IRL: Duane Sweeney passed away

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Jan. 16, 2004 -- Duane Sweeney, who waved the checkered flag as the chief starter when Al Unser and Rick Mears each won the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time, died Jan. 15 at his home in New Berlin, Wis. He was 81. Sweeney ...

IRL: Duane Sweeney passed away

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Jan. 16, 2004 -- Duane Sweeney, who waved the checkered flag as the chief starter when Al Unser and Rick Mears each won the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time, died Jan. 15 at his home in New Berlin, Wis. He was 81.

Sweeney was starter of the Indianapolis 500 from 1980-96, taking over for Pat Vidan.

Sweeney's first checkered flag unfurled over Johnny Rutherford's third victory. Sweeney 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® IndyCar® Series, 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 185-mph average-speed victory in 1990 and Al Unser Jr.'s half-car edging of Scott Goodyear in 1992. Sweeney also waved the checkered over the controversial finishes between Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti in 1981 and between Jacques Villeneuve and Scott Goodyear in 1995.

Sweeney concluded his career as chief starter in 1996, waving the checkered flag over Buddy Lazier. Due to failing health, he turned the duties over to Bryan Howard for the 1997 race. He stood in as assistant starter that year, his last time on the starter's platform.

Sweeney retained all of the checkered 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.

Sweeney was born June 19, 1922, in Mitchell, S.D. His father "followed the crops," but finally got a job with Allis-Chalmers farm machinery company in the mid-1930s and moved the family to Milwaukee.

Sweeney raised and sold Shetland ponies a couple years after leaving school. He and his brother Gene joined a motorcycle club, but Duane's 250-pound body was too big to race them.

Duane Sweeney went along with his brother to score the races. At the second race, the starter didn't show up, and Sweeney's career as a flagman was launched.

He spent 27 years working as a flagman at the short track at Hales Corners, Wis. Once at the track at Beaver Dam, Wis., he ran onto the track to wave the white flag signaling 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. Sweeney had worked as the chief starter of the USAC stock-car series for many years.

"I went in cold turkey," Sweeney said about the Indianapolis 500 flagging role. "(Noted starter) John Shipman was up there with me."

Summarizing his career in 2002, Sweeney said: "Made millions of friends ... millions of enemies. Enjoyed every minute. Lot of heartaches and a lot of laughs."

Sweeney died one week after his daughter, Joan B. Ramirez, passed away following a vehicle accident. She was 51.

Survivors include: wife, Mary; son, Mark; daughters, Cathy Gudlin and Jean Niedercorn. Services are pending.

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