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|Last updated: 26-March-2012|
The "Flyin' Hawaiian" gets involved in motorsport in his teens
|Over the years, many racing drivers have switched
between different forms of single-seaters, or between open-wheelers and sports cars. Far fewer have made the transition between two wheels and four. But
to go from motorcycle racing to the hall of fame on the quarter-mile drag strip, then become an oval and road racing hero in both Indycars and sports
cars, and even make it to Formula One along the way? If it didn't describe the career of Danny Ongais, you'd have said that that kind of versatility was
Also known as Danny "On-The-Gas", "The Flyin' Hawaiian", but also "The Silent Hawaiian", those nicknames give you a sense of the Ongais enigma. Shy and reserved off the track - some would say obsessively reclusive - he conversely let his actions do the talking on the track, endearing himself especially to American fans for his pedal-to-the-metal approach. Hardly has there been a racer in motor racing history who so epitomised the concept of "all or nothing".
Born in Kahului on the Hawaiian island of Maui in 1942, Ongais began competing on motorcycles as a 14-year-old in 1957, and quickly tasted success. In the late-1950s, he joined the US Army has a paratrooper and, whilst stationed in Europe, got to experience high-powered machinery which only whetted his appetite for racing when he returned to Hawaii. By 1960 he was Hawaii state motorcycle champion and he was in the top three in the expert class for three consecutive years from 1960 to 1962.
Danny arrives on the American mainland
|But Danny was becoming equally adept on four wheels as
he was on two. By 1959 he had started winning sports car races, and soon friends introduced him to drag racing. He took to the discipline like a duck to
water, and had soon conquered the Island Championship as well as being awarded the Outstanding Driver of the Year award. In no time he had outgrown the
local motorsport scene and in 1962 made his way to the mainland as a crewmember for fellow Hawaiian drag racer Roland Leong.
At first, observers dismissed the Hawaiian newcomer, but Ongais was also less than impressed with how things were on the continent. Initially starting out by racing bikes again, the story is told of his first race at Ascot Park in California. He finished 2nd and was handed his prizemoney of $15. When he asked what the sum was for, he was told that it was his winnings. "In Hawaii, I'd get at least $250," he snapped. "You'll be lucky to win $250 the whole season here," came the disheartening reply.
Seeing that there was not much of a future on two wheels, Danny set his sights on becoming a full-time racing driver. He offered himself to all the leading drag racing workshops in southern California, not only as a mechanic but as a test driver and a racer. He drove for the Beaver Brothers and the legendary Mickey Thompson, but it was the newly retired Jim Nelson, who co-owned the Dragmaster workshop, that he really managed to impress.
Dominates the top gas category, especially in "Chevy, Too"
|Nelson remembers: "I told him, 'Just drive the thing
as fast as you feel comfortable.' He got in there and ... he ran that thing quicker than I did right off the bat! He had the natural ability to drive
anything. It didn't make any difference if it was fuel or gas or a funny car. He had the balls to stab and steer it." Ongais adapted so rapidly, by
the end of 1963 he had won the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) AA Gas Dragster Winternationals, and he had built his own gas dragster.
Indeed, Danny's biggest dilemma was what to call his mean machine. Noticing that virtually all the top gas dragsters in the country were using Chevrolet engines, he simply named his "Chevy, Too". However, his rivals would soon discover that over the quarter-mile "Chevy, Too" was no joke. Ongais debuted his creation at the 1964 AHRA Winternationals, and promptly beat Thompson 8.39s to 8.53s to claim the Top Gas Eliminator title.
For the rest of 1964, Ongais criss-crossed America, towing his dragster on an open trailer, acting as his own mechanic, tuning his own engine, and most importantly dominating the top gas ranks. He won the UDRA Nationals and Winternationals, and the NHRA Division Championships. He also dramatically won the Hot Rod Magazine title at Riverside by pushing his dragster over the entire distance after his opponent had broken down at the start and Danny had broken his drive line at the same time.
Tries his hand at sprint cars, and attempts to enter the Indy 500
|By year's end he had secured the Drag News top gas no. 1
position and was awarded drag licence no. 1 by the NHRA. The following year he switched to the top fuel class, but there was no let-up in success. In his
Ongais-Broussard-Davis "Mangler" dragster, he won the Grand Opening meeting at Carlsbad with a 7.62s run, and achieved the first ever 200mph pass on a
European drag strip. He also took out the UDRA Winternationals and the NHRA Division Championships again.
However, that year the Hawaiian also showed the first signs of spreading his wings beyond the quarter-mile and into oval racing, when he raced a sprint car for the California Racing Association. It coincided with a downturn in form throughout 1966 and 1967. Danny's most successful outing in that time was in the NHRA Nationals, where he was runner-up in the top fuel final, his "Honda of Wilmington" dragster ironically being beaten by Mike Snively in the car run by Ongais' compatriot Leong.
But come 1968, Ongais was rejuvenated by renewing his association with Thompson. Especially since that was meant to take him to the Indianapolis 500 in one of Thompson's Huffaker-Chevys. However, in a lead-up event at Hanford, Ongais' engine caught fire, and then he failed to qualify at Phoenix. Indy 500 officials considered that he was too inexperienced, and did not allow him to make a qualifying attempt. Danny's dream of competing at the Brickyard would have to be put on ice for the time being.
Danny takes the funny car scene by storm
|Instead, Thompson had other projects for him in mind.
