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.
The 1993 win was very, very different. The Penske PC22 was very inconsistent at Indy that May, and it was not easy to set up. When it was right, it was fast – but to get it there was very difficult. It was hard to achieve the peak performance of that car. It was sensitive to weather, and to even small adjustments to downforce. We were struggling the whole three weeks to get the car working there. I remember I started ninth and my teammate Paul Tracy was seventh and Nigel Mansell [Newman/Haas Lola] started in between us.
But again, I picked up a very good set of tires from Goodyear – very consistent, very good stagger – and I was running third or fourth at mid-race, 100 laps. I spent most of my time right behind Nigel and he was driving Indy like it was a road circuit. Many, many times I saw Nigel putting his car on opposite lock, in Turn 2 and Turn 3. I kept getting on the radio to the Penske team saying, “He's going to crash! He's going to crash! We're going to go together!” I was sure he was going to hit the wall, and I would collect some of his flying pieces. Every time I saw him sliding, I'd back off a little bit. Nigel Mansell always drove like it was an emergency, but he had incredible car control. Really incredible. The car would slide toward the wall, so close, but never hit it. He'd escape every time.
Anyway, on a restart, not the last one but the second from last, with 15 laps to go, I got it just right. I passed Nigel and Arie Luyendyk [Ganassi Lola] and I took the lead]. Like I said, I had good tires, and I had set number seven of the eight sets Goodyear had given us. That was the best set, and I knew with that set I would be able to go flat all the way around the circuit if I had clean air – and now that was exactly what I had. I was flat-out the whole time. Actually, I remember there was another caution, with about seven laps to go, because finally Nigel got a little high and scraped the wall with his front tire; he was able to continue but caused some debris.
I knew it would be tough to hold off Luyendyk on that final restart, but I was pretty confident with this set of tires. We got the green on lap 196, and with just two to go, I did the fastest lap of the race! So yes, that was another very, very satisfying win, fighting off two great drivers like Arie and Nigel. I had a lot of respect for them both. Arie was so fast around Indy and Nigel was the Formula 1 World Champion at the time. What a great race.
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