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13 Greatest Moments in Indianapolis 500 History

by: Esteban On  Friday, May 24, 2013


indianapolis 500 history

This weekend, 400,000 people will file into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500, which some people call “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But is it the greatest spectacle in racing? Well, you could certainly make a strong case. And if nothing else, the Indy 500 is definitely on the short list with the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Daytona 500.

So today, in honor of the 96th edition of perhaps the greatest spectacle in racing, here’s a list of the 13 greatest moments in the history of the Indy 500. Some of them have to do with specific achievements or milestones; others are all about one-on-one competition. But one way or another, they’re all significant and definitely worth a look.

13. Ray Harroun Wins Inaugural Indy (1911)

13 ray harroun wins first indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

The winner of the very first Indianapolis 500 was Ray Harroun. Driving a Marmon Wasp, Harroun averaged 74.602 miles per hour—which is probably what you average on family road trips—and finished in a whopping 6:42:08.039. The secret to Harroun’s success that year? He invented the rear-view mirror (seriously), which meant he didn’t need to have a “riding mechanic” sitting next to him to keep an eye on incoming traffic.

Of course, Harroun wasn’t raving about the event after his victory. In fact, he retired immediately afterward, claiming that 500 miles was just too long and dangerous.


12. The First Four-Time Winner (1977)

12 a.j. foyt first four time winner indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

By winning the Indy 500 in 1961, 1964, and 1967, racing legend A.J. Foyt became just the fourth driver (at the time) to win the event three times. And given the fact that he was just 32 years old in 1967, it looked like Foyt would certainly surpass those other drivers to become the winningest driver in the history of the race. However, Foyt would have to sweat that one out a bit—it took him a whole decade to become the first person to win the Indy 500 four times.


11. The First Female Driver (1977)

11 janet guthrie first female driver indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

Pioneering female race car driver Janet Guthrie was planning to attempt a qualification run for the 1976 Indy 500, but car troubles prevented that. Instead, she had to wait one more year to become the first woman to qualify for and compete in the historic race. That year, 1977, she would finish 29th. The next year, 1978, she would finish 8th.

If you’re looking for a female sports role model for your daughter, you should definitely read up on Guthrie.


10. The Best Female Finish (2009)

10 danica patrick 2009 indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

Janet Guthrie’s 9th place finish in 1978 was the best ever by a woman until Danica Patrick came along. She led for 19 laps during her Indy 500 debut in 2005 before finishing a very solid 4th. Then, in 2011, Patrick led for 10 laps before becoming the first woman to crack the top three.

So really, though Danica Patrick seems to take a lot of flak for being overrated, she’s a pretty damn good race car driver.


9. Ralph DePalma Finishes in Style (1912)

9 ralph depalma pushes car over finish line 1912 indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

In 1912, in just the second ever Indy 500, Ralph DePalma absolutely dominated, leading from laps 3 through 196, by which time he had built a 51/2 lap lead. Then DePalma’s car broke down with just over one lap to go and Joe Dawson passed him for the victory.

Bummer? Sure. But DePalma wasn’t demoralized. Instead, determined to finish the race at all costs, DePalma and his riding mechanic got out of the car and pushed it across the finish line.


8. Bobby Rahal's Win (1986)

8 bobby rahal and jim truemand 1986 indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

Bobby Rahal only won the Indianapolis 500 one time in his career, but the guy made it count. You see, in 1985, Rahal’s team owner and friend Jim Truman was diagnosed with cancer, and heading into the 1986 Indy 500 the guy’s health was fading. However, just as though it were a story written in Hollywood, Rahal passed Kevin Cogan with two laps to go to take home the checkered flag. He then celebrated with Trueman in Victory Lane, sharing the celebratory milk jug.

Just a few weeks later, Trueman would pass away.


7. Return of the Indy (1946)

7 1946 indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

The Indy 500 had to go on hiatus from 1942-45 as the United State focused all its attention on winning WWII. Unfortunately, during that time, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eddie Rickenbauer, had taken charge of Eastern Airlines and lost interest in running both the track and its most famous event. As a result, by the time the war was over, it looked like the Indy 500 was over, too.

