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Memory Lane: Fittipaldi, Unser Square Off in Thrilling Duel for Win at 1989 Indianapolis 500

Sometimes a box score can be the most deceiving description of a race. Take the 1989 Indianapolis 500, for example.

The final results of the 73rd Indianapolis 500 show that Emerson Fittipaldi earned his first “500” victory by two laps over Al Unser Jr., the biggest margin of victory since 1984 and only the second time since 1967 that the winner was alone on the lead lap.

A snoozer, right? Hardly.

1989 Indianapolis 500

Anyone who witnessed that race in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watched it on television or heard it on the radio will never forget one of the most dramatic finishes in “500” history.

Fittipaldi started third in Patrick Racing entry but rocketed to the lead on the first lap. He led 156 of the first 195 laps in a command performance.

1989 Indianapolis 500

On Lap 181, Tero Palmroth lost a tire in Turn 4, triggering the sixth caution period of the day. Fittipaldi held a big lead and decided to duck into the pits for service. Meanwhile, team owner Rick Galles told Unser to stay on the oval to gain track position, gambling Unser’s car had enough fuel to make it to the finish.

The race resumed on Lap 187, and Fittipaldi quickly extended his lead to three seconds as Unser struggled to pass the lapped car of Raul Boesel. But once Unser cleared Boesel, he chopped into Fittipaldi’s lead with vigor.

Unser pulled to within a car length of Fittipaldi on Lap 193, and the two drivers nearly touched wheels a lap later while working traffic and dicing for the lead. On Lap 196, Unser passed Fittipaldi for the lead in Turn 3, pulling away due to his lighter fuel tanks.

On Lap 199, Unser was slowed by lapped traffic, which let Fittipaldi gain ground. Fittipaldi pulled inside Unser on the backstretch amid thick lapped traffic, and the two cars entered Turn 3 side by side with the crowd roaring and on its feet.

Both drivers were racing at 10/10ths, and Fittipaldi’s Penske/Chevrolet car drifted a bit high in Turn 3, touching wheels with Unser’s Lola/Chevy. Unser spun and crashed hard into the Turn 3 wall.

The caution flag flew, and Fittipaldi was guaranteed his first Indianapolis 500 victory and became the first foreign-born Indy 500 winner since fellow Formula One World Champion Graham Hill in 1966.

Unser’s bid for his coveted first Indy 500 victory ended in crumpled carbon fiber. But he added to the drama after the accident when he climbed from his crippled car and waited on the edge of the racing surface for Fittipaldi to drive past under caution.

Would Little Al flip off Emmo? Would he throw his gloves at Emmo’s car in disgust?


Unser stood on the edge of the apron, applauded Fittipaldi and gave him a thumbs’ up in a gesture – whether genuine or sarcastic – that earned him even more affection from his legions of fans despite the bitter disappointment of defeat.

Emerson Fittipaldi
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