Crashes marred '92 Indianapolis 500

Track workers clean up debris after a series of wrecks in Turn 2 during the 1992 Indianapolis 500. AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

The first flashback is always the same: standing shivering in Gasoline Alley, in a wind that blew right through you, conferring midrace with a Sports Illustrated colleague about where each of us should go next in the bedlam, amid the screams of ambulance sirens and the whines of turbocharged engines.

She asked if this was normal for an Indianapolis 500. Rather than just answering no, I blurted, "Now I have some idea how war correspondents feel."

If that was exaggeration, it wasn't by much. Nine drivers were injured that day, Sunday, May 24, 1992, as the crashing kept on and on and on.

That would bring the toll for that month of May at Indy to one dead, 12 injured -- six seriously, two terribly.

Race day was the worst ever for the Andrettis at Indy, which dampened the best ever for their family friends the Unsers.

It still feels callous to call the 76th running, in 1992, my most memorable Indianapolis 500. The bad memories far outweigh the singular good one. So I'll just call it my damnedest in all these decades of covering Indy since 1975.

On Sunday, the 98th 500 will be my last. It is enormously unlikely this one will stand out more than that one in 1992 -- at least I hope it won't.


We capitalized the first "M" in Month of May in those days. You didn't just fly in for race weekend. You got there early in the month and stayed because too much could happen in practice and qualifying for the biggest automobile race -- and the biggest one-day sporting event -- in the world.

Some of Roger Penske's staff had dubbed it the Year of May, because it seemed to drag on so miserably and needlessly -- the fastest laps on earth alternated with the slowest, stuffiest track procedures on earth.

Frustration with those procedures -- and insufficient fear of how terribly, and instantaneously, Indianapolis Motor Speedway could bite you -- would cost former Formula One world champion Nelson Piquet the rest of his driving career.

For a weekly magazine, most of the Month of May was a matter of just keeping watch in case anything major happened.

This time, I hit the ground running.

This was before cellphones. The message light on the phone was blinking when I walked through the door of my room at the Speedway Motel, on the track grounds. The motel operator said, "Call Steve Robinson, urgent, area 212 ..." I knew the number by heart. Robinson was SI's motorsports editor. And I had some idea what was up.

Minutes after landing at Indianapolis airport, I had seen video on TV sets of one of the worst-looking crashes ever at Indy -- Rick Mears, car disintegrating around him as it skidded upside down that very afternoon, Wednesday, May 6.

Mark Mulvoy, managing editor of SI -- the absolute authority at the magazine -- had also seen the video in New York. Mears had survived with only minor foot and wrist injuries, and that was the point: We must explain how and why drivers were surviving horrific crashes, even as speeds soared to the highest ever at Indy, consistently topping 230 mph.

"... And Lived To Tell About It" would be the theme and headline on a story I was to begin working on immediately, to run that week, two weeks before the race itself.

I talked with Mears and his wife, Chris, early the next morning. They told of their encounter in the infield hospital, Rick standing for the last part of his exam, turning around to see Chris crying, Rick inexplicably starting to laugh, Chris saying, "Rick, it's not funny," Rick continuing to laugh, Chris continuing to cry.

Rick described "the light show" of the sparks flying past his helmet, backward, as his first clue he was upside down, with the roll bar scraping the pavement.

I talked with Nigel Bennett, Penske's chief engineer, about why that crash was survivable. Bottom line, the worse an Indy car crash appeared to be, the better the driver's chances. That was because the car was dissipating energy as it came apart, as opposed to a quick, blunt hit against the wall where "mass times velocity equals energy" of impact, Bennett said.

Leaving the Penske garages, I had a pretty good start to the story. Then I heard the bass voice of Tom Carnegie, Indy's legendary public-address announcer, thunder stoically over the grounds: "Yellow light. We have a yellow light."


Nelson Piquet was used to the frantically efficient procedures of a Formula One weekend. You practiced Friday, qualified Saturday, raced Sunday and moved on around the globe. So Piquet found the droning procedures of the Month of May woefully inefficient, needless -- at times infuriating.

Straightaway speeds that month were exceeding 240 mph, and Piquet was coming off Turn 4 onto the frontstretch when that fateful yellow light came on.

