MONTEREY, Calif. — What a difference a seemingly insignificant yellow caution flag made here Sunday.
Bobby Rahal was cruising along nearly half a lap ahead in a 300-kilometer race at Laguna Seca Raceway with more than half of the race completed when CART officials decided they wanted to sweep some debris off the track after Tom Sneva got bumped into the dirt by Al Unser.
During the caution period, most of the field pitted and when the field sorted itself out for the final 70-mile stretch run, Rahal found himself behind Kevin Cogan (who was a lap behind), Roberto Moreno (who forgot to pit for fuel and ran out of gas a lap later), Geoff Brabham and Al Unser Jr., and just ahead of Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti.
What had been a boring one-car race suddenly turned into one of the wildest finishes seen on the CART/PPG Indy Car World Series this season.
Rahal eventually won for the third time in the last four races, but not before a crowd of 45,000 witnessed an intense display of race-car driving.
Brabham, looking for his first Indy-car win since leaving Australia for Southern California in 1981, was the central figure.
Shortly after the track was cleaned and racing resumed, Brabham tried to outbrake Cogan going into the 90-degree Turn 9 and overshot the track. This allowed Unser Jr. to take over the lead.
When Moreno coasted to a stop without fuel and Cogan crashed when his brakes locked up, the track was left to Unser Jr., Brabham, Rahal, Sullivan and Andretti, with the elder Unser closing in. For 15 laps the group ran in a NASCAR-like draft, bunching up within inches of each other as they slowed for the abrupt left-hand Turn 9.
Twice Brabham attempted to outbrake Unser Jr., and twice he overshot the turning point. The second attempt crowded the younger Unser and while he and Brabham were concentrating on one another, Rahal slipped past on the inside to move from third to first.
"Geoff almost got away with it the first time he tried to pass Little Al, so I was pretty sure he'd try it again the next time around," Rahal said. "He was going all over the place and when the hole was there, I was waiting for it and went for it."
Unser Jr., who retained his season points lead with a third place finish behind Rahal and the elder Unser, said he knew he couldn't hold off Brabham because his tires were too worn.
"My tires went off on me and I was holding up the whole train," said Unser Jr. "The harder I tried, the more mistakes I made and the slower I went. Brabham tried to come around me and almost went straight into the wall. I had to move out of the way to avoid tangling with him, and when I did, there came Rahal."
Five laps from the end another memorable pass saw father Al squeeze by son Al Jr. as they raced together through the high-speed first turn. Junior was running second when his failing tires caused him to slide high on Turn 9, allowing Sullivan to move by into second. Unser moved alongside his son at the same time and they dragged side by side several hundred yards before they came to a narrow point in the track where father won out.
"I looked over at Junior and said to myself, 'When are you going to lift, kid.' I could almost hear him saying, 'When are you going to lift, dad.' I had about a half a car length on him so I got through first."
Sullivan, in second place five laps from the finish, was black-flagged because officials claimed his car was spraying oil. He did not respond to the black flag--which means a driver must pit for consultation--for three laps. When he did, officials found no problem and he was sent back out.
However, the delay in pitting caused him drop from second to fifth place and then CART added to his frustration by penalizing him a lap for ignoring the black flag. This dropped him officially to eighth.
"There was some confusion about the black flag," Sullivan said. "I was having trouble hearing on the radio and I was concentrating so hard on the race that I didn't see it being waved. When I came in, they checked the car and there was no sign of an oil leak."
Even though Rahal emerged the winner, he was still upset over the yellow flag--the only one of the entire race--that bunched up the field.
The incident was brought about when Unser bumped Sneva off the course, the latest in a series of entanglements involving the two former Indy car champions.
"We were getting along up toward the corkscrew when I set up to pass Sneva on the inside. He moved over a little and I was going so much faster than he was that I couldn't help but bump him. It happened at a dangerous spot on the race track and he went down an embankment pretty hard. I don't think he ever saw me and I sure wasn't trying to bump him there."
Rahal, who had been gaining about a second a lap on the field in the early going, said he saw no debris and couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the yellow flags coming out to cancel his hard earned 23 second margin over the younger Unser.
"I was really burned," Rahal said. "I had worked hard to get such a big lead in hopes that the rest of the field would get discouraged, and then for reasons unknown to me, CART decided to clean up some debris that I never saw. I was plenty upset."
In the tight battle for a $300,000 driver's championship bonus, Unser Jr., has 120 points, Unser 117, Rahal 108, Andretti 100, Emerson Fittipaldi 99 and Sullivan 94. Two races remain, the Dana 150 next Sunday at Phoenix and the Indy Challenge Nov. 10 at Miami.