The 104th Indianapolis 500 will take place this weekend, having been postponed from its usual May slot thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. In celebration of America’s greatest race, it’s an opportune time to look back at some of the Brickyard’s finest moments.
The famous event was first run in 1911, so picking out the best editions was a tough task.
Among those to miss out are Takuma Sato’s storming drive to victory in 2017 – a year when Honda engines had a considerable engine advantage over Chevrolet – Jacques Villeneuve profiting from Scott Goodyear passing the pace car at the final restart to win in 1995, and the 1989 race that ended with penultimate lap contact between leaders Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr, putting the latter into the wall.
And omitting the events that finished under caution, we narrowed down a list of races that had tense finishes and drama aplenty to come up with our top 10 Indy 500s.
10. Sullivan spins and wins, 1985
Mario Andretti led the majority of the first half of the race for Newman/Haas Lola, but Danny Sullivan had learned well from Penske team-mate Rick Mears – still recovering from his previous year’s shunt at Sanair – about constantly fine-tuning his car for the final shootout in 500-mile races.
Sullivan’s March 85C got stronger throughout the event, and he found it relatively easy to haul up onto Andretti’s tail at the start of lap 120. Moving out to make the pass on the inside of Turn 1, Sullivan found himself having to use the track and the apron, and the transition wobbled his car into a spin.
Remarkably he completed 360 degrees without striking the wall. Equally remarkably, 1969 500 winner Andretti avoided him through the smokescreen. Less than 20 laps later, a fired up Sullivan moved into the lead which he’d never lose, able to pull away from Andretti after all subsequent restarts, with Roberto Gurrero completing the top three in a Team Cotter March-Cosworth.
9. Hildebrand’s gift to Wheldon, 2011
The closing laps of the Centenary event were epic as a variety of strategy gambles failed to mesh with yellow-flag periods, leaving some great driver/team combinations, such as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, trying to coax their cars home on fumes.
After Danica Patrick was forced to give up the lead with 12 laps to go, Bertrand Baguette took over at the front until lap 197, when his Conquest Racing Dallara was forced into taking on a late splash-and-dash.
That left rookie JR Hildebrand in the lead for Panther Racing, a team that had finished second for the previous three 500s with 2005 winner Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon, by now a part-time driver racing for Bryan Herta Autosport in his first race of the year and only the squad’s second ever IndyCar event, was second and closing – but nowhere near fast enough to catch the 2009 Indy Lights champion.
Then suddenly Hildebrand went to lap Charlie Kimball through the short chute between Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, got into the grey, and with 199 laps worth of detritus now stuck to his tyres, drifted up into the wall out of the final corner.
His momentum was such that he would still tricycle across the line in second, but by then Wheldon, who had run in the top six all day, was past and into the lead, having led just one quarter of a lap – but the most important quarter of all!
8. Display car wins as Andretti’s curse strikes again, 1987
Perhaps this race shouldn’t be in here because Andretti, driving a Newman/Haas Racing Lola-Chevrolet that had been engineered by Adrian Newey, spanked the opposition for most of the day, leading 170 of the first 177 laps. But no one could quite believe the closing 25 laps.
With a lap on second-placed Guerrero in the Vince Granatelli Racing March-Cosworth, suddenly Andretti’s Chevy broke a valve spring. That handed the lead to Guerrero, but the Colombian had earlier hit an untethered wheel from Gary Bettenhausen’s car, sending it up into a grandstand where it had struck and killed a spectator.
The subsequent damage to the nose of the Granatelli car had also damaged the clutch slave cylinder, making it difficult for Guerrero to move from a standstill. Twice he stalled trying to leave his pitbox after his final stop, and he emerged second.
The new leader was veteran Al Unser, who had started the month without a ride, only stepping into a third Penske entry when Danny Ongais suffered an injurious crash in practice. Unser’s car, a March-Cosworth 86C, had been pulled into service from a display in a hotel lobby and only qualified on the second qualifying weekend.
But Unser’s steady climb from 20th – just about dodging a wildly spinning Josele Garza on the opening lap – paid off handsomely, and the near-48-year-old veteran scored his fourth and final Indy win, 18 years after his first in 1970.
