Duane Sweeney, who waved the chequered flag as the chief starter when Al Unser and Rick Mears each won the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time, died earlier this week at his home in Wisconsin. He was 81.

Sweeney was starter of the Indianapolis 500 between 1980-96, taking over for Pat Vidan. His first chequered flag unfurled over Johnny Rutherford's third victory, and Sweeney then climbed out of his perch, battled his way through the crowd and finally got over to congratulate his first winner. Rutherford, now head of special projects and pace car driver for the Indy Racing League, looked him straight in the eyes and, tongue in cheek, said 'it's about time'.

During the next 16 years, Sweeney's flags waved over some record-breaking, precedent-setting and bizarre races. Included among those finishes were the fourth Indy victories of Unser, in 1987, and Mears, in 1991, Danny Sullivan's famous 'spin and win' triumph in 1985, Arie Luyendyk's 185mph average speed victory in 1990 and Al Unser Jr's half-car edging of Scott Goodyear in 1992.

Sweeney also waved the chequer over the controversial finishes between Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti in 1981 and between Jacques Villeneuve and Scott Goodyear in 1995.

He concluded his career as chief starter in 1996, waving the flag over Buddy Lazier, and due to failing health, turned the duties over to Bryan Howard for the 1997 race. He stood in as assistant starter that year, but it was to be his last time on the starter's platform. Sweeney retained all of the chequered flags from his Indianapolis 500 tenure and donated a number of them to a children's cancer fund benefit in Milwaukee.

"I've got Mears' last one, and I won't part with it," he said in a June 2002 interview, "The only one I've got left that is autographed is Al Unser Jr's."

The donations of flags were just part of Sweeney's tireless work for charity. He often made many visits to schools and hospitals in Indiana and Wisconsin, explaining the role of a flagman.

Before going to IMS, he spent 27 years working as a flagman at the short track at Hales Corners and other minor league tracks. Once, at Beaver Dam, he ran onto the track to wave the white flag signalling the final lap, stepped on a clod of dirt and fell flat on his back. He waved the flag from that position and, fortunately, all of the cars avoided running over him.

Sweeney came to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in the 1950s with his father. In 1962, he met Vidan at the Milwaukee Mile, assisted him with the USAC Champ Car race there that year and assumed the starter's duties the next year. When Vidan retired as chief starter of the Indianapolis 500, USAC president Dick King approached Sweeney about the job at the season-ending USAC banquet.

"I went in cold turkey," Sweeney said about the Indianapolis 500 role, "John Shipman was up there with me!"

 

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