1989 Indianapolis 500: Sideways to Victory

By: Jeremy McMullen
1989 Indianapolis 500: Sideways to Victory  The tension in the final moments would be so great it would take everything within Shelley Unser to keep from breaking into a shaking fit. Two laps from the end of the race, traffic would dramatically slow Al Unser Jr.'s pace allowing Emerson Fittipaldi to close right up behind his rear wing. The two would pull side-by-side as they powered their way toward turn three. Still side-by-side heading into the turn, there would be less than 3.75 miles to go to victory, a first for either driver. But then they touched…

Emerson Fittipaldi had come to his end in Formula One. He had quickly risen to the top securing his first World Championship in just his second full season of racing. He had been thrust into the role of team leader at Team Lotus when Jochen Rindt died at Monza in 1970.

Emerson would respond by taking the team to victory in its very first race following its self-imposed two-race withdrawal. It was abundantly clear, right from that moment on, Fittipaldi had the talent to become World Champion.

Colin Chapman would provide Emerson the car when he offered the Brazilian an evolved 72D. Almost immediately, Emerson would take the car and would go on a run of success that would make him all but impossible to catch over the course of the '72 season. A fantastic victory at Monza would seal the first World Championship.

The 1973 season would see Fittipaldi start out strong earning three victories and three other podium finishes in the first six races of the season. He seemed a lock for his second World Championship title. However, his teammate, Ronnie Peterson, would come on strong over the course of the second half of the season and this would force Emerson into a position he had not ever experienced before in Formula One. He was used to being the one pushing his teammates and outperforming them. Now, Peterson was pushing Emerson. Suddenly, the man who tactically liked to position himself and wait for a race to come to him was being pushed from the very start of races. This early pressure contributed to some uncharacteristic mistakes by Emerson and his championship lead would evaporate over the last half of the season.

After having a dominant lead in the first-half of the 1973 season, Fittipaldi would come up short in the end finishing in 2nd place to Jackie Stewart. Sensing Chapman's attention was firmly focused on Peterson, Fittipaldi figured it was time to move on to a new team.

Fittipaldi would join the McLaren team for 1974 and he couldn't have chosen a better time in which to come to the team. Their chassis, the M23, was really just coming into its own at the time and he would use this to his advantage scoring three victories and four other podium finishes to take his second World Championship.

The move to McLaren would be a refreshing one for Emerson. Not only would he win the World Championship in his first season with the team but he would come in 2nd place in the standings the following year.

Emerson appeared to be a force to be reckoned without throughout the decade of the 70s. However, he would make a move at the end of the 1975 season that would surprise just about everyone, including McLaren. Convinced by his brother Wilson, Emerson would throw his influence, reputation and skills behind his own Formula One team. While in many respects Fittipaldi Automotive would prove to be ahead of its time in innovative features, the reality was those innovative features were not culminating in terribly strong performances on the track.

Over the five years in which Fittipaldi led his own racing team the best performance earned would come in 1978 at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Prior to the race before the home crowd the best the team had managed to achieve had been a 4th place more than a handful of times. However, on that day in late January, Emerson would stand on the podium in front of his native Brazilians one last time.

After five difficult seasons, Emerson would leave his racing team and Formula One. He would retire from racing and would a few years away from motorsport to recharge and decide his next career moves.

When his Formula One team finally folded at the end of the '82 season, Emerson would begin to look elsewhere to go racing. At this time, he was pushing 38 years of age. Nonetheless, he would accept an invitation to come and race Indycars. Though he would approach the 1984 season as a time to acclimatize to Indycars he would be successful almost immediately earning a 5th place result in his very first Indycar race driving for WIT Racing.

Patrick Racing would take notice of the two-time World Champion and would offer him a ride in a few of the remaining events in 1984. This partnership would almost result in a podium finish in the pair's first race together as, at Mid-Ohio, Fittipaldi would come through to finish 4th.

Firmly signing with Patrick Racing for 1985 and onwards, Emerson's first victory in Indycars would come in 1985 at the Michigan 500. That first victory would be followed up with a second the following year. This would come on the road course at Road America. It was clear Fittipaldi had acclimatized to Indycars, with a bit more focus and hard work and Indycar title, and perhaps the Indianapolis 500, could be in the offering.

The 1987 and 1988 seasons would see improvements in Fittipaldi's abilities behind the wheel of an Indycar. In each of those years he would earn two victories and he would even finish 2nd in the 1988 edition of the Indianapolis 500. But while his race victories would increase, reliability and mistakes would also increase as Emerson pushed the March and Lola chassis hard. He was not quite able to slot into his normal style of racing given the troubles with the new cars throughout the 1988 season. But then came 1989.