Later that year, Mickey and Danny teamed up on the salt flats at Bonneville to set 295 international and national land speed and endurance records in
Thompson's Mach I Ford Mustangs. The following year, Thompson also ran the Mach I Mustangs in funny car competition. Although it was a drag racing
discipline that he had not dabbled in previously, Ongais proved his versatility yet again and soon became unbeatable.
In fact, in the first half of 1969, Danny had a 55-2 win-loss record. He was regularly recording 7.3s passes whilst the competition lingered in the 7.7s-7.8s range. He won the NHRA Springnationals, the US Nationals, the Bakersfield March meet, the Manufacturer's Meet, and the AHRA Grand American meet, as well as recording a 6.96s pass (the first under 7s) in a match-race at Kansas City. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year he was named the Drag News driver of the year.
Just to show that his heart was still set on conquering oval racing one day, and to immerse himself in the Indy 500 atmosphere even if he could not race there yet, during the year he returned to the Brickyard, acting as Joe Leonard's water boy during pit stops just to keep himself in the frame. But on the drag strip, once again after so much success the results tailed away, even if the won the AHRA Grand Nationals and set a 243mph speed record at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1970.
Hear a rarity of rarities: Danny Ongais giving an interview! In an interview given in 1978, the "Silent Hawaiian" talks about his early career and how he
got started in motorsport.
"I have to owe mostly what has happened to me in motorsports to the fellows I spent the last half of my life with in California."
(MP3 format, 2.94MB, 1min 16secs)
Moves from the drag strip to road racing in F5000
|By now he had left Thompson's team and was racing for
Big John Mazmanian, whose team was eventually sold to Vel's Parnelli Jones, run by Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones. From 1970 to
1974, Ongais would regularly compete in a Plymouth Barracuda in funny cars, and also in top fuel dragsters at the same meet. The titles dried up, but
such had been his record that he remained one of the best-known drag racers, and a constant fan favourite.
One story doing the rounds these days is of the funny car final one night at the Orange County International Raceway. When the lights went out, Danny stepped on the gas, only to have his Barracuda spear sideways into the armco. Undeterred, when his car ricocheted back into its lane, he slammed on the throttle once again, and was rewarded for his never-say-die attitude when his opponent blew an engine halfway down the drag strip, and Ongais snatched the victory. Not for nothing had Ongais become a folk hero.
However, in 1974 Ongais had begun to move away from the quarter-mile, in order to start pursuing a career in open-wheel racing. He bought a Lola T300 Formula 5000 car and yet again achieved immediate spectacular success in national and regional events run by the Sports Car Club of America. With four wins and 42 points he captured the Northern Pacific Division Formula A title, and all in all he took 12 victories out of 15 starts that year.
Meets Ted Field; it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship
|He earned an invitation to the year-end Road Race of
Champions at Road Atlanta, where Vel's Parnelli Jones (for which he had still been competing in drag racing that season) loaned him an ex-Mario
Andretti Lola T332 - and Danny promptly finished 2nd. It was thus an easy decision for Ongais to leave drag racing behind once and for all and to
compete in F5000 full-time in 1975. VPJ even promised that they would prepare an Indycar for Ongais once he had gained more experience and found himself
He did just that. Although he started 1975 racing his T300, winning at Riverside, he soon purchased an ex-Eppie Wietzes Lola T332 with some sponsorship from San Diego electrical contractor and fellow F5000 racer Ed O'Brien. He then came across famous designer and mechanic Carroll Smith. Smith in turn was working for the new Interscope team formed by Ted Field, and so Ongais was brought into the most important relationship of his motorsport career.
Field was an heir to the Marshall Field's department store fortune and a publishing empire, and he had his own real estate and investment interests. Moreover, he was keen on motorsports and a fine amateur driver in his own right, and had dreams of taking his Interscope outfit as far as Formula One. He initially planned to only run a Talon in F5000 for Jon Woodner, but after Smith's introduction he decided to bring Ongais' Lola under the Interscope umbrella also.
Difficult first full season in F5000 finishes promisingly at Riverside
|At first things did not go so well. In his first outing
in the top-flight USAC F5000 championship at Pocono, Danny ran as high as 6th before mechanical problems. But then he wrote off his T332 in practice at
Mosport. That could have spelled disaster for his fledgling open-wheel career, but Field came to the rescue by buying a brand new ola T400 for the
Hawaiian - except that the T400 turned out to be universally panned as a poor design, and Ongais spent most of the season struggling in the lower
By the last round of the season at Riverside, the Interscope team were tired of trying to convert the unloved T400 back into T332 spec, and Field simply went out and purchased another second-hand T332. After an inconclusive year, Ongais had to impress. He came 3rd in his heat behind Wietzes and Andretti, and was amongst the frontrunners and holding onto champion-elect Brian Redman on the last lap of the final when he got tangled up with a backmarker and was punted off into the guardrail.
Ongais was invited back for the Road Race of Champions where he again qualified 2nd, but he was forced to withdraw from the race due to lingering damage from his Riverside shunt. However, he had proved his potential, and most importantly he had impressed Field and formed a good working relationship with the entrepreneur. For 1976, Interscope would scale back to one car for the F5000 championship, and Danny would be the driver, with two Lola T332s at his disposal.