He was so disgusted when he saw the yellow that he snatched his steering wheel hard left, attempting to dive onto pit road at 230-plus.

You didn't snatch the wheel at Indy. The last driver killed there to that point, Gordon Smiley in 1982, had snatched his steering wheel to the right, overcorrecting a spin to the left, coming off the backstretch into Turn 3.

The car hit the wall head-on. Mass times velocity equals energy.

Piquet's car, and physics, fought back as well. The car snapped back hard right and hit the wall nose-first. Mass times velocity equals energy.

A pall fell over the storied Speedway as Piquet was airlifted to Methodist Hospital downtown with terrible foot and leg injuries. Garage-area rumor had it that his left foot had been severed.

Hours passed. Finally, Terry Trammell's silver Porsche 911 came wheeling into the garage area, and I rushed to meet it. Trammell was the orthopedic surgeon who had pieced A.J. Foyt's shattered feet and legs together in 1990-91 and who had operated on Piquet for six hours this day. I walked with Trammell as he hurried to a news conference about Piquet's condition.

"Terry, I'm hearing Piquet's foot was severed."

Trammell gave me a sort of puzzled look as he searched for the right words. "It was more like -- it wasn't there," he said in a hushed tone.

"Pulverized to the point that it wasn't recognizable," he said at the news conference.


On Saturday, May 9, Roberto Guerrero won the pole at a record 232.482 mph. Straightaway speeds in practice, in the draft -- "the tow," in Indy parlance -- pushed past 242.

The field was running faster than the takeoff speed of the Concorde supersonic jetliner. With speeds like that, on a track built in 1909 for cars that ran 70 mph, you couldn't shake an eerie feeling.

One day early the next week, the phone rang in my room. Steve Robinson again. The second weekend of qualifying would be anticlimactic, so why didn't I fly down to Charlotte, North Carolina, for The Winston, which would be the first NASCAR race ever run under the lights on a superspeedway, then fly back to Indy for the 500?

I resisted adamantly. It was a publicity gimmick, I said, not worth the risk of leaving Indy unattended by the magazine.

The first night race would be a pretty neat story, though, Robinson pressed.

Yeah, well, you don't leave Indianapolis in the Month of May, especially with speeds like this. What if there's a fatality here while I'm at Charlotte dabbling with that circus?

Robinson relented. I could stay.

Just after 4 p.m. on Friday, May 15, Jovy Marcelo, a rookie from the Philippines, went out to practice. He wasn't nearly up to speed when he crashed in the South Chute, between Turns 1 and 2. Safety workers found him unconscious. He was airlifted to Methodist, where he was pronounced dead.

As the night race at Charlotte began, I sat in the Speedway Motel, working by phone with fact-checkers in New York on our second prerace story, the second straight week, with the race still a week away.


The Andrettis and Unsers were my upstairs neighbors at the Speedway Motel. The Andrettis were directly above me, and I could sometimes see and speak to them leaning over the railings of their second-floor balcony.

One afternoon, I ran into Mario at the ice machine. He had a friend with him, comedian Tim Allen, star of a hot new TV sitcom called "Home Improvement."

Mario introduced us. Then, with mist in his eyes, he told Allen about a story I had written about the Andretti family, "Inherit the Wind," that had run earlier that month in SI. For once, Mario said, he had learned something about himself that he had never known before. I had opened the story with his mother recounting the toddlerhood of Mario and twin brother Aldo, in the depths of World War II, as the Germans and Slavic partisans fought in the Andretti hometown on the Istrian Peninsula, previously controlled and inhabited by Italians.

She had recalled in broken English how her little boys would run around the kitchen using pot lids as steering wheels, in a town that had no automobiles except for one taxi. She reasoned that the racing instincts must be "on the blood."

Never had racing been more on the blood of the Andrettis than this May of '92, when four of them -- Mario, elder son Michael, younger son Jeff and cousin John, Aldo's son -- would start the 500. Never had a family been so well represented at Indy.

Mario would start third, outside front row; Michael sixth, outside second row; John 14th, middle of fifth row; Jeff 20th, middle seventh row.

