Danny Ongais, the Hawaiian driver admired by fans and competitors for his speed and bravery in an Indianapolis 500 career spanning three decades, died Feb. 26 of congestive heart complications in Anaheim Hills, California. He was 79.
The versatile Ongais made 11 Indianapolis 500 starts between 1977 and 1996, with four top-10 finishes. His best years at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came with Interscope Racing and its eye-catching No. 25 Parnelli and Penske chassis powered by Cosworth engines, with a best finish of fourth in 1979 and a top start of second next to pole sitter Tom Sneva in 1978.
Ongais is one of only two natives of Hawaii to start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Fans included his heritage in his nickname “The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” and nicknames “On-Gas” and “On the Gas” were word plays on his last name.
Born May 21, 1942 in Kahului, Hawaii, Ongais began one of the most versatile careers of any driver in his era as a teenager, earning a Hawaii state title in motorcycle racing in 1960.
Ongais also began drag racing in the early 60s and became one of the top straight-line competitors in America into the early 1970s.
He finished runner-up to Mike Snively in the Top Fuel class at the 1966 NHRA U.S. Nationals after beating the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in the semifinals at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Ongais then won the Funny Car class in the 1969 NHRA U.S. Nationals at IRP, drag racing’s most prestigious event, in a distinctive blue Ford Mach 1 Mustang fielded by Mickey Thompson. 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’ success in straight-line competition led him to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000 in the Drag Racing category.
Service in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s exposed Ongais to sports car racing in Europe, and he moved from dragstrips to ovals and road courses in the mid-1970s. Ongais dominated in SCCA competition in 1974, catching the eye of young media mogul Ted Field, who had recently founded the Interscope Records label.
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.
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.
Ongais and Field’s success 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.
In 1985, he also survived a spectacular barrel roll at Michigan International Speedway after hitting the back of the slower car of Phil Krueger on the backstretch.
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 “500” victory in a backup car that was a show car earlier in May in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.
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, and team owner John Menard hired Ongais as the replacement driver. Ongais, racing at age 54 in his first “500” since 1986, finished a creditable 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.