We’re less than a week away from one of the great historical events in auto racing, the Indianapolis 500. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this race. Inaugurated in 1911 and interrupted by a pair of world wars, the show continues to make history.
I personally grew up as a huge fan of the Indy 500. We all knew the names of the great drivers as if they were family: Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti. As a teen my favorite was Jimmy Clark, who drove a forest-green Lotus Ford to victory in 1965. I liked him in part because he was a world champion Formula 1 driver and in part because he was a Scot, as was my mother’s side of the family. It was a thrill for me when I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum years later and saw his car up close, along with all of the other winning race cars.
Among them were the three cars that Bobby Unser drove to victories, the only driver to win races in three separate decades (1968, 1975, 1981). Unser has been a long-time “friend” of the AMSOIL family. Beginning with Bobby Unser’s win in ’68, the Unser family has been a dominant force in racing for nearly half a century. Brother Al won the race four times, and “Little Al” took the checkered flag twice.
AMSOIL began its involvement in racing in the late 1970s and early 80s, sponsoring cars and drivers in various categories of racing. (Behind the scenes AMSOIL was already the lubricant of choice of many drivers who considered these relatively new high-tech lubes to give them a secret edge.) So it was that in 1980 AMSOIL sponsored its first Indy car, driven by Dick Ferguson.
It was Bobby Unser whose phone call to Al Amatuzio led to the involvement of AMSOIL in what was at that time the most prestigious event in auto racing. Unser asked for help getting the young rookie into the race, reassuring Al that Dick Ferguson was very capable and would represent the company well, both on and off the track. Driving a Penske PC-6 powered by a supercharged Cosworth engine Ferguson earned a mid-pack starting position.
There were a number of firsts in the 1980 race. It was the first time three cars in the last row finished in the top eight. It was also the first time the car in the 33rd starting position worked its way up to lead the race. Tom Sneva ultimately finished second, which was also a first.
The front row featured the familiar names of Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti in very strong cars. Dick Ferguson started in row five. He was one of 20 rookies who attempted to make the starting field and one of ten who succeeded. Unfortunately, on lap nine he was taken out in a crash that also removed Bill Whittington, another rookie, from the race. If it were any consolation, the hood of the car flew up when he hit the south chute wall and a photo with the AMSOIL logo across the hood was featured in sports pages around the country the following day. Ferguson walked away and learned some things from the experience that helped him later in his career.
It’s amazing how far the technology featured in the Indy 500 has come. Along with it, lubrication technology has also evolved. The ground-breaking synthetic lubricants that Al Amatuzio delivered to the world in 1972 are now widely recognized as an essential aspect of protecting the engines and drivetrains in these powerful machines. Learn more about the AMSOIL story at amsoil.com/about.
The speeds these drivers today attain are phenomenal, and the safety equipment equally remarkable. In the beginning, many of the racers drove vehicles along with their mechanics. So many were thrown from their vehicles when they crashed that I imagine they didn’t even wear seat belts. Pretty wild to imagine that. In some crashes it was the mechanic who was killed, the last one losing his life being Babe Stapp in 1939. That’s right. Drivers had mechanics on board for more than 25 years. How things have changed.
Just a tidbit to mull over as you enjoy the race.