Makes the step up to Indycars - and promptly rolls his Parnelli!
|Ongais quickly repaid the faith. He took pole in the
season opener at Pocono and finished 2nd in the final, but would have won it but for a half-spin. He spent the rest of the year regularly finishing in
the top five in heats and finals (including a heat win at Elkhart Lake), and kept up his form despite a midseason purge of the team which saw Field
replace everyone but the driver and hand over operational control of the Interscope open-wheel project to Vel's Parnelli Jones.
In a sense, this showed how central Ongais had become in the team, because the VPJ tie-up came via the Hawaiian. It also allowed VPJ to come good on its promise to prepare an Indycar for Danny, and bring him a step closer to his dream of competing in the Indy 500. Towards the end of 1976, VPJ and Interscope entered him in the USAC Indycar round at Ontario Raceway in California in a third Parnelli VPJ6B. Once more it took Ongais next to no time to adapt.
He qualified 11th and was running on the lead lap in his first Indycar start when his car became unsettled by a gust of wind, slammed into the wall and rolled. Ongais miraculously escaped with only cuts and bruises, but it would prove to be something of a portent of the "win or bust" nature of the rest of his career. Shortly afterwards, he took part in a tyre test at Phoenix, and went 0.6s faster - a mammoth gap on a one-mile oval - than the record time set by Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock the previous day ...
Finally gets to race at the Indy 500; takes his first Indycar win at Michigan
|Speed and close shaves obviously did not faze Ongais.
VPJ race director Jim Chapman remembers a moment from the same test when Danny almost hit the wall but just managed to correct the slide in time.
He recalls: "I observed Danny very closely when he got out of the car to see if his hands were shaking. Well, he couldn't have been more relaxed. He
looked like he'd just stepped out of the shower. He was very thrilling to watch - if he wasn't in your car. Nothing frightened him - and that frightened
With that kind of attitude, Danny was always going to make an impact in his first full season in Indycars in 1977. There was a 7th at Ontario and 5th at Phoenix early in the season, but also a crash at Texas that left him out of the following race at Trenton. But then came the Indy 500, nine years after Ongais' initial abortive attempt. This time he easily passed the rookie test and qualified 7th, the best of the newcomers, but a lengthy early pit stop and an engine failure ended his day prematurely.
But not before he had set the fastest lap of the race. With the confidence gained from that performance, and having finally made it to the Brickyard, Danny qualified for all but two of the remaining rounds in the top six (including three poles), and in the midst of the usual spate of accidents and also a litany of mechanical retirements, he managed to hold it all together for his maiden Indycar victory at Michigan, and he completed his debut season in 12th on the points standings.
Also develops a burgeoning sports car career
|However, that was not all there was to Ongais' 1977.
Field had outsourced Interscope's open-wheel operation to VPJ presumably because he now had a sports car program to take care of as well, and Danny was a
part of that too. Ongais had had some experience of sports cars previously. He had driven a Mustang in the 1971 Daytona 24 hours with Ed Matthews
and Swede Savage, at Sebring in 1974 with Tony Adamowicz for California Porsche dealer Vasek Polak, and also in an IMSA race at
Daytona in 1975.
The connection with Polak allowed Interscope to start campaigning Porsches, beginning with a toe-in-the-water exercise towards the end of 1976, when Ongais finished 3rd in both a Trans-Am event at Brainerd and in the IMSA Daytona 250 mile race. That led to a full-scale IMSA assault in 1977 in the GT class, and immediately the Interscope Porsche 934s were amongst the frontrunners. At both Daytona and Sebring, Ongais disputed the early lead before setbacks dropped his car back.
By the fourth round at Laguna Seca, Ongais had scored his first IMSA victory, and he added another one at Brainerd after race-long duel with David Hobbs. He could have had other wins at Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Daytona but for off-road excursions and mechanical problems. As well as finishing 6th in the IMSA points, Ongais and Field also 5th in the world championship round at Watkins Glen. But before the year was out, he was also competing at the same track in the most prestigious World Championship of all.
Crashes out on debut at a wet Watkins Glen
|Ted Field had always harboured dreams of taking
Interscope all the way to Formula One. The team had grown quickly, from F5000 to sports cars and Indycars. Why not make the jump to F1 straight away?
Besides, there was a car available. At the end of 1976, Penske had pulled out of F1 despite having won the Austrian GP with its PC4 design. Two of the
PC4 chassis were sold to the fledgling ATS team, but there was one unraced chassis left. Field bought it, and entered Ongais for the season-ending 1977
US and Canadian GPs.
In an unfamiliar car, and in only his third full season of road racing, it was no surprise that Danny struggled for pace in his first outing at Watkins Glen. He was 26th fastest in qualifying out of 27, over 5.2s off the pole time set by James Hunt, and probably only spared from non- qualification because Patrick Tambay had had engine problems in his Ensign. But come race day, the track was wet, and here was an opportunity for Ongais' natural ability and sensitivity behind the wheel to shine through.
Within the first six laps, he had leapt from 26th on the grid to 15th, despite there having been only one retirement when Alan Jones crashed his Shadow. But then, in not-untypical fashion, Danny overstepped the mark himself, and also crashed out. Those six laps had been a confidence boost, though, and the Hawaiian's performance the following round at Mosport was much-improved, qualifying 22nd on the grid out of 27 cars and only 4.2s behind Andretti on pole.
