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Indycar racing witnessed a clear shift in its delicate balance of power in 1988, although its turbocharged formula continued to provide more competitive racing than Formula One could a new Penske chassis took over from March or Lola as the thing to have, while Ilmor’s Chevrolet V8 finally ousted Cosworth’s DFX as the dominant powerplant — a combination of circumstances which pushed Danny Sullivan towards his first CART title.
Unknown quantities of one sort or another made the United States’ single-seater “World Series” seem as open as ever last winter, the outcome of the championship hard to predict.
1986 and 1987 winner Bobby Rahal remained with Truesports, but swapped Lola-Cosworth for Lola-Judd in an attempt to find a fresh advantage; the Penske team (one of the few still prepared to run more than one car in each race) hoped to become a successful constructor again in its own right with its new PC17; and Chevrolet engines, winners of five 1987 races to Cosworth’s ten, were set to make a first real title bid.
Veterans of the calibre of Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi (F1 World Champions both), Al Unser and Rick Mears could anticipate closer challenges than ever before from juniors such as Michael Andretti, Al Unser jnr and Arie Luyendyk, and then there was Porsche, embarking upon its first full season of competition under the guidance of Al Holbert.
The fastest one-mile oval speedway in the world, just outside Phoenix, was the setting for the first round of the 1988 series, and the Penske team’s hard work in the close season was rewarded by a pole position, its first for twelve years. Roberto Guerrero in Granatelli Racing’s Lola headed pole-sitter Mears in his Penske at the first corner, but Rick did not let him stay there too long. The Penske led for 22 laps until contact with Randy Lewis caused his retirement with a deflated tyre.
Arie Luyendyk led briefly for Dick Simon Racing, but succumbed to pressure from Mario Andretti’s Newman-Haas Lola. There was panic when Luyendyk’s car was in the pits for refuelling. Alcohol fuel spilled from the hose, ignited and caused pandemonium. as flames spread. Team members were rolling around on the ground, trying to rid themselves of fire, whilst Luyendyk himself, after frantically trying to loosen his belt, had to dive out of the cockpit. Mario very easily went on to achieve his 50th Indycar victory, ahead of Guerrero; Mario’s son Michael in the Kraco Racing March had struggled to catch Guerrero, but had to settle for third.
On the west coast at Long Beach, a week later, it was the other Penske, in the hands of Danny Sullivan, which set fastest qualifying time. However, Al Unser Jnr in Galles Racing’s March, runner up here for the past three years, placed himself nicely to sweep into the lead by the end of lap one. Sullivan picked up the lead once Little Al had pitted, and these two did battle until Sullivan’s engine failed. Little Al was then able to build up a safe cushion ahead of Bobby Rahal and Kevin Cogan (Machinist’s Union March), to claim a well-deserved victory, his first for more than a year.
The 72nd running of the Indianapolis 500 was to be an historic occasion for Penske, its cars occupying the front three places on the grid: Rick Mears in pole position having averaged nearly 353 kph in practice, Sullivan and Al Unser Snr. joining him on the front row.
Many drivers found the pressure of the pace too tough and ended up against the wall, only fifteen of the 33 starters reaching the finish. This resulted in a very disjointed race, with the pace car on the track for 79 of the 200 laps, but miraculously no driver sustained more than slight injury. The Penske drivers dominated, although Sullivan’s day ended when he veered into the wall at about the half-way mark.
Mears led for much of the remainder, finishing seven seconds in front of Patrick Racing’s Emerson Fittipaldi. It was Rick’s third and Penske’s seventh Indianapolis win. Last year’s victor Unser Snr and Michael Andretti filled the remaining top three places.
The following weekend saw the competitors gathering at the one-mile oval at Wisconsin State Fair Park for the Milwaukee 200. Michael Andretti’s March-Cosworth broke Penske’s domination of’ 1988 qualifying, but his father Mario immediately went out in front. Michael and Little Al began to apply the pressure, the Galles driver going past both but later having an accident. Luyendyk was again caught up in a pit fire.
Mears picked up the lead at the 50th mile, and remained out front for all but two of he remaining laps to win his second race in a row, taking his career total to 23 and leaping into the championship lead. Sullivan closely followed his team-mate to the flag.
In the middle of June, the Portland road course in Oregon was the venue for round five, where Sullivan led from pole position into the first chicane ahead of Luyendyk’s Lola. Arie was actually out in front for a total of 53 laps, but Danny led again after the next series of pit-stops and scored his first win since Cleveland two years before, despite spinning. He has a habit of spinning and winning, having done just that at Indianopolis in 1985. Luyendyk, who had grappled with a gearbox fault, finished next, with Fittipaldi third. The Al Holbert-run Quaker State March Porsche, driven by Teo Fabi, had its best race to date here, finishing seventh.
The Penskes headed the grid again for the Cleveland Grand Prix on the southern shore of Lake Erie, with Sullivan on pole. It was Sullivan who led for the first half of the race, but the closing stages saw tremendous wheel-to-wheel racing as Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal battled for the lead. The Truesports driver was just 0.9 seconds behind at the finish, the closest race of the year.
