The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is this Sunday (May 29) and throughout the world, people are looking back on the previous 99 editions and hope some of the great moments from races past can provide for a memorable 100th race.
There have been some great moments and great races since Ray Harroun won the first race in 1911. Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward’s back-and-forth battle in 1960 proved incredible until Ward had to back off and conserve his tires. Bobby Rahal passed Kevin Cogan on a restart with two laps to go in 1986 to win an Indianapolis 500 for cancer-stricken car owner Jim Trueman, who died 11 days after the race. Whether it’s Al Unser Sr. racing a show car out of a Reading, Pennsylvania hotel lobby to victory in 1987 to Robby Gordon running out of fuel going toward the last lap to allow Kenny Brack and AJ Foyt to win in 1999, there have been a lot of great races in the past 105 years.
The Indianapolis 500 has provided so many great races that the ones I mentioned above didn’t even make the top 10. The following list is comprised of the best races that have been remembered and will remain in our memories for a very long time.
10) 1985 Indianapolis 500 – Danny Sullivan’s “spin and win.”
An open wheel car is different than a NASCAR stock car. In NASCAR, you can rub fenders and make contact and keep going. In Indy Car, because the car is so fragile, any spin and contact with anything usually means you’re out of the race. So what Danny Sullivan did while leading on lap 120 was something that people couldn’t believe they were seeing. Mario Andretti surely couldn’t believe it, but he did just enough to avoid hitting Sullivan. Sullivan got it together and was able to pass Andretti 20 laps later and win his only Indianapolis 500.
9) 1995 Indianapolis 500 – Jacques Villeneuve wins the Indianapolis “505.”
This race was a headache for an official, but it resulted in a finish no one will forget. Earlier in the race, second-year driver Jacques Villeneuve didn’t know he was leading and kept passing the pace car as it was trying to pick him up under caution. Because of that, officials docked Villeneuve two laps. Villeneuve fought hard to make up the two laps and was able to.
Maybe that penalty was in the back of Villeneuve’s mind because on the final restart on lap 190, leader Scott Goodyear mistimed the restart and blew past the pace car before it could safely enter the pit. Villeneuve hit the brakes to not pass the pace car and somehow keep his 2nd position. A few laps later, Goodyear would receive a black flag and be forced to enter the pit in a stop-and-go penalty. Believing he was in the right, Goodyear stayed out and officials eventually stopped scoring him as Villeneuve won. He used that success to go to Formula 1 and became World Champion in 1997.
8) 1912 Indianapolis 500 – Ralph DePalma literally tries to push his way to victory.
The 1911 Indianapolis 500 is usually highly regarded as a great race because it was the first. But I contend that the second Indianapolis 500 was more exciting and even better than the first. Well, at least it was exciting for the final two laps. After not leading the first two laps, Ralph DePalma took the lead on lap 3 and led the next 196 laps, pulling out to an 11-minute lead.
As his car was breaking down, he tried all he could to nurse the car to a win. Finally stopping with a lap and a half to go, DePalma and his riding mechanic Rupert Jeffkins tried pushing their car the rest of the way. Even though their “never give up” attitude got praise from the crowd, officials only counted laps while the car was under its own power. Joe Dawson took the lead and led the final two laps to win. DePalma’s bad luck began an unusual fate of many drivers who dominated in the Indianapolis 500 and failed to win.
7) 1967 Indianapolis 500 – Andy Granatelli’s revolutionary turbine fails to win.
If it wasn’t for a $6 bolt, modern racing to this day could have been completely different. STP’s CEO Andy Granatelli built a revolutionary car powered with a turbine engine, sitting to the left of the driver.
Parnelli Jones was chosen to drive the car and immediately dominated the race. A.J. Foyt was really the only driver who could keep up and was only able to take the lead by doing a different pit strategy on Jones and leading when he pit, then gave up the lead a few laps later when he had to put.
Then with just four laps to go, Jones’ car slowed and stopped in pit road. It was discovered that a $6 bolt in the transmission broke and cost Jones, Granatelli and the turbine a dominating win. Foyt took the lead and the win, but had to maneuver around a five-car crash that was between him and the finish line. The turbine was raced again the following year, under a different design with Joe Leonard. But after that broke while leading late in the race, the turbine was never raced again.
6) 1991 Indianapolis 500 – Rick Mears seals diamond anniversary race with fourth win.
Rick Mears and Michael Andretti were locked in a battle for the 75th Indianapolis 500. The two traded the lead back and forth and Mears had the lead after a caution with 16 laps to go. It’s incredibly tough to pass someone on the outside for position but on the restart, Andretti got a great draft from Mears and his cousin John to go into the lead. If Andretti passing Mears on the outside was shocking, Mears did the exact same thing the very next lap and took the lead for good, sealing his fourth Indianapolis 500 win and tying him with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr.
For Michael Andretti, this would be another Indianapolis 500 that he felt could have won but fell just short. He would come to realize that even though this was bad, what happened to him the next year was even worse.
5) 1989 Indianapolis 500 – Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. make contact and seals win for Fittipaldi.
The 1989 race was a contrast of two drivers, both looking for their first Indianapolis 500 win. For Emerson Fittipaldi, he came over to American open wheel racing with an impressive resume, winning 14 Formula 1 races and winning the 1972 and 1974 World Championship. The experienced Fittipaldi had only won one oval race to that point, so he still needed to figure out the intricacies of oval racing. Al Unser Jr. was the young talent looking to make a name for himself after being in the shadow of his father and uncle. Little Al had never won on an oval and seeing the success that his family had at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wanted to have his name tossed in with the legends.
