Indy Star Ongais Passes Away

| , RacinToday.com Thursday, March 3 2022

Indy 500 legend Danny Ongais has passed away.


Danny Ongais, the Hawaiian-born driver admired for his speed and bravery during an Indianapolis 500 career spanning three decades, died on Feb. 26, 2022 of congestive heart complications in Anaheim Hills, Calif. Mr. Ongais was 79.

Ongais made 11 Indianapolis 500 starts between 1977 and 1996, recording four top-10 finishes. His most productive years at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway came with Interscope Racing and its eye-catching black No. 25 Parnelli and Penske chassis powered by Cosworth engines, with a best finish of fourth in 1979 and a top start of second next to pole-sitter Tom Sneva in 1978.

Ongais is the only native of Hawaii to start in the 105-year history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Fans included his heritage in his nickname “The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” and nicknames “On-Gas” and “On the Gas” were word-plays on his surname.

Born May 21, 1942 in Kahului, Hawaii, Ongais began one of the most versatile careers of any driver in his era as a teenager, earning a Hawaii state title in motorcycle racing in 1960.

Ongais also began drag racing in the early 60s and became one of the top straight-line competitors in America into the early 1970s. He finished runner-up to Mike Snively in the Top Fuel class at the 1966 NHRA U.S. Nationals after beating legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in the semifinals at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Ongais then won the Funny Car title at the 1969 NHRA U.S. Nationals at IRP, drag racing’s most prestigious event, in a distinctive blue Ford Mach 1 Mustang fielded by Mickey Thompson. That victory came one year after Thompson had tried to enter Ongais in the 1968 Indianapolis 500.  But Ongais’ application was denied by the sanctioning U.S. Auto Club because he had almost no experience in open-wheel race cars.

Thompson and Ongais also collaborated to set nearly 300 national and international speed records on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in a Mach 1 Mustang during the 1960s.

Ongais’ successes in straight-line competition led his induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000 in the Drag Racing category.

Service in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s exposed Ongais to sports car racing in Europe, and he moved from drag strips to ovals and road-courses during the mid-1970s. Ongais dominated in Sports Car Club of America competition in 1974, catching the eye of young media mogul Ted Field, who recently had founded the Interscope Records label.

Ongais and Field teamed-up with great success in Formula 5000 and INDYCAR in the late 1970s. Ongais also competed in four Formula One races in 1977 and 1978, including two starts with Interscope, scoring a best finish of seventh in 1977 at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Ongais enjoyed his best season with the Interscope team in 1978, when he won five races and eight poles en route to an eighth-place finish in the USAC point standings. That season saw Ongais start in the middle of the first all-200-mph front row at Indianapolis, between pole-sitter Sneva and rookie Rick Mears.

Ongais and Field’s successes with the Interscope team extended into sports car racing, with Field also driving. They teamed with the legendary Hurley Haywood to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1979 in the Interscope Porsche 935 Prototype.

While Ongais was known for his blazing speed at Indianapolis and elsewhere, he also attracted attention for surviving some of the most violent crashes of his era. Ongais suffered serious injuries in a head-on crash during the 1981 Indianapolis 500, missing the rest of the season to recover.

In 1985, he also survived a spectacular barrel-roll at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway after contact with the back of the slower car of Phil Krueger along the backstretch.

Driving for Team Penske in 1987, Ongais crashed his PC-16 chassis in practice and suffered a concussion that forced him out of the race. At the insistence of teammates Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan, team-owner Roger Penske chose three-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser as Ongais’ replacement. 

“Big Al” subsequently drove to his fourth Indy 500 victory in a year-old March 86C chassis that famously had been serving as a show car earlier in the Month of May at a hotel lobby in Scranton, Pa. At age 47, Unser became the oldest driver to win an Indy 500 while also joining A.J. Foyt Jr. as the second driver with four Indy 500 victories.

The tragic circumstances of another accident led to Ongais’ final start at Indianapolis in 1996. Pole-sitter Scott Brayton suffered fatal injuries in a post-qualifying crash in practice, and team- owner John Menard hired Ongais as replacement driver. Ongais _ racing at age 54 in his first 500 since 1986 _ finished a solid seventh after starting from the rear of the traditional 33-car field.

Ongais’ final attempt at Indianapolis came in 1998, when he failed to qualify in a Team Pelfrey car. Ongais’ Indy 500 career statistics credit him with leading four races for 79 total laps. He also recorded the fastest lap of the race, 192.678 mph, as a rookie in 1977.



| , RacinToday.com Thursday, March 3 2022
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