The drag star who turned a corner

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It’s a unique leap — from slingshots to F1, via Indy and Daytona. But Danny Ongais did things his own way says Preston Lerner

Some drivers are legends. Danny Ongais was legendary. Danny ‘On The Gas’, aka ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’, is the only driver to have jumped from stardom in dragsters — he’s one of the National Hot Rod Association’s Top 50 Drivers — to success in major league circuit racing. He won as many Indycar races as Parnelli Jones, drove a Porsche 935 to victory in the Daytona 24 Hours and even made a brief foray into Formula One. But what makes him such a memorable figure isn’t what he did so much as how he did it A quarter-century on, those who were there still remember him outclassing the Indycar field at Brands Hatch, holding his 850-horsepower, flatbottom beast sideways — down the straight!

“Danny had lots of car control and was braver than Dick Tracy,” Bobby Rahal says. “I remember watching him at Milwaukee [a flat, one-mile oval], coming off the fourth corner with smoke boiling off his right-rear tyre. It was pretty awesome.”

But Ongais’ notorious willingness to stand on the gas had some frightening consequences. Over the years he wrecked more cars than all but the most dedicated demolition derby entrants. Most of these crashes weren’t his fault, of course. But how many drivers can say they flipped their F5000 car while being towed back to the pits by a wrecker truck?

“Danny was one of those unfortunate guys who things seemed to happen to,” says Jim Dilarnarter, team manager of Vel’s Pamelli Jones, where Ongais got started in Indycars. “I don’t know of any driver ballsier than Danny. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not There’s a fine line between running up to the fence and being on the fence.” Or over it!

Ongais was also renowned for being a singularly private man in a relentlessly public sport He was a reporter’s worst nightmare — not for nothing was he also dubbed ‘The Silent Hawaiian’ — who submitted to interviews with all the enthusiasm of a man going to the electric chair. Even to people who worked with him, he rarely divulged more than name, rank and serial number.

“Nobody really knew much about him — where he lived, his family, stuff like that,” explains Jim Chapman, the race director at Vel’s Pamelli Jones and Interscope Racing during Ongais’ heyday. “You didn’t get in touch with him; he got in touch with you. It took me ages to find out that he had a son. I didn’t even know he was married!”

Those who know him well say Ongais is clever and genial, with an unexpected sense of humour. Now 62 and living in Southern California, he still competes in vintage car races. Predictably, though, he declined numerous requests for interviews for this article. Ongais always hated the limelight. He seemed to believe that actions spoke louder than words. And he saw plenty of action.

“I think he was as good a racing driver as ever came along,” says IRL technical director Phil Casey, who spent five years as Ongais’ Indycar crew chief. “He had all kinds of talent and a great feel for a race car. And he was always full-bore; it didn’t matter if it was tyre testing or racing. I remember one year at Michigan when Danny got two laps of practice and started dead last. He was leading after 20 laps — and won the race going away.”

Ongais’ circuitous road to Indy began in Hawaii, where he started racing motorcycles as a teenager. In 1962, aged 20, he got a job turning wrenches in the celebrated Dragmaster shop in California. When co-owner Jim Nelson hung up his driver’s suit, he auditioned Ongais in his wicked dragster.

“I told him, just drive the thing as fast as you feel comfortable’,” Nelson recalls. “He got in there and, shit, he ran that thing quicker than I did right off the bat! He had the natural ability to drive anything. It didn’t make any difference if it was fuel or gas or a funny car. He had the balls to stab and steer it.”

Ongais’ first big win was in Top Gas at the 1964 Winternationals, where he outran speed king Mickey Thompson in the final. Later that year he famously won the Hot Rod Magazine Drag Races by pushing his broken dragster across the line after his opponent had red-lighted. Over the next decade, Ongais dragged anywhere and everywhere. At one point, he towed his car on an open trailer and served as its one-man pitcrew as he match-raced across the country. On a European tour he became the first driver to exceed 200mph on a British dragstrip. Then, in ’68, he hooked up with Thompson to set 295 national and international speed and endurance records on the salt flats of Bonneville.

By the mid-1970s, Ongais was driving funny cars and Top Fuel rails — often at the same event — for Vel’s Parnelli Jones, which ran the most ambitious racing programme in America. Besides dragsters, the team also campaigned Formula One and Indycars of its own design, as well as Formula 5000 Lolas for Mario Andretti and Al Unser Snr.

Ongais wanted to do Indy. He had made an abortive run at the Speedway aboard an outdated Thompson chassis. But he crashed during practice at Hanford and failed to qualify at Phoenix, and so was refused an entry at Indianapolis. So this time around he tried an alternative route.

Danny started running a Formula 5000 car in club-racing competition during 1974. Once he had proved himself, VPJ agreed to prepare an Indycar for him — provided he could bring some sponsorship. Ongais hooked up with aspiring road racer Ted Field, heir to the vast Marshall Field department store fortune. And in ’76, Ongais showed up at the California 500 in a Parnelli entered under the Interscope banner. In typical Ongais fashion, he immediately got up to speed and qualified 11th. The race went well for 54 laps. “One thing about Danny: he’d stand on the gas,” Jones says. “But then he did his upside-down thing. I can still see his car flying through the air.”

