The top Indianapolis 500s ranked: Andretti, Foyt, Mears and more

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The top Indianapolis 500s ranked: Andretti, Foyt, Mears and more
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The 104th Indianapolis 500 should be taking place this weekend, but the coronavirus pandemic means we’ll have to wait until August 23 to enjoy this year's iconic event, so we've selected the 10 most memorable editions of the world's biggest race.

10. Sullivan spins and wins, 1985

No, it wasn't the greatest race, in the end, but this is one of the most iconic moments in IMS history.

No, it wasn't the greatest race, in the end, but this is one of the most iconic moments in IMS history.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Mario Andretti led most 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 got stronger throughout the event, and 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 Andretti avoided him through the smokescreen.

Less than 20 laps later, a fired up Sullivan moved into the lead he’d never lose, able to pull away after all subsequent restarts.

9. Hildebrand’s gift to Wheldon, 2011

Wheldon and Hildebrand – two racers in disbelief at the outcome...

Wheldon and Hildebrand – two racers in disbelief at the outcome...

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The closing laps were epic as a variety of strategy gambles failed to mesh with yellow-flag periods, leaving some great driver/team combos, such as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon trying to coax their cars home on fumes.

That left rookie JR Hildebrand in the lead for Panther Racing, a team that had finished second for the previous three 500s. Dan Wheldon, by now part-time and driving for Bryan Herta Autosport in his first race of the year and the squad’s second ever IndyCar event, was second and closing but nowhere near fast enough to catch the leader.

Then suddenly Hildebrand went to lap Charlie Kimball through the short chute between Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, got into the gray, skated over the off-line marbles and hit the wall out of the final corner.

J.R.'s 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

It was one-year-old then, but we still think Unser's Penske-run March 86C looks great today.

It was one-year-old then, but we still think Unser's Penske-run March 86C looks great today.

Photo by: IMS

Perhaps this race shouldn’t be in here because Mario Andretti, driving a Newman/Haas Racing Lola-Chevrolet that had been race 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 Roberto Guerrero in the Vince Granatelli Racing March-Cosworth, suddenly Andretti’s Chevy broke a valve spring. That of course 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 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 (see lead picture) – paid off handsomely, and the damn-near-48-year-old veteran scored his fourth Indy win.

7. Hornish pips younger Andretti on the line, 2006

Hornish leads teammate Castroneves, the Ganassi pair of Wheldon and Dixon and Andretti Green's Kanaan in the early stages.

Hornish leads teammate Castroneves, the Ganassi pair of Wheldon and Dixon and Andretti Green's Kanaan in the early stages.

Photo by: Steve Snoddy

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 refueling equipment still attached), but an inopportune caution period shuffled Wheldon back in the pack.

For 19-year-old 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 Andretti Green Racing 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, the Penske driver tried to pass Marco 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 he was firmly in Marco’s slipstream.

Timing his pass to perfection, Hornish slipstreamed the youngster to claim victory by 0.0635 seconds.

6. Foyt and Sachs top stellar cast, 1961

The first of Foyt's four wins, in a career that covered 35 Indy 500s, 13 of which he led.

The first of Foyt's four wins, in a career that covered 35 Indy 500s, 13 of which he led.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

 After what had happened the year before (see entry number 2), it was no surprise that Indy 500 sophomore Jim Hurtubise was a force to be reckoned with again – he burst from third on the grid and led the first 35 laps – 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 A.J. Foyt (Bowes Seal Fast Trevis-Offy) and polesitter Eddie Sachs (Dean Van Lines Ewing-Offy) who dominated proceedings and dueled 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. Then he saw a stomach-dropping message on his pitboard – ‘Fuel Low’ – and realized the crew had suffered a malfunction in what should have been his final stop. They simply hadn’t gotten enough fuel in, and he was so fast because he was running light.

The furious Texan hurtled into the pits on lap 185 to receive the necessary splash of gas, and was on his way again after just eight seconds but now with all hope of victory seemingly lost.

Except Sachs, with four laps to go, saw the white cord showing through on his bias-ply tires, having perhaps been a tad too vigorous through the turns while running a full fuel load. He felt compelled to pit a lap later and Foyt headed on to his first of four Indy triumphs.

The next time SuperTex 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. Helio’s nearest near-miss, 2014

Hunter-Reay consoles his on-track opposition Castroneves in Victory Lane.

Hunter-Reay consoles his on-track opposition Castroneves in Victory Lane.

Photo by: Dana Garrett

This year, Helio Castroneves, will – qualifying allowing – make his 20th Indy 500 start, as he seeks to join Foyt, Unser and Mears in the four-time winners’ club. But it’s easy to forget how close he’s already come to nailing that fourth triumph.

In 2003 he came up 0.2290s short to Penske teammate Gil de Ferran and in 2017 he was 0.2011s behind Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato. But should he finish second again, it will surely not be closer than in 2014.

