From blazing cars to victory by inches, the Motor Speedway’s official historian talks us through the most dramatic race climaxes
There has long been a saying in the United States, attributed to the legendary New York Yankees baseball star Lawrence ‘Yogi’ Berra, who is alleged to have coined the masterpiece “It’s never over until it’s over,” or something along those lines.
Regardless, that basic observation could easily be applied to the history of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, for, while many of the 94 contests held thus far were effectively settled well before the end, the number of examples in which a driver led within the final 10 laps of the 200-lap contest and did not win is 20. Twelve of those 20 unfortunate souls never were able to pull off a victory, and to take the point a stage further, there have been 10 examples of somebody leading within five laps of the finish and not winning While Ralph de Palma, Rodger Ward, Parnelli Jones and Al Unser Jr each managed to triumph in other years, Eddie Sachs, Kevin Cogan, Scott Goodyear, Robby Gordon and Michael Andretti never did, all of them sharing that frustrating distinction with young Marco Andretti, the only one of the group who is still active and therefore in a position to seek redemption.
This is not to imply that a finish is only exciting if somebody drops out while leading within sight of the chequered flag, but the fact that something could go wrong at the end has certainly tended to hold one’s attention over the years.
With that in mind, what follows is an interpretation of what we perceive to have been the 10 most dramatic finishes in Indianapolis 500 history.
Poor Ralph De Palmai while he did win the Indy 500 in 1915, morally he should have won at least three more, and in the second running in 1912 he had the most wretched luck of all. Incredibly, he led for 196 of the 200 laps, and the only four he didn’t lead were laps one, two, 199 and 200.
Driving a privately entered 1908 chain-driven Grand Prix Mercedes, de Palma had taken over on lap three and built up an extraordinary lead. With but 10 laps remaining he was approximately five and a half laps ahead, which in terms of time represented about 11 minutes. The crowds were already heading for the exits in an attempt to beat the rush for home when a cry went up: de Palma was slowing down!
Sure enough, thick smoke was billowing from the engine compartment, the result of a connecting rod having snapped and smashed a gaping hole in the crankcase, causing all the oil to be pumped out onto the track’s brick-and-mortar surface.
Finally, while crawling across the north end of the 2.5-mile rectangular oval on its way toward Turn 4, the Mercedes ground to a halt. Not to be outdone, the 29-year-old de Palma, an Italian immigrant, and his freewheeling Australian riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, climbed out and began to push the heavy car through the turn and down the main straight.
In the meantime, there was much excitement in the pits of the National Motor Vehicle Company. One of its three locally built stripped-down passenger cars was second, driven by 22-year-old Joe Dawson, a Marmon engineer who had been loaned to the rival National outfit for this one event, Marmon having withdrawn from competition the previous year following the win by Dawson’s superior, Ray Harroun.
Dawson was lapping at over 80mph and getting an up-close view of the progress by de Palma and Jeffkins about every one minute and 50 seconds, the struggling pair now through the turn and pushing down the main straight. Gradually, the polite applause and occasional call of encouragement had developed into quite a healthy ovation as they slugged out the final couple of hundred yards. To everyone’s amazement throughout all of this, de Palma had been grinning and occasionally waving acknowledgment.
Dawson, in the meantime, had been able to un-lap himself to the point of catching de Palma and then lapping him on his way to the chequered flag. There is a classic photograph (left) that shows de Palma and Jeffkins, still grinding out the final few yards, while Dawson, having taken a couple of extra laps in order to protect himself against a possible scoring issue, is already in his pit and out of his car.
There is a theory that de Palma believed he was on his final lap, rather than his next-to-last, and that he was so far ahead of second place he would still be able to push home and win. When he learned that (a) Dawson had already won, and (b) there was another 2.5-mile lap to push, he reluctantly threw in the towel. To everyone’s further amazement, de Palma, smile on face, sportingly strode over to the bashful Dawson and extended his hand in congratulation.
A quarter of a century later, at a running of the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island in either 1936 or ’37, little had changed. Dawson by this time was a very prominent and respected AAA racing official. The always beautifully dressed and mannered de Palma, long since retired, came over to greet Dawson with great affection. After he left, Dawson was chided by his friends for having hung his head in embarrassment, hardly saying a word. It was evident that even after all that time, Dawson was still in awe of the great de Palma.
