Remembering the Flyin’ Hawaiian

This past Monday, Susan and I were on the road back to Nashville, after spending the weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. When you’ve had a fun weekend like we did, it’s always a little sad heading back home to the reality that exists outside of the weekend racing bubble. We were probably about a hundred miles north of Tampa on I-75, when we were saddened even more, when Susan saw on Facebook that Danny Ongais had passed away.

I will admit I was surprised by Susan’s answer, when I asked her how old he was and she said he was 79. Without thinking about it, I really thought Ongais was in his mid-to-upper sixties. But when I thought about how long, if sporadic, his racing career was – it made sense that he was that old.

Unfortunately, history will remember Ongais most for multiple crashes at Indianapolis and for being a curious 54 year-old replacement at Indianapolis for the late Scott Brayton in 1996, after Brayton was fatally injured in practice in the week after he had put his Lola-Menard on the pole. What was curious about that choice is that Ongais had not driven an Indy car for nine years. Because he was a replacement, Ongais was moved to the back of the field and started thirty-third. He finished seventh.

Ongais drove in one more IndyCar race – the season-opener at Walt Disney World in 1997, when he finished a forgettable thirteenth while driving for Chitwood Motorsports. His career came to an inglorious end as he crashed on the second practice day of the month for the 1998 Indianapolis 500 at the age of 56; and suffered a concussion. He was sidelined for the month and never drove again.

This was not the first serious accident that Ongais had at The Speedway. His 1981 crash on Lap 63 was one of the most frightening to watch, where the driver actually lived. He carried too much speed out of Turn Three, lost control and committed one of the most egregious of sins at Indianapolis – he turned right while trying to collect the car. The result was heading almost directly into the wall, nose first. Ongais was knocked unconscious and had to be cut out of the car. Aside from a concussion, Ongais suffered compound fractures in both legs, a broken arm and a six-inch tear in his diaphragm. He was out for the rest of the season, but did race again the next season.

History probably remembers Danny Ongais mostly for a race he didn’t race in. His Interscope Racing team had partnered with Team Penske for the 1987 Indianapolis 500. Ongais had essentially knocked the aging Al Unser out of his ride with Penske, which had been reduced to a part-time ride just one season after winning the CART championship in 1985. Ongais had another frightening crash on the main straightaway in practice, and he suffered another concussion – making himself unavailable for the race. We all know what happened next – Roger Penske called on Al Unser to fill the year-old car that had been a show car in the Reading, Pennsylvania Sheraton. In what has become a legendary tale, Unser drove that car to his fourth Indianapolis 500 win.

What history has forgotten that despite his famous crashes, Danny Ongais was a very fast driver. He had earned the nickname with fans as Danny On-the-gas, and was a crowd favorite. His best season was in 1978, when he won five of seventeen races with four more Top-Ten finishes. That season also saw Ongais start the Indianapolis 500 in the middle of the front-row, between Tom Sneva and Rick Mears.

Altogether, Ongais started in eleven Indianapolis 500s in an IndyCar career that spanned twenty years. His career may not be Hall-of-Fame worthy, but it was noteworthy. He was fast and brave and could make a car work in areas no other drivers could. He was also known as The Flyin’ Hawaiian, and is still the only native Hawaiian to start the Indianapolis 500.

Ongais was also a successful NHRA driver for many years before tackling open-wheel racing. He was a veteran of the US Army in the early sixties

While history remembers Ongais for his terrifying crashes, one of which paved the way for Al Unser to become the second four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500; let’s also remember Ongais for his bravery, his speed and the fact that he earned four Top-Ten finishes in his eleven Indianapolis 500 starts – one of which was in a very tough situation, following the death of Scott Brayton.

Danny Ongais passed away on Saturday February 26, at his home in Anaheim Hills, California. Please keep the Ongais family in your prayers.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Remembering the Flyin’ Hawaiian”

  1. Bruce B Says:

    So glad you did this tribute to The Flyin Hawaiian, Danny Ongais. With a little luck Ongais could certainly have won the 500 especially in 1978. Such a beautiful car, the black Interscope racing number 25!

  2. Ongais also had a successful sports car career with Ted Fields in the Interscope Porsche prior to moving into Indy Cars .

  3. billytheskink Says:

    What a fearless driver, to come back from several awful wrecks and keep racing to the very edge. It’s a rare trait in a racer to do that, I think. Ongais’ speed never really seemed to diminish even as the injuries and years piled up. He was fast and he was fearless, and his nicknames speak to that. He will be missed.

    Supposedly, John Menard chose Ongais to replace Brayton in 1996 on the recommendation of Al Unser, who was Menard’s first choice to fill the seat and declined. If true, that was a nice gesture from Al, perhaps an attempt to square them for the circumstances of 1987.

  4. Danny was one of my all time favorites, and I had the opportunity to be an acquaintance of his over the years.

    One clarification – his 1981 Indy 500 crash was not caused by “carrying too much speed into the third turn at Indy.” A right rear chassis bearing froze, and that is what caused the car to snap hard to the right, impacting the wall left side first.

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