victory over Scott Goodyear is still the closest finish ever.

We had a great view of the Valvoline crew as they celebrated their unexpected win. We were also not too far from Victory Lane as Little Al uttered his now famous “You just don’t know what Indy means”. But the best view was one that I actually caught on video. When the pace car was pulling off with Little Al in the back to take his victory lap, they stopped so that Big Al, who finished third – could give his victorious son a giant emotional bear-hug. It made for a great picture.

When we left the track that day, even my wife decided that we should make this an annual event. We returned the next day to drop off our ticket order for 1993, which was the first day you could do so. Even then, we were not guaranteed tickets. It wasn’t until the check cleared in August that we knew we were in. In later years, I would buy bronze badges and take in the entire month. But it was that cold and frigid day in 1992, that rekindled my love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “1992: My Return To The Indianapolis 500”

  1. 1992 race was the first I ever watched in tv and it is the reason why I fell in love with Indy 500…

  2. jhall14 Says:

    My Aunt was up from Daytona Beach to watch the race. It was a hot 80+ day on Carb Day…then Race Day, I felt so sorry for her due to the cold weather. So many crashes on restarts, but the ending was tremendous, one of the great duels of all time.

  3. Great story George!

    It’s been awhile since we had a race like 1992, when the favorites dropped out, crashed, or faded, and folks from the back of the field with little hope of winning suddenly dueled to the finish. It’s the races like 1992 that make Indy such a special race. I would love to see another underdog come out of nowhere this year and break the Penske-Gannasi stranglehold.

  4. Another thing I remember about this race was the first turn, first lap pass by Michael and Mario Andretti around their good friend Eddie Cheever. I was sitting in turn one and it was breathtaking.

  5. I’m certain that it may have been absolutely miserable to sit there in the cold and watch Michael run off into the overcast sunset while the whole field expired behind him for 189 laps. At least on television, you could listen to Page, Posey, and Unser speculate and analyze all of the incidents that happened that day. However, even though it was 18 years ago now, I clearly remember five-year-old me sitting right up on the TV screen when Unser, Jr., and Goodyear took up the fight on Lap 190. I’m fairly certain watching that race convinced my parents that we needed to try and get to the Speedway, which we finally managed in ’95.

    Oh, and good work getting the pricey tickets…those $40 infield bleachers offered a terrible view!

  6. billytheskink Says:

    1992, the reason I put Valvoline in my truck…

    My father had been to the race the year before (and would go again a year later), and stories, photos, and program he’d brought back had helped turn me into a die-hard Unser Jr. fan. That 1992 finish left me about as thrilled as I’d been in my nearly 7 years.

    For Christmas that year, I received a life-size cardboard cutout of Little Al that my father somehow got from the local Hi/Lo Auto Parts store’s Valvoline display.

  7. I almost forgot Michael had ruled that day, low fuel pressure spikes caused a back-fire that blew his turbo to sh@!$. That used to be a big part of the 500, attrition.

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