While a win by the visiting Grand Prix combination of Jules Goux in a Peugeot had resulted in the greatest margin of victory ever — a whopping 13 minutes and eight seconds — it was the battle for second that had everyone talking in 1913. Racing for that position many minutes after Goux had already finished were a pair of basically streetworthy sports cars, entered by their ultimately iconic manufacturers — Mercer of Trenton, NJ, and Stutz of Indianapolis, the latter’s factory located less than five miles from the track.
Out of Turn 4 to commence the final lap came the Mercer with an advantage of several seconds, but when company head Harry Stutz, who was effectively serving as his own team manager, saw his pride and joy come into view he was alarmed to see that flames were pouring from the engine compartment.
He of the Pork Pie hat stepped to the edge of the track, shrugged and resignedly motioned his driver to head for the pits. But Charlie Merz (above and below), the son of an Indianapolis policeman, would have none of that and neither would Harry Martin, his riding mechanic. In fact Martin, who had ridden to victory with Joe Dawson in a National the year before, was now leaning forward in a bid to ascertain the source of the fire and even to contemplate trying to extinguish it. The car disappeared into the Turn 1 and Stutz began to wonder if he shouldn’t be fearing the worst.
Attention turned once again to Turn 4. The seconds ticked away and eventually here came the Mercer, shared during the day by wealthy young Spencer Wishart (whose sister would marry the 1916 500 winner-to-be, Italian-born Englishman Dario Resta) and Ralph de Palma, the hard-luck driver of the year before.
Down the straight and under the chequer it came. But Merz and Martin in the Stutz still had not given up. To a thunderous ovation by the partisan crowd, some 36sec after the Mercer had taken second place the Stutz claimed third, Martin now completely spread out over the hood and valiantly attempting to beat out the flames.
For the first 20 or so years of the Indianapolis 500, the margin of victory typically would be measured in terms of minutes rather than seconds. In 1934, however Bill Cummings beat Mauri Rose by only 27 seconds, but even this would pale in comparison with the finish of 1937.
Wilbur Shaw, runner-up in 1933 and 1935, had appeared to be the man to beat in 1936, driving a streamlined car that he and his riding mechanic, master metal craftsman Myron Stevens, had built themselves. They would, no doubt, have won handily had they not been delayed twice by lengthy pitstops to try and secure loose bodywork. They finished seventh. Shaw was now back with the re-engineered car, along with a different riding mechanic, John W ‘Jigger’ Johnson, who had ridden with winner Louis Schneider in 1931.
With 30 laps to go, they had a lead of almost two minutes over the 1936-winning mount of Louis Meyer, which was now being driven by a longtime friend of Shaw’s, Ralph Hepburn. The former motorcycle great had suffered serious injuries early in 1932 and Shaw had led that year’s 500 substituting in Hepburn’s car. Never having fully recovered from that accident (he had a pronounced limp for the rest of his life), Hepburn had to seek a relief driver midway through the 1937 event. In jumped Bob Swanson, a West Coast short-track specialist who was driving at Indianapolis for the first time. Starting with another car, he had moved all the way from 21st to seventh within the first 10 laps, and was fifth by lap 30. Sidelined by mechanical trouble, Swanson then hopped in for Hepburn and took the lead on lap 130. He was still holding it 33 laps later when a rested-up Hepburn was ready to go back out for more. Shaw resumed the lead at that point, and at lap 170 was almost two minutes ahead of his friend.
The interval remained fairly constant during the next 10 laps, and at the 180-lap mark it was 1min 56sec. But Shaw was slowing. He had noticed that the oil pressure would drop whenever he was negotiating a turn and that it would not rise appreciably on the straights. With 10 laps remaining, the margin was down to 1min 8sec. Shaw was slowing as much as he dared, reading the pitboard on each lap and trying to gauge what speed he needed to run in order to keep his ailing mount ahead.
If the unofficial reports of the day are to be believed they claim that Shaw was ahead by 14sec going into the final lap he must have slowed down considerably. He held on for the win, but crossed the line only 2.16sec before the fast-closing Hepburn.
As great a victory as this was for the hugely popular local driver, many an insider 30 years later was suggesting that Hepburn had made a mistake by returning to the wheel, and that had Swanson been allowed to stay in he, not Shaw, would have won. Regardless Shaw, who for a variety of reasons remains one of the three or four most important people in the entire history of the track, won by a margin of victory which would survive as the closest ever until 1982.