Never, since Mario got the family's only Indy win in 1969, had the Andrettis had a better chance to triumph in the 500. Not only in sheer numbers. Mario and Michael's Newman-Haas Lolas were powered by new engines, the mightiest ever fielded by Ford Motor Co. With any luck at all, they would run away from the field.

At the ice machine, neither Allen nor I mentioned the fabulous chances for this year. We knew better. Mario wouldn't want to talk about that. Too much had gone too badly, too often, too many years ...


Jill Lieber was then a senior writer at Sports Illustrated -- and the magazine's best reporter. She had been first to uncover Pete Rose's gambling issues, the ones that would keep him out of baseball's Hall of Fame. Later, Mickey Mantle would open up to Jill as he had to no one else about his alcoholism.

She had come out to Indy from New York to do a story about Lyn St. James, who was about to become only the second woman to drive in the 500 -- Janet Guthrie having been the first, in 1977.

Jill and Lyn connected right away, and as usual for Jill, St. James opened up completely to her. St. James was frustrated that while the Andrettis and other veterans got the powerful new Ford engines, she was left with an older design that wasn't nearly as fast.

I took Jill to meet Michael Kranefuss, the German-born, Michigan-based director of Ford's racing efforts worldwide. Jill confronted him about the weaker engines for St. James.

"And if I should give her this new engine and she were to become the first woman to be killed at Indianapolis," Kranefuss replied with his tinge of German accent, "what would you say of me then?"

Upon completing her reporting for the St. James story, Jill said she would work for me for the rest of the weekend -- "I'm here to help." That made two of us there from the magazine. On race day, we could have used a dozen.


Late Saturday afternoon, I was reprogramming my radio scanner, blocking the NASCAR teams' frequencies out and entering the CART teams' frequencies. Championship Auto Racing Teams came pretty close to filling the field at Indy in those days, and they certainly had the strongest cars and teams.

Suddenly, the scanner flicked to the National Weather Service frequency and locked there. The voice from the central Indiana office was urgent: powerful thunderstorms moving through Indianapolis this afternoon, tornado watch in effect, be prepared to take cover immediately if advised.

Scary as the advisory was, it didn't affect what I was doing. I was going to stay in the room anyway. You just didn't venture out onto 16th Street or Georgetown Road on Saturdays at Indy. It was just too crowded and crazy. It was a certainty that the corner of 16th and Georgetown, outside the Speedway's main grandstands, would be paved with flattened beer cans by the next dawn.

The storm was rough, but it passed before sundown. It was the weather that came in behind it that would make the 76th Indianapolis 500 so awful.

From the Speedway Motel, you didn't have to drive into the Speedway through the near gridlock. You could walk in -- a true luxury. This was in the era when all of the 300,000 seats were filled and the traffic was commensurate with the crowds, all inbound on surface streets.

The second I walked out the door, the wind hit me, strong and icy. With no idea it was going to be this cold on Memorial Day weekend in Indiana, I had brought a light jacket. That wasn't enough, but it would have to do.

Temperatures fell into the 40s, but the wind chill was far worse, down into the 20s.


Minutes before the start-engines command, Jill and I walked the grid. The drivers were already in the cars, strapped, helmeted, gloved, sitting still and quiet amid all the people milling about on the frontstretch.

We walked in front of the front row: Roberto Guerrero on the pole, Eddie Cheever in the middle, Mario Andretti outside.

Mario glanced at us as we stood there looking right at him; I think I was telling Jill he was most likely to win this race. He looked away. I knew better than to wave to him, and we moved on. No way we should break his concentration at this moment.

What neither he nor we noticed was a crewman making an adjustment, and in the process propping his foot on the engine block. That would accidentally crack an electrical wire. And that would make for just the beginning of his awful day.


Nobody took the first crash as foreboding. Just bizarre. It happened on the parade lap, before the green flag even waved to start the race. In retrospect, 22 years later, that crash should have told us everything about what was to come.

Roberto Guerrero realized the tires and track were cold. So, heading down the backstretch, he stepped on the throttle to create a burst of power that would spin, and heat, the tires.

With 800 horsepower sitting behind him, Guerrero hit the throttle. One rear tire gripped more than the other, and the car went sideways and hit the wall. The pole-sitter was out of the race before it even started. Cheever moved over to the pole, with Mario in the middle and son Michael right behind him, in the middle of the second row.

