Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Frontstretch’s Favorite Indy 500s, Pt. 2

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 memories 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.

Miss the first half of this special feature? Click here to catch up.

Mike Neff – 1977

In qualifying for the 61st running of the Indianapolis 500, Tom Sneva’s total four-lap average of 198.884 mph might not have broken that magical 200-mph barrier, but his fastest single lap, at 200.535 mph, was just fast enough to earn him that spot in the record books. Sneva was surely helped by the fact the speedway had its first full-track repave since the original brick surface was installed in 1909. Phil Hedbeck, a longtime sponsor and presence in Gasoline Alley, poured 200 silver dollars into Sneva’s helmet as a reward for breaking 200, just as he had done to Parnelli Jones after he broke the 150 mph barrier in 1962.

Iowa’s Janet Guthrie attempted the 500 in 1976 but had come up short. Hers was the first car on track for the final day of qualifying in 1977, and she laid down a 188.403 mph average to solidly lock herself into the starting field, the first female driver ever to do so. 

In response, the speedway made an announcement during the week leading up to the race they would not change the traditional command to start engines, claiming that the remote starters used to crank these motors were all being operated by men. Guthrie’s crew were none too pleased with the decision so they decided to have Kay Bignotti, the wife of the legendary George Bignotti, operate the starter. On race day, the command was ultimately changed to “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.”

After the poor weather in 1973, 1975 and 1976, it was refreshing to have sunshine on race day. Unfortunately, it was a little too hazy and the heat took a toll on many of the competitors, including Gordon Johncock, who would play a crucial role during the race. 

When the green flag flew, Al Unser swept into the lead from the outside of the front row until Johncock took the top spot on lap 17. Johncock and A.J. Foyt led nearly the rest of the way to lap 100, no small feat on a day when temperatures and attrition were this high. Only 17 of the 33 starters made it past halfway.

Johncock dominated the second half of the event, leading until lap 180 when he pitted for fuel. His team dumped a bucket of ice water on him for the second time in the race to attempt to help him deal with overheating. Foyt came in two laps later and took two right side tires along with a full tank of gas.

Johncock held the lead after stops, but Foyt was faster. On lap 184, the pressure proved too much for Johncock’s ride. On the exit of turn 4, a huge plume of smoke suddenly erupted from the back of his car. Johncock pulled to the inside of the track and ultimately parked inside turn 1 while Foyt drove past, into the lead for good.

Thirty seconds ahead of Sneva, Foyt cruised home to his fourth Indy 500 victory. He had finished in the top three on three different occasions between his third win in 1967 and the fourth in 1977. Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose all won three 500s before Foyt, but he was the first to win a fourth. The win marked the last time at Indy both the winning car and engine were made in America.

Foyt invited track owner Tony Hulman to ride with him during his victory lap in the pace car, a rare occurrence. Hulman would pass away later that year.

See also
Inside IndyCar: Frontstretch's Favorite Indy 500s (Part 1)

Mike Knapp – 1993

I went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1979, I saw my first Indianapolis 500 there in 1988, and this year, I will be sitting in my usual seats in the Southwest Vista in what will be the 25th time I’ve seen the race.

A lifetime spent at a place you love leaves you with a lot of memories to unpack. But ask me my favorite Indy 500 and the answer comes back in rapid-fire fashion.

1993.

I was living in Indy at the time and went to the track at every opportunity. On Pole Day, I skipped a wedding on my then-wife’s side of the family to go to the first day of time trials for the 15th straight year.

Good thing, too, because I was just getting to my seat when A.J. Foyt left the pits in his iconic No. 14 to turn one more lap around the 2 ½-mile oval before speaking with the equally iconic track announcer Tom Carnegie and retiring from the sport.

Another big storyline was reigning Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell would be tackling the 500 for the first time after leaving Williams and signing a two-year deal with Newman-Haas Racing as a teammate to Mario Andretti.

Mansell, who had fractured his back several weeks before in a crash at Phoenix Raceway, quickly got up to speed and qualified in the eighth position.

