Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Frontstretch’s Favorite Indy 500s, Pt. 1

There is nothing in sports quite like the Indianapolis 500, a rich and glorious history filled with tragedy, spectacle and speed. This Sunday, a 107th chapter will be written but nothing that happens Sunday (May 26) can replace the spectacle of some of the best races in the world that have happened at America’s first 2.5-mile superspeedway.

In preparation for the next edition of this race, Frontstretch writers were asked to share the story of their favorite running of the world’s most historic motorsports event, getting everyone revved up for the drop of the green on Sunday.

The following memories kick off the first of a two-part feature; click here to read the second half.

Phil Allaway – 1989

ABC’s pre-race coverage of the 73rd Indianapolis 500 was all about Al Unser, Rick Mears and Michael Andretti. Unser was going for his fifth victory, Mears was going for four, and Andretti had a curse to break. Realistically, the race had about five drivers that could have been considered contenders. The aforementioned three, plus Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi.

What happens when three of the five potential contenders don’t even make it to the finish? You have a setup for one of the biggest two-man buttkickings in the modern era of motorsports.

Fittipaldi swept into the lead at the first corner and more or less dominated the race from the front of the field as Unser Jr. and Andretti charged up from mid-pack. Meanwhile, increased speeds brought on by a mirror-smooth track repave led to a spate of mechanical problems that knocked contenders out left and right. Al Unser had clutch issues. Mears had an engine failure while running fourth. 

300 miles into the race, only Andretti, Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi were on the lead lap. Fourth (Jim Crawford) was two laps down and fifth (Raul Boesel) was four behind. When Andretti blew his engine from the lead with less than 40 laps to go, Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. were left a full 15 miles ahead of anyone else. 

The two drivers dueled for the win, dodging traffic in the closing laps until finally, it happened. The two collided in Turn 3, sending Unser Jr. hard into the wall. Fittipaldi won under caution by two full laps, the first non-American to win the race since Graham Hill in 1966.

While this is by no measure the greatest Indianapolis 500, it was one of the most astounding to watch. Fittipaldi, Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti (before he broke) were simply on another planet. Heavy attrition was not unlikely at the time (of the 15 DNFs, 13 were purely mechanical) but incidents were below normal: the only crash of the race was Kevin Cogan’s on the third lap. The attrition was remarkably uneven, leaving Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. as the only strong teams remaining (Mario Andretti made it to the finish, but had mechanical issues and finished seven laps down in fourth). As a result, Rich Vogler and Bernard Jourdain, driving two of the slowest cars in the field, had career-best runs to eighth and ninth, eight and nine laps down respectively.

See also
The Pit Straight: Why Does Indy 500 Qualifying Matter?

Tom Blackburn – 2006

Sam Hornish Jr.’s last lap pass on Marco Andretti in the 90th running of Indianapolis 500 was the first in the race’s history. How it happened was epic.

For the first 199 laps, the race wasn’t memorable, save for a late caution that cycled the retiring Michael Andretti to the lead, with his son, 19-year-old rookie Marco in second.

On the restart, the attention was rightfully on the front, as the second and third generations of Indianapolis’ most famous family duked it out. The younger came out on top to take the lead, while Hornish was the show in the pack, as he maneuvered around multiple cars to trail the two Andrettis. With three laps to go, Hornish passed Michael. 

Turn 1 announcer Jerry Baker, blaring on the IMS radio network, set the scene: “Here comes Sam though!”

The race came down to a high-speed pursuit – and it was marvelous. With the help of the tow, Hornish sucked up onto Marco’s gearbox on the backstretch on lap 199 and made a late dive to the inside of turn three.

But Marco knew he was coming, stuck to his line, and slammed the door. Hornish had to lift, dropping 10 car lengths back into the clutches of Marco’s father.

The race appeared to be over. Hornish had taken his shot. Like 1982, when Rick Mears had tried to pass eventual winner Gordon Johncock coming to the white flag. The move had failed, all his momentum was lost. The announcers believed they were calling an Andretti home for the first time since 1969.

Here comes Sam though.

Hornish somehow closed that gap on the final lap. In two corners, he narrowed back in on the young Andretti and out of three, it was evident. Hornish was coming. And then he was there.

The duo came off turn four, like 1992 part two. But unlike Scott Goodyear, Hornish was going to be on the right side of history. On the frontstretch, at the last second, he shot past Marco to the victory, his second at the Speedway. One of the greatest laps and greatest finishes in the history of Indianapolis, and the second-closest. The margin of victory was just 0.0635 of a second.