Almost scores a point in the Mosport madness
|The race proved to be one of attrition, and Ongais had
gradually been making his way up the order when late-race drama struck. Earlier, Rupert Keegan had crashed his Hesketh,
and his car was left on the side of the track. On lap 77 out of 80, Riccardo Patrese spun off in his Shadow and collected the stricken Hesketh.
The following lap, long-time leader Andretti blew his engine and deposited oil throughout the circuit. Vittorio Brambilla hit the oil, lost
control, and his Surtees joined Keegan and Patrese's wrecks!
Ongais was now up to 7th place. The problem was, Brambilla had already completed 78 laps when he crashed, there were five cars on the lead lap, and Danny was already two laps down. It meant that he did not have enough laps to overtake Brambilla's deserted Surtees and get into the points. But he almost didn't finish at all, when next time around it was the Interscope Penske's turn to spin on Andretti's oil at the same corner, and Ongais narrowly avoided adding to what was becoming a very expensive car park.
Danny continued on, and indeed took the chequered flag in 7th position, one spot out of the points in what would end up being his best result in Formula One. The question was, would Interscope and Ongais continue in Grand Prix racing in 1978? They did, but perhaps surprisingly not in the Penske, which was becoming outdated but was not uncompetitive. For when the entry list for the season opener in Argentina was released, Danny was on it, but in a works Ensign alongside Lamberto Leoni.
Bernie helps pave Danny's way to Ensign, but it's only a short union
|By this time Mo Nunn's team was struggling for
cash, and it would survive the 1978 season thanks to pay drivers. Had Field chosen to fund a drive for Ongais with Interscope sponsorship instead of
purchasing a new car? Or was there more to it than met the eye? Renowned engineer Chuck Jones was working for Ensign at the time, and the way he
remembers it, it was none other than Bernie Ecclestone who provided the funds for Ongais' drive, with the promise,
"You're going to love him."
Perhaps Bernie had picked up on Danny's cult status potential, but perhaps people were also expecting too much. In an unfamiliar year-old N177 Ensign chassis, on an unfamiliar Buenos Aires circuit, there was not much Ongais could do. He was 21st in qualifying, albeit under four seconds from pole and ahead of team-mate Leoni and the likes of Didier Pironi, Hector Rebaque and Eddie Cheever, but he retired from the race after 35 laps with a brake disc failure.
The following round at Jacarepagua for the Brazilian GP was no better; the Hawaiian qualified 23rd, 0.75s slower than Leoni, and dropped out after 13 laps again with brake problems. Maybe realising that Ongais and Ensign were not a great match, Field bit the bullet and bought a new car for Interscope to enter in its own right at the following race at Long Beach. It was a Shadow DN9, the latest Shadow design and the same as that used by the works Shadow team.
Changing over to the latest Shadow only brings more trouble
|Except that running a Penske with race-winning pedigree
or getting into a works Ensign drive was one thing, sorting out and running a brand new car over a race weekend was quite another. The DN9 was so new
that even the works team would only be debuting it at Long Beach, and both Clay Regazzoni and Hans-Joachim Stuck were well off the pace.
Ongais was always going to struggle, and sure enough he along with Derek Daly, Keke Rosberg and Rebaque were the first four cars knocked
out of pre-qualifying.
Interscope had successful Indycar and sports car programs to think about at the same time, and so it was no surprise if the team did not have enough time and energy to do F1 properly. But they did not give up altogether; although after Long Beach the team went missing for the next nine rounds, during the European summer they did take their DN9 to a test at Silverstone, where the works team was auditioning Jan Lammers . Ongais went faster than the Dutchman ...
Perhaps buoyed by that showing, Interscope reappeared at the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, but once again Danny did not manage to come to grips with either the car or the circuit. He was only 32nd fastest out of 33 entrants, and again was a pre-qualifying casualty. It would turn out to be Ongais' last F1 entry, but perhaps there were meant to be more in 1979. According to some sources, Ongais was originally slated to be a works Shadow driver alongside Lammers in 1979, and even tested over the off-season at Paul Ricard.
Could Ongais have had further F1 opportunities?
|Indeed, throughout 1979 the second Shadow was entered in
Interscope's name, but instead of Ongais it was Elio de Angelis who drove it all season. Had Danny's F1 experience been a missed opportunity?
Could he have done well had he gone into F1 at a younger age and spent more time in the top flight? His record in adapting to different categories would
suggest so. As Jim Chapman reflects: "Even in those days you couldn't just show up in Formula One and be competitive."
Chapman continues: "And Danny hadn't grown up in road racing. Frankly, I'm amazed that he did as well as he did." And ultimately, perhaps there was another factor. Chuck Jones recalls that Ongais never seemed comfortable in Formula One. Perhaps the European racing mentality just didn't suit the reticent Hawaiian. Especially when he, Field and Interscope already had so much on their plates, and F1 had been just another thing to dabble in rather than a singular obsession.
Danny sets the pace in Indycars, but doesn't finish often enough
|Interscope's abortive attempts at F1 throughout 1978
coincided with what was easily the team's best season in Indycars, thanks to the combination of the well-sorted Parnelli chassis, Parnelli Jones
himself as the team manager, and Phil Casey as Ongais' chief mechanic. At the season opener in Phoenix, Danny qualified his Parnelli VPJ6B on pole
position but retired with a clutch problem. It was a sign of things to come. He won at Ontario, took pole and won at Texas, and came 4th at Trenton.