The 1947 race was winding down and 39-year-old Bill Holland had a commanding lead. In spite of that being an age at which most still would be contemplating retirement, this was Holland’s first start. After years of making a handsome living driving dirt-track cars on the East Coast, he had finally decided to try Indianapolis.
He had been entered in another car, but when one of former driver Lou Moore’s pair of brand-new, low-slung front-drive Blue Crown Spark Plug specials suddenly needed a driver, Holland jumped at the opportunity. There was, that year an unfortunate dispute between management and participants over prize money and many of them but not all were holding out for a much higher guarantee. They had formed an association called the American Society for Professional Auto Racing, otherwise known as ASPAR.
Moore’s drivers were Mauri Rose and Tony Bettenhausen, but when Moore (a non-member) was ready to start practicing and Bettenhausen chose to hold out with his ASPAR colleagues, Holland inherited the chance of a lifetime. He proceeded to be the fastest qualifier (although not on pole because of active drivers having qualified on the second day rather than the first), and it wasn’t long before he was leading.
The laps were running down and Holland had a half-minute lead over Rose, who in turn had a massive advantage over third. Ever the master strategist, Moore instructed his crew members to slow down both drivers by chalking the word ‘EZY’ on their pit boards. Holland saw the sign, acknowledged, and then backed off the pace. Rose came by, acknowledged and did not slow down. For the next several laps, the interval shrank by three to four seconds per lap (the crew now showing both drivers ‘OK’), and pretty soon Rose was right behind his team-mate.
On the 193rd lap, he drew alongside on the backstretch and Holland, apparently believing Rose to be merely un-lapping himself, waved him by. Rose then thundered off into the distance, ultimately to be the first to reach the chequer. Holland followed 32sec later believing that he had won.
He was understandably furious when he learned he had not. As he rolled down past the pits on his way to Victory Lane with his engine shut off, he was flabbergasted to hear Rose already being interviewed over the public address system. Grilled by the media over the most unpopular outcome (the general public accusing Moore and Rose of “ganging up” on the newcomer), Moore explained that the cars had cost him in the region of $30,000 each and that everything he owned was tied up in them.
With a 1-2 finish all but guaranteed in the closing laps, he did not want to risk either or both coming to grief, and it was of little consequence to him which driver won. This was not entirely true. Rose’s view was that he was a professional driver who drove to win. When he saw the ‘EZY’ signals, he decided to keep going and see what happened. When he caught up with Holland, knowing he had seven laps left his next tactic was to be far enough ahead that Holland would not see him be the first to receive the white flag, indicating one lap to go. He also stated that it would have been far more beneficial for Moore to have Holland win because while he (Rose) was driving for 40 per cent of the prize money, Holland had agreed to only 30 per cent in return for driving such an outstanding car.
Another interesting point is that Holland, who was a great showman but all business, was known to have a short fuse and an almost paranoid outlook, apparently believing that everyone was “out to get him”. While his wife and friends were convinced he would “blow up” at Moore, he rather surprisingly refrained from doing so, evidently reasoning that he did, after all, have one of the best “rides” at the track and that to keep his mouth shut likely would ensure him being asked back in 1948, as indeed he was.
He and Rose finished 1-2 again that year in precisely the same cars, and in ’49 they almost did it again, Rose dropping out while running second with eight laps to go, and Holland finally winning.
Perhaps the greatest Indy 500 ever was the 1960 classic, highlighted by an extraordinary sustained battle throughout the entire second half between two outstanding drivers, Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward. There were a record 29 lead changes during the day (a mark which remains unbroken), of which 14 were between these two drivers during the last half alone. Eyewitnesses recall the crowd would stand up en masse every time the two cars came into view, wondering which of them it would be this time.
Front-runners in those days typically would get by with three pitstops, and this was long before the implementation of the procedure of sending out a pace car during a caution period for the purpose of packing up the field into a single-file procession at a controlled reduced speed. In the event of a ‘yellow’, each driver was required to slow down and maintain a constant interval behind the car in front of him at the time the caution was called, whether it was 10 feet or 400 yards. Some contestants were more sporting about this than others.
