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He has a resume that takes a few breaths to say, but Danny Ongais was never very outspoken.
Hawaiian motorcycle and drag-racing champion; American Hot Rod Association AA Gas Dragster and National Hot Rod Association AA Dragster Champion; Bonneville record holder; and Formula 1, CART, and Indycar driver Danny “On-Gas” Ongais turns 73 today.
That’s a resume that takes a few breaths to say, but Danny was never one for words. Notoriously recluse, but equally determined, Ongais started racing motorcycles at a young age in his native Kahului, Hawaii. After landing in the U.S., he had an infamous incident at Ascot Park in Gardena, California, when he finished second. Ongais expected a larger prize: “In Hawaii, I’d get at least $250,” he said to the paltry $12 prize money for a Second Place finish. “You’ll be lucky to win $250 the whole season here,” he was told. That’s all he needed to hear to head right into drag racing, where he found instant success.
Shortly after that $12 prize, Ongais won the AHRA AA Gas Dragster Championships in 1963 and 1964, following that up in 1965 with a NHRA AA Dragster championship. Ongais is even a legend in HOT ROD, when in 1964 at the Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside, he pushed his car down the quarter-mile after suffering a driveline failure to a blistering 1:35 e.t. (Yes, 1 minute and 35 seconds) to snatch the Top Gas-Dragster win from his competitor, who had also suffered catastrophic failure at the starting line.
Years later, Ongais ended up in Indycar, taking his first win at Michigan and earning rookie of the year. In 1978 he found wins at five more Indycar races while also taking home a win in the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Porsche 935.
The 1981 Indianapolis 500 was a rough race for Ongais. After a long pit stop, Ongais hit the Brickyard hard to make up for the 46-second stop. Unfortunately, after making a late pass, Ongais carried too much speed into the turn and hit the wall. He was airlifted out with a concussion and two compound fractures in his leg.
Ongais made his final Indycar race at the 1996 Indy 500, where he substituted for Scott Brayton, who had died in an accident during practice. At the age of 54, he started his final Indy 500 in last place, clawing through the field to an impressive Seventh Place finish.
In celebration his conviction to win, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000, and is on the NHRA Top 50 drivers from 1951–2000 at number 39.