1990 Indy 500

1990 Indianapolis 500

74th Indianapolis 500
Location Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Date May 27, 1990
Winner Arie Luyendyk
Average speed 185.981 mph
Pole position Emerson Fittipaldi
Pole speed 225.301 mph
Fastest qualifier Fittipaldi
Rookie of the Year Eddie Cheever, Jr.
Most laps led Fittipaldi (128)
Pre-race ceremonies
National anthem Sandi Patti
Back Home Again in Indiana Jim Nabors
Starting command Mary F. Hulman
Pace car Chevrolet Beretta
Pace car driver
Honorary starter N/A
Attendance 300,000 (estimated)
TV in the United States
Network ABC
Announcers Paul Page, Sam Posey, and Bobby Unser
Nielsen Ratings
Market share
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1989 1991

The 74th Indianapolis 500 was held at Indianapolis on Sunday, May 27, 1990. Arie Luyendyk took the lead with 32 laps to go, and earned his first-ever victory in championship-level competition. Luyendyk completed the 500 miles at an average speed of 185.981 mph (299.307 km/h), a record that still stands as of 2011.

Defending champion and race polesitter Emerson Fittipaldi dominated the first half of the race, looking to become the first back-to-back winner in 20 years. In the second half of the race, however, he fell victim to blistering tires, lost a lap, and wound up finishing third. Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner, was poised to win his second Indy 500, be he too suffered handling problems, which dropped him to second at the finish.

A. J. Foyt finished 6th in the race, his final career top 10 in Indy 500 competition. Rookie Jeff Andretti attempted to become the unprecedented fourth member of the Andretti family to qualify for the same race, but was bumped on the final day of time trials.

Rain hampered much of the month, washing out nearly the entire first weekend of time trials. The 1990 race was also the first Indy 500 presided over by Tony George, who was named president of the Speedway in January.

Controversy hovered over the month, regarding new aerodynamic rules. All teams utilizing 1989 (or older) model year chassis were required to affix a "diffuser" to the underbody ground effects tunnels, to reduce their size by 2 inches - a rule intended to reduce downforce and curtail speeds. Competitors complained that the diffusers made their cars unstable and unbalanced, and were responsible for the increased number of practice crashes involving the older cars. Despite voiced complaints and meetings with officials, no changes were made the rules. Ultimately, no major crashes occurred amongst the older cars during the race itself.


Practice and qualifying

Practice - week 1

The first week of practice saw the Penske Team dominate the speed charts. Defending champion Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears topped the speed chart nearly every day. Al Unser, Jr. and Arie Luyendyk also ran amongst the top 5.

Johnny Rutherford wrecked twice during the week. On Monday May 7, he brushed the wall, and was uninjured. On Wednesday May 9, he spun in turn three, and crashed hard into the outside wall, suffering a concussion.

Jim Crawford also suffered two crashes, one on Sunday, and one on Friday. His second crash was spectacular, as the car came off the outside wall and lifted airborne through the south short chute.

On Friday May 11, the final day of practice, the speeds climbed. Emerson Fittipaldi rans laps of 227.101 mph and 227.181 mph shortly after 4 p.m. They were the fastest unofficial laps in track history. Not to be upstaged, about an hour later, Al Unser, Jr. blistered the track with a lap of 228.502 mph, the fastest practice lap ever run at Indy.

Time Trials - weekend 1

Pole Day
Pole day was scheduled for Saturday May 12, with Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi the favorites for the pole position. Rain closed the track for the day, and postponed pole qualifying until Sunday.

Second Day
On Sunday May 13, rain threatened to wash out the entire weekend. Continuing rain, cool temperatures and "weepers" kept the cars off the track until after 2:30 p.m. Emerson Fittipaldi was the first driver to make a qualifying attempt, as time trials finally got underway at 4:34 p.m.

Fittipaldi set new one and four-lap qualifying records to secure the provisional pole position. His four-lap average of 225.301 mph was the first over 225 mph in Indy history.

A hectic, abbreviated qualifying session saw 16 attempts before the track closed at 6 p.m. Rick Mears (224.215 mph) and Bobby Rahal (222.694 mph) tentatively rounded out the front row. Several drivers including Al Unser, Jr., Arie Luyendyk, and A. J. Foyt were left waiting in line, and would have to wait until the following weekend to have a shot at the pole position.

Practice - week 2

On Monday (May 14), Arie Luyendyk, who was not able to qualify yet, was the fastest car of the day at 221.773 mph. Al Unser, Jr. concentrated on race day setups instead, and ran a lap of 220.496 mph.

Practice on Tuesday (May 15) and Wednesday (May 16) was rained out.

On Thursday (May 17), Arie Luyendyk again led the speed chart, with a lap of 217.854 mph. Rookie Guido Dacco passed his rookie test, and Salt Walther took to the track for the first time.

On Friday (May 18), Al Unser, Jr. re-established himself as a threat for the pole position, running a lap of 224.995 mph, the fastest of the day. But before the day was over, he blew his qualifying engine, and the team was forced to install a back-up engine for time trials. Arie Luyendyk was second at 223.586 mph. Bernard Jourdain wrecked twice in three hours, first in his backup car, then in his primary car, requiring surgery and ending his month.

Time Trials - weekend 2

Third Day
On Saturday May 19, pole qualifying resumed, with 16 cars still eligible for the pole round. Arie Luyendyk (223.304 mph) squeezed onto the front row, bumping Bobby Rahal back to row 2. The highly-anticipated run by Al Unser, Jr. was a disappointment, as he only managed 220.920 mph, putting him in 7th starting position.