Fortunately, three-time winner Wilbur Shaw was dedicated to saving it. He convinced Indiana businessman Tony Hulman to buy IMS from Rickenbauer and restore the track. Then, on May 30, 1946, the Indianaplis 500 made its return, and under Hulman’s leadership the race would become what it is today: the largest single-day sporting event in the world.


6. The Second-Closest Finish (2006)

6 Hornish.Jr-Andretti 2006 Indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

The 2006 Indy 500 featured one of the most exiting finishes of all time. Sam Hornish Jr. of Team Penske passed the 19-year-old Marco Andretti just 200 yards before the checkered flag to steal the race by the second-smallest margin of  all-time—0.0635 seconds.


5. Tom Sneva Tops 200 (1977)

5 tom sneva tops 200 indianapolis 500 - greatest moments in indy 500 history

As previously mentioned, the winner of the very first Indianapolis 500, Ray Harroun, averaged just 74.6 MPH. Thus, it’s not hard to understand why people went nuts in 1962 when a guy named Parnelli Jones surpassed 150 MPH.

However, the excitement at surpassing 150 was nothing compared to excitement of breaking the 200 MPH barrier. That feat was accomplished by Tom Sneva on a qualifying lap for the 1977 Indy 500.


4. The Mears-Johncock Showdown (1982)

4 1982 indianapolis 500 mears johncock - greatest moments in indy 500 history

At the 1982 Indy 500, Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears gave us one of the most thrilling final sprints we’ve ever seen. Johncock had an 11-second lead over Mears with just 12 laps to go; however, Mears kept cutting away and cutting away until, finally, with two laps the go, the two were nose to tail. Then, on the last lap, Mears nearly passed Johncock on the first turn, but the attempt failed and Johncock would hold on to win by 0.16 seconds—at the time, the closest margin of victory ever.


3. The Unser-Fittipaldi Showdown (1989)

3 1989 indianapolis 500 unser fittipaldi - greatest moments in indy 500 history

The 1989 Indianapolis 500 gave us another epic battle—this time between Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi.

That year, when the yellow flag was lifted on the 186th lap, Fittipaldi was in the lead with Unser right on his tail. Unser then pursued Fittipaldi relentlessly until, four laps from the end, he took the lead. Then it was Fittipaldi in relentless pursuit. Finally, in lap 199, the two encountered traffic which allowed Fittipaldi to pull even with Unser, and as the two headed into Turn 3 they touched. Unser’s car slammed into the outside wall, but Fittipaldi managed to keep control and hang on for a victory.

So was Unser mad? Not at all. Unlike today’s drivers, who immediately start whining on Twitter every time they swap paint with somebody, Unser knew that Fittipaldi had beat him fair and square in a hardnosed race. Thus, after climbing out of his wrecked car, Unser acknowledged Fittipaldi with a big thumbs-up.


2. The Closest Finish (1992)

2 1992 indianapolis 500 closest finish unser goodyear

You might think that the closest finish ever would rank at the greatest Indy 500 moment of all-time. However, there are some mitigating circumstances here that keep the 1992 finish out of the top spot.

You see, Michael Andretti absolutely dominated the 1992 Indy 500, but his car broke a belt with just 11 laps to go. If that hadn’t happened, he would have won the thing in a walk. However, it did happen, and that opened the door to Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear.

Now, Unser and Goodyear put on quite a show for the last seven laps and ended up giving us the closest finish of all time—0.043 seconds. However, Unser held on to the lead for all seven of those laps.

Thus, while this Indy 500 moment was an all-time classic, I have to give the top spot to another one…


1. The Ward-Rathmann Showdown (1960)

1 1960 indianapolis 500 ward rathmann - greatest moments in indy 500 history

Other Indy 500s may have had closer finishes, but none were as competitive and exciting as 1960. That year, Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward, the defending champ, went back-and-forth for the entire second half of the race. In the last 100 laps, there were 14 lead changes between the two of them. Finally, when Ward’s tires started to wear out, Rathmann took over the lead for good on lap 197.

The closest finish? Not quite. But there has never been a more epic battle between two drivers, that’s for sure.