It was the most dramatic and shocking Bump Day in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Twenty years ago, Team Penske lost its way at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Al Unser Jr. (ABOVE) and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to make the starting lineup.
A year after Unser triumphed and Roger Penske’s cars dominated with the Mercedes pushrod engine, the wheels came off the most successful team in IMS history as it tried three different types of cars without success.
Hiro Matsushita, Carlos Guerrero and Lyn. St. James were in the 79th Indy 500 but a pair of two-time winners were spectators.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it,” declared Unser earlier this week during a photo shoot for Borg-Warner with all the past winners. “The thought of not making the show at Indy was so far from the my mind and it was the worst feeling to know I wouldn’t be driving in the race.
“But, to be honest, it was a full-blown panic from opening day.”
When you consider 1994 (Team Penske won 12 out of 16 races and finished 1-2-3 in the CART championship), the depth of Team Penske and The Captain’s heritage at IMS, what happened in May of ’95 is even more surreal.
Everyone assumes the huge power of the Mercedes the previous year had masked the deficiencies of the ’94 chassis, and now running regular Ilmor units, the team had been caught out. Unser says that wasn’t the case.
“Nigel Bennett [designer] made some minor changes in the car for 1995 so it wasn’t the same car we ran the year before. But the changes were enough to make the car extremely difficult to drive at Indy. It was like an animal fighting itself going through the corners.” (Story continues on next page)
BELOW: In 1994, Bobby Rahal’s team borrowed a pair of Penske chassis to replace its cars at Indy (upper image), and in ’95 the favor was returned (lower image) as panic set in at Team Penske.
The problem surfaced that April when Fittipaldi (ABOVE) tested at IMS.
“Emmo was there for three days and couldn’t run over 205,” continued Junior. “So Roger flew me in to run another two days, and by the end of the second day I got it up to 228, so we felt OK. But of course it was 65 degrees with no wind that day.”
When practice began in May, temperatures were in the 80s and neither driver could get near the speed Unser had turned the month before. Then, when things cooled down, suddenly there was new hope.
“We ran 226 at that point, and I thought at least we could make the show but then the temperatures went back and we slowed down again. I told Roger that I wasn’t ready to qualify on Pole Day so we were going to have to wait until the second weekend.”
With the top 25 positions having been filled the first weekend, the best that Unser or Fittipaldi could hope for was 26th…already, a concept that could make headlines, especially after the team’s results at IMS the previous two years. But the plot twists would get more dramatic yet, as Team Penske began a miserable game of musical chairs, starting with RP buying a year-old Reynard and calling a meeting with his drivers.
“Roger took us into his motorhome and said we were going to flip a coin to see who drove the Reynard and who drove the Penske,” said Unser. “I won the toss and said I wanted the Reynard because it was very competitive.
“So I watched Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday while my crew got the Reynard ready and Emerson was struggling. He had zero confidence in the Penske and didn’t want to be in it.”
The rumor has always been that Penske threw away the Reynard setup sheets to put on their own setup and screwed up a 228mph car. Not so, says Little Al (LEFT, LAT archive photo).
“We did use the Reynard setup sheets but we used our setup pad and it turned out our pads weren’t level, so I had 80 pounds of left-front weight.
“I went out and ran 10-15 laps in the Reynard and I hated it. It felt awful. I almost got sideways, nearly put it in the fence and I was scared the rest of the day.”
By qualifying weekend, a pair of Lolas had been purchased and the Reynard and Penskes had been abandoned. That decision wasn’t going to provide any magic bullets, but at least Penske-entered drivers looked like they were going to make the show. But then…
“I was running fast enough on Saturday afternoon and my engine puked on the backstretch,” related Unser. “And Emerson had a 225.5 average that day but Roger waved off the run.”
Bump Day was chaotic from start to finish for Team Penske, with mechanics running back and forth to Gasoline Alley and a crowd of 40,000 watching the meltdown of the most successful team in IMS history.
Fittipaldi finally qualified at 224.907mph shortly after 5 o’clock but Unser could only muster 224.101 in his 5:30 run and that wasn’t quick enough. It looked like Emmo might end up on the right side of the bubble but then Stefan Johansson knocked him out at 5:48….
Eddie Cheever sat on the pit wall and shook his head. “I cannot believe there’s going to be an Indy 500 without Roger Penske.”
It was historic in many ways. It was the first time a defending champion had tried and failed to qualify. It was the first time Fittipaldi had missed the race since 1984 and it was the first time Penske had failed to put a car in the starting lineup since Roger had started to field Indy cars in 1969.
“We didn’t have what it takes and it’s my fault,” said Penske, who never considered buying his way into the race. “It’s happened before to some great teams but we’ll be back next year.”
Unser had to do a shoot for ABC on race morning but then left the track to watch the race in his hotel room outside Turn 2.
“I wanted to be anywhere but Indianapolis. I was miserable and depressed,” he admitted. “I’m still the only defending champion that tried to qualify and didn’t qualify. That’s not a record I ever imagined having.”
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