This made him one of the favourites for the Indy 500, where his car was upgraded to C-spec. In practice he nearly reached an average lap speed of 202mph, and in qualifying he recorded a 200.122mph four-lap average that landed him on the front row. He led away from the start and it seemed as though he could take the lead at will, plus he had better fuel economy than his main rivals. Only a broken radio and some lengthy pit stops dropped him down, but late on he was running 2nd and closing in on Al Unser Sr.
But at three-quarter distance a piston failed, and Danny's run was brought to a sudden end. The crowd fell silent before rising in applause. Ongais' dream of winning the Indy 500 was over for another year, but he responded by taking three straight poles in the next three events, winning at Mosport, but retiring with more mechanical trouble in the other two. Later in the season he won from the pole at Milwaukee, but it was arguably at Michigan where he scored his most famous Indycar triumph.
Hear Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart commentating on Danny's front-running efforts at the 1978 Indy 500 including, ultimately, his heart-breaking retirement late in the race.
"What an amazing young man he is. He's very quiet, he hardly says a word, but my goodness does he drive. ... Obviously the man has a gift that God has given him, and my goodness he's using it to good effect."
(MP3 format, 4.81MB, 2mins 6secs)
Burn from the stern at Michigan, and blitzes the field at Brands Hatch, until ...
|In a bizarre lead-up to the race, his transporter went
missing and Ongais missed all of practice. His first lap was in qualifying - and his engine blew. Starting from the back with virtually no laps under his
belt, Danny charged through the field, look the lead within 20 laps, and won easily. However, it would also be his last-ever Indycar victory. The
remainder of the season only brought more promise (including two more poles) followed by more disappointment, and of particular note were the two races
held in Britain.
At Silverstone, Danny lapped at near-F1 speeds to take pole, and was leading easily when his halfshaft broke. Worse was to come at Brands Hatch, when he was almost two laps ahead of the entire field when his gearbox packed up. Eventual winner Rick Mears admitted, "Today, I couldn't have done anything about Danny." All in all, Ongais led just about every race in the 1978 Indycar season, scored eight poles and five wins, but was only 8th overall. He had been routinely let down by the unreliability of his car.
When his schedule allowed, Ongais was also part of Interscope's sports car program, competing in six IMSA rounds. He was on pole for the Daytona 24hrs in a Porsche 935/77A, and duelled for the early lead with Rolf Stommelen before his engine blew. At both Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta he also started from pole before retiring, and there were other DNFs at the Daytona 250 miles and the World Championship race at Watkins Glen. However Danny also came 2nd at Road Atlanta and a sprint round at Daytona.
Victory in the Daytona 24hrs marks Danny's greatest sports car success
|But as far as sports car competition was concerned,
Ongais' highlight came at the start of the following year. Given Interscope's rather mediocre track record in terms of reliability, Field decided that
he, Ongais and Hurley Haywood would adopt a conservative approach. It paid off as one by one of the 17 Porsche 934 and 935s entered fell by the
wayside. By 1am the Interscope 935 was in the lead. After 15 hours, they led by 18 laps, and they kept plugging on whilst others dropped out.
Entering the last hour, they had a lead that was worth more than 60 minutes. Which was just as well, because the turbocharger failed. Danny was at the wheel, and he calmly stopped on the front straight, just before the start-finish line, letting the car idling and smoking away. When 24 hours finally elapsed, he simply put the car into gear and drove over the line to claim victory by a whopping 49 laps and 192 miles! It would prove to be Danny's greatest success in sports car racing.
The rest of the 1979 IMSA season was full of the usual unfulfilled promise. There were more mechanical retirements, spinouts and collisions at Road Atlanta, Brainerd and the World Championship round at Watkins Glen, a qualifying record at Laguna Seca but more turbo problems in the race that kept him to 3rd, and a 2nd at the Daytona 250 miles. Aside from sports cars, Ongais was also invited to compete in the second race of the IROC series at Michigan, where he finished 5th.
Hear Ken Squier and Dan Gurney discuss why Ongais was the man to beat at the start of the 1978 Indycar season.
"I think Danny's nickname probably says it all. They call him "Danny On-Gas". ... He just can sense the car being on the limit and that's where he runs it. He's a great thrill to watch."
(MP3 format, 1.10MB, 28 secs)
Ongais' Parnelli becomes increasingly outgunned, but comes 4th at Indy
|But he was having a better time with a roof over his
head than in Indycars. Interscope had split somewhat acrimoniously with VPJ at the end of 1978 and would be running the VPJ6C by itself in 1979 in the
CART Indycar series, the breakaway from the USAC championship. It was a tough ask, especially with the Parnelli chassis becoming increasingly outdated.
Compared to the previous year's heroics, Ongais qualified no higher than 3rd all series (but he did start 2nd in a one-off USAC race at Pocono).
Reliability improved to the point where Danny scored enough points for 6th in the title, but his best finishes all year were only a pair of 4ths. One of those was at Watkins Glen, and the other at the Indy 500. The month of May had started terribly when he spun coming out of turn 4 and hit the inside wall. Badly bruised, he missed the first weekend of qualifying and got in on the second weekend in 27th position, only to drive a steady race to finish just outside the top 3. It would be his best result at the Brickyard.
But something big was brewing as far as Interscope's future Indycar plans were concerned. Porsche was looking at making an Indy 500 assault, and Interscope's association with the company through its IMSA program made them the perfect team for Porsche to team up with. Porsche engineers had already made reconnaissance trips to the 1977 Indy 500 and to the 1978 Silverstone USAC round, and they also made several visits to the Interscope workshop in the first half of 1979.
