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Al Unser Jr. recalls his 1995 disqualification, putting the Josef Newgarden IndyCar penalty in perspective

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina – Al Unser, Jr. found a bit of irony to the news that Team Penske IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden had his season-opening victory taken from him by IndyCar officials on April 24.

As a former Penske driver, Unser could relate.

Before Wednesday morning’s announcement, Unser was the last IndyCar race winner to be disqualified after a race.

Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin also disqualified; Will Power docked 10 points.

The major difference, however, is Unser was informed by CART officials of his rules infraction about one hour after celebrating the Team Penske win in Victory Lane at Portland International Raceway on June 25, 1995. Unser’s car failed CART’s “Two-Inch Rule” during postrace technical inspection.

Newgarden was disqualified six weeks after driving to victory in the March 10 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after IndyCar officials discovered manipulation in the “push-to-pass” software that allowed Newgarden to use push to pass (which delivers an extra boost of horsepower) illegally on restarts.

“By reading the press announcements and so on that came out this morning, the push-to-pass is a computer thing,” Unser told “(Team Penske president) Tim Cindric says they accept the penalty, and I don’t think they can fight it because it’s a computer thing that is black and white.

“The Portland thing, which I did think of when today’s announcement came out, it was human error, that it was down to the humans, measuring the bottom of the car and so on.

“It’s two different things.”

Al Unser Jr and Owner Roger Penske, 1994 Indy 500 Qualifying

UNITED STATES - MAY 29: Auto Racing: CART Indianapolis 500, Al Unser Jr, and Team Penske owner Roger Penske victorious in winner’s circle with trophy and flowers after winning race, Indianapolis, IN 5/29/1994 (Photo by George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (SetNumber: X46238)

Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Unser is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time CART champion. He was a major IndyCar star when he was at the peak of his racing career and won 34 IndyCar races counting CART, the Indy 500 and his three wins in the Indy Racing League.

The St. Pete victory would have been Newgarden’s 30th career IndyCar win, but with the disqualification, he goes back to 29 as Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren was credited with the victory, moving up a spot from his original second-place finish at St. Pete.

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who had finished third, also was disqualified for the same infraction. Teammate Will Power was docked 10 points but not disqualified because he didn’t use push to pass illegally during the race. Power was moved from fourth to second behind O’Ward.

NEW FINISHING ORDER: Click here for updated St. Pete results

More than six weeks have passed since the opening race, but IndyCar’s penalty was severe and dramatic.

Disqualifications in auto racing are extremely rare. The announcement on April 24 is the first time a race winner has been disqualified since Unser at Portland in 1995.

In that race, CART officials penalized the apparent race winner when his car did not meet the “Two-Inch Rule” when measured underneath the car. Also, Unser hit a bump in the final portion of the course and the skid plate came off the car, but that was not the reason for Unser’s DQ.

Although he finished ahead of Jimmy Vasser, CART officials immediately DQ’d Unser and gave Vasser what would have been his first career win.

After an eventful week and a jumble in the championship standings, the NTT IndyCar Series will hold its first road course points race of the season.

At that time, Team Penske appealed the decision and later in 1995, an appeals board returned the victory to Unser.

There was a timing and scoring issue in the Indy Racing League’s first race at Texas Motor Speedway in June 1997 that did not credit Arie Luyendyk with completing two laps and scored him as two laps down, instead of the race winner. Billy Boat was the driver that went to Victory Lane, but Luyendyk went into the celebration saying he was the winner.

Boat’s team owner, four-time Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt, slapped the driver from The Netherlands, knocking Luyendyk into a planter that contained tulips.

The next day, United States Auto Club officials announced after reviewing all timing and scoring data from the Texas race, that Luyendyk was indeed the winner and reversed the results.

That was different, however, because there was not a disqualification.

Because of the controversy, USAC was fired as the sanctioning body by the Indy Racing League.

In the 2002 Indianapolis 500, Paul Tracy was setting up race leader Helio Castroneves for the winning pass at the end of the race when Laurent Redon crashed in Turn 2.

When the yellow caution light was turned on, it appeared Tracy’s car was in the lead, but IndyCar Series Race Control ruled Castroneves was the leader when he crossed the timing line as the order for the caution was called, and he was credited with his second-straight Indy 500 win.

Team owner Barry Green protested the decision. The protest was heard and one month later, Indy Racing League founder and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George ruled in favor of Castroneves and Team Penske.

In addition to Newgarden having his 30th career IndyCar victory stricken from the records, teammate McLaughlin was also disqualified. A 10-point penalty was issued for No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet for driver Will Power.

Indy 500 results points

May 28, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; IndyCar Series driver Josef Newgarden (right) celebrates with team owner Roger Penske after winning the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Newgarden is the winner of the 108th Indianapolis 500 in 2023. Team Penske is owned by Roger Penske, who also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the IndyCar Series, and the Indianapolis 500.

Since purchasing IMS and IndyCar on Nov. 4, 2019, Penske is not involved in race officiating to avoid a conflict of interest.

That is why this matter was handled by Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who accepted IndyCar’s ruling.

