John Mahler

John Mahler, who was best known for dramatically bumping his way into the 1979 Indianapolis 500, died Feb. 6 in the Quad Cities area of Iowa. He was 87.

Mahler recently said he drove the bravest four laps of his career in qualifying for the fifth time for the “500” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was using a car assembled the prior night after his primary machine was bumped – twice, actually. Mahler hadn’t practiced with the No. 92T Intercomp Eagle/Offy, yet he bumped Bill Vukovich Jr. in literally the final seconds of qualifying.

“My shining moment,” he said during a final visit to IMS in January.

Mahler said he relived the action “15 or 20 times” on a DVD of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” broadcast. That was the year Rick Mears won the pole and then the race, but all eyes were on Mahler that late afternoon May 20.

The drama was at a fevered pitch as time was running out on the final qualifying day. Driver Dick Ferguson exhausted his four available laps with a souring engine and a car that was nearly 15 seconds off the pace necessary to earn a starting spot. Ferguson’s bid to complete the run nearly cost Mahler a chance to make his last attempt.

Mahler remembered chief steward Tom Binford telling him there might be oil on the track from Ferguson’s engine, but time would expire if a track inspection was done. Mahler decided to take his chances with the track’s condition and rolled off pit lane at 5:59 p.m.

Mahler said he wasn’t sure what to expect from the Eagle, but it mostly ran beautifully aside from a big push toward the wall in Turn 1.

“It was pretty exciting being inside the car,” Mahler said with a laugh. “I was going as fast as I knew I needed to go. I was coming up on the Turn 1 wall and I said, ‘I ain’t gonna lift.’ A strange thing happened. Just when I was about to hit the wall the (air from the compressed air) pushed the car to the left. I was really surprised, but I was so determined that I just put my foot down.

“(I was) either going to qualify or crash. There was no other option.”

Listening to Jim McKay’s call of Mahler’s qualifying run added to the drama. After posting a 184.811 mph average for Lap 2, the veteran announcer said, “He can make it if the car holds up.” After a third lap at 184.388 mph, McKay was even more confident in the run. “He’s in very good shape.”

Lap 4 was 183.411 mph, capping a four-lap run of 184.322 mph that was enough to bump Vukovich’s 183.889 in a Watson. In those days, McKay couldn’t immediately confirm the feat, announcing that it was “unofficial.” Soon after, ABC left the IMS broadcast to begin “The Osmond Family Show” featuring Donny, Marie and other Osmond family members. Mahler liked to joke that his qualifying run that pushed into the 6 o’clock hour bumped the Osmonds, too.

Upon returning to the team’s Gasoline Alley garage, Mahler fondly remembered the look on the face of Bob Harkey, a driver who knew the courage it took to deliver such a run.

Mahler did what he could with his opportunity to compete in the race. He turned 66 laps before his equipment gave out on him. He finished 25th. But his place in history had been earned in qualifying.

Mahler was born Nov. 16, 1936, in his grandparents’ home in Alpha, Iowa. He was a skilled skier who raced in and won local competitions. He also played tennis and football in high school. He graduated from Iowa State University as an engineering major. While in college, he was a member of the Navy’s ROTC program, served a summer in the Mediterranean and attended the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia.

Mahler and his brother, Jim, raced in the Sports Car Club of America around the Midwest. In 1970, Mahler and co-driver Jerry Thompson drove the Owens Corning Fiberglass Corvette to a class victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. They finished sixth overall.

Mahler qualified for his first “500” in 1971 but was replaced in the starting field by his teammate, Dick Simon, due to sponsorship commitments. Mahler made his first IMS start in 1972, finishing 22nd. He also earned a starting position in 1977 (he was relieved by Larry Cannon) and 1978. His best finish was 14th in ’77. After the memorable qualifying run in ’79, he tried to make Indy’s show four more times without success.

Mahler made 36 INDYCAR SERIES starts, finishing in the top 10 six times. His best finish was sixth on the Indianapolis Raceway Park road course as a series rookie in 1970.

Mahler was preceded in death by his wife, Connie. He is survived by his five children: Kathleen, John Phillip, Carol, Anthony and Susan, along with two brothers, a sister and many grandchildren.

A memorial service and graveside military rites will be held May 4 in Alpha, Iowa.