Although best known for its storming 1980 season of Indy car racing with Johnny Rutherford (ABOVE), the Chaparral 2K – or "Yellow Submarine" as it was widely known for its luminous yellow paint in deference to primary sponsor Pennzoil –scored its first win at Phoenix 33 years ago today, with Al Unser at the wheel.
Unser had driven Jim Hall's Lola-Cosworth to victory in all three 500-mile Indy car races in 1978, becoming the first and, to date, only driver to win the sport's "Triple Crown." Despite that, Unser had never been a great fan of the Lola's handling and innovator Hall was itching to have his team field an Indy car of his own in any case, having shepherded through so many aerodynamic breakthroughs with his Chaparral Can-Am cars. So for 1979, Hall commissioned designer John Barnard to design a full-ground-effects chassis utilizing the aerodynamic developments then breaking new ground in F1.
The resulting Chaparral 2K, introduced at this year's Indianapolis 500, proved utterly dominant on speed at the Speedway, but a seemingly easy repeat win for Unser was thwarted when a transmission seal failed just after half-distance. The script was frustratingly similar for Unser and Hall through the year, as the yellow car often set the pace only for mechanical issues to intervene. Incredibly, going into the CART season finale at Phoenix International Raceway, Unser and the Chaparral had yet to win, while Penske Racing's pair of Rick Mears and Bobby Unser had dominated the season with their less sophisticated yet mechanically bulletproof Penske PC-7s.
But, in the Miller High Life 150, finally nothing went wrong. Although pipped for pole by brother Bobby, Al put the yellow car in front at the start and proceeded to dominate the race, leading 138 of the 150 laps – surrendering the lead on on pit stops – while B. Unser and newly crowned series champion Mears followed him home in second and third.
It was the start of a golden age for the yellow car – but not for Al Unser, who left the team to join Bobby Hillin's Longhorn squad. But the latter's Williams FW07-clone Longhorn chassis proved problematic and Unser would go winless. Rutherford stepped into Al's Chaparral seat and, after a winter's development, dominated the 1980 season with five wins, including the Indianapolis 500, and claimed the championship title.