Porsche targets an Indy 500 assault with Interscope and Ongais
|By mid-1979, they were committed to converting the 935
sports car engine into a V6 Indycar powerplant. Interscope commissioned a chassis design from Ukrainian-born Roman Slobodynskyj. But the one issue
that was causing concern was the turbo boost pressure which Porsche would be allowed to run. It must be remembered that one of the reasons the CART teams
split from USAC was over the issue of turbo boost, and CART's breakaway had left the Indy 500 as the only major USAC-sanctioned event.
The Indy 500 was exactly the race Porsche was targeting, and so it was still up to USAC to decide what boost the German engine would be allowed. Whilst USAC kept seeking information about the engine's specifications, in late-1979 initial tests of the Porsche engine in the Parnelli chassis proved promising, running at a provisional 54 inches of mercury which USAC suggested. Ongais was one of those instrumental in meetings with Porsche and with USAC president Dick King to try to resolve the boost issue.
Come December 1979, Interscope and Porsche were confident enough that a solution would be reached that they made the project public in launches in Stuttgart and New York, with the Parnelli test car painted in Porsche's white livery. Testing continued into 1980, but in February USAC decided to send two representatives to Porsche's factory. One of them was USAC stalwart and Indycar legend AJ Foyt's own engine man. There was now a whiff of conspiracy in the air.
Conspiracy theorists, stand up! Turbo boost limits force Porsche pull-out
|USAC was known to want to promote home-grown and cost-
efficient teams in the Indy 500 over the increasing tide of rich, professional outfits - a tension that would lead to the CART/IRL split in 1996. There
was now a sense that USAC would seek to hamstring the Porsche effort to prevent them from winning at Indy. Sure enough, in March USAC announced that the
Porsche engine would only be allowed 48 inches of mercury, compared to the 54 with which Interscope had been testing.
Porsche was incensed. It was already sceptical about Slobodynskyj's mooted design for 1980, believing it to be inadequate in its ground-effects. USAC's decision was the final straw. While there were a few more tests later in 1980, the Porsche project was put on ice for several years. What it did mean was that Interscope's Indycar plans for 1980 were in disarray, and they had to wheel out the faithful Parnelli Cosworth combination for Ongais at Indianapolis.
Danny did his best in the circumstances, qualifying 16th and finishing 7th, and the Parnelli was trotted out for the rest of the season (although Ongais also had one start in an Armstrong Mould March Cosworth at Michigan). Not surprisingly, the results were even poorer than they had been in 1979. 5th on the grid at Mid-Ohio and 3rd in qualifying at Mexico City, as well as a 3rd place finish at Watkins Glen were the only highlights, as Danny fell to 15th in the standings.
Sports cars becomes Interscope's main focus
|By contrast, once again Ongais and Interscope were much
more competitive in IMSA racing. The combination of Ongais, Field and Milt Minter couldn't repeat Interscope's victory at Daytona but came 3rd,
and Ongais and Field also finished 2nd at Sebring. But then the usual rot set in. Danny took two poles at Sears Point and the Daytona season finale, but
he retired from most of the races despite setting five fastest laps. His best result over the remainder of the IMSA season was a 3rd at Mosport.
The Hawaiian also scored fastest laps in the two World Championship rounds at Watkins Glen and Mosport, where he came home 4th and 3rd respectively with Field. Earlier in the year, he had also raced in the Le Mans 24hrs for the first time along with Field and Jean-Louis Lafosse in a 935 K3 run by Kremer Racing which retired with piston failure having started 8th. Once again, Danny was also invited to race in the IROC round at Michigan, but he finished 8th out of the eight starters.
By 1981, there was little point trotting out the Parnelli in Indycar racing any more, the Slobodynskyj design was very much a made-for-Indy proposition, and so Interscope and Ongais focussed on their IMSA campaign. Once again he, Field and Minter were competitive at the Daytona 24hrs, Danny looking set to take the lead after 287 laps when he collided with two Mazdas and was forced to retire. He also retired at Sebring and at Riverside but finished 4th at Road Atlanta and 5th at Laguna Seca.
Hear Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart describe Ongais' horrific crash at the 1981 Indy 500 and its aftermath.
"This is the sort of accident, Jim, quite frankly, that every racing driver fears when he comes to "The Old Brickyard" as they call it, because there is no forgiveness in that wall. When you hit it, it is such an impact."
(MP3 format, 3.30MB, 1min 26secs)
Danny almost pays the ultimate price at Indy
|But then came the Indy 500. The Interscope IP-1,
nicknamed by others as the "Batmobile", and fitted with the Cosworth turbo rather than the Porsche, was quick out of the blocks. For several years, USAC
had been trying to curb the escalating speeds at the Brickyard, but Ongais became the first man since 1978 to hit the 200mph average. After he missed
qualifying on the first weekend, he qualified in 21st but with a time that would have landed him on the front row. Clearly he would be a contender on
So it proved, as Danny charged up the field, leading four laps before making a pit stop on lap 63. He stalled, and by the time his crew got him going again, it had been a costly 46s stop. Perhaps, in gassing it up coming out of his box, he damaged his halfshaft. For moments later, entering turn 3, his car suddenly snapped sideways. By the time Ongais caught the slide, he fishtailed and his trajectory sent him nose first into the concrete wall. The car burst into flames, shedding wheels and body parts as it slid along the wall.