The 1989 season would see Patrick Racing make another change. The team would drop the March and the Lola chassis and would end up earning the right to enter the Penske PC-18. Roger Penske's cars were well known for their reliability and their other admirable qualities. The PC-18 would be yet another step forward and Emerson would be able to benefit.

The season would start out in rather ordinary terms. Emerson would come through Phoenix to finish in 5th place. The result would obviously earn him important points toward the championship, but the front was still a little bit up the road. Then came Long Beach.

At Long Beach, Al Unser Jr. would be in a league of his own. He would take pole and he would go on to win the race. Emerson, however, would improve upon Phoenix. Using his experience on street courses, and having raced at Long Beach before, he would use his experience to come through to a solid 3rd place finish. Even though he had two top five finishes to start the season, Fittipaldi would still be down on the list in the championship standings. On top of that, the Indianapolis 500 would be the next race on the calendar.

Having come from Formula One to Indycars, Fittipaldi would have to learn a whole new skill-set to take part in oval races and to be competitive in them. The close racing and high speeds made for some very uncomfortable moments behind the wheel of a racing car and it required a certain feel that wasn't necessarily ever experienced in Formula One. Emerson had adapted to the ovals in time and would actually come to finish in 2nd place at the Indy 500 the year before. In 1989, Emerson needed a big result at Indianapolis just to kick-start his championship fight. But of course, coming to Indy transcended the championship. It is one of three big races in the world of motorsport and to come away with a win there, even without winning the championship title at the end of the season, would still be reason to conclude that the season had been a successful one.

Coming to Indianapolis for the month of May, Patrick Racing was believed to be a strong team. However, as rain poured down on the circuit on that Saturday, the first day of qualifying for the race, nobody knew how good they would be relative to any other driver or team.

Finally, on Sunday, the weather would improve and qualifying could get underway. Each car would have once chance at pole. After that, the rest of the slots would begin filling up. Al Unser, one of the masters around the circuit, was the fastest around the track as he broke the track record with a run averaging 223.471mph. However, a little after 2pm Rick Mears would take to the track and would go on to reset the track record by posting an average run of 223.885mph.

The final car eligible to take the pole would take to the circuit at 3pm. It was Emerson Fittipaldi. It would be difficult to beat Mears or Unser but the Brazilian would look impressive as he put together an average run of 222.329mph. It certainly wouldn't be good enough for the pole, but it would be good enough for the 3rd position, or the outside of the front row.

Heading to the start of the 200 lap race, Fittipaldi was in a position of strength. He would just need to make it through the first couple of laps, and then, settle into his usual 'race come to me' pace.

The drama would begin even before the race. On one of the parade laps Gary Bettenhausen's car would suffer an engine problem and would end up out of the race even before the race began. Finally, when the green flag was shown to the field, Fittipaldi, in rather uncharacteristic fashion, would head to the front immediately passing Mears and Unser around the outside heading into turn one. From that moment on, Emerson would begin to draw away from the rest of the field.

Just four laps into the race, the field would face its first yellow flag situation when Kevin Cogan crashed brutally along the front-stretch. The car would be ripped into multiple pieces but somehow Cogan would emerge unharmed.

At the restart, Emerson would head the field and would stay right there throughout the majority of the race. It would be a remarkable run for the Brazilian as he continued to lap the circuit at impressive speeds. The resulting pace would lead to a number of retirements and a thinning of the herd.

While Fittipaldi continued to enjoy a dominant run at the front, many other favorites would find their races come to an early end. Gordon Johncock, Danny Sullivan, Tom Sneva, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser and even Rick Mears would all be amongst those that would be out of the race, and in the case of most of them, they would be out before the halfway mark.

Fittipaldi, meanwhile, was enjoying an incredible run at the front. He was destroying the field, all except for one car, and that belonged to Al Unser Jr. Little Al, as he was known, had started the race from the middle of the third row. He would work hard over the course of the race and was actually looking quite strong heading into the final 50 miles. He would actually draw in on Emerson as it was clear he had the speed advantage down the straight while the Penske chassis was working slightly better through the corners.

In spite of Unser Jr.'s improved pace over the latter-stages of the race, Emerson seemed to have everything well in hand as he had led more than 120 laps to that point in the race, by far way more than what Michael Andretti had managed earlier before his engine let him down.

Fittipaldi would continue to carry on without too many issues even though they would suffer a long stop at one point as it was discovered, right when they were about to let him go back out, that one of the tires had blistered. Tires would be brought out and changes would be made, but he would lose some time. Thankfully, in that instance, it would happen under yellow flag conditions.

