NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: Danny Ongais

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#39: DANNY ONGAIS Known for years as "the Silent Hawaiian" because of his reluctance to express himself, Danny Ongais earned a reputation as one of motorsports' most versatile and successful racers, using his driving skills to speak loudly in a variety of auto racing categories all over the world. After absolutely mastering the quarter-mile in the 1960s, Ongais became a major figure on the open-wheel circuit, gaining peer recognition with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and the Unser brothers. Born and raised in Hawaii, Ongais first learned to conquer fear on a surfboard. His first taste of speed came on a motorcycle, and it was on a two-wheeler that he tasted victory for the first time. Ongais took a big detour toward his racing stardom, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and earned his wings as a paratrooper. While based in Europe, Ongais was introduced to another phase of racing. As a sports-car driver, Ongais got his first feel of high-revving engines. After leaving the military, Ongais moved to Southern California in the early '60s and worked on the crew of Roland Leong's Dragmaster Hawaii AA/Dragster team, which captured the Best Appearing Car and Long Distance honors at the '62 Winternationals. Retired from day-to-day clock-punching labor at the age of 22, Ongais decided he was going to make his mark as a full-time driver. Making himself available around some of the top speed shops in Southern California, Ongais began to pick up a ride here and there, and he also did some testing for Dragmaster. He found himself in the cockpit of some of the Mickey Thompson cars and also took a turn at the controls of the Beaver Brothers' fueler. And from each of these associations he expanded his knowledge of drag racing, and, at the same time, began building his own car. Unlike most, instead of deciding what type car he wanted, Ongais looked around, made an inventory of what materials and equipment were available to him, and built his AA/Gas dragster. He debuted that ride at the '64 Winternationals, defeating Thompson, 8.39 to 8.53, for the Top Gas eliminator title. He claimed similar honors at that year's Hot Rod Magazine Championships. His domination of the Southern California Top Fuel scene with the Ongais-Broussard-Davis Mangler team in early '65 launched his superstar status. Interestingly, many of his early accomplishments went unnoticed in comparison to some of his less-talented but more boisterous opponents. Late in '68, his driving feats overpowered his shy disposition, and the racing world heard plenty of Ongais. That fall he and Thompson began a profitable partnership as teammates. Together they broke 295 national and international speed and endurance records at Bonneville with a pair of Mach 1 Mustangs. When Thompson made his initial venture into the competitive world of Funny Cars, Ongais was retained. Ongais' adaptability to new and strange mounts was evidenced when his first pass produced a 7.57 time slip. Soon 7.3s became commonplace for Ongais while the rest of the field struggled in the 7.7 and 7.8 range. The combination made Ongais nearly unbeatable in '69, winning the Springnationals and NHRA Nationals and virtually all of his match race appearances. The car was built by team driver Pat Foster and was powered by Ford's then-unbeatable SOHC Hemi engine. After leaving Thompson, Ongais drove for Thompson's archrival John Mazmanian, who subsequently sold his racing operation to the Vel's-Parnelli Jones racing team in the early '70s. At times, Ongais drove the Top Fueler and Funny Car at the same event. He stayed with the team until '74, when he began to heavily pursue a road racing/Indy 500 career. Ongais' natural driving talents helped him establish himself on the road-racing circuit. In '74, he won 12 of 15 starts in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition. He finished 14th in the Formula 5000 series points standings one year later. His Indy Car racing career began in '76, and he was the fastest rookie ever at the Indy 500. In '77, Ongais qualified in the third row at 193.040 mph with Ted Fields' Interscope Racing team. He won the Michigan 200 during his Rookie of the Year campaign that season and followed up with three more wins in '78. He was by far the fastest entry on race day at the '78 Indy 500, leading 71 of 145 laps. Ongais qualified for 10 consecutive Indy 500s, from '77 through '86. His best finish was fourth place in '79 after starting 27th. He was scheduled to drive one of Roger Penske's cars in '87, but was forced to drop out after suffering a concussion in a racing accident. Al Unser Sr. replaced him and won the race to tie Foyt's four Indy 500 career victories. Ongais also competed in such prestigious races as the 24 Hours of LeMans during his career. After a 10-year layoff, Ongais made a comeback bid in '96 and finished seventh from his last-place starting position. Ongais remains the only driver to have won professional category races in sports cars, Indy cars, and drag racing. NHRA's Top 50 Drivers will be unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11. As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.

NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS
50. Elmer Trett
49. Richard Tharp
48. Malcolm Durham
47. Billy Meyer
46. Ken Veney
45. Scotty Richardson
44. Dave Schultz
43. Frank Hawley
42. David Rampy
41. John Mulligan
40. Frank Manzo
39. Danny Ongais

-NHRA

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Frank Manzo , Danny Ongais , David Rampy , Roger Penske , Ted Field , Frank Hawley , A.J. Foyt