A couple of other notable events make this race my favorite. First was the raw star power on the grid. While Rick Mears had retired in a shocking move the previous December, the race still featured six former winners, many of whom were at the absolute top of their games.

Oh yeah, and one driver at the pinnacle of his own career, 1986 Indy 500 winner and reigning CART PPG World Champion Bobby Rahal, didn’t even make the field.

The other thing was that it was a super-competitive race throughout all 33 cars. For those that have grown up on the current iteration of the Indy 500, with lots of passing and exciting finishes, let me assure you that wasn’t always the case.

Though Indy had exciting endings in 1989, 1991 and 1992, those three races finished with a combined seven cars on the lead lap. In 1993, there were 10, and the top seven finishers were close enough to the front to see Emerson Fittipaldi actually take the checkered flag.

Now that I think about it, that’s actually the only time I’ve seen a winner take the checkers, as I was sitting at the exit of turn 4.

Driving for Dick Simon Racing, Raul Boesel probably had the dominant car, but two stop-and-go penalties left him with a fourth-place finish. Boesel once told me that was the best race he ever drove.

Then, there was Mansell. Heading into this race, the F1 star had never driven a race much longer than 200 miles, but as the day went on, he got better and better, and with 25 laps to go found himself in the lead.

But as great as Mansell was, he had little experience handling restarts. When one came on lap 184, Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk flew by, with Emmo leading the rest of the way to earn his second win (and the wrath of many, when he drank his own orange juice instead of the traditional milk in victory lane).

The race featured 12 leaders, and a then-53-year-old Andretti led a race-high 72 of them in his penultimate 500. The late Al Unser Sr., who had turned 54 the day before the race, led 15 laps early and came home 10th in his final 500.

The 1993 Month of May had it all. While I have seen a lot of great races since then, it’s gonna be pretty hard to top that one on my list.

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Alex Gintz – 2017

You miss the 2017 season. You know you miss it. I know that you know that I know that for a fact. 

On May 28, 2017, race fans were treated to 200 laps of nonstop action in the Indianapolis 500. Though on that day, all eyes were on IndyCar debutant Fernando Alonso, and later Scott Dixon, who survived one of the worst crashes in the race’s history without injury, as the laps wound down, four drivers remained at the front of the field. They would settle the 101st running of this race among the four of them: Max Chilton, Ed Jones, Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato.

Chilton was a winless IndyCar sophomore for Chip Ganassi Racing. Jones was a rookie, contesting his first 500 for car owner Dale Coyne. Sato was a crash-prone journeyman with one win to his name four years prior, most famous for a botched attempt at a last-lap pass on Dario Franchitti in 2012.

Castroneves was 42 years young, just seven years removed from his third win at Indy. He drove for perennial powerhouse Team Penske and conventional wisdom would call this race Castroneves’ to lose.

The green flag flew for the final restart with 11 to go. Chilton bolted, with Sato, Jones and Castroneves in tow. Castroneves disposed quickly of Jones while Chilton defended viciously from Sato. 

After repeatedly trying and failing a move to Chilton’s outside in turn 1, with nine laps to go, Sato fell back into the clutches of Castroneves, who dispensed with him quickly and set after the young Briton. Chilton grit his teeth and fought for his life for three laps, but Castroneves forced the issue, passing for the lead into turn 3 with seven laps remaining.

Dirty air from Castroneves’ famous No. 3 pushed Chilton wide in turn 4, allowing Sato and Jones to sneak through.

Coming to five laps to go, Sato picked up the slipstream down the frontstretch and pulled to Castroneves’ outside. The move hadn’t worked on Chilton, so why would Sato try it on one of the greatest drivers in the history of Indianapolis?

No attack, no chance. And Sato made the move stick.

With three laps to go, Castroneves attacked into turn 1. No deal. Sato defended the inside, forcing the Brazilian to run the top. That was all she wrote. Castroneves couldn’t close the gap, the No. 26 Andretti machine was untouchable and as they came off of turn 4 on lap 200, Allen Bestwick made the call…

“The one that got away comes back to him! Checkered flag is in the air, and the 101st Indianapolis 500 is won by Takuma Sato!”