Moments after the green flag, Michael shot to the lead and Mario into second place. The Andrettis were dominating, right from the outset.


Back in the fourth row, the pole sitter's crash had allowed Emerson Fittipaldi to move over to the inside and Al Unser Jr. into the middle. Those two had fought the most spectacular duel to date at Indy, in 1989. The all-out, side-by-side fight had left Little Al crashed against the third-turn wall while Fittipaldi cruised to victory under yellow.

It wasn't easy being Little Al Unser. His father had won the race four times, his Uncle Bobby -- "Uncah Bobby" was the way Little Al said it -- three times.

And now, winless at Indy, Little Al had turned 30 for his 10th run in the 500.

His wife, Shelly, had told me that Uncah Bobby, more than Big Al, had ridden her husband about failing to win the 500. Bobby Unser always was the more vocal and animated of the brothers. Big Al was reticent, dour. So Shelly had given Big Al a nickname that had spread throughout the family.

"Dry Ice," she had dubbed him. "So cool he burns."


By a restart just 11 laps into the race, the pattern developed: cold tires, cold pavement, restarts, spinning tires, spinning cars, crashes. First to go, after Guerrero, was veteran Tom Sneva, the 1983 winner.

Lap 67, restart, spinning cold tires on cold pavement, crash: Philippe Gache, collecting Stan Fox. Lap 75, restart, same thing: Jim Crawford spun, collecting Rick Mears; at nearly the same moment, Emerson Fittipaldi, separate crash into the wall.

Lap 84, restart ...

Mario Andretti had had to pit with the electrical problem and was struggling to get back up front to rejoin Michael, who was running away with the race. So on this restart, Mario floored the throttle trying to pick up a few positions immediately.

Cold tires, cold track, and Mario, like Piquet in practice, hit the wall head-on. Unlike Piquet, Mario didn't suffer devastating injuries, but broken toes on both feet would send him to Methodist and keep him on crutches for weeks.


A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti had been bitter rivals, rarely with a good word to say about each other since 1964, when the young Italian immigrant began challenging the bull-like Texan on dirt tracks.

But Foyt never held that against Mario's sons.

And so, in 1992, when Jeff Andretti -- long overshadowed by older brother Michael -- needed a ride to make the 500 field, Foyt put him in one of his cars.

This was Foyt's last 500 as a driver. He had meant to retire after the 1991 race, but upon falling out early, he decided he just couldn't walk away from Indy like that.

Make that hobble away. Foyt's feet and lower legs had been virtually destroyed in a crash at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in 1990, and only agonizing, relentless rehab had gotten him back in a car for Indy in 1991.

When, not long after the halfway point of the '92 Indy, Jeff Andretti's car stuck into the wall like a dart at more than 200 mph, only two men alive knew fully what was happening to him: Nelson Piquet and A.J. Foyt.

Jeff's injuries were similar to theirs. Months, years of hellish rehab lay ahead for him.

It was just minutes after that crash that I stood shivering, conferring with Jill Lieber in the garage area. The situation had gone from bad to awful. The safety workers didn't even have Jeff Andretti out of the car yet.

The venerable motorsports broadcaster Chris Economaki hurried past me in the chaos, stopping only to yell in my ear, "People are coming down out of the grandstands in droves!"

They simply could not bear that icy wind.

Jill, a fitness fanatic, a runner, could be anywhere on the grounds I needed her within a couple of minutes. She took off running toward the infield hospital. I went to find a TV monitor, because the crashing showed no signs of letting up.

And the sirens seemed relentless.

After Jeff's crash, not long after halfway, nearly half the field was gone.


In those pre-cellphone days, most media outlets had private phone lines installed in the press room. Mark Mulvoy was a hands-on editor who wanted to be kept apprised of any major sporting event as it progressed, so periodically during the race, Jill would phone him in New York.

Now, back from the infield hospital, Jill organized her notes on the two injured Andrettis and said, "Better call Mulvoy."

I told her to tell him this was going to be a helluva story of agony and ecstasy, of two Andrettis badly hurt and another winning the race in a runaway. Mulvoy wanted to know how I could be so sure.

"Tell him only God can stop Michael Andretti from winning this race now," I said. She told him.