Guerrero was second – matching his result on debut in 1984 – and the only other car on the lead lap, with future Formula 1 tail-ender Fabrizio Barbazza (Arciero Racing March-Cosworth) two laps down in third.
7. Hornish pips younger Andretti on the line, 2006
For most of the day, this looked like being Wheldon’s second straight Indy triumph, and his first for Chip Ganassi Racing. He dominated the first 140 laps, chased by team-mate Dixon, and Penske polesitter Sam Hornish Jr.
Both these pursuers would earn drivethrough penalties (Dixon for blocking, Hornish for leaving the pits with refuelling equipment still attached), but an inopportune caution period shuffled Wheldon back in the pack.
For rookie Marco Andretti, who had been running second but ducked into the pits just in time, the yellows were a blessing. At the restart he made short work of passing his father Michael’s sister car to grab the lead, but a resurgent Hornish was on the prowl and he too had no problem passing the older Andretti.
On the penultimate lap he tried to pass Mario’s grandson heading into Turn 3 but was so firmly rebuffed he lost considerable momentum. However, Hornish then recovered and kept gaining on his prey over the remaining five turns.
Exiting the final corner on the last lap, the 2001 and ’02 IRL champion was firmly in Marco’s slipstream. Timing his pass to perfection, Hornish slipstreamed the rookie to claim victory by 0.0635 seconds, the third-closest in event history.
6. Foyt and Sachs top stellar cast, 1961
After the events of the previous year (see entry number two), it was no surprise that Indy 500 sophomore Jim Hurtubise was a force to be reckoned with again as he burst from third on the grid and led the first 35 laps before his engine let go.
Nor that defending winner Jim Rathmann, along with 1959 winner (and 1960 runner-up) Rodger Ward would also lead laps. With hindsight, it’s also hardly a shock that, even as a rookie, Parnelli Jones was brilliant, lining up fifth on the grid and leading 27 laps.
But it was AJ Foyt (Bowes Seal Fast Trevis-Offy) and polesitter Eddie Sachs (Dean Van Lines Ewing-Offy) who dominated proceedings and duelled into the closing stages.
Having been pretty much even on pace for most of the race, Foyt was surprised when he caught and passed Sachs with relative impunity on lap 170. Then he saw the pitboard hung out for him – ‘Fuel Low’ – and realised the crew had suffered a malfunction in what should have been his final stop, having simply not gotten enough fuel in. He was so fast because he was running light.
The furious Texan barrelled into the pits on lap 185 to receive the necessary splash, and was on his way again after just eight seconds but now with all hope of victory lost.
Except Sachs, with four laps to go, saw the white cord showing on his crossply tyres, having perhaps been a tad too vigorous through the turns on his full fuel load. He felt compelled to pit a lap later and so Foyt headed on to his first of four Indy triumphs, with Sachs finishing eight seconds in arrears, as Ward was almost a minute behind in third.
The next time Foyt won, 1964, it would be the final triumph for a roadster and a dreadful day for Indy following the death of two drivers, one of whom was Sachs.
5. Castroneves’ nearest near-miss, 2014
Helio Castroneves, who this year – qualifying allowing – will make his 20th Indy 500 start, is seeking to join Foyt, Unser and Mears in the four-time winners’ club. But it’s easy to forget how close the Brazilian has been to nailing that fourth triumph.
In 2003, he came up 0.2290s short to team-mate Gil de Ferran and in 2017 he was 0.2011s behind Andretti Autosport’s Sato, despite suffering damage to his rear wing in the trail of debris that resulted from Dixon’s enormous accident. But should he finish second again, it will surely not be closer than in 2014.
On that occasion, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay edged the Penske driver by just 0.06s. In other words, Castroneves’ combined losses when finishing runner-up still haven’t reached half a second!
The duel between RHR and Castroneves truly began on lap 183 but was interrupted by a red flag when Townsend Bell shunted on lap 193, and IndyCar was keen to see a race to the twin checkers after the 2012 and 2013 events (won by Franchitti and Tony Kanaan respectively) had both finished under caution.
There were six laps to go at the restart and, as was typical in the Dallara DW12 era, the cars’ tow meant regular changes of lead down the front stretch, where the leader would hug the pitwall to force his or her pursuer to go the long way around at Turn 1.