It was the most violent accident at Indy in many years. For a few moments race control was unable to identify who it was. Ongais was left horribly exposed as the rest of the cockpit was torn away, bones exposed on his right leg and his left leg dragging along at a dreadful angle. Danny had suffered terrible leg and internal injuries. But he was alive. As Dr Steve Olvey recalls, "At the time he was probably one of the worst injured drivers to actually survive the crash and get resuscitated at the scene."
Returns to racing, and to the IMSA victory lane
|The long and painful rehabilitation would take Ongais
the rest of the year, but having devoted his life to racing, there was no doubt that he would return. His commitment was not in question, it was a matter
of whether he could be as competitive as he had been before his crash. Making his comeback at the start of the IMSA season in 1982, the Interscope
Porsche 935 retired at Daytona in the hands of Ongais, Field and Bill Whittington, and also retired at Sebring before finishing 2nd at Road
But the team had a new weapon waiting in the wings, a Lola T600 with a Chevy engine. Immediately Danny was propelled back to front-running status, with five poles and five other front row starts. Amongst the usual retirements, there were 2nd place finishes at Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, Brainerd and Sears Point, but more importantly Danny returned to the winner's circle for the first time since 1979 by taking victory at the Daytona 250 miles, at Pocono, and at the Daytona 3hrs, sharing the car with Field on each occasion.
In May, Ongais also returned to Indianapolis with a new Interscope IP-1 chassis, overcoming his demons by qualifying 9th and leading several laps before another crash ended his run, this time when he was running 5th, at turn 2 on lap 62, but this time he walked away. The following month, he also made his second start at the Le Mans 24hrs, in a Kremer Porsche CK5-82 along with Field and Whittington, but the car was an early retirement after an engine failure.
Field walks away to make movies and music, but continues to fund Ongais' Indycar efforts
|Things were looking up for an Ongais resurgence.
Interscope started the 1983 IMSA season with retirements at Daytona and Miami, but all of a sudden Field pulled the plug on his sports car team. He had
had his fun as far as an active involvement in motorsport was concerned, and walked away to become a major player in producing movies and music. However,
having funded virtually all of Danny's post-drag racing career and built a strong working relationship with him, he could not simply leave Ongais in the
For another four years or so, Interscope continued to back Indycar entries for the Hawaiian. In 1983, this firstly meant another crack at the Indy 500 with a March 83C chassis fitted with a Chevrolet engine. When Ongais struggled to get this car up to speed, a second chassis was obtained, this time fitted with a Cosworth engine. Danny promptly set the fastest time of the month in practice, but starting from 21st position he would retire with handling problems in the race.
Later in 1983, Patrick Racing needed a replacement for the injured Johnny Rutherford, and Interscope sponsored Ongais to temporarily take the drive for seven races, with his best results coming in a Wildcat chassis at Milwaukee (12th) and in a March at Mid-Ohio (5th). But that was all was far as 1983 was concerned. For 1984 Interscope would field a March 84C Cosworth for Danny for the entire CART series, but when the year started it was a thin and gaunt Ongais who showed up.
Ongais becomes ever-more reclusive as he continues his Indycar career
|Whether it was intentional or due to some other cause
such as illness, it was quite a change from the Hawaiian's usual stocky appearance. Still, it did not seem to affect his performance. Whilst no longer
the strongest qualifier, Danny still recorded some strong results in races, including a 9th at the Indy 500 (where he led for several laps thanks to
being out of sequence on pit stops), two 5ths at Phoenix and another at Pocono, and a podium at Michigan to finish 10th in the overall standings.
The following year, Interscope only ran half a dozen events in a March 85C Cosworth, with a 7th at Michigan and a 6th at Miami being Ongais' best efforts amidst a number of retirements including an engine failure at Indianapolis and another spectacular accident at Michigan when he tripped over a backmarker and was sent barrel-rolling down the back straight. That partial season would all but mark the end of Interscope as a racing team. From this point on, Field preferred to fund drives with other teams for Danny.
In 1986, Danny only appeared in an Indycar once, at Indianapolis in a works March. He retired from the race but then stayed in his car, helmet on, whilst it was pushed into Gasoline Alley so that he could avoid any interviews. By this time, his shyness had turned into an obsessive silence before the media. In his late-1970s heyday, Mickey Thompson's sister Colleen Campbell had briefly acted as his media attache, but once she left the scene he became increasingly steadfast in refusing to talk to the press.
Maintains sporadic sports car outings, but one more Indy heartbreak in 1987
|Nobody except the man himself knew the exact reason for
this, but it made his signing for the polished and media-savvy Penske team for the 1987 Indy 500 all the more surprising. Clearly Field's money was too
good for Roger Penske to resist, and here perhaps was one final chance for Ongais to record a top result at the
Brickyard. But sadly, the new Penske PC-16 chassis was proving uncompetitive, and neither Ongais or his team-mates Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan were able to extract sufficient pace.
Worse still, Ongais crashed in practice and suffered concussion. Indy doctors ruled him out of qualifying. Penske replaced Danny with Al Unser Sr, and swapped the fleet of uncompetitive Penskes for Marches. And Unser went on to take his 4th Indy 500 win. It was a bitter pill for Danny to swallow. After Interscope briefly returned as a team for a last hurrah and ran Ongais in a March 87C at Michigan, Nazareth and Miami for low-key results, both team and driver seemingly disappeared from Indycars once and for all.