The Lola-Ford screamed on, Michael Andretti driving away from the field, knowing his father and brother were down at Methodist, not knowing how bad it was for either of them.

Powerful story in the making. But it was about to become awful.

With 11 laps left, the dominant Lola-Ford suddenly slowed. Michael Andretti came to a stop in the infield grass off the short chute between Turns 3 and 4. He climbed out.

A tiny belt that ran the fuel pump had broken. A lousy little belt, worth a few dollars. All that Ford research and development, all those millions to engineer the finest power plant the company had ever sent to Indy, and one little accessory had failed.

Within seconds, our phone rang in the press room. Jill answered. She said only, "OK," and hung up.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said, 'Tell Hinton he jinxed Michael Andretti.'"

The powerful story had vanished. Mulvoy had told me the previous afternoon that the number of pages Indy would get in the magazine depended on the photos -- "and I don't mean wreck pictures," he said. He meant quality and drama.

SI's lead photographer George Tiedemann headed a group of more than a dozen shooters for the magazine, placed all around the track. Tiedemann instinctively had stationed himself in Turn 4.

It was there that Tiedemann would take the most dramatic picture of the day -- not from Victory Lane, but of Michael Andretti, standing, staring, helmetless, gazing into nothingness from the infield grass.

"This place is cruel," Tiedemann heard him say. "So cruel."

The drama of the day had ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. Soon it would soar.


Scott Goodyear had started the race 33rd. He was a virtually unknown Canadian, a veteran road racer who had gotten to Indy on nothing more than desire and a fair sponsorship from a Canadian financial company.

But with the terrible attrition, as the laps waned, two dark horses came out of nowhere: Goodyear and Al Unser Jr.

Safe to say, no two hungrier drivers had ever dueled for an Indy win.

On the final lap, within sight of the checkered flag, they came side-by-side, at 230 mph, to the line.

Little Al held on to win by 0.043 of a second -- forty-three one-thousandths -- to win what was then the closest finish in Indy history.


Big Al Unser was first into the postrace interview room. He had finished third, driving Nelson Piquet's backup car, but that wasn't what anybody wanted to talk about. All the questions were about his son.

And that's when Dry Ice melted. That's when the drama peaked.

The notoriously stoic, dour Big Al choked up.

"To love something as much as I love racing," he said, his voice already cracking, "and to win at this place, and then have your son come along and win here --"

He was sobbing: "is the greatest feeling --"

He could barely get it out: "there is."


Jill Lieber rode on a golf cart with Little Al and Shelly Unser back to their motor home in the paddock. On a window, some of their friends had painted in block letters, "THERE IS A GOD."

George Tiedemann's room was next to mine at the Speedway Motel. He stopped by to tell me what he had heard from Michael and was gone. George had a Learjet waiting for him. Images were not transmitted electronically back then. Photographs were taken on film, and it had to be rushed to New York on the chartered jet.

There would be a "photo show" at 1 a.m. on the 18th floor of the Time-Life Building, where the editors would select the pictures that would run. My story had to be in by then. Memorial Day was a printers' holiday in New York, so our deadlines were early -- almost as tough as those of newspapers of the time.

Yet this was, at the time, the most powerful sports publication in the world, so this story damn well be better -- when it got to readers on Thursday -- than anything in any newspaper anywhere on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

Word was that Mulvoy had decided, based on the drama he had seen on ABC TV, that we would get six pages -- a lot.

Jill stayed a few more minutes to give me the rest of her notes, and then she too was gone.

And there I sat, staring at the blank screen of a laptop, alone.

The month's toll:

One dead: Jovy Marcello, during practice.

Twelve injured: Pancho Carter, Hiro Matsushita, Rick Mears and Nelson Piquet during practice. Then in the race: Jeff Andretti, Mario Andretti, Brian Bonner, Jim Crawford, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, Mears again, Tom Sneva and Jimmy Vasser.

How did you lead -- journalism lingo for begin -- such a story? I had four hours. Had to start somewhere, quickly.

I look back now at Sports Illustrated's online archives and barely remember writing all those words, other than beginning with Dry Ice choking up.

After standing shivering in Gasoline Alley wondering what to do next, the second flashback to Indy '92 is always the same: staring at that blank computer screen.