1971 Indy / Johnny Lightning Special


The 1971 Indianapolis 500 Race was a long time ago but it was a race to remember. In addition to the spectacular 500 mile race itself, the very beginning, the time that the green flag was waved, might have given a clue as to what would come that day. When the flag was waved the Indy pace car itself, a Dodge Challenger, driven by a local car dealer, was involved in an accident when it crashed into a photographers stand. Several people were injured but fortunately there were no fatalities.

Johnny Lightning Indy Racer
Johnny Lightning Indy Racer

As it turned out for the pace car, it was later repaired and restored and eventually was sold to a car collector.

Johnny Lightning Special

The race car shown in this article is named the “Johnny Lightning Special” driven by Al Unser. Johnny Lightning was a model car brand of Topper Toys that sponsored five Parnelli Jones Indy cars and Al Unser during the 1970 and 1971 Indy races. As it turned out, Al Unser won both the 1970 and 1971 Indy 500’s driving the Johnny Lightning Special. In 1970 Unser was named Driver of the Year.

The Johnny Lightning Special which won the 1971 Indianapolis 500 was powered by a Ford V-8 with 159 cubic inch displacement delivering about 900 bhp at 8,500 RPM. Bhp refers to brake horse power which is measured before resistance from things like a gearbox, water pump, alternator, etc. This Indy car has front and rear disc brakes, four wheel independent suspension and a four speed transmission.

Johnny Lightning
Johnny Lightning

1971 Indianapolis 500

In addition to the strange pace car accident at the beginning of the race mentioned above, the 1971 Indy 500 had it’s share of accidents. The 1971 race was the 55th event of it’s kind and was won by Al Unser driving the Johnny Lightning Special. In that race Peter Revson finished second and A.J. Foyt came in third. Unser had an average speed in this race of 157.735 MPH. This beat his previous years winning speed by 2 MPH. Brother Bobby Unser was also in the race finishing 12th after crashing his car on turn four.

He would finish second the year later in 1973. Al Unser would go on to win at Indianapolis in 1978 and 1987. Unser won in 1987 as a replacement driver for Danny Ongias driving a March/Cosworth.

The 1971 Indy race was also the first carried on television by ABC on a same day tape delayed basis. Another first in 1971 was that Gasoline Alley was open to female spectators for the first time.

Indy 500 Race Car
Indy 500 Race Car

The 1971 Indianapolis 500 was a crash marred race. One accident alone took four drivers out of the event. Another crash had driver Mike Mosley being pulled from his burning car by driver Gary Bettenhausen who jumped from his still moving car to pull Mosley to safety.

Unser had to drive around many of the wrecks to stay in the race. After the 137th lap Al Unser grabbed the lead and held it all the way. Al Unser is among an elite list of drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 four times. During 1970 Al Unser won a total of ten races including the Indy 500 and in 1971 he won five times including the Indy.

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Al Unser's Johnny Lightning, 1971 Indianapolis 500 winner
Al Unser’s Johnny Lightning, 1971 Indianapolis 500 winner

If your travels take you to Albuquerque New Mexico you’ll want to be sure to stop by the Unser Racing Museum. This is a great auto museum with several historic Indy racing cars on display as well as an excellent collection of vintage and classic cars and trucks and a large collection of racing memorabilia. The museum’s goal is to educate and immerse the visitor in the exciting world of racing. It is a multi-dimensional museum using modern technology making it both a fun and educational experience. The Unser Racing Museum is located at 1776 Montano Road NW, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM.

(Article and photos copyright AutoMuseumOnline)