AutoClassics and LAT reflect on the outstanding moments from the prestigious Indy 500 – one-third of the triple crown of motorsport
Over a quarter of a million spectators turn out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day every May. They come to watch a race that’s been held annually for over a century. They come to watch what is billed in many headlines as ‘the greatest spectacle in racing’.
With those sort of historic and action-producing credentials, it’s little surprise that the Indianapolis 500 has played host to some of the most memorable moments in racing history. With average speeds in the Fast Nine qualifying shootout comfortably above 230mph, and such fine margins to the unforgiving concrete walls, success on the banking is hard fought.
Ahead of the weekend’s 102nd edition of the infamous race, and thanks to the LAT Archive, AutoClassics looks back at some of the most memorable and significant victories in the Indy500.
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1966: Assembling the triple crown
Already a three-time winner of the Monaco Grand Prix, and heading into the 1966 Indianapolis 500, Graham Hill had chalked the first stage towards becoming the only driver ever to win motorsport’s triple crown. The 50th edition of the 500 got off to a momentous start when 14 cars in the 33-strong grid were involved in a first-lap incident – 11 cars were terminally damaged, although fortunately all escaped serious injury.
Jackie Stewart was awarded the Rookie of the Year honour, having led by over a lap at one stage until an oil-pressure drop forced him to stop the car. Hill, also starting his first Indy 500, picked up the pieces to lead the final ten laps to become the first rookie winner since 1927. The previous year’s victor Jim Clark and his Lotus team eventually settled for second, after twice spinning during the race.
1970: The $1 million race
By contrast to Hill’s somewhat fortuitous victory, Al Unser absolutely dominated proceedings at the 1970 Indy 500 – a race of many firsts. He claimed pole position, and then led the pack for 190 of the 200 laps to take the chequered flag in the first race where all competitors ran turbocharged engines.
With that, he and brother Bobby became the first siblings to win the Indy 500 – and it was also Unser’s first of a record-holding four victories at the Brickyard. Significantly, it was the first time the prize pot for the race topped $1million – albeit by only $2. Taking home the spoils meant Unser was entitled to a payout just shy of $272,000.
1977: Foyt’s fourth
But while Unser (and Rick Mears) may also be joint top at the Indy 500 with four victories, it was AJ Foyt who got there first. For 1977, the bricks were covered with asphalt, and that paved the way for the first 200mph lap of the Speedway.
At the start, Foyt came around the outside from starting second on the grid, to lead into Turn 1. During the pitstop phases he fell back and was almost 15 seconds behind leader Gordon Johncock. However, with 16 laps to go Johncock’s crankshaft broke, causing a plume of smoke to billow from the rear of his Patrick Racing-run car. And with that stroke of luck, Foyt was able to take a 30-second lead across the line for his fourth Indy 500 win.
1985: Spin and Win
In what is surely one of the most iconic Indy 500 races/victories in history, Danny Sullivan defied the odds to beat Mario Andretti in 1985 despite a spin while challenging for the race lead. With 120 laps completed Sullivan attempted to pass Andretti, but he lost the rear of his car causing him to spin into Turn 1, still in the path of Andretti. However, Sullivan survived the 360-degree revolution without sustaining contact with the concrete walls. What’s more, the engine didn’t stall. That meant he could, remarkably, continue on his way.
Spurred on, within 20 laps he was back hounding Andretti – and this time he passed successfully. He led the final 61 laps to score his first and only Brickyard victory. For obvious reasons, 1985 is affectionately known as the ‘Spin and Win’ Indy 500 – and only added to the supposed ‘Andretti Curse’ that has left the family’s Brickyard trophy haul severely undernourished.
1993: Crying over undrank milk
Two Formula 1 champions went head-to-head for 1993. Reigning title-holder Nigel Mansell had defected over to the United States after leaving the Williams grand prix team. Meanwhile, Fittipaldi has been competing in CART after a four-year hiatus from racing. It was a misjudged race restart that resulted in Mansell gifting away victory, with Fittipaldi eventually taking the spoils. Arie Luyendyk split the two, making it the first podium lockout for non-US drivers since 1915.
Arguably, the greater controversy came after the race, when Fittipaldi pushed away the traditional bottle of milk for the victor to instead drink orange juice. What had originally been an opportunistic move to promote Brazil’s citrus fruits ended up haunting the double F1 champion – so much so, that when he returned in 2008 to drive the pace car the Indy 500 crowd still booed him.
1995: 90th-minute penalty
It was Jonathan Williams, son of Sir Frank, who spotted the talents of Jacques Villeneuve while racing in America, and pushed for the F1 team to sign him. His persistence paid dividends with the 1997 title. Headlining Villeneuve’s US success was the 1995 Indy 500 win, but it was two penalties that proved decisive.
Villeneuve, the 1994 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, received the first and was knocked back two laps for passing the pace car while under a period of caution. However, he made up the five-mile deficit and was back in contention. Then with just 10 laps to go, race leader Scott Goodyear committed the same foul and was duly handed a stop-go penalty. He refused to serve it, and stayed out. As such, he was struck off the timing screens and victory went to Villeneuve. As a result of Jacques’ comeback, this particular race is jokingly referred to as the Indianapolis 505.
2007: Rain interrupts play
Three hours – that’s how long the 2007 race was stopped for on lap 113, as the rain continued to pour. It wasn’t until 18:15 that the track was deemed dry enough for the race to restart. But 50 laps later Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti collided, causing the later to flip backwards down the straight.
That subsequently brought out the yellow flag, during which time more rain arrived. The race officials decided to cancel the race, and as the then-leader, Dario Franchitti – who had profited during the pitstop window – was declared the victor.
2011: To finish first...
By and large, the 2011 Indy 500 isn’t remembered for being Dan Wheldon’s last victory prior to his untimely death at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway later that year. It’s more remembered for how rookie JR Hildebrand managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It was with just two laps to go that he moved up into first place while running low on fuel. If the strategy paid off, then an upset was certainly on the cards.
Or it should have been, as on the last corner of the last lap he wiped out. Attempting to pass lapped traffic, he moved high on the circuit and got onto the marbles. He lost control and smacked the wall. Without drive, he coasted towards the finish line as Wheldon swept by to steal victory. A crushing blow for Hildebrand, but an iconic moment for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Images courtesy of LAT Archive