Michael Massie – 2011

It wasn’t the most competitive by any means, but the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 is my favorite because it featured fuel-mileage drama, a last-lap heartbreak, and a feel-good story followed soon after by tragedy. It’s the only 500 where I still get a little emotional any time I think back to it.

The race marked the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500, and as has become almost traditional, Scott Dixon led the most laps, but didn’t win. Dixon and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti had the fastest cars of the day, combining to lead 124 of 200 laps. 

When Dixon gave up the lead by pitting late, Bertrand Baguette, Franchitti and American rookie JR Hildebrand took the top three spots, trying to stretch their fuel mileage to the end. With three laps to go, Baguette pitted and Franchitti backed way off to save, Hildebrand swept into the lead with no challengers in sight. It seemed clear sailing to the checkered flag for the National Guard-sponsored No. 4. 

But on the final turn of the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand took to the outside to pass the lap-down Charlie Kimball, missed the racing line and slid into the wall. 

Dan Wheldon had just passed Dixon for second. Wheldon, nursing a three-year winless streak, who’d been let go earlier that year from the Panther Racing No. 4 that Hildebrand now drove, who was driving an eight-year-old chassis owned by his friend Bryan Herta in his only planned start for the season, came off of Turn 4 and slipped past Hildebrand’s wrecked race car to claim his second Indy 500. He led only the final lap.

The win was wildly different from Wheldon’s first in 2005. That came when he was on top of the mountain, winning the championship in a dominant season. In 2011, it revitalized his career, earning him color commentary opportunities, two more starts, and a contract offer to return to Andretti Autosport in 2012.

Wheldon signed his deal with Andretti the morning of the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a race he would start for Sam Schmidt Racing. As part of a promotion, Wheldon would start the race in last place, and win $5 million if he could take victory.

But this story has no happy ending. Ten laps into that race, Wheldon was involved in a huge pileup and sadly lost his life, leaving behind a wife and two young sons. Wheldon’s tragic death just over four months after a monumental win that rejuvenated his career adds another layer into making the 2011 Indy 500 the most emotionally moving one I’ve ever witnessed. 

See also
Scott Dixon and the Indy 500: Bad Luck or Curse?

Jack Swansey – 2015

I’ll be the first to admit, this is a biased call. I grew up a NASCAR fan and especially a fan of the underdogs. Compared to my compatriots who pulled for the No. 48, I never got to see my favorite drivers win. Ever.

That all changed when, in 2015, an ex-F1, ex-NASCAR driver who’d come back home (again) to Indy earned his second victory in the 99th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing a record-breaking 15 years after his first.

Juan Pablo Montoya had come a long way from the brash 24-year-old rookie who’d floored it halfway through the traditional graduated-speed orientation and damn near never lifted until June. The Columbian was now a (yes, paunchy) veteran jack-of-all-trades, who’d proved he could still hang with the young guns by winning the 500-miler at Pocono Raceway in his first year back in an open-wheeler.

But qualifying 15th when two of his teammates made the front row was not the way to start, and early contact under yellow with Simona de Silvestro added insult to injury.  

A quick stop under caution to replace the rear section of his Team Penske Chevy’s manufacturer aero kit (remember those?) and Montoya took to the track in 30th place, his mid-pack car now stranded at the back of the field. 

The race was, as it so often is, dominated by Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske. While Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power duked it out at the front of the pack, Montoya put his head down, and did what he was born to do: drive.

It might have taken him more than three-quarters of the race distance to even make it within sight of the front-runners again, but he was right there when it counted. In the final ten laps, Montoya went toe-to-toe (or more accurately, tow-to-tow) with two of the greatest, muscling past Dixon on the outside into turn three on lap 196, and blasting past his Penske teammate Power for the lead two corners later. 

That placed his teammate right in Montoya’s draft for the final five miles. It looked inevitable that Power would come back at him. But a gutsy move on the last lap, blocking the lapped car of Justin Wilson on the backstretch to force Power out of line, and Juan Pablo Montoya was home free.

In just his third attempt at the race, he had won the Indy 500 for a second time.

See also
Racing Nirvana

Between F1’s Monaco Grand Prix and the NASCAR Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600, the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by Gainbridge will be contested at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET on Peacock and continues at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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