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Fiasco Italo-Brittanico
Part 6: 1989 - Winning major prizes on the road to losing everything



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Emerson Fittipaldi


Pat Patrick Racing Penske-Chevrolet PC18




1989 Indianapolis 500


In preparation for this departure Patrick had taken on a new partner, a former driver who had raced for him in the early eighties. Chip Ganassi was to take over the remaining part of the team, among which was the deal for the much-coveted Ilmor-Chevy engine. During the 1988 season Patrick had a fairly competitive package, being one of the lucky teams with access to the almighty Ilmor-Chevy engine, having a decent driver in Emerson Fittipaldi and a good sponsor in Marlboro.

Marlboro wanted to make the change to sponsor Team Penske and take along Fittipaldi. With Patrick wanting to quit racing, no big problems were expected. In advance of the future partnership, Marlboro decided to sponsor Team Penske’s third entry at Indianapolis, Al Unser Sr’s car. As a gesture to his opponent but still friend, Penske agreed to supply Patrick Racing with two of the new 1989-type Penske PC18 cars and a ’88 type PC17 to enable Patrick Racing to make a fighting finish.

And what a finish it became. Fittipaldi won no less than five races that season, including the one that mattered the most of all: Indianapolis.

The initial plans for Patrick Racing were to field a second car at Indianapolis for Geoff Brabham. But after Emerson had spun a car at Phoenix, as well as an anticipated shortage of man power within the team, Brabham was told the plans for his entry were cancelled.

At Indianapolis it was obvious a PC18-Chevy was the thing you needed to qualify at the front row. Penske factory driver Danny Sullivan lost out on getting this done after crashing in practice and being forced to qualify in the second weekend of qualifying. His team mates Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr took the first two positions and Emerson took the outside front row spot for Patrick Racing. This created the funny view of three Penske PC18s on the front row, two of them in Marlboro colours, the third in Pennzoil colours. But the two cars looking alike weren't raced by team mates at all but run by different teams! Other than the starting numbers, there were a few different decals on both cars that enabled identification of either the Patrick Racing or Penske Racing Marlboro-sponsored entry.

Fittipaldi in a 1989-built Penske-Chevy PC18. Since it has no T behind the number, this is likely the car he won the race with. (photo HG)

Race day 1989: Tension in the pit lane before the start. (photo HG)

Emerson used the outside front-row spot perfectly to grab the lead from the start and effectively ran away with the first half of the race. Little over the halfway point of the race `Emmo` was Roger Penske’s last hope to to see at least one of the cars wearing his name win the race since all three factory cars had retired, never having been a factor in the race.

Only Michael Andretti remained within striking distance from the flying Fittipaldi. During the second half of the race, however, the Penske's handling went bad and Michael could make a move on Fittipaldi. The `Andretti curse` however put up its ugly head on lap 163 and, while leading, engine failure took Michael out of the race.

By then, Fittipaldi appeared without opposition. Only Al Unser Jr was left on the same lap as Fittipaldi. Just about every fast car had retired and those left simply couldn’t match the speeds set by Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. Third-placed Raul Boesel was by that time 5 laps down! This also contributed to the events that took place in the final stages. Unser Jr was unable to do anything against Fittipaldi in the following laps. But then, all of a sudden, the race turned into a thriller of an event.

When the yellow flag was thrown again in lap 181, Fittipaldi made his last pit stop for fuel one lap later. Unser Jr's Gelles team had pitted him in lap 165 and the team concluded that yet another yellow later on in the race would allow them to take a gamble. Should Unser be forced to make another stop he would be unable to beat Fittipaldi, but should he run out of fuel sometime during the final four laps while still lying second Boesel would never be able to make up enough laps to pass Unser for second. Second was almost a certainty but a gamble could yield victory!

By not pitting Unser Jr all of a sudden was right behind Fittipaldi again and stayed there. With five laps to go, Unser made his move on Fittipaldi and took the lead. The crowd went crazy about the duel that followed.

Unser Jr leading the race. After dominating the race up, Emerson was now in hot pursuit with less than four laps to go! (Photo HG)

On the penultimate lap, almost side-by-side, with Unser a nudge ahead but with Fittipaldi on the inside line, they dove into Turn 3. Then it appeared as if Fittipaldi lost grip, drifting to the outside. His front left wheel brushed with Unser’s rear wheel. Unser lost control and went into the wall while Fittipaldi managed to keep his car on the track. Another yellow and that was how the race ended, under yellow, Fittipaldi ending up the deserved winner. He had been the dominant force in the race all day long. Emerson became the first-ever winner who won over a million dollars in prize money.

Fittipaldi on his way to victory. (photo HG)

Their third victory at the Speedway made Patrick the joined third winningest team owner ever at Indianapolis, an honour he shared with Mike Boyle and Bob Wilke. Only Lou Moore with five and Roger Penske with seven victories (in 1989, that is) had done better.

Detroit, Portland and Cleveland made up a genuine hat-trick of victories, while Nazareth also fell prey to Emmo. Here, Fittipaldi is seen at Mid-Ohio in 1989.

So, Pat Patrick was in the uncomfortable situation that he was the main owner of an entire championship package that was to fall apart under his hands at the end of the season.

Sometime during the season, Pat Patrick began to regret his decision to retire from racing. But all the deals were set and done and nobody wanted to backtrack. If he wanted to keep on racing he had to start all over again with whatever he could retain from the bits that Ganassi and Penske did not want to have. One of the prominent team members informed us that he was not aware of any desire to backtrack on his decision by Pat Patrick.

It looked as if Pat Patrick was lucky and before the new year he would be back in business again, this time with a factory deal. Meanwhile in 1989…