“Unfortunately, the push-to-pass software was not removed as it should have been, following recently completed hybrid testing in the Team Penske Indy cars,” Cindric said in a statement. “This software allowed for push-to-pass to be deployed during restarts at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix race, when it should not have been permitted.

“The No. 2 car driven by Josef Newgarden and the No. 3 car driven by Scott McLaughlin, both deployed push-to-pass on a restart, which violated IndyCar rules. Team Penske accepts the penalties applied by IndyCar.”

Additionally, all three entries have been fined $25,000 and will forfeit all prize money associated with the Streets of St. Petersburg race.

“Roger is the most legal person, car owner I ever drove for,” Unser said of Penske. “For this to happen to Team Penske is an eye-opener. That’s like, wow, because Roger prides himself on his cars being legal as all get-out.

“It’s different than NASCAR. In NASCAR, you got to race the rulebook, right? I mean, everybody cheats at NASCAR; it’s just all about getting caught.

“But in IndyCar, they don’t.

“This is highly irregular. For it to happen to Team Penske.”

The issue was not noticed until the warmup session for the April 21 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. That is when IndyCar technical inspectors discovered the team’s possible rules violation.

An extensive review of data from the race on the Streets of St. Petersburg revealed that Team Penske manipulated the overtake system so that the Nos. 2, 3 and 12 cars had the ability to use push-to-pass on starts and restarts.

According to the IndyCar rulebook, use of overtake is not available during championship races until the car reaches the alternate start-finish line.

It was determined that the No. 2 and the No. 3 gained a competitive advantage by using push-to-pass on restarts while the No. 12 did not.

Nearly 30 years ago, Unser remembers receiving the word that CART officials had disqualified his victory at Portland and awarded it to Vasser.

“Well, for me, being right after the race, I found out within an hour or an hour and a half after the race, I was devastated,” Unser told “I was going, ‘Man, I worked so hard for it to be deemed illegal.’ And for the reason why ... it was just, it didn’t seem right, it didn’t seem fair, and so we went and proved it later on.

“But it was devastating. It was a blow. It was a big blow because that’s all the points that you lose being illegal, those points.”

Back in 1995, Team Penske appealed, and an appeals board ruled in their favor, taking the awarded victory away from Vasser and giving the on-track victory back to Unser.

US driver Jimmy Vasser (L) celebrates his victory

BROOKLYN, UNITED STATES: US driver Jimmy Vasser (L) celebrates his victory while posing for photos with his crew after inning the inaugural running of the US 500 26 May at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Vasser won the race over second place Brazilian driver Mauricio Gugelmin. AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

It would have been Vasser’s first career win in CART, but he had to wait until the 1996 season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for his first trip to Victory Lane.

As for Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power, the points penalty is a major setback in today’s competitive fight for the IndyCar Series Championship.

“For Josef Newgarden, every race is just so competitive these days that, the first race is as important as the last one,” Unser said. “It was back then, too, but I think it’s even more so now because everybody’s so equal now. The reliability of the cars is so much greater today than they were back in my day.

“And so, every single point, you die for.

“If I was Josef, that’s the biggest thing that would be on my mind was, ‘Dang, I lost all those points.’”

Unser remembered the details of his infraction nearly 30 years later. This was when the inspection process was more manual, than electronic.

Because of advancements in technology, measuring cars in the inspection process is much more precise than it was in 1995.

“What the actual ruling was is that I did not pass the Two-Inch Rule, being in the tub, the bottom of the tub,” Unser explained. “It had nothing to do with the skid plate on the rear of the car falling off. It had nothing to do with that.

“They were saying that I did not pass the Two-Inch Rule, which Roger Penske later on proved that it did.

“It was in the details that they have a bar that goes underneath the car, and they have sliding blocks, because the cars were different — the Penske versus the Lola versus the March chassis. They had sliding blocks to put on the bottom of the tub and then on the end of the piece there was a 2-inch piece and so it needed to clear the side pod on the outside.

“Those sliding blocks that go up against the tub can be positioned whatever way that the officials want.

“The bottom of the car was actually warped. It had high spots and it had low spots. We went in, we protested, and went in and proved that I, in fact, was legal. That’s why they gave it back to me.

“The cars went into tech and whoever was underneath the car, wherever they placed those blocks against the bottom of the tub, that’s what they did.

“It was very arbitrary.

“Whoever was the man underneath the car was very arbitrary. That’s why we protested it and that’s why we won it back at the end of the year.”

Unfortunately for Unser in 1995, his car was taken back to CART headquarters in Troy, Michigan, and was impounded for the remainder of the season.

The team got it back when it won its appeal, but in that era, teams purchased new cars ever year that featured competitive improvements.

Back in Indianapolis, Arrow McLaren Team Principal Gavin Ward got the news that his driver, Pato O’Ward, was declared the winner six weeks after he was third across the finish line. It was Ward’s first win in his role at Arrow McLaren.

“Yeah, but like Gavin said, a win is a win and they’re going to take it no matter what,” Unser said. “The points are just so critical in every single event.

“Congratulations to Team McLaren. They’ve been knocking on the door hard and so it’s good to see them get a win.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500