When the CART circus assembled north of the border in July for the Ontario round, Sullivan took an immediate lead from Little Al, who was gaining a few inches on each lap. It was evident that Unser was the more aggressive on the straights, whilst Sullivan was better in the corners. Unser was given the opportunity to take the lead on lap 16, when his rival was blocked by veteran AJ Foyt.
Sullivan suggested Foyt must have been on Little Al’s payroll, but it was just one of those racing situations, when only one car had space to sweep through. Unser Jnr finished comfortably ahead, but Danny was ahead on points, with Unser, Mears and Rahal close behind.
It was the fifth time that the giant Meadowlands sports complex, just across the Hudson River from New York, had hosted an Indycar race. The temporary track, built in a huge car park, had been remodelled to form a near-oval, although it was still a very tight track with few places to overtake. We had two former World Champions on the front row of the grid — Fittipaldi in pole position, with Mario Andretti alongside. Emerson led all but three of the first 111 laps. Then, after coming under tremendous pressure from Al Jnr for several laps, he ran wide at one tight bend, allowing Unser to creep up on the inside. The two touched, with the 41-year-old coming off worse. He hammered the outside fence, but was amazingly fit enough to jump out of his car and shake his fist at Al as he went by on the next lap. Mario took the lead, but a broken cv joint on the penultimate lap threw the win back to Unser J nr, who took a two point championship lead over Sullivan.
At Michigan, there was another pole position for Rick Mears, who had several spells in command but unexpectedly slowed and made for the pits with engine problems. Similar trouble afflicted Al Unser Snr, but at the chequered flag after 500 miles no other car was on the same lap as the third Penske of Danny Sullivan, putting him 17 points clear at the top of the championship table. It was a victory which pleased Roger Penske more than most: he owns this track, but never before had one of his own cars won here. Rahal finished second.
By qualifying fastest again at Pocono, Mears became the first driver to claim pole at all three 500s in the same year. Mario Andretti fought hard to take over at the front, his car running beautifully until he encountered Dick Simon, whom he was about to lap; an extremely heavy crash followed after Simon veered to the left, taking both himself and Mario into the wall. Sullivan also became involved in the accident, allowing Bobby Rahal to claim a first victory for the Truesports team’s Lola-Judd, and cut Sullivan’s lead to 3 points, with Little Al second.
A wet day at Mid-Ohio signalled the start of a marvellous week for Patrick Racing and Emerson Fittipaldi. Mario Andretti got into a comfortable lead once past Sullivan on lap 2, but a tight race behind Mario resulted in Sullivan, Little Al and Michael Andretti spinning. Raltal was sent into the armco by Ludwig Heimrath, who spun into him on a slippery section of track, and Emerson came through to win ahead of Mario Andretti and Mears.
The next week, at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Fittipaldi did it again; the Patrick Racing Lola got up front on lap 16 and that was where it stayed. But in the closing stages at this Wisconsin track, there was no room for error as Rahal closed in to finish just over a second behind. Last year’s winner, Mario Andretti, finished third.
Nazareth is the home town of the Andretti family, but here it was Sullivan who claimed victory despite a tyre problem and the close attention of Michael. Only Rahal and Unser Jnr still had a chance to overtake him in the championship.
The Laguna Seca circuit in California had been lengthened since the previous year. Michael Andretti led, only to lose out to Danny Sullivan an the final lap, which secured the latter the drivers’ tide for 1988. One of the nastiest accidents of the year saw Dale Coyne’s March break in half, having made contact with Tony Bettenhausen at a very fast part of the track.
The fashionable Florida holiday resort of Miami was again the setting for the final round of the championship, and Sullivan again took pole position (his ninth of the year). As he led away, all hell broke loose behind: seven cars were eliminated as Boesel and Fittipaldi came together and others ploughed into the wreckage. Unser Jnr rocketed past a faltering Andretti on lap 43 and stayed there, to wrap up the season with his fourth victory.
It had certainly been Chevrolet’s year, the V8 turbos built by Ilmor Engineering at Brixworth in Northamptonshire winning all but one of the fifteen races and all but two pole positions. Only Bobby Rahal’s success at Pocono prevented the Chevy clean sweep, leaving the long-dominant Cosworth with but a single win, courtesy of Michael Andretti in the non-championship Marlboro Challenge.
The defending champion’s Lola-Judd made up for its relative lack of pace by being the most reliable car/engine combination in the field, which left him third in the points table, but it was the Penske PC17 which impressed most with six victories (Sullivan four, Mears two), to March’s four (Al Unser jnr) and Lola’s four (Andretti two, Fittipaldi two). If only Little Al had had a Penske!
Thus equipped , Danny Sullivan was able to secure his first Indycar championship and Rick Mears that most sought-after of race wins, the Indianapolis 500, for the third time. In 1988, Penskes and Chevrolets were clearly the things to have. DH
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