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Danny Ongais, 1942-2022

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Popular Indianapolis 500 veteran Danny Ongais died at the age of 79.
Danny Ongais made 11 appearances in 13 attempts at the Indianapolis 500. Image courtesy of IMS Photo

Popular Indianapolis 500 veteran Danny Ongais died on Feb. 26 after congestive heart complications in Anaheim Hills, California. He was 79.

The Hawaiian driver made 11 appearances in 13 attempts at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with starts between 1977 and 1996. He scored a career-best result of fourth in 1979, with a best start of second coming the year prior alongside pole-sitter Tom Sneva.

As the only native of Hawaii to start in the Indy 500, Ongais was nicknamed “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” by fans, along with “On-Gas” and “On the Gas” to compliment his last name.

Ongais was born May 21, 1942 in Kahului, Hawaii. As a teenager, he earned a state title in motorcycle racing in 1960 before also getting involved in drag racing. In the 1966 U.S. Nationals, he finished runner-up to Mike Snively in the Top Fuel class. Then, in the 1969 edition of the U.S. Nationals, he won the Funny Car class piloting the blue Ford Mach 1 Mustang for Mickey Thompson.

The duo also combined to set almost 300 national and international speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Mach 1 Mustang throughout the 1960s. Ongais was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000 in the Drag Racing category.

Additionally, Ongais enlisted in the U.S. Army to be a paratrooper in the early 1960s and was stationed in Europe, which offered the opportunity to be exposed to the sports car racing scene. In the mid-1970s, he transitioned from dragstrips to ovals and road courses, where he made his presence felt quickly by dominating in SCCA competition in 1974. As a result, it caught the attention of Ted Field, a young media mogul who recently founded the Interscope Records label.

The pair joined forced and competed in Formula 5000 and IndyCar in the late 1970s. Ongais 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.

Ongais and Interscope enjoyed their best season together in 1978, winning five race and eight poles en route to an eighth-place finish in the USAC standings. That same year he was part of the first all-200-mph front row in the Indy 500, alongside pole-sitter Sneva and rookie Rick Mears.

The combination of Ongais and Field also branched into sports car racing, teaming with the legendary Hurley Haywood to win the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 1979 in the Interscope Porsche 935 prototype.

Ongais was also part of some of the most violent crashes of his era. Ongais suffered serious injuries in a head-on crash in the 1981 Indianapolis 500, which forced him to miss the rest of the season to recover. In 1985, he barrel rolled at Michigan International Speedway after hitting the back of the slower car of Phil Krueger on the backstretch.

In 1987, Ongais suffered a concussion during practice for the Indy 500 while driving for Team Penske, forcing him to miss the race. Al Unser Sr. was named as the replacement and drove to his fourth Indy 500 victory in a backup car that was a show car earlier in May in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In his final start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996, Ongais replaced pole-sitter Scott Brayton, who suffered fatal injuries in a post-qualifying practice crash. Team owner John Menard hired Ongais as the replacement driver. Ongais, age 54 at the time, made his first Indy 500 start since 1986 and ended up finishing seventh despite 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.

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