At 5:45 p.m., the field was filled to 33 cars, Mike Groff (203.643 mph) on the bubble. Jim Crawford then easily bumped out Groff. After two crashes, and two slow qualifying attempts, Johnny Rutherford (204.801 mph) was now on the bubble. Stan Fox bumped him out by over 9 mph, and for the second year in a row, Rutherford was poised to miss the race.

Bump Day
On Sunday May 20, Bump Day saw rain, and the track did not open until 2:30 p.m. As the day opened, rookie Buddy Lazier (209.418 mph) was on the bubble. After two attempts, John Paul, Jr. was able to bump out Lazier.

In the final 20 minutes, Salt Walther (attempting to make a comeback to racing) took to the track for his first qualifying attempt in ten years. Rookie Jeff Andretti (210.268 mph) was on the bubble. Andretti was attempting to qualify for the first time, and also be the 4th member of the Andretti family to qualify for the same race. Walther qualified at 210.558 mph, just fast enough to bump Andretti.

In the final 8 minutes, Johnny Rutherford made one last futile effort to bump his way in, but waved off after only two laps. That allowed Rocky Moran to take to the track. His speed of 211.076 mph bumped out Salt Walther at the 6 o'clock gun, and the field was set for race day.

Race summary


After rain on Saturday, race day dawned sunny and warm. Temperatures were higher than expected, which ultimately led to poor chassis set ups and handling problems for many drivers.

Emerson Fittipaldi took the lead from the start, and dominated the opening laps. The start was clean, and went 19 laps before the first caution. In turn one, Danny Sullivan's car broke a suspension piece, which sent his car spinning and he crashed hard into the outside wall.

First half

With Fittipaldi continuing to dominate, the top five was being battled amogst Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., and Arie Luyendyk. Rick Mears dropped back with handling issues, and fell a lap down.

Tony Bettenhausen brought out the second caution, when he stalled in lap 45. He was towed back to the pits, and would continue for a time in the race. On lap 63, Mario Andretti and Raul Boesel suffered engine failures, and oil was reported on the track. At the same time, Pancho Carter slowed down the backstretch with a broken a CV joint. In turn four, he spun due to the bad handling, and tagged the wall in turn 4. Carter was uninjured.

Emerson Fittipaldi continued to lead, and set a new Indy record by leading the first 92 consecutive laps. He lost the lead on lap 93 when he pitted. Arie Luyendyk took the lead for two laps, the relinquished the lead back to Fittipaldi when he himself pitted.

At the halfway point, Fittipaldi had led 98 laps and was averaging 174.192 mph, just shy of the race record.

Second half

Blistering tires began to be an issue with several drivers. The fast pace and the changing weather conditions were both factors. On lap 116, Emerson Fittipaldi ducked into the pits for a scheduled pit stop. That allowed Bobby Rahal to take the lead for the first time. The rest of the leaders cycled through stops, and Fittipaldi once again found the lead.

On lap 136, leader Fittipaldi suddenly entered the pits for an unscheduled pit stop. He was the victim of a blistered right rear tire. Bobby Rahal took over the lead, and began to pull away. Arie Luyendyk was now running second, with Fittipaldi dropping to third.

On lap 140, John Andretti brushed the wall in turn four, damaging the suspension. He continued down the frontstrech, and spun lazily in turn 1. It would be the final caution period of the day. Leader Bobby Rahal pitted under the caution, taking on fuel and only two tires (right sides only). Team team was expressing concern about changing all four, as many teams were blistering tires. Luyendyk, however, took on four tires and fuel.

On lap 153, Fittipaldi was forced make another unscheduled pit stop for yet another blistered tire, and fell a lap down.

Bobby Rahal continued to lead, but handling problems were starting to slow his pace. Having taken on only two tires, coupled with a damaged wing adjuster, was causing a pushing condition. Arie Luyendyk began to reel him in, and took over the lead with a pass in turn three on lap 168. Going into the race, Luyendyk had never led a lap at Indy, and had never won an Indy car race.


Both Luyendyk and Rahal needed one final pit stop to make it to the finish. Rahal pitted first, on lap 171. Luyendyk followed two laps later, and was able to get back out on the track ahead of Rahal. With Fittipaldi still a lap behind in third, the race became a two-man duel between Luyendyk and Rahal - with Rahal seemingly unable to close the gap. Some observers were unsure if Luyendyk and Rahal could make it to the finish on fuel, but neither team planned to pit.

In the final 20 laps, Luyendyk began to pick up the pace, and the average speed began to climb, well above the existing record. With three laps to go, Luyendyk led Rahal by 13.3 seconds. Third place Emerson Fittipaldi caught Luyendyk, and was attempting to un-lap himself. He did so on the mainstretch on the final lap, which distracted Luyendyk, and he did not see the white flag. The next time around, the checkered flag was displayed, and Luyendyk won his first-career Indy car race.

The record average speed of 185.981 mph (299.307 km/h) marked the fastest 500 in Indy history, and the fastest 500-mile Indy car race to date. The 500-mile speed record would later be broken at the 1990 Michigan 500, but the race still stands, as of 2011, as an Indianapolis 500 record.

Eddie Cheever was named the rookie of the year.

Box score

Race statistics

Failed to Qualify


  • 1990 Day-By-Day Trackside Report for the Media: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (74th Annual Indianapolis 500-Mile Race)
1989 Indianapolis 500
Emerson Fittipaldi
1990 Indianapolis 500
Arie Luyendyk
1991 Indianapolis 500
Rick Mears

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