The early stages of the 1960 race were extremely competitive, but one by one, leaders like Troy Ruffman and Eddie Sachs had run into difficulties and fallen by the wayside. It came down to Ward and Rathmann, the 1-2 finishers of the previous year. An incident that was to play a major role in the outcome took place during the first round of pitstops when Ward stalled, losing himself valuable time. He raced hard to catch up during the next 75 or so laps, and it was just past the 120-lap mark when he finally pulled up behind Rathmann, the current leader. But Ward knew he had been especially hard on his tyres in catching up, and he was about to engage in a most fascinating tactic.
It should perhaps be stressed here that while there certainly was communication between driver and pitcrew, it basically consisted of hand signals by the driver and brief messages scrawled in chalk on a pitboard. The rest of it was pretty much left up to the driver. There were no computers, no two-way radios, no spotters. In fact, most teams either removed a car’s gauges for the race or at least taped them over, the attitude being, ‘Run it ’til it blows up!’
Rathmann and Ward were good friends, and Ward had a theory about a Rathmann idiosyncrasy that, in his estimation, Jim would race hard for a position, but once he was in front his pace would tend to slow down a fraction. Ward therefore elected to try running behind Rathmann for a while and see what would happen. Sure enough, the pace eased very slightly, this playing right into Ward’s hands, because it was placing less stress on his tyres.
“Even though I was running second,” he confided years later, “I felt as if I was controlling the race.” That was until about the 160-lap mark when the pitboards advised the pair that third-placed Johnny Thomson was catching up. The pace of the leaders picked up, but it soon became a moot point when Thomson stopped for fuel and tyres at lap 175 and then began to encounter engine problems, ultimately dropping him to fifth. But the damage was done.
Rathmann, also concerned about tyre wear but throwing caution to the wind, traded the lead with Ward four more times between lap 178 and 194, Ward going to the front again with only six laps remaining. It was shortly after this that Ward’s heart sank. A telltale stripe, off-white in colour, began to show through in the middle of his right front tyre, a dreaded indication that the cord beneath the rubber surface was about to come into full view. Not a good sign.
But while many a driver would have come in for a tyre change at that point, Ward knew, from thousands of miles as Firestone’s number one test driver that he could slow down and still likely baby it home.
Reluctantly he backed off, and on lap 197, Rathmann went ahead for good, Ward ultimately cruising home 12.67sec behind the 1958 Monza 500 winner. Had Rathmann finished second, he would have achieved the dubious honour of being history’s only four-time 500 runner-up. It is also noteworthy that the winning car had been towed back from the Los Angeles shop of AJWatson by none other than Rathmann and his chief mechanic, Takeo ‘Chickie’ Hirashima, the car bouncing around on an open trailer behind a station wagon.
The conclusion of the 1961 classic was very similar to that of the previous year, in that once again it was excessive tyre wear within sight of the finish which was to be the deciding factor. This time it was A J Foyt and Eddie Sachs who were the two gladiators battling it out at the end.
It had been an extremely competitive first half, with Jim Hurtubise, ‘rookie’ Parnelli Jones, and former winners Jim Rathmann, Rodger Ward and Troy Ruttman each running stints out in front, along with Foyt and Sachs. By the time they made what they assumed would be their final stops, it was down to Foyt and Sachs, with Ward the only other driver still in the hunt.
Once the stops had been made, Sachs was dismayed to discover that while they had been quite evenly matched up to this point, Foyt now seemed to be able to pull away. Sachs tried desperately to stay with the young Texan, but without success. What Sachs did not know — and neither did Foyt, unless he had noticed a change in the handling — was that AJ’s refuelling mechanism had malfunctioned on the most recent stop and he had received either very little fuel or none at all. The crew did not immediately inform Foyt, hurriedly making an arrangement to roll in another rig from Len Sutton’s pit, Sutton being out of the race.
Several insiders went down to tell Clint Brawner — crew chief for Sachs — that he could slow his driver down because Foyt was going to have to come in again. Brawner, cautious about believing them, elected to let Sachs continue the chase. Finally Foyt was shown the pitboard advising him to prepare for an emergency stop. That came at lap 185 for what was effectively a splash-and-go, his crew yelling “GO, GO, GO!” as he roared back into competition.
That gave Sachs a lead of over half a minute, and while upon reflection he could have slowed down substantially, he did not. Concerned about his tyre wear, he’d sneak glances on the straights, and finally, with about five laps to go, another of those dreaded telltale off-white stripes of cord began to make an unwelcome appearance.