Ongais was clearly a diamond in the rough. Jim Chapman got a first-hand look at his prodigious but unhoned talent during a tyre test at Phoenix. Former Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock had set a lap record the previous day. Using the same compound, Ongais, still an Indycar neophyte, went six-tenths of a second faster, a huge difference on a one-mile oval.

“But what I really remember,” Chapman says, “was Danny having a tremendous slide in Turn Three. He saved it just before hitting the wall in Four. I observed Danny very closely when he got out of the car to see if his hands were shaking. Well, he couldn’t have been more relaxed. He looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower.” Chapman chuckles. “He was very thrilling to watch — if he wasn’t in your car. Nothing frightened him — and that frightened me.”

Ongais notched his first Indycar win — from pole at Michigan — in his first full season. His second year, 1978, was even better: he claimed eight poles and won five races. “We should have won a lot more than that,” Casey insists. “We led every race of the season. But we were using converted Cosworths, and maybe that wasn’t the best idea.”

Field had by this point split acrimoniously with VPJ and spread his wings. In 1977, he bought a Penske F1 car and entered it — painted in Interscope’s signature black livery — in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Ongais started last on a damp track, made up 11 places in the first seven laps, then spun out of the race. At Mosport one week later, Ongais finished seventh and would have earned a championship point if the race had lasted another lap.

For 1978, Field bought an Ensign, but Ongais was barely able to scrape onto the grid in Argentina and Brazil, and he retired from both races. “Then, one day, a Shadow [DN9] showed up at the shop,” Chapman recalls. “We tested at Silverstone and Danny was faster than Jan Lammers in the works car.” Nevertheless, the Shadow was woefully underdeveloped: Ongais failed to pre-qualify at Long Beach and Zandvoort. “It was a case of pulling the trigger too soon,” Chapman says. “Even in those days you couldn’t just show up in Formula One and be competitive. And Danny hadn’t grown up in road racing. Frankly, I’m amazed that he did as well as he did.”

Despite this F1 misadventure, Interscope was making its mark in American endurance racing. The team followed the standard practice of the day, pairing a well-heeled patron with a megaquick hired gun. But Field and Ongais were faster than most of the competition, and Interscope never stinted on its cars — turbo Porsches, first a 934 and later a 935.

The Porsche connection paid dividends when the German manufacturer decided to rework its flat-six engines for Indycars. Interscope became Porsche’s factory representative, reprising the role which Penske Racing had played in the development of the 917/10 Can-Am car. Ex-All American Racers designer Roman Slobodynskj was hired to create a new chassis.

Unfortunately, the turbo boost allowance mandated by USAC rendered the engine uncompetitive, and the project was stillborn. Meanwhile, Ongais continued to run his old Parnell Although the car wasn’t fast enough to compete with the new groundeffect machines, he finished a career-best fourth at Indy in 1979 and third at Watkins Glen in ’80.

In 1981, Interscope’s own ground-effect chassis was finally ready. Ongais was the third-fastest qualifier at Indy. In the race, after leading briefly, a CV joint broke, sending the car head-on into the wall. Those were the bad old days when drivers had virtually no protection for their legs and feet and a lot of guys limped around with what was known as ‘The Indy Shuffle’. Bones were sticking out of Ongais’ driving suit after the wreck. “At the time,” Dr Steve Olvey reported later, “he was probably one of the worst injured drivers to actually survive the crash and get resuscitated at the scene.”

Ongais was out of action for several months. His injuries healed, but his career never recovered. He spent most of the next year racing a diabolically quick Lola T600 in IMSA competition, ending the season by co-driving Field to wins at Pocono and Daytona. But for Field that was the end of the road: he walked away from racing with hardly a backward glance and focused on producing movies and music.

For Ongais, only anti-climax remained — a few partial seasons, a handful of successes and the inevitable wrecks. The cruellest disappointment came in 1987, when he landed a dream ride with Penske at Indianapolis. But he was concussed in a practice crash and the doctors wouldn’t clear him to race. Al Unser drove Ongais’ car to his fourth Indy 500 victory.

The CART/IRL split in 1996 gave Ongais one last shot of glory. When Scott Brayton was killed while practising in the car he’d already qualified on the front row, the 54-year-old Ongais was drafted to replace him. He started last and spun early when the light-switch power delivery of his Buick engine caught him out on a restart. But by the end of the race, he was the fastest driver on the track and finished a fighting seventh. In many respects, the race was a metaphor for Ongais’ career.

“He’d come out of drag racing and motorcycles, so speed didn’t frighten him,” Chapman says. “But it’s hard to make the transition to road racing and high-speed ovals, especially at his age. He had a lot of talent and on any given day he was as quick as anybody. Who knows how good he would have been if he’d been given time to develop.” Over the years, Casey worked with drivers who won 14 Indy 500s. He rates Ongais as highly as any of them: “He had a lot of bad luck, but he was as good as there was. And I guarantee you, he could get into a race car today and still be competitive.”

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