Our Indy 500 retro series continues, with 1989 and 1993 "500" winner Emerson Fittipaldi relating his Indy memories to RACER Editor David Malsher.
The two greatest cars I ever drove were the Lotus 72, with Team Lotus from 1970-'73 and the Penske PC18 of 1989. At Patrick Racing, Morris Nunn, Jim McGee and I had developed it well. Working with that team was fantastic. It was a very strong effort, with very good people, a very close team environment and we were extremely competitive when we reached Indy. We were in the top three the whole time through the month of May, whether it was hot or cold, midday or end of the day in happy hour, whether there was wind or not wind. We were able to shine in all conditions, because the car's setup was just the perfect compromise for all these conditions.
With that kind of consistency, we went into the race with a lot of confidence, knowing we were fully ready for anything and ready to take on anybody! I started from third, so from the outside of the first row, I swept across and, coming out of Turn 1, I already had the lead. After that, I picked up eight beautiful sets of tires that allowed me to stay consistent, with good stagger and balance. Everything was looking good. But then the yellow flew on lap 180. Al Unser Jr. [Galles Lola] had stopped for fuel in the previous yellow and they gambled on not having to stop again, hoping for a yellow, so by now his car was very light, and in my pit stop on lap 181, Pat Patrick was anxious and put in more fuel than we needed. We were heavy now, and on the restart on lap 187, Junior was catching me up. It was a nightmare, because I looked in my mirror and could see him coming and I could feel we had lost performance compared to him – but it wasn't until a year later that I discovered that the reason was because we had too much fuel.
Anyway, I got boxed in by lapped traffic, and Junior passed me on lap 196. I was thinking to myself, “This is not justice! I have led over 150 laps, I'm not now going to lose this race. I have to win, I have to win!”
And then, just two laps later, a very similar situation happened for Junior coming out of Turn 2, where he caught up with lapped traffic and I was able to come alongside him on the inside line. I remember looking across to Junior, going down the straight side by side and he looked at me, and we both put our heads down, like it was going to make us even faster! It's funny now, but at the time we were anxious – anxious to be the leader into Turn 3. Coming into the turn, with me on the inside line, Junior pushed me down onto the apron, so that I wouldn't have the proper line, and I was thinking to myself, “I'm not going to back off.” At that time, if you took the proper line and had a very good set of tires, you could just about take Turn 3 flat-out. It was marginal.
Anyway, he thought that if he pushed me down below the white line, I would have to back off the throttle, but instead I thought that if he's not going to back off, neither am I. And as we started cornering, I lost the back end of my car and it pushed up into Junior's car, and he lost control. I was lucky that I came out OK, because I could have ended up going into the wall with Junior. Sometimes racing is do or die.
I remember the car going sideways coming out of Turn 3 and I put a bit of opposite lock on and I saw Junior hit the wall, so I called Jim McGee and said, “How's Junior, how's Junior?” And when he told me he was OK it was a big relief to me. And then I thought, "Well, if Junior had been on the inside and I had been on the outside, he would have done the same as me – he would not have backed off either."
I consider that to have been the best race of my life, so for it to be the Indy 500 was something so special. Winning at Indianapolis had been an ambition since I was little boy, so to finally achieve it was unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Being the first Indy winner to take one million dollars is something I only discovered later, and then there was a big commemoration, and the famous picture of me with all the money.
Actually, for the picture, to make it look like a lot of money, that's actually $1.5 or $1.7m around the car – and it's real money, too. So they had four sheriffs there – two in the grandstands and two in the paddock – all carrying 12-bores, watching over it the whole time. That was a pity, because I thought I might be able to put a few packs in my overalls and go home!
Of course, with the real prize, the mechanics have a percentage, the team has a percentage and the driver has a percentage. But that picture is still a classic, isn't it?
• Go to the next page for Emmo's 1993 memories.