On lap 197, Sachs came in to change the right rear, and before he could get going the 26-year-old Foyt swept by on his way to the first of four historic wins. Sachs was devastated at the end, and after having made it back to the garage area he remained in the cockpit for quite a period, stunned and staring into space, deep in thought. The question remained as to whether the tyre would have lasted another three laps. Opinions were mixed.
Also, what would have been the outcome had Brawner slowed Sachs down prior to Foyt’s emergency stop, and even more importantly, having been given a half-minute lead on a platter, could Sachs have slowed down substantially and babied the car home for the win?
It was perhaps the most controversial car ever to appear at Indy, certainly among those in a position to win. Had it done so, it likely would have changed everything. The laps in the 1967 race were winding down, and out in front was a car with a unique profile and sound.
Built in secrecy under the direction of Andy Granatelli, it was an STP-sponsored four-wheel-drive vehicle, its driver basically sifting in a capsule on the right side of an aircraft-type bulkhead and the engine sitting in another capsule on the left The engine? It was, of all things, a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine designed to power helicopters.
Turbines had been entered before, but none had so much as made a qualifying attempt until this major effort came along. The outstanding Parnelli Jones, who qualified sixth in the car, was accused of sandbagging during practice, meaning never putting together a full lap at speed, thus preventing one’s competition from seeing what one has.
The field came down for the start with Parnelli moving to the outside of everyone and, using all of his advantages, including the four-wheel drive, he powered past all but polesitter Mario Andretti by the time they came out of Turn 2. He then passed him easily on the backstretch and led the opening lap by a huge margin.
The weather was not cooperating, however and a downpour halted the event after 18 laps. Throughout the following day, Parnelli had the race clearly in hand, enjoying a lead of 53sec over AJ Foyt with 10 laps remaining. Members of Granatelli’s family were preparing to head down to Victory Lane, and Andy’s crew was getting ready to make a mad dash in that same direction as soon as the chequered flag fell.
Lap 195 passed and so did lap 196. Then came the astonishing report: Parnelli was slowing down. What could possibly have happened? Across the north short chute he went and over to Turn 4 going slower and slower, finally to stop near the entrance to the pits. By this time Foyt had already swept into the lead and was racing for the finish.
The stunned Granatelli crew ran north toward Parnelli’s stricken car as Foyt made it into his final lap, the booming voice of legendary public address announcer Tom Carnegie talking the crowd through the whole thing with his typical flair for drama. Foyt was on his way to becoming a three-time winner. Or was he? Suddenly, it was as if the north end of the track had erupted.
Cars were spinning and crashing all over the most spectacular being that of Chuck Hulse, who pirouetted around between contacts with his wildly spinning right-rear magnesium wheel ignited and throwing off showers of sparks like a Roman candle.
“Where is he?” bellowed Carnegie. “Will he get through, will he get through?” followed by, “There he is,” as indeed Foyt had slowed and was picking his way through the shrapnel and debris.
Foyt later stated that he’d had a premonition on the final lap that something might happen, and with more than a lap-and-a-half advantage over young Al Unser, he decided to slow down. Having avoided the mess, he roared down toward the chequer, gearing up at least twice as he went.
The Indianapolis 500 now had a fourth three-time winner, Foyt joining Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose, while the Speedway had on its hands one of its most controversial dilemmas ever: what to do about that darn turbine?
With 20 laps left to run, 1973 winner Gordon Johncock, competing in the 500 for the 18th consecutive time, had a slight lead over Rick Mears, who, while having won in 1979, still was considered a relative newcomer. But the general thinking was that Mears, driving for Roger Penske and already gaining a reputation for being a master tactician, was merely playing a waiting game and pacing himself for the laps that would follow his final scheduled pitstop.
Mears came in for fuel on lap 183, and his crew had him away in 18 seconds. Three laps later, it was Johncock’s turn. True, he had been leading to begin with, but his Patrick Racing Team crew was up against the mighty Penske squad and its reputation of being the very best.
But then there was an audible gasp from the crowd. Johncock was on his way after only 13sec, his Patrick crew members jumping up and down in the pitlane and giving each other high fives!
While it has long since become the accepted practice, they had at that time very likely pioneered the strategy of a ‘timed stop’ by putting in only the amount of fuel they calculated Johncock would need to finish. At lap 188, Mears found himself with a deficit of 11sec, which represented something in the region of a quarter of a lap. The gap remained virtually unchanged for a couple of laps, but then Mears went to work.
In a truly virtuoso performance he began to slice away at the advantage, reducing it from 7.9sec at lap 192, to 6.4sec at 193, and to a mere 4.6sec at 195.
Out of Turn 4 on lap 199 and there was a tremendous roar from the crowd. Mears had managed to draw to within a few feet of Johncock. Down the straight they came and Mears made a move to the inside. They entered Turn 1 literally side by side. Surely somebody would have to back off, and somebody did. It was Mears, lifting just momentarily, but enough to cause him to fall behind by quite a number of yards. He remounted the challenge straight away, but simply ran out of time.
Down for the chequered flag he tried once again, but came up short by 0.16sec. Rather than witnessing fury at the outcome, with Mears perhaps storming back to his garage, those who saw the aftermath on television were amazed to see Rick, still in the cockpit, remove his helmet and head sock to reveal streams of perspiration, thoroughly soaked hair and, amazingly enough, a wide grin.
The following night at the victory banquet, when all 33 drivers stepped up to receive the prizes on behalf of their teams in reverse order, it was Mears who was the first of the two up to the podium. At some point during his acceptance speech, he made a comment and turned to look at Johncock, who was sitting close by. The two of them grinned at each other with wild eyes and a wolf-like, almost demented expression, as they recalled that south “short chute moment” on the final lap.
With great mutual respect for each other, which continues to this day, they were sharing an experience that few other people in the world could truly understand.
There were two laps to go, and Al Unser Jr had a lead of just a few feet over Emerson Fittipaldi. The second-generation driver who was more than happy to answer to the nickname ‘Little Al’, was out there courtesy of a daring pitstop strategy made by members of his crew. The strategy, during a late-race caution, was basically don’t make one!
In the lead had been Fittipaldi with Unser second followed by Raul Boesel, who due to a variety of circumstances was behind the other two by six laps. Car entrant Rick Galles had gathered with his brains trust and reasoned that to come in and take on fuel would place them behind Fittipaldi regardless. To stay out would give them the lead, and if all worked out well, they might conceivably be able to stay there.
But with such a huge lead over third, they could risk running out of fuel even with five laps to go and still finish second. This was the strategy, and as soon as the green light flashed back on at lap 187, Unser took off with Fittipaldi in pursuit.
Heading down the backstretch with one and a half laps to go, the pair were quickly closing in on a line of four slower cars which they were about to lap again. Unser moved to the inside, a few hundred yards before the entrance to Turn 3 and suddenly Fittipaldi was there too!
The two-time World Champion had whipped to his left and was able to draw alongside Unser just as they headed into the turn. At right about the apex, they touched! Unser immediately spun and crashed into the outer wall, Fittipaldi fishtailing but regaining control, while the four cars in the process of being lapped all stayed high and clear.
The yellow and the white flags greeted the pack at the start/finish line and the pace car was already out on the track in a successful effort to get ahead of Fittipaldi and the others, slowing them down to the accepted caution-period speeds. Glancing into his rear view mirrors, Fittipaldi had seen Unser go into the wall with considerable force, and he obviously had great concern for his friend. Coming around Turn 3 and into the north short chute behind the pace car, his fears were put to rest when he saw Unser strolling out to the edge of the track and giving him a “double thumbs-up”.
Unser later admitted that initially he had been furious over the incident, but that the calming voice of one of the orange-suited safety workers had pointed out to him that the eyes of the television world were on him and that he should give serious thought as to what he might be motivated to do. Having a few seconds with which to think it over Unser realised the validity of that advice before Fittipaldi came around.
The following day, Fittipaldi was posed with his car on the main straight surrounded by piles upon piles of paper currency designed to represent that, for the first time ever, the winner’s share alone had exceeded one million dollars.
Unser, who would go on to win the race in 1992 and again in ’94, continues to this day to be very proud of the fact that he set a record that could be tied but never broken. That is, the highest position one can obtain without actually finishing in a race that goes the distance: second.
Of all the topsy-turvy finishes in the history of the 500, there has never been one like 2006. There have been epic battles involving two drivers, and, in the cases of 1996 and ’97, not two but three different drivers leading in the final stages. But during the final 18 laps in 2006, the total number of different drivers to lead the event was five.
