IndyCar legends remember Danny Ongais: ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’ at the Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS – Danny Ongais, the first and highest-finishing Hawaiian starter at the Indy 500, also might have been one of the hardest chargers in the race’s storied history.
Ongais was a man of few words but drove a race car with the right foot of an elephant on the accelerator. No matter how fast Ongais drove his race car, he always wanted to go even faster.
That earned him such nicknames as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” and Danny “On-The-Gas.”
He drove with bravado and advocated unlimited rules at the Indianapolis 500.
“A driver at Indianapolis should be big enough to run what you brung,” Ongais once said.
That attitude often got him in trouble, though. Ongais had some of the biggest, hardest crashes in Indianapolis 500 history.
There probably has never been a driver who hit the wall harder more often and was able to survive than Danny Ongais (who died earlier this year).
“Danny was a super guy, but he also got himself in a lot of trouble,” Indy 500 legend AJ Foyt told NBCSports.com. “The cars were fragile on the half shafts, and he liked to drive them hard sometimes. That is the reason why he got into the wall so often.”
Born in Kahului, Hawaii on May 21, 1942, Ongais remains the first driver from the Aloha State to race in the Indianapolis 500, and he’s an appropriate pioneer as May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. (Though Indianapolis Motor Speedway had listed Ongais as the only Indy 500 driver from Hawaii, Bill Alsup, the 11th-place finisher in the 1981 race also was born in Honolulu, but his racing career primarily was built in the continental U.S.).
Ongais had no fear. When he was 14, he already was speeding around on motorcycles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper stationed in Europe.
After he was discharged, he returned to Hawaii and entered motorsports, first as the Hawaiian motorcycle champion in 1960 before switching to a drag racing career.
He won the American Hot Rod Association AA Gas Dragster Championship in 1963 and 1964. He moved up to the National Hot Rod Association AA Dragster championship and defeated the legendary Don Prudhomme in the 1966 NHRA Nationals in the Top Fuel semifinals.
In 1969, Ongais won the NHRA Spring Nationals and NHRA U.S. Nationals in the Funny Car class driving a Mickey Thompson Ford Mustang.
That victory came one year after Thompson tried to enter Ongais into the 1968 Indianapolis 500, but Ongais was denied because he had almost no experience in open-wheel race cars.
Thompson and Ongais also teamed up to set nearly 300 national and international speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Mach 1 Mustang during the 1960s.
Ongais dominated in SCCA competition in 1974, catching the eye of young media mogul Ted Field, who had recently founded the Interscope Records label.
Field was part of the famed Marshall Field family, the famed owners of the department store chain in Chicago.
Ongais and Field teamed up with success in Formula 5000 and the IndyCar Series in the late 1970s. He also competed in four Formula One races in 1977 and 1978, including two starts with Interscope, with a best finish of seventh in 1977 at the Canadian Grand Prix.
The best season for Ongais and the Interscope team came in 1978, when he won five races and eight poles en route to an eighth-place finish in the USAC standings.
“Danny, the way he picked it up, was like a duck to water,” Mario Andretti told NBC Sports. “He really wanted to be here. He was a force to be reckoned with when he was out there.
“He didn’t talk, but he let the car speak for him.”
That 1978 season also included Ongais starting in the middle of the first all-200-mph front row at Indianapolis, between pole-sitter Sneva and rookie Rick Mears.
“Danny Ongais was my hero,” Mears told NBC Sports. “He was the only guy that spoke less at functions than I did. I always wanted to be like him.
“He would get an award, step up to the microphone and just say, ‘Thank you’ and then sit down.
“He was a good guy. Great guy. Our paths didn’t cross a lot away from the track, but when they did, he was a quiet, easygoing guy – totally different and opposite outside of the car. He was easy going outside of the car, didn’t say much and kept to himself but when he got in the car and put a helmet on, it was like he flipped the switch and stood on the gas.”
The success of Ongais and Field with the Interscope team also extended to sports car racing, with Field also driving. They teamed up 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 in the 1981 Indianapolis 500, missing the rest of the season to recover.
“He was fearless,” Mears said. “That’s the way he drove, too. That stems more from drag racing. That’s what it is all about, any way you can add another 500 horsepower, you do it. That is what you do in drag racing.
