The only native of Hawaii to start the Indianapolis 500, Ongais was nicknamed “Danny On-The-Gas” and the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” for his bravery and commitment in overpowered late ’70s Indy cars, but his love of speed had shown itself far earlier.
At the age of 18, he earned a Hawaiian state title in motorcycle racing, and he went on to become a drag racing ace. He finished runner-up in the Top Fuel class at the 1966 NHRA U.S. Nationals after beating legend Don Prudhomme in the semifinals at Indianapolis Raceway Park, and three years later he clinched the Funny Car class win in the same event.
He and renowned innovator Mickey Thompson set nearly 300 national and international speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Mach 1 Mustang during the 1960s. Ongais was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2000 in the Drag Racing category.
Service in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s had exposed Ongais to sportscar racing in Europe, and he eventually switched his focus from dragstrips to ovals and road courses in the mid-’70s. Ongais dominated in SCCA competition in 1974, catching the eye of media mogul Ted Field, who had recently founded the Interscope Records label.
Ongais and Field teamed up with success in Formula 5000 and the Indy car Series in the late 1970s. He also competed in four Formula 1 races in 1977 and 1978, including two starts with Interscope, with a best finish of seventh in the ’77 Canadian Grand Prix.
That was the same year that Ongais became an Indy car winner. After setting fastest lap of the race at the Indy 500 despite his rookie status, he went on to clinch victory at Michigan. Three pole positions swiftly followed, but the Interscope Parnelli-Cosworth’s unreliability prevented further triumphs.
More of the same followed in ’78. The Cosworth was hugely powerful, Ongais regularly appearing to dance the car on the rim of disaster on his way to eight pole positions, and when it hung together he tended to win: he racked up five triumphs that year. But the fact that he could finish only eighth in the championship attests to the car’s poor finishing record.
That 1978 season also included Ongais starting in the middle of the first all-200-mph front row at Indianapolis, between pole sitter Tom Sneva and rookie Rick Mears, but his best finish in his 11 starts at the Speedway was a fourth in 1979.
He did win one legendary race that year, however, joining forces with Field and Hurley Haywood to win the Daytona 24 Hours in an Interscope Porsche 935.
As a statement from Indianapolis Motor Speedway pointed out, Ongais was known not only for his huge speed, but also surviving some violent crashes. A head-on shunt in the 1981 Indy 500 left him recuperating for the remainder of the season while four years later at Michigan he went into a barrel-roll after launching off the back of another car.
Arguably Ongais’ best chance to win the Indy 500 came in his mid-40s in 1987, when Interscope partnered with Team Penske to run a Penske-Chevrolet at the Memorial Day Weekend classic. Sadly, Ongais crashed in practice and suffered a concussion that sidelined him. His entry was taken over by three-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser, who took the replacement machine – a one-year-old show-car – and made himself a four-time 500 winner.
At the age of 54, Ongais was an unlikely call-up to replace Team Menard’s Indy 500 polesitter Scott Brayton who had perished in a crash in a post-qualifying practice session. Despite having to start from 33rd and last and despite having retired from Indy car competition nine years earlier, Ongais drove his way to seventh.
Ongais’ final attempt at Indianapolis came in 1998, when he failed to qualify in a Team Pelfrey car.
– Co-author Paul Kelly, IMS