With both cars out into a six-lap lead over third-place Raul Boesel, this race would come down to Fittipaldi and Unser… as long as they didn’t take each other out. That almost happened as lapped traffic came into play. After being passed a few laps before, Fittipaldi got a run on the backstretch to get alongside Unser. Neither wanting to give an inch because the person who backs off loses, the two drivers touched wheels and sent Unser into the wall. Fittipaldi was lucky not to crash himself or obtain any damage and was able to finish the final lap under caution to win the Indianapolis 500.
4) 2006 Indianapolis 500 – Marco Andretti faces the “Andretti Curse.”
Marco Andretti was the 19-year-old son of Michael and grandson of Mario Andretti. Seen as the future of the Andretti family, Marco had high expectations entering his first Indianapolis 500. I don’t think anyone thought success would come so quickly.
Because he wanted to race with his son, Michael Andretti came out of retirement to race. Not being in the car for three years, Michael wasn’t really seen as a favorite to win and neither was Marco. But a tire puncture from their teammate Dan Wheldon opened things up and the two were shockingly 1-2 with just four laps to go. Michael had a couple lapped cars in the way and even though he was on older tires, had a good lead when they went green. Once Marco got around the lapped traffic, he passed his father on the outside, thereby ending his hopes of finally winning his first Indianapolis 500 race.
Once he was passed and knew he didn’t have the tires to pass his son back, Michael went from competitor to father and did all he could to keep Sam Hornish Jr. back so Marco could win. Hornish got by Michael and was quickly charging on Marco. Marco shut the door on Hornish once with two laps to go, but Hornish got it back and passed Marco on the final stretch of the last lap. In the previous 89 races, that was the first time a race leader was passed for the win on the last lap. Marco had to finish second and Michael finished third, adding to the curse.
3) 2011 Indianapolis 500 – JR Hildebrand crashes to lose race to Dan Wheldon in the final turn.
While this year is the 100th Indianapolis 500, the speedway celebrated the centennial anniversary of the race in 2011. Because they didn’t race during WWI and WWII, that explains why we celebrate the 100th race this year.
Anyway, for this milestone event, every winning Indianapolis 500 car still in existence and every living winner was at the speedway for the first time to celebrate 100 years of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As is the case this year, the 2011 race was a huge event to win.
With no one really having the best car of the day, the race slowly turned into a fuel mileage race in which the winner would be the one who could make their tank last to lap 200. The favorites all faded by the end, but those staying out and gambling to make it to the finish. After Danica Patrick and Bertrand Baguette held the lead late, Baguette pit with just four laps to go for J.R. Hildebrand to take the lead. A perfect situation was in place for a young American to win the centennial Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend in a Army National Guard sponsored car. Then the last corner of the last lap happened.
Dan Wheldon, in an underfunded car owned by his former teammate and friend Bryan Herta, shockingly won the centennial Indianapolis 500, only leading by that small margin in the frontstretch. In a finish that shocked everyone from the person watching for the first time, to the person who had been watching for over 50 years, Hildebrand came very close to winning with a wrecked race car. Unfortunately for him, Wheldon snuck past and got his second win. That sadly would be Wheldon’s last race at Indianapolis and final win of his career, as he was killed five months later during the IndyCar Series season finale at the age of 33.
2) 1992 Indianapolis 500 – After Michael Andretti dominated but broke, Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear faced off for the win.
It’s joked around Indianapolis Motor Speedway that the phrase most heard at the Brickyard is “Drivers, start your engines.” The second phrase most heard is “Andretti is slowing down.” This was probably the worst day the Andretti family personally experienced at Indianapolis.
Michael Andretti dominated this race. On the first lap, Andretti took the lead and led by six seconds. But because there were so many cautions, Andretti couldn’t get out to a sizable lead. But while he was leading, both his father Mario and brother Jeff would be seriously hurt in accidents during the race. Mario broke some toes when he went head-first into the turn four wall, while Jeff broke both his legs in multiple places after a wheel hub broke and slammed head-first into the turn two wall.
Then when it seemed like Michael Andretti had the win to give the Andretti family a much-needed victory after so many years, the fuel pump broke and Andretti slowed to a stop. His best chance of winning the Indianapolis 500 went away and he never won.
This opened up a great battle between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear for the final 10 laps. Unser had never won the Indianapolis 500 at that time and was hearing similar talk as Michael regarding when he was going to finally win. Goodyear was the ultimate underdog, not even qualifying for the race and stepped into Mike Groff’s car so he could get points as he was Walker Racing’s full-time driver. Goodyear could get to him, but wasn’t able to make the pass as Unser Jr. won in the closest finish at that time.
1) 1982 Indianapolis 500 – Gordon Johncock vs. Rick Mears
Before 1982, the closest margin of victory in the Indianapolis 500 was 2.16 seconds in 1937. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon for a driver to win by at least a lap or more. While it’s more likely to happen now, 1982 gave us something we had never seen before in the Indianapolis 500: a race by 1st and 2nd that wasn’t decided until both drivers crossed the finish line. After winning the infamous 1973 Indianapolis 500 that took three days because of rain and where he saw his teammate Swede Savage and crew member Armando Tehran die, Johncock finally got to celebrate in a hard-fought victory against Rick Mears.
The race is also remembered for a crash leading up to the green flag. Kevin Cogan seemed to veer out of control for some unexplained reason. After swiping A.J. Foyt, he turned in front of Mario Andretti, who had nowhere to go and T-boned Cogan. This caused two racing legends, as well as others, to be incensed at Cogan. The drivers get very upset at a situation like that. Spending the entire month of May getting ready for the race and then you crash going 80 mph and don’t even get to the start of the race.