Apart from these sporadic Indycar outings, Ongais also showed up in other categories from 1984 to 1988. He competed in the full 4-race IROC series in 1984, with a best finish of 4th at Michigan. In 1986, he had made a one-off return to IMSA competition at West Palm Beach, sharing a Porsche 962 with Foyt. Curiously, he also popped up in Europe, driving a 962 for Joest Racing, coming 9th in the World Championship round at the Norisring, and 4th and 2nd in Interserie events at Wunstorf and Most.
Danny leaves top-flight racing in 1988, but is lured back eight years later
|At the start of 1987, he also reappeared at the Sebring
12hrs, again in a Joest Porsche, this time shared with "John Winter" and Sarel van der Merwe, starting and finishing 4th. In 1988, Ongais
had his last major outing - or so it seemed - when he made one final start at Le Mans in a March-Nissan R88S with Michel Trolle and Toshio Suzuki, retiring with engine failure. For the rest of the year, he supported his son Brian Ongais, who was
having his one and only season in Indy Lights.
However Brian chose not to pursue a motorsport career, and in 1989, at the age of 46 Danny drifted away from professional racing himself. Having spent his adult life in motor racing, one imagines that the itch to step on the gas never went away, but at most he contented himself competing in local events in southern California. That is, until the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1996, with all the major Indycar teams staying in the rival CART series, and 25 of the 33 spots at the Indy 500 reserved for IRL teams.
Suddenly there was the prospect of a raft of new and inexperienced teams who might want an old hand for the Brickyard. Ongais was enticed into making a comeback with Bricknell Racing, nine years after his Penske disappointment. In practice, he comfortably lapped in the 221mph range, but he did not qualify on the first weekend when Scott Brayton took pole in the Menard Lola Buick. But then, tragically, Brayton suffered fatal injuries in a practice crash.
The IRL brings Ongais back to the Indycar cockpit
|Al Unser Sr, who had been the beneficiary of
Danny's own misfortune in 1987, recommended that Menard put the Hawaiian into Brayton's car, and they took Unser's advice. On race day, Ongais led the
cars around during the parade laps as a tribute to Brayton, before dropping to the back of the field to start last, as he was required to do as a
replacement driver. But when the green flag dropped, he quickly made ground and was up to 19th when the yellows came out for an early caution period.
At the restart, Ongais was caught out by the sudden power delivery from the Buick turbo and spun, but he survived and continued on his way. Becoming ever more familiar with the car, by the end of the race he was one of the fastest drivers on the track albeit three laps down, and he finished in a very respectable 7th place. That whetted his appetite for some more IRL action in 1997, and he joined Joie Chitwood's Trane Allied Specialty team to drive a Dallara with an Oldsmobile engine.
As it was, he only competed at one round at Walt Disney World Speedway, qualifying 16th out of 19 and retiring after 94 laps with suspension failure. With normally aspirated engines and aero-dependent cars relying heavily on a precise driving style, it was a far cry from the turbo-powered beasts he had been able to aggressively manhandle in his heyday. But that did not stop him from agreeing to make one final tilt at the Indy 500 for Team Pelfrey in 1998. At 55, he was the oldest driver attempting to make the grid.
Another TKO at Indy, but becomes a hall-of-famer before one final Grand-Am start
|He was showing good pace in practice, but on his first
lap in qualifying his engine blew and he hit the wall coming out of turn 3, coming to rest near where he had laid so badly injured 17 years earlier.
Track workers found him awake but shaken up, but once he had been taken to hospital it was found that he had suffered another bout of concussion. Once
again he was ruled out by doctors like he had been in 1987, and Team Pelfrey replaced him with his former IMSA nemesis John Paul Jr.
Danny walked away from top-flight competition and from the limelight one more time. In 2000 he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000 in the drag racing category, and into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. He was also named one of the all-time top 50 drivers by the National Hot Rod Association. He also maintained his relationship with Field, looking after the upkeep and restoration of the entrepreneur's collection of cars, including all the cars from the Interscope Racing days.
Then, in 2002, at the age of 60, Ongais was lured into one last professional race, teaming up with Patrice Roussel and Eduardo Sezionale in the final race of the Grand Am season, the Daytona 3hrs. In a Norma M2000, they finished 11th outright and 5th in the SRP class. Although after that he retreated to the ranks of local vintage car racing in southern California, it meant that the Hawaiian had had a motorsport career spanning over six decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s.
How do you evaluate a career lasting over 40 years?
|How does one sum up such a long and versatile career, in
which Ongais was competitive in just about everything he turned his hand to, and came to be revered in the drag racing, Indycar and sports car circles
for his commitment behind the wheel but also his mysterious personality? His team manager at Vel's Parnelli Jones, Jim Dilamarter, says this:
"Danny was one of those unfortunate guys who things seem to happen to. I don't know of any driver ballsier than Danny, I'm not sure if that was a good
thing or not."
Phil Casey, his long-time Interscope chief mechanic and later IRL technical director, adds: "I think he was as good a racing driver as ever came along. He had all kinds of talent and a great feel for a race car." Perhaps the last word goes to Jim Chapman, VPJ race director: "He'd come out of drag racing and motorcycles, so speed didn't frighten him. But it's hard to make the transition to road racing and high-speed ovals, especially at his age. He had a lot of talent and on any given day he was as quick as anybody."
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