What followed was a raw outpouring of emotion from 40-year-old Sato over the radio. A burst of incoherent screams greeted the Andretti team and the TV audience around the world as Sato took the cooldown lap of his life at the same track where he earned his only Formula 1 podium 13 years earlier. From the outside looking in with 11 laps to go, six minutes later Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500, earning redemption for 2012 and cementing his place in history. 

Over the next three years, Sato would win four more times in IndyCar, including his second Indy 500 in 2020. This Sunday, he will go for his third, driving the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.

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

Michael Finley – 2021

The 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a special one for everybody at the Brickyard or watching from home that day. It was simply a reward for those who made it there.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had wreaked havoc on large sporting events. That year’s 500 was a largely forgettable affair run in August in front of empty grandstands. 

For 2021, the grandstands were open at half capacity, still allowing for the largest crowd of any U.S. event after March 2020. And every fan in attendance cheered when the adopted son of Indianapolis finally got over the hump. It felt like the world was back in action, and although COVID-19 is still around to this day, this 500 was a declaration things can and would go back to normal eventually.

Helio Castroneves had won his first two attempts at the Indianapolis 500, including three of his first nine. Though the fan-favorite Brazilian had finished runner-up twice since his third win in the race, it appeared he’d truly lost his shot at the famed four-timers’ club. Demoted by Team Penske to an Indy-only schedule after 2017, and released entirely after 2020, the 46-year-old Castroneves had signed with Meyer Shank Racing, an as-yet-winless team in the NTT IndyCar Series.

When race day came, Castroneves was able to slowly work his way through the field before emerging victorious in a late-race duel with young gun Alex Palou, making the final pass entering turn 1 with two laps to go. It was his first win in the 500 in a dozen years, coming some 20 years after his first.

The victory ceremony was one for the ages. Outside of Dale Earnhardt‘s Daytona 500 win in 1998, I’ve never seen an entire garage come out and celebrate a driver’s victory like that.

Later that summer, I was covering the SRX race at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park remotely. The event itself was a bit disappointing, but live, it didn’t matter. Castroneves drove the fans into a frenzy by leading and winning the first heat. It’s a simple equation: Helio loves Indianapolis, and Indianapolis loves him back.

Knowing now who we’ve lost in the years since makes it that much sweeter. Robin Miller was able to see Helio get to four. Al Unser Sr. was on hand. Bob Jenkins watched on as a spectator. All three saw their final 500 that afternoon, and while that absolutely is all more sad than anything, they were able to be there to celebrate one of the greatest moments to ever happen in American open-wheel racing: Helio climbing to the Indy mountaintop with four.

Jack Swansey  – 2016 (Honorable Mention)

OK, while you got the story of my favorite in yesterday’s first installment, the 2016 edition really ought to be mentioned somewhere. This Indianapolis 500 should pop up for no reason other than, as he led his first laps at the Speedway on an alternate strategy halfway through, I looked at the driver of the No. 98 Honda and said “that’s the guy that’s going to win this race.”

I should have bought a lottery ticket.

At the time, Alexander Rossi wasn’t IndyCar’s fan-favorite curmudgeon. He hadn’t been on The Amazing Race yet. He’d barely even raced an IndyCar, scoring one top 10 in five career starts before taking the green flag at Indianapolis. He’d just come from F1, running no better than 12th for Manor Racing, and although every American driver knows the importance of Indy, Rossi had been racing in Europe for years. He didn’t really understand yet.

Somehow, at the end of 200 laps, it came down to a fuel run with the American surprisingly in front.

And Rossi cut it close. Too close. 

As has often been repeated, when Rossi crossed the finish line, his engine had shut off. Nobody could hear better than he could how the Indianapolis crowd reacted to an American rookie winning the 100th running of the Indy 500. 

Later that year, Manor F1 fired Rossi’s replacement, Rio Haryanto. They called up the American, offering him a chance to return to F1. He decided to stick with IndyCar instead… and the rest is history.

See also
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Who will add their story to this incredible list of Indy 500s? 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 on Sunday, May 28. Coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET on Peacock before NBC joins in at 11 a.m. ET.

About the author

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.

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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