On lap 197, with Castroneves leading, Hunter-Reay came off Turn 2 with better momentum, and while Castroneves felt like he’d gone far enough to the inside to force the American to try the long way round into Turn 3 Hunter-Reay reckoned the gap between the Penske and the grass was enough to squeeze himself through. And it was… just.
Two laps later, Castroneves was back in front and this time as he headed down the back straight and spied Hunter-Reay was close and gaining again, he eliminated any thoughts the Andretti driver might have of making an inside manoeuvre again by edging even closer to the grass.
It did the trick, but it was just enough to compromise Castroneves’ own line into Turn 3 and therefore his speed through the short chute. Hitting the pit straight for the penultimate time, Hunter-Reay was past him and into the lead even before they reached the yard of bricks. He then held on throughout that final lap to score a brilliant triumph.
4. Unser Jr beats charging Goodyear, 1992
This event had it all, even before the race. There was a tear-jerking moment as promising Philippines native Jovy Marcelo was killed in a practice crash, and a nausea-inducing moment as three-time F1 champion but Indy 500 rookie Nelson Piquet’s Team Menard Lola had a head-on shunt with the wall. The mangling of his legs was inevitable once you saw the images, but his helmet’s impact with the concrete could have made it so much worse.
PLUS: How Indy ‘pulverised’ an F1 champion
And then the charming and talented Guerrero earned pole but, as he led the field to the green on the parade lap, lost control while trying to warm his tyres in shockingly cold race day temperatures and struck a barrier that put his King Motorsports Lola/Buick out before the race had even begun.
It was a portent of what was to come, as veterans and rookies alike got involved in accidents. Still, finally it looked like the since-1969 curse of the Andretti family at IMS was finally going to be broken as Michael led for 160 laps, almost as dominant as his father had been five years earlier. But like his father five years earlier, mechanical failure – in this case, a broken fuel pump with just 10 laps to go – ended his hopes in cruel fashion.
That left a duel between Al Unser Jr in Galles Racing’s unique Galmer chassis and Scott Goodyear in the Walker Racing Lola, the latter after a remarkable drive up from 33rd on the grid (Goodyear had failed to qualify but had taken over the car of team-mate Mike Groff).
Before and after the final pitstops, the Canadian was heading Little Al, but tripped up on traffic with 15 laps to go, which allowed the 1990 series champion to pass him. It looked an even more crucial error once Andretti was out and this became a battle for the lead.
Following the inevitable caution, there was a seven-lap shootout – Unser with the greater experience, Goodyear with the better car but apparently uncertain how best to use it against a highly defensive but clean opponent. He never figured it out and, despite pulling out of the slipstream at the right moment on the run to the checkered flag, Goodyear fell 0.043s short in the closest-ever Indy 500 finish.
3. Mears takes his best victory, 1991
Mears went through it all in the days leading up to what would be his penultimate appearance in the race.
PLUS: The Captain’s Indy legend calls it a day
He suffered his first ever crash at the Speedway during practice, when the right rear wheel of his Penske PC20 broke, and the ensuing accident put him on his head and hurt his foot.
But come qualifying, Mears bounced back astoundingly to score his sixth pole position (still the record for Indy poles) and headed up one of the greatest front rows in Indy history, with Foyt (making his 34th start) second, and Mario Andretti (making his 26th start) third.
On race day, it was the Newman/Haas Racing Lola of Michael Andretti that appeared to be dominant, only ceding the lead on pitstops. But the Penskes of Fittipaldi and Mears remained a lurking threat, both constantly acclimating their cars to the evolving track.
Fittipaldi, 1989 winner (and to be 1993 winner), retired on lap 171 with gearbox failure. Mears pitted straight after and rejoined 10s behind Michael Andretti. While he got his tyres up to temperature, that deficit extended to 13s. Andretti still needed to stop but he was able to do so under caution, when Sullivan’s engine let go, and Andretti was able to rejoin directly behind Mears.
On the restart, John Andretti and Unser Jr, who had been heading the pack but were about to be lapped, kept well out of the way of the leaders. Mears got the initiative, but Andretti had greater momentum and, despite cold and worn tyres, went around the outside of the Penske at Turn 1 to grab the lead.