About 20 laps from the end of the race Fittipaldi would make a pitstop. Just prior to the stop, Fittipaldi's lead would be rather impressive. Only a handful of laps earlier Unser Jr. was nearly a full lap behind. While Unser would take a gamble on fuel and stay out, Emerson would be in for his final pitstop. The work would be completed routinely. However, when he went to pull away he would struggle to get the car to go. Once he finally got the car up to speed flying out of the pits, he would then come up behind an emergency truck that would also slow his progress some. The result is that with a little less than 20 laps remaining in the race, Emerson and Al Jr. would only be separated by a few car lengths. The race, which seemed entirely in Fittipaldi's hands, was now on.

Heading into the final 15 laps, Fittipaldi's early quick pace would drop off slightly, to the point that Unser would actually be slightly quicker down the straights. The two would run right in line with only a couple of car lengths between them. The drama and tenseness would only increase with every single lap. It would be nearly all too much for Shelley to watch as Emerson would inch away with just 10 laps remaining.

Emerson continued to pull away. It seemed as though the opportunity would slip through Al's fingers. However, with just 8 laps remaining in the race, Emerson would lose the backend slightly and would be forced to back out a little bit. This would suddenly bring Al right back into contention. The noise from the grandstands, as everyone took in the spectacle, would be nearly as loud as the roar from the engines.

Coming into turn three, with just five laps to be run, Emerson would lose more momentum as a result of ill-timed lapped traffic. Coming down the front stretch the two combatants would be side-by-side. Emerson would sweep across to hold onto the lead. However, Al's car would work better through turn two and he would be all over the back of Fittipaldi's car heading down the long backstraight. There would be absolutely nothing Emerson could do as Al would sweep into the lead heading through turn three.

Unser's car, and the lighter fuel load, was working to Unser's benefit. The roar from the crowd would be deafening. Nobody would be left seated as only three laps remained. Unser still maintained a healthy advantage through one and two. It would be the same story through three and four. It appeared as if the dominant performance by Fittipaldi all throughout the day would end up not being enough.

However, as they entered turns one and two there would be a gaggle of lapped cars ahead of Unser. He would try and go low into turn two to slip under the first of the cars. Unfortunately, that is where the lapped car would go. The momentum would be lost. Coming out of the turn, Emerson would be already nearly alongside. Al would pull out to get by causing Fittipaldi to have to take evasive action. The two would be side-by-side, looking at each other down the long straight to determine who would flinch first.

Neither would as they headed into turn three. Al would put his head down, Emerson would recognize there was no way he was going to lift. They would go into three still side-by-side. Then, suddenly, Fittipaldi's Penske would step out slightly. He was loose. But then there was Unser to his outside. Fittipaldi's rear end would end up tagging the Lola. Both cars would be sideways through three with Al being the more obvious of the two out of control. Still, the lurching of the car, and the contact, would give Emerson all that he could handle. There were just one and a half laps to go to the finish.

Unser would lose control of his car. Emerson had been powering straight ahead throughout most of the race, with the lead well in hand, but now, everything would be sideways. But it would only be briefly as he would manage to regain control of the car and keep it pointed straight. The yellow flag was out. Emerson would make his way by the front stretch behind the pace car. He only had to complete one, much less hectic lap, and the victory would be his.

The final lap wouldn't be without its drama, however. He still had to make his way by turn three where a rather angry Al Unser Jr. was waiting for him to pass. Al was resolutely ready to display to Emerson what was on his mind. However, just as Emerson approached, it would dawn on Unser just how hard he had been fighting for the position and the fact that Fittipaldi had dominated the race, and therefore, in some ways, deserved the win. Therefore, as Emerson powered by, Al would step out to the edge of the track and give what was to become an iconic thumbs-up salute to his fellow colleague.

In victory lane, the emotions would be running high for Fittipaldi. It had been more than a decade since he had scored a victory carrying with it such magnitude. He was a winner of the Indianapolis 500 and he had achieved it in dominant fashion, even on a day when all of the works Penske PC-18s retired with problems. He was 42 and a new career in Indycars was really just beginning.

A total of four more victories would follow that monumental and memorable victory at Indy. Claiming victory on the short one mile oval at Nazareth at the end of the year would earn Emerson the truly special distinction of being a Formula One World Champion and an Indycar Champion.

He had made the transition to Indycars complete with the victory at Indy and he would remain a force to be reckoned with within the championship, and at Indy, for years to come. But, he will forever be remembered as one of the main actors in the unforgettable 1989 Indianapolis 500. As a result, Fittipaldi will live on in Indianapolis lore.posted on conceptcarz.com


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