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1971 Indy 500: Al Unser dodges multiple crashes including the pace car.

Submitted by on April 27, 2011

The Indianapolis 500 tends to be an action packed and grueling race. In 1971, however, it was something else.

It got off to a hot start when Roger Penske turned up with the new, and stunningly fast, McLaren M16, and took three of the top four places in qualifying. A precursor to the massive speed differentials that were a significant factor in the calamitous nature of the race.

The action got started before the race had a chance to get out of first gear. Just as the green flag dropped, after all of Indy’s usual theatrics, anticipation and excitement, Eldon Palmer, driving the pace car, missed his braking point as he came into pit road and crashed into a packed photographers’ stand. Palmer and the rest of the pace car’s occupants were unhurt, and there were no fatalities, but several photographers, a journalist, and a guard suffered injuries of varying severities.

When the race itself finally got under way, Mark Donohue left the field for dead, smashing lap speed records and sprinting to an eight second lead after just four laps. Unfortunately, like many new cars to race at the Speedway, it wasn’t to be. After 67 laps spent dodging traffic, cautions and a massive wreck that took out four drivers, his gearbox failed, handing the race lead to the dueling pair of Joe Leonard and 1970 Indy 500 winner, Al Unser.

50 laps later, Al Unser took the lead and kept it when Leonard’s turbo blew. Al, however, wasn’t the only Unser in the thick of things.

Bobby Unser was closing on Mike Mosley when Mosley resumed his vendetta against the wall in the closing stages of the race, losing a tyre and hitting it for a third time that weekend. Unser spun trying to avoid the incident, introducing himself to the wall as Mosley and his car transformed into a wreckage-fueled fireball. In an act of incredible sportsmanship and valour, Gary Bettenhausen leapt from his still moving car and pulled Mosley from the burning wreckage.

Al Unser, in his Lola-derived, George Bignotti-modified PJ Colt, emerged from the chaos to win back to back Indy 500s, setting a new speed record in the process. The Colts took Unser to victory in five of the first six races of the season, the other falling to Mike Mosley in AJ Watson’s heavily modified 1968 Eagle. Thereafter races fell to AJ Foyt’s latest Coyote evolution, to the similarly evolved Eagle 71 of Bobby Unser, and only at the end of the season did Marc Donohue take two wins in the M16.

Read the full race report at Sports Illustrated http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1084939/1/index.htm

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