Why It Took 138 Days To Decide The Winner Of The 1981 Indy 500

Who deserved to win the 1981 Indy 500 race? Bobby Unser's victory was one of the sport's most controversial cases, because of a race steward's violation decision, according to Car and Driver. The race is still debated almost 40 years later.

Initially, Unser grabbed the top title, until race officials penalized him one lap for passing cars under the yellow flag — illegally passing cars during a caution period. When the official results came out the next day, Mario Andretti, originally second, came out on top and received the Borg-Warner Trophy. "Maybe I didn't deserve to win the race, but neither did he," Andretti told Motor Trend Magazine. "The rule was clear, and a rule is a rule. Bobby won the race, but he cheated winning it. There's an asterisk next to that one." But it wasn't that simple. The same USAC race stewards who penalized Unser voted 3-2 not to punish Andretti for the same offense.

Roger Penske — Unser was part of Penske Racing since 1978, and drove a Penske PC-9B during the race — appealed the decision and hired Jimmy Binns, a high-profile attorney from Philadelphia. Binns brought up three points, according to Motor Trend: The rules were murky about merging when leaving pits; Andretti committed the same offense and wasn't penalized; and the penalty should have been applied during the race. "The stewards had the information, but they never called a blend violation," explained Penske in a posting on the website of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Decision: Andretti vs. Unser

The hearings took more than two months. The appeals board finally voted 2-1 on October 9, 1981 to declare Unser the winner: "USAC agreed that on Lap 149, after making a pit stop under yellow-flag conditions, Unser did indeed pass multiple cars before blending in with the rest of the field," said NBC Sports. "But USAC also maintained that the infraction should've been called on the spot by chief steward Tom Binford and his crew of officials."

The USAC reinstated Unser as winner, but fined him $40,000 for his action. It was Unser's third and last Indy 500 win, and at the end of the season he retired from the career he pursued since 1949 at the age 15. "Everybody would like me to say that the whole thing was Mario (should have won)," he said to the Los Angeles Times. "The truth of the matter is it is not."

Andretti, who won the Indy in 1969, never captured the title again. He wore his 1981 Indy 500 ring that he received at the victory dinner, even though, for many years (including a 2016 McCall's interview), he called the race "the farce ... I could never, ever accept and I never will." (You can watch the race on YouTube.) The Unser and Andretti race isn't the only one with controversy. In fact, the champion of other Indy 500 races is frequently a subject of contention among fans.

More Indy 500 Controversy

According to First Super Speedway, some say that Ray Harroun, declared the winner of the very first Indy 500 in 1911, was a mistake, and that an unfair timing system robbed the real winner, Ralph Mulford, of his award. In 2002 a close race left Paul Tracy and his fans reeling from Helio Castroneves's victory. An accident on the track caused the yellow flag to appear as Tracy passed Castroneves, making his move illegal. Despite a protest from Tracy's team, the win was validated six weeks after the race. "It was a harsh blow for Tracy, who many believe is the most colorful and still one of the most talented in the business," the The New York Times wrote in 2009.

The 2020 Indy 500, conducted in August without fans present, also rankled some. Takuma Sato from Japan won his second Indy 500, with Scott Dixon coming in second.

After a crash on Lap 195, according to the Washington Post, Sato received a perceived break when the order of drivers was frozen rather than restarting the race. "On fuel mileage, I really can't see how [Sato] was going to make it," Dixon said to the Post after the race. "We pitted a lap later, and the numbers they had to get, it was going to be very difficult." While Dixon claims the extra fuel might have given him a win, others aren't so sure. Just one more racing call that can be discussed ... and disputed.