Auto Racing / Sports

Top 10 moments in Indianapolis 500 history

This Sunday will mark the 50th consecutive year the Indianapolis 500 will have aired on ABC, with Allen Bestwick anchoring the coverage with former drivers Eddie Cheever Jr. and Scott Goodyear adding commentary.

While certainly not old enough to witness every broadcast dating back to 1965, my love of open-wheel racing has led to me seeing and hearing many of the best moments at the Indianapolis 500 the last five decades.

Here is a list of my top 10 moments in Indianapolis 500 history on ABC:

10. Helio climbs the fence on frontstretch -- 2001

The 2001 Indianapolis 500 began to bring back some of the prestige of the historic race as several CART teams returned to the event for the first time since the 1996 open-wheel split. That upped the talent level considerably in the field, which also saw 21 of the 33 starters from the United States.

Castroneves, competing in just his second IndyCar event, held off Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran by 0.4 seconds to win and become the second straight rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 after Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000.

Castroneves came to rest near the start-finish line, exited his car and climbed the fencing, just as he had done when he won his first CART race in Detroit in 2000.

9. Mears holds off Mario Andretti – 1991

The late 1980s and the early 1990s saw huge crowds and massive ratings for the Indianapolis 500, and the month of May in 1991 delivered, culminating in an epic battle between Mears and Andretti.

The duo led a combined 127 of the 200 laps, with Andretti leading a race-high 97. The two jockeyed for position over the final 30 laps and Andretti led with 13 laps to go. Yet Mears took the lead back and even a yellow flag brought out by