“He was a racer. He loved what he was doing. That’s the difference. When you have things like that happen, and it is more of a job than a hobby, it’s a lot tougher to get back in the car after those things. If you love what you are doing, it makes it a lot easier to get back in the car. He was a racer, and he loved what he was doing, so it was easier for him to get back in the car.”
In 1985, Ongais also survived a spectacular barrel-roll at Michigan International Speedway after hitting the back of the slower car of Phil Krueger on the backstretch.
On May 15, 1982, Danny Ongais qualified 9th for the Indy 500. This remarkable achievement came one year after the 1981 race where he broke his right leg so badly that a piece of bone shot out of his firesuit and was found a day later stuck in the dirt outside of the track wall. pic.twitter.com/wWOurQyhjT— nascarman (@nascarman_rr) April 4, 2022
Ongais crashed in practice and suffered a concussion in 1987 at Indianapolis while driving for Team Penske, forcing him to miss the race.
Al Unser was named as Ongais’ replacement and drove to his fourth Indy 500 victory in a backup car that previously had been used as a show car earlier in May at a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.
“Timing is everything in this business and having the luck of the timing on your side,” Mears said. “Al was doing his typical thing. If he was running at the end, you couldn’t count him out. He proved it again in that race and got the job done.”
The tragic circumstances of an accident also led to Ongais’ final start at Indianapolis in 1996.
Pole-sitter Scott Brayton suffered fatal injuries in a post-qualifying practice crash, and team owner John Menard hired Ongais as the replacement driver. (Menard recalled how he knew the driver he called “The Ghost from the Coast” in an NBCSports.com interview last year.)
Danny Ongais stepped up when @INDYCAR & I needed him most. He jumped into Scotty Brayton’s car in the ’96 Indy 500 & finished 7th after starting last… at age 54! Was 1 of only 5 teammates I ever had in #INDYCAR. The time he spent with me was invaluable. RIP, my friend. pic.twitter.com/X4ZqLkQY4w— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) February 28, 2022
At 54, Ongais made his first start at the Brickyard in 10 years, finishing a credible seventh after starting from the rear of the field.
Ongais’ final attempt at Indianapolis came in 1998, when he failed to qualify in a Team Pelfrey car.
Ongais’ Indy 500 career ended with him leading in four races for 79 total laps. He also recorded the fastest lap of the race, 192.678 mph, as a rookie in 1977.
Ongais died Feb. 26, 2022 from congestive heart failure in Anaheim Hills, California. He was 79.
For those of us who saw Ongais race, he was a man who thrived on sheer, raw speed.
“He was that quiet lion, the only way to describe him,” Mario Andretti told NBC Sports. “What a likable guy in every way. The times I got to know him; he was one that you always admired. He never really disparaged anybody. He did his own thing.
“He made a lot of noise in a very quiet way.
“He never left anything on the table, I can tell you that. But he was not an idiot going around and doing stupid things. He was there to do a job. He was fast. He got his licks in. I never worried about being alongside of him or anything like that. He did not have any of that reputation, quite honestly.
“He was a good guy. A sense of humor. A good guy to have a conversation with. He was direct. What you saw is what you got. That is what I liked about individuals like that.”
Another great driver from that era was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who recalled one dramatic showdown with Ongais at Michigan International Speedway in the 1978 Norton Twin 200.
“I had probably the best race other than the one I had with AJ Foyt in 1974, but Danny and I were racing at Michigan in 1978,” Rutherford told NBC Sports. “It was a big track. We were running a race and about 25 laps from the end, there was a caution. The caution wasn’t that long, but we started side-by-side to finish the race.
“The green flag came out, and we ran side-by-side 220 mph for about 21 laps, sashaying at each other, side-by-side. I thought towards the end of the run, if the fans didn’t like this, they don’t need to be here.
“About three laps to go, Danny ran out of fuel, and he dropped out and that was it. I won the race. Went to victory lane and did all the smiling and pictures. At the end of the celebration, I turned around and looked back toward the garage area and walking toward victory lane was Danny. I got down off the stand and went down to meet him. We came together with a big hug. He was smiling and said, ‘Hell of a race.’ That was Danny Ongais. He was intense and good.
“It made you sad that he ran out of fuel because it would have been something to see if he could have produced anything to beat me or if I could have beat him.
“Danny was a great guy. He suffered a lot of serious crashes. The time he hit the wall in the third turn. The car broke in two and his legs were hanging out. He was a tough guy, but it was fun to know him.
“Danny let his racing do his talking for him, that’s for sure.”