On that occasion, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay edged Helio by just 0.06s. In other words, Castroneves’ combined losses when finishing runner-up still haven’t reached half a second! 

The 2014 duel between RHR – up from 19th on the grid – 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 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 an outside pass into Turn 3, Hunter-Reay reckoned the gap between the Penske and the indfield grass was enough to squeeze his car 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 again close and gaining, he eliminated any thoughts the Andretti driver might have of repeating his 'pass in the grass' maneuver by edging even closer to the inside.

With a dash of irony, the defense actually left Helio more vulnerable for it was just enough to compromise his 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 and he then held on throughout that final lap to score a brilliant triumph.

4. Unser Jr beats charging Goodyear, 1992

The climax to one of Indy's most unexpected battles for the win.

The climax to one of Indy's most unexpected battles for the win.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

This event suffered some extreme lows before the race began. There was a tear-jerking moment as promising Philippines native and Formula Atlantic champion Jovy Marcelo was killed in a practice crash, and a nausea-inducing moment as three-time F1 champion but Indy 500 rookie Nelson Piquet had a head-on shunt with the wall and it was captured on-screen. The mangling of his legs was inevitable once you saw the still images, but his helmet’s impact could have made it so much worse.

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 tires in shockingly cold race day temperatures and struck a barrier. 

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. Michael led for 160 laps, almost as dominant as his father had been five years earlier… until, 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, after a remarkable drive up from 33rd on the grid. (Goodyear had failed to qualify but had taken over the car of teammate Mike Groff.)

Before and after the final pitstops, the Canadian was heading Little Al, but tripped up on traffic with 15 to go, which allowed Junior to pass him. It looked like an even more crucial error once Andretti ground to a halt, leaving this battle as a duel for victory.

Following the inevitable caution to remove Andretti's Newman/Haas machine, 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 did figure it out and, despite pulling out of the slipstream at the right moment on the run to the checkered flag on the final lap, Goodyear fell 0.043s short. Little Al's face would be immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy along with that of his uncle Bobby and father Al.

3. Mears takes his best victory, 1991

Mears replicates the maneuver that Michael Andretti had pulled on him a lap earlier...

Mears replicates the maneuver that Michael Andretti had pulled on him a lap earlier...

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Mears went through it all in the days leading up to this race. 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 performed 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 second, and Mario Andretti 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 Emerson 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 10sec behind Michael Andretti. While he got his tires 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, so Michael was able to rejoin directly behind Rick.

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, to everyone’s astonishment and despite cold and worn tires, 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 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. One of the greatest fights, 1960

After three runner-up finishes at Indy, Jim Rathmann was more than ready for victory.

After three runner-up finishes at Indy, Jim Rathmann was more than ready for victory.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

In qualifying the talk had been 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 Jim 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, which had seen Ward beat 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 20sec. 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 to win.

But he just could not shake Rathmann’s similar Watson-Offy run by Ken Paul, so was more than happy to ease back on occasion, and give his tires a 'rest'. The result was that over the second half of the race, this pair swapped the lead 14 times! However, Ward's tire-nursing tactics went out the window when Rathmann received word via pitboard that Thomson had got a second wind and was catching the pair of them: that meant both leaders 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. Rising star versus wily veteran, 1982

Johncock edges Mears at the end, but the entire final quarter of the race was a fascinating duel between these two.

Johncock edges Mears at the end, but the entire final quarter of the race was a fascinating duel between these two.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Most people remember the 66th running of the Indianapolis 500 for three reasons – Gordon Smiley’s luridly monstrous and fatal shunt in qualifying, the startline shunt that wiped out the two biggest names in US racing, and the fact that Gordon Johncock edged Mears in an incredibly close finish.

The Penske PC10s lined up 1-2 on the grid, but in qualifying Mears had been an astounding 2.4mph faster than team-mate Kevin Cogan, who on raceday lost control at the start. His car impaled the March of third front-row starter Foyt before bouncing off him and crossing the track where he was 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 suffering gearbox issues, he would later hit pitlane – and famously start hitting his car with a hammer. 

On track, the race distilled to a straight battle between Mears – already an Indy winner and two-time champion – and the tenacious, brave and fast veteran Johncock, 1973 Indy winner and 1976 champ, 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 defenses, but Johncock’s superior top-end speed allowed him to legitimately cut down from the outside to the apron at the end of the straights and take the perfect racing line, thereby cutting off Mears and disturbing his downforce. It was a quite brilliant duel.

A late race splash-n-dash was required. Mears was first in, on lap 183, and 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. Thus, after Johncock stopped three laps later, he was more than 11s to the good. At this point Mears gave full vent to his Penske’s potential and slashed the deficit. Coming off Turn 4 to start the last lap, he was so much faster that it looked like a change of lead was inevitable.

But, as per pre-pitstop, he drew alongside and stalled there, and he had no option but to back off as Johncock came down to take his normal line for Turn 1. Mears gathered it up, moved back 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.

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