Mears, however, stayed in Andretti’s wheeltracks and, when the Newman/Haas driver dived for the Turn 1 apron next time by, the Penske pilot kept his foot in it, the right rear visibly laying down rubber.
This time it was Mears who used the outside line to claim the lead. Despite Mario Andretti chugging to a halt at pit entry causing a final yellow, son Michael had nothing left for Mears, who went on to score his record-matching fourth Indy 500 win.
2. The greatest duel, 1960
In qualifying the talk had been all about Sachs taking a new four-lap qualifying record of 146.592mph on Pole Day. Yet eight days later, on the fourth and final day of qualifying, astounding rookie Hurtubise slid his Christensen-Offy around the Brickyard with a new technique and at an astonishing average of 149.056mph. Of course, it was the wrong day to do that and he wound up 23rd on the grid; he would climb to fifth on race day but was halted by his engine throwing a rod.
So instead the race became one of the greatest duels of all time, a rematch of the 1959 race, when Ward had beaten Rathmann. This time it was anyone’s guess as to who would win but it was sure to be one of these two – no one else led after lap 95, the pair having outpaced early leaders such as Sachs, 1952 winner Troy Ruttman and Johnny Thomson.
Ward had overcome a stall in the pits at his first stop, which had left him stationary for over a minute in an era when stops typically lasted barely more than 20s. It took him almost an hour to get up to the lead once more, but the fact that he could do so suggested his Leader Card entry clearly had the pace.
But he just could not shake Rathmann’s similar Watson-Offy run by Ken Paul. Over the second half of the race, they swapped the lead a remarkable 14 times.
Ward was trying to nurse his tyres but, when Rathmann received word via pitboard that Thomson had got a second wind and was catching the pair of them, both were obliged to run a hotter pace – and to the detriment of their rubber.
Ward, leading with four laps to go, suddenly spied white cord showing through his right-front Firestone. Rather than risk a blowout, and disinclined to sacrifice a big payday by pitting, he finally backed off, allowing Rathmann a clear run to victory, having finished runner-up on three previous occasions.
1. New star versus wily veteran, 1982
Most people remember the 66th running of the Indianapolis 500 for one of three reasons – Gordon Smiley’s fatal shunt in qualifying, the startline shunt that wiped out the two biggest names in US racing, and the fact that 1973 Indy winner Gordon Johncock edged Mears in an incredibly close finish for his second ‘500 victory.
The Penske PC10s of Mears and Kevin Cogan lined up 1-2 on the grid, but the race had barely started when Cogan lost control and impaled the March of third front-row starter Foyt before being collected by the fast-starting Pat Patrick-run Wildcat of Mario Andretti. Both legends were furious, but at least Foyt was able to restart albeit in a now ill-handling car; Andretti, like Cogan, was eliminated on the spot.
At the restart, Foyt surged into the lead and remained in contention for the first third of the race, but would later slow with transmission problems, resulting in iconic images of Foyt setting to work on his car in the pits with a hammer.
On track, the race distilled to a straight battle between Mears – already an Indy winner in 1979 and two-time champion – and the tenacious, brave and fast veteran Johncock in the second Patrick Wildcat.
With 40 laps to go, there was a restart in which Mears retained his lead only until the back straight, when Johncock moved ahead and the pair continued in tandem. Mears was able to run anywhere in the turns as he probed Johncock’s defences, but the 1976 USAC National champion’s superior top-end speed allowed him to legitimately cut down from the outside to the apron and take the perfect racing line, cutting off Mears and disturbing his downforce. It was a quite brilliant duel.
A late-race fuel stop was required for both, with Mears first in on lap 183. But not only did he tag his left-front wing on the tail of a backmarker, he was also given more than a splash, which would hurt his dash. After Johncock stopped three laps later, he was more than 11s to the good.
Mears gave full vent to his Penske’s potential and slashed the deficit. Coming off Turn 4 to start the last lap, Mears was so much faster it looked like a change of lead was inevitable. But, as per pre-pitstop, he drew alongside and stalled there, and with no option but to back off as Johncock came down to take his normal line for Turn 1.
Mears gathered it up, moved up onto Johncock’s tail as they entered Turn 4 for the final time, but crossed the yard of bricks 0.16s short. It would remain the closest finish in Indy history for 10 years.