Yes, that is Danny Ongais sitting there, bent and broken, just ahead of the raging fire at the back of his decimated race car. The year was 1981 and the place was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The ’81 Indy 500 was a mess from end to end. The weather brought havoc on the qualifying schedule and really interrupted the month. Then there was a fire in the pits when Rick Mears’ crew accidentally ignited methanol that was filling the tank setting Means, his fuel man, and nearly his wife ablaze along with the race car. Less than one minute after that nightmare, the real disaster happened with a turn three crash for the ages involving Danny Ongais.
Ongais had first gained fame as a drag racer in the early 1960s and then went on to prove that he could drive literally anything and do it very well. This was his worst day at the track, by far. He had a bad pit stop and was coming back onto the course when he encountered a slow car and went to make a high side pass. The car came out from under him and ended up piling into the outer wall of the track. Indy is a very dangerous place to race and this is why. The margin for error there is zero.
With the entire car annihilated and what remained on fire, the nation was faced with the grizzly scene that you see here. Live on national television Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart were tasked with walking the massive audience through not only what had just happened but what was happening as the IMS safety people descended on Ongais basically before the tattered remains of his car had stopped sliding.
The fascinating thing for me in this coverage is how differently it is handled than it would be today. They stuck with the shot of the prone Ongais slumped in the car FOREVER, they showed the emergency crews handling the scene expertly, etc. NONE of that would be on TV today, for better or worse.
Broken arms, legs, internal injuries, and more wold not stop Ongais from mounting a successful comeback a few months later and qualifying 9th for the 1982 Indy 500. Unreal, right?