Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Archive: The 1988 Indianapolis 500

Penske Racing rolled into the 1988 Indianapolis 500 looking for redemption. 

Much like the current group that took the front row last Sunday (May 19), the three Penske drivers who swept the first three spots in qualifying had a lot to prove.

Instead of overcoming the residual penalties and emotions in the paddock from a scandal, Roger Penske’s team at the 72nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 was hoping to return to glory and move past the frustration of a poorly-performing chassis the year before. 

During the 1987 Indy Car season, a newly designed Penske PC-16 performed terribly for the championship operation. By the Indianapolis 500, drivers Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan dropped the use of the meandering car in favor of their back-ups, which were the reliable albeit ageing March chassis. After Mario Andretti who dominated in a Lola fell out, it was newly added Penske driver Al Unser, in a March who took victory. 

Unbeknownst to the paddock, the engineering team over the offseason immediately went to work improving the design that failed in 1987. The personnel decision to let go designer Alan Jones and replace him with Nigel Bennett proved to be a long-lasting positive move for all future Penske chassis. 

When practice opened for 1988’s Month of May track activities, Mears showed that the new Penske PC-17 was fast. He posted quick times, including an unofficial track record, in the week leading up to the first weekend of qualifications and was a favorite to earn his record fourth pole. 

Even with Penske’s speed, there were other drivers fully capable of challenging for win. First in line was Mario Andretti, who had his best shot to win his second Indy 500 the year before. His Newman-Haas team had a monopoly on the Lola they used as co-owner Carl Haas was the lead American distributor for those vehicles. Former Formula 1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi was coming off a stellar 1987 campaign winning two times with the highly competitive Patrick Racing operation. The team had won the 500 in 1973 and 1982 with Gordon Johncock and hoped the F1 champ would take to ovals quickly and get them back in victory lane. 

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Pole Day went as expected. Mears shattered his track record from two years prior by more than two miles per hour with a speed of 219.198 mph. For comparison, if that were to happen today, the pole sitter would have run over 238 mph in their four-lap run. 

Teammates Sullivan and defending winner Unser joined Mears on the front row. It was the team’s first sweep in their seventh attempt with three cars entered, one neither they nor any other team would repeat for 46 years. It was clear the PC-17 had the speed, but now it had to do battle over 500 miles. 

When the race aired on ABC, the opening was a first of its kind, a high-octane video mixed with a steady melody of Mears walking on the track. It seemed the broadcast thought that he was the man to beat in this Memorial Day Classic. 

Sullivan’s No. 9 leapt to the lead right at the start, leading the field over Mears, who undoubtedly settled into his patented patient approach with his No. 5 car for the long race. Immediately a yellow occurred, when Scott Brayton and Roberto Guerrero crashed in the south short chute. This put a sudden end to a painful experience for Guerrero who almost won in 1987 before his clutch gave out on a late pitstop. He had spent his entire off-season recovering from a head injury sustained in a September test at IMS. 

Behind the leader, the racing was intense. Some of this was spurred on by Mears who suffered from a poor handling car, which led to concerns about the speed in the PC-17. But as it turned out, it had less to do with the car and attributed more to a new set of rims that was implemented for the race. These wheels, which were flush with the edge of the Goodyear tire like a high-banked bicycle, were effecting Mears handling. By mid-way, Mears requested his crew to mount future tires on the older wheels to see if that would improve the performance. Once supplied with the legacy rims, Mears car made his way back to the front. 

Lady luck beamed down on the leader when Sullivan came upon the stopped car of Ludwig Heimrath Jr. He was able to slow down and inch by the wrecked car, saving his day.

However, as things worked out, it was just a momentary bit of fortune. On lap 101 the race drastically changed when Sullivan wrecked while chasing his teammate Unser, the accident due to a broken part on the wing. Climbing out of the car, Sullivan could only imagine how close he was to winning his second Indy 500. What he wouldn’t know then was he’d never lead a lap around IMS again.

The second half of the race settled into a clash in which Penske driver was going to step up and hold off the rest of the field. With an improved handling car, after a yellow caused by Mears hitting a rabbit on track, the two-time Indy 500 winner got around Unser on lap 112, taking off. 

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The Andretti Curse struck on lap 118 when Mario Andretti dropped out with an electrical issue. He’d dealt with a problem that required a long pit stop, so this finally put an end to his Indy 500. His son Michael would keep take the torch for his family, finishing fourth, his best result in his five tries.

Over the final 88 circuits, Mears led all but one, picking up right where Sullivan had left off. Following a late caution which couldn’t be cleared in a timely manner, he crossed the Yard of Bricks to take his third Indianapolis 500 and second from the pole position. 

Patrick Racing’s Fittipaldi steadily moved up to finish second, though not before having to appeal a penalty applied by USAC officials during the race. Thanks to some support and witness testimony from fellow driver Rich Vogler, Fittipaldi’s second was reinstated, giving him his best finish at IMS. While the penalty mishap left a sour taste in his 1988 race, he’d return in 1989 behind the wheel of a Penske chassis and forget the whole thing. 

Unser, dropped to third, unable to hold off Fittipaldi. However, it was a good finish for the four-time winner as he embarked on the next stage of his career as a part-time oval driver. Scotsman Jim Crawford led for eight laps, the only time he would pace the field in his 12 attempts. He finished sixth. 

As for the Penske PC-17, the win cemented the gains the new car made over its predecessor. Five more wins were forthcoming the rest of the year, one by Mears at Milwaukee and four by Sullivan. 

Redemption was earned by Penske Racing by the great performance of the PC-17. What started with a front-row sweep ended with a seventh Borg-Warner for the team.

About the author

Tom Blackburn

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. Besides writing the IndyCar Previews and the occasional Inside Indycar, he will hop on as a fill-in guest on the Open Wheel podcast The Pit Straight. His full-time job is with the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. After graduating from Purdue University with a Creative Writing degree, he was commissioned in the Army and served a 15-month deployment as a tank platoon leader with the 3d ACR in Mosul, Iraq. A native Hoosier, he calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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