Litigation Is Not New For The Indianapolis 500
Do you think that all of this talk of lawsuits and potential countersuits between Lotus and Dragon Racing is somewhat despicable when we should be focused on what’s going on out on the track? Do you think the same about the hearings and appeals between Chevy and Honda regarding Honda’s new turbocharger? Well, you would be correct. Do you think this is the first time that litigation has affected the starting grid for the Indianapolis 500? Hardly.
In fact, disputes and threatened litigation is almost a part of 500 lore as is a cold bottle of milk or Back Home Again In Indiana. There are many notable examples from the earliest days, but the 1933 race comes to mind for me. That’s when Howdy Wilcox II, who was no relation to the 1919 winner, was disqualified prior to the race. Wilcox had finished second in 1932 as a rookie and had already qualified for the 1933 race. Although he had concealed it from track officials during the first year, Wilcox suffered from diabetes. He wasn’t so lucky the second year. After collapsing following an innocent beer, his secret was out and the doctors ruled him ineligible to race. Wilcox was immediately disqualified.
This did not set well with his fellow drivers. In fact, they signed a petition saying that if Wilcox were not permitted to race, then they wouldn’t race either. As usual in such cases, management won – but not without a stern warning from Rickenbacker saying that there would be a race that day if it meant he hopped in a car and drove around for two-hundred laps. When the drivers saw that he meant it, they quickly dropped their demand and decided to race. A young Mauri Rose was tabbed to fill in for Wilcox after his car was moved to the back of the forty-two-car field. He finished thirty-fifth.
It didn’t end there. Wilcox II sued track management and they settled out of court for far less than the suit was asking for. Wilcox was eventually paid even a fraction of the settlement amount – to the tune of roughly $3,000.
Fast forward to the mid-1940’s. There was a group of drivers that were unhappy over the amount of the purses given, giving birth to ASPAR – the American Society of Professional Auto Racing in 1946. By 1947, AAA had already raised their purses as a result of ASPAR’s demands, but it wasn’t enough and ASPAR drivers threatened to boycott the 1947 Indianapolis 500. By the time the entry deadline had expired, there were only nineteen cars entered. Track owner Tony Hulman and Speedway President Wilbur Shaw met with ASPAR officials in early May and a compromise was reached. They would accept late entries but none of the original nineteen cars would be bumped. The ASPAR drivers would fight amongst themselves.
With so many delays and old post-war equipment, only seventeen cars actually made the field by the end of qualifying. Special provisions were added along with a special qualifying session. By the drop of the green flag, only thirty cars started the 1947 race – the last time to date that fewer than thirty-three cars started the Indianapolis 500.
Of course, court hearings and injunctions marred the 1979 month of May with the formation of CART. There were bad feelings on both sides – CART and USAC. Three days prior to the entry deadline, Pat Patrick presented forty-four entries to the Speedway. However, USAC voted to reject entries from prominent CART teams that included Penske, Patrick, Gurney, McLaren, Fletcher and Chaparral – as they were deemed not in good standing with USAC and “harmful to racing”. The six teams filed an injunction, which was granted on May 5. During the month, there was a “misinterpretation” on turbocharger inlet rules. This controversy resulted in additional cars beyond the starting thirty-three, being allowed to qualify. Ultimately, only two additional cars qualified and were allowed to start behind the original thirty-three, bringing the total number of starters in 1979 to thirty-five.
1997 was the next time that more than thirty-three started the race due to controversy. The 25/8 rule that reserved starting spots for IRL regulars, first surfaced in 1996 – the first year for the IRL. It’s existence ultimately led to CART’s boycott and running the competing US 500 at Michigan on the same day. It was in place for 1997, but it bit race officials, as some non-IRL regulars were actually faster than some of the cars that bumped them. Two cars were added after qualifying was completed and again – the Indianapolis 500 had thirty-five starters.
Of course, there was also the disputed end of the 1981 race that saw Bobby Unser win on race day. However, when the official results were posted at 8:00 the next morning, Mario Andretti was declared the winner. Five months and many court dates later, Bobby Unser was reinstated as the winner.
If you want to rile up Donald Davidson, bring up several of these – especially the one regarding the 1981 race. But like it or not, lawsuits and controversies make up as much of the fabric of the Indianapolis 500 as some of our most cherished traditions. So while we are all tired of the talk about hearings, lawsuits and injunctions this May – they are nothing new to the Indianapolis 500.