Each with a compelling storyline, they were, in order: Dan Wheldon, who having switched from Andretti Green to Target Chip Ganassi was in a position to be only the sixth different driver to win twice in succession, but the first to do so with different teams. Then it was Tony Kanaan in front, a perennial favourite who by leading yet again had become the first driver ever to lead in his first five starts, breaking the record of four which he had held jointly with Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones.
Then came a late-race caution period and Kanaan ducked into the pits, giving up the lead to none other than Michael Andretti, the second-generation standout, now a car entrant, who had retired after 14 starts without having achieved a much-anticipated 500 victory, but was now back out of retirement. Not only did he feel he still had some unfinished business here, he sought to have the personal satisfaction of driving against his own son, Marco, who was making his 500 debut. Was Michael now finally going to be able to pull it off?
The restart came at lap 196 and all of sudden somebody was passing Michael on the outside going into Turn 1. It was Marco!
Lap 197 went into the books and then 198, but here came Sam Hornish Jr, the polesitter who had seemed out of contention after a pitstop incident caused him to leave while his refuelling hose was still connected, causing a minor disaster in the pits. Surely Hornish had been effectively out of it, but now here he was, challenging for the lead.
He tried an inside pass on Marco on the penultimate lap but then he had to back off, losing many yards in a situation extremely reminiscent of the 1982 battle between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears. Sam was now so far behind that even while crossing the north end of the track between Turns 3 and 4, he seemed to be just too far behind to be able to make up the distance.
Off Turn 4 they came, Marco moving down to the middle of the track and apparently on his way to the win. Up to this point, Troy Ruffman at 22 years of age in 1952 had been the youngest winner. Marco was about to break that record by three years. What a story that would have been! A 19-year-old rookie pulling off what his famous grandfather Mario, had been able to accomplish only once and what his famous father had not been able to pull off at all. But what was this?
Suddenly here came Hornish, seemingly appearing out of nowhere behind Marco, catching a tow and then being sucked around within 300 yards of the start/finish line to squeak ahead by inches and pull off the most unbelievable win of them all. The lead had never changed hands on the final lap, let alone within yards of the finish. And while eight drivers had led as late as lap 196 and not won, Michael Andretti became the only person ever to have done that with two drivers leading after him.
More Indy 500 dramas that proved too good not to rate a mention
1966 – A Grand Prix battle as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart trade the lead but when Stewart’s Ford V8 fails on lap 192 a surprised Lola team-mate Graham Hill takes a rookie victory. Clark is 41sec adrift despite two spins.
1968 – Joe Leonard’s Lotus turbine leads but a shunt brings out the yellows on lap 183; on the restart the engine flames out, handing Bobby Unser’s Eagle-Offy the first turbo win.
1977 – AJ Foyt makes it four wins only 29sec in front of Tom Sneva but only after Gordon Johncock, who’s been battling Foyt for 160 laps, breaks his crank 16 laps from home.
1983 – Tom Sneva’s hopes of a first win look doomed by Al Unser Jr protecting his father’s lead, but when Al Sr hits traffic on lap 190 Sneva boldly jumps both for an llsec victory.
1986 – Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal and Kevin Cogan fight for the lead until two laps from the flag, when Rahal explodes out of a caution for a 19th and final lead change.
1987 – Mario Andretti has led 170 laps when the sparks die and Roberto Guererro takes over only to stall in fuelling. Trapped by a caution, he has four laps to pass six cars to wrest it back from Unser Sr. He misses by one…
1992 – When a crook fuel pump blows Michael Andretti’s 160-lap domination, the resulting yellow leaves Scott Goodyear only six laps to take first off Al Unser Sr. He gets alongside on the final straight but he’s half a car down the closest finish ever.
1995 – A pace car penalty looks to have put early leader Jacques Villeneuve back to second as Scott Goodyear takes the flag until he’s disqualified for the same offence.
1996 – A last-lap green releases a desperate dash won by Bobby Lazier by 0.695sec; as the flag falls a three-way smash sees Alessandro Zampedri finish fourth upside-down!
1999 – Leader Robby Gordon’s attempt at stretching his fuel to the finish is thwarted. The white flag is waving when he has to come in, dropping him to fourth. Kenny Brack wins.
2005 – Coming out of a caution with 10 laps to go, Danica Patrick leads for the second time, first woman to top the board. But Dan Wheldon wins, leaving Patrick a historic fourth.