The Indy 500's greatest cameos: Alonso, Hill and Wheldon

Indycar Racing News

The Indianapolis 500 has been witness to many great one-off cameo drives – we pick five of the best

Fernando Alonso McLaren-Andretti 2017 Indianapolis 500

Alonso vied for the win on Indy debut


The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a gladiatorial stage like no other – one which has lent itself to some of racing’s most heroic acts.

It presents the opportunity for more one-off appearances than many other top-level motor sport events, giving racing stars the chance to write their legend in the most dramatic of circumstances.

The Indy 500 time and again has played host to these kind of one-off drives, where glory is achieved at the highest speeds and under the most intense pressure, before the victor scoops up their winnings and simply walks away from the arena.

To celebrate this year’s race, we’ve chosen five of the best cameo appearances from the self-proclaimed ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ throughout the years.


1965 – Jim Clark and Lotus revolutionise Indy

Jim Clark Races In The Indy 500

Clark and Lotus revolutionised Indy

Robert Riger/Getty Images

1965 wasn’t Jim Clark and Lotus’s first 500 rodeo, but for that year it was his and Team Hethel’s sole IndyCar effort – and they made it count.

Len Terry’s Lotus-Ford 38 was at that time the perfect – and almost only – iteration of a rear-engined IndyCar, building on the progress shown by Jack Brabham in his ‘back-to-front’ Cooper-Climaxes.

From the archive

Clark qualified on pole at a record-breaking 160mph, and simply dominated the race – he led 190 out of 200 laps.

“Jimmy took two laps to settle, then he was gone,” Clark’s then-mechanic Dave Lazenby told Motor Sport.

The 39 design meant that Clark was able to make one less fuel stop than the rest of the field: “Everyone else was shell-shocked by it,” added fellow Lotus old-timer Graham Clode.

AJ Foyt’s transmission failure halfway through meant no one else could hold a light to Clark, but the starting grid had already indicated the times were changing: four of the top five starters were in Lotus cars, nine out out of the top ten used Ford power units and two-thirds of the field now sat in front of their roaring engines, rather than behind.


1966 – Graham Hill

3 Graham Hill 1966 Indianapolis 500

Hill took a famous win at Indianapolis in ’66

Having only once previously tried – and failed – to qualifying for the Indy 500 in 1963, Graham Hill summed up the mood with perfect British understatement following his ’66 one-off victory: “I’m a bit surprised to have won.”

From the archive

The F1 legend set himself on the way to being the only driver to ever achieve motor sport’s triple crown of winning Indy, Monaco and Le Mans by coming home first as a Brickyard rookie in controversial circumstances.

Hill had been called into Mecon’s Lola T90 last minute to replace Walt Hansgen, who had been killed testing a Ford GT40 MkII at Le Mans.

He would partner Jackie Stewart and Indy legend Roger Ward and, after qualifying 15th, had to see off the attentions of his two team-mates as well as Jim Clark.

Hill also survived a huge multi-car pile-up at the start which eliminated a third of the field, then moved into the lead when Stewart’s engine blew with ten laps to go.

However, the timing tower at the end indicated that Clark had won — a technical error. This was then overturned with Hill given the victory, despite much protestation from Colin Chapman and co.

“I’m very impressed with the size of this cheque,” said Hill afterwards. “I’m not used to this, but I did bring along a couple of Scottish accountants to handle it.”


2011 – Dan Wheldon

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Dan Wheldon of England, driver of the #98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara Honda, celebrates after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Wheldon lets it all out after crossing the line for a brilliant 2011 cameo

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

The spectacular Dan Wheldon went through all the ups and downs of an IndyCar career before paying the ultimate price, but his achievements have given him an enduring and deserved place in racing history.

With opportunities few and far between in Europe he headed for the US, and within two years was both an Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar champion.

However, after leaving first team Andretti in a big money-move to Ganassi, he then quit Chip’s eponymous team in a fit of pique before coming to the end of the road at Panther.

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When he made a one-off comeback for Brian Herta’s team at Indy in 2011, the stage was set for perhaps the greatest Brickyard win of all time.

“It kind of took us on the back foot, just how enthusiastic he was and how much confidence he put in us,” Herta told Motor Sport.

“Right away, he just kept saying, ‘Oh, we can win the race, we can do this thing.’”

Wheldon was right – after qualifying well, the Brit ran up front and looked like he was all set for second, before the race reached a thrilling climax.

Rookie JR Hildebrand – who had taken Wheldon’s seat at Panther – looked set for a sensational win first time out, until he unwisely tried a lap a car on the outside, through the marbles, at the final corner on the last lap.

He lost grip and slammed into the wall as a result, and Wheldon sailed past for a famous, emotionally-charged win.

“The elation of the moment, when Dan crossed the line, I doubt I’ll have that again in my lifetime,” said Herta.

The Brit would tragically lose his life in a devastating crash at the season finale in Las Vegas – but he’d already made his mark.


2014 – Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch Andretti 2014 Indianapolis 500

Busch impressed on his 2014 ‘Double Duty’ appearance

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NASCAR drivers trying their hand at the 500 used to be a relatively common occurrence, but by 2014 it had become basically unheard of.

However, Cup champion Kurt Busch bucked the trend by announcing he would attempt ‘The Double’ in 2014, taking on both the Indy 500 and Charlotte 600 on the same day.

It’s something which hadn’t been attempted since the versatile Robbie Gordon’s fifth ‘Double Duty’ effort ten years previously, but the gung-ho Busch was more than ready.

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“I’ve always just tried to challenge myself in motor sports, and to be a student of all kind of cars — dirt tracks, road courses, superspeedways, short track, open wheel, and of course, our stock cars,” Busch said beforehand.

“That’s my love, my passion, and it’s in my blood. And it’s a chance to challenge myself, to do something physically and mentally as a driver, and show how tough NASCAR drivers are.”

The Las Vegas native acquitted himself brilliantly, qualifying a stunning tenth, just one place outside the top-nine shootout, before finishing sixth.

“To run my first ever IndyCar race – sixth place is an achievement I’ll have forever [but] I’ve got 600 more miles to go and do.”

Busch would be competitive in Charlotte too before an engine failure took him out, but the drive would stand the test of time as one of The Brickyard’s great cameos.


2017 – Fernando Alonso

2 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Andretti 2017 Indianapolis 500

Alonso at home in his McLaren-Andretti


The world of IndyCar was rocked when double-world champion Fernando Alonso and his McLaren team announced they would take on the 2017 Indianapolis 500 in a partnership with Andretti.

“I’ve never raced an IndyCar car before, and neither have I ever driven on a super-speedway, but I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast. I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220mph [354km/h],” said Alonso beforehand.

“I’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix twice, and it’s one of my ambitions to win the Triple Crown.”

From the archive

The F1 legend moved smoothly through his rookie orientation programme – which was avidly watched by over two million people on YouTube, immediately setting an impressive pace in practice too.

This was backed up by making it into the top-nine qualifying shootout, eventually starting seventh.

After a competitive start, the Spaniard impressively led the race four times for a total of 27 laps until his Honda let go on lap 179 – his team-mate Takuma Sato would win.

It was a valiant effort from both former F1 colleagues, and Alonso still took immense pleasure from such a race during a difficult period in grand prix racing.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500,” Alonso said. “I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 [his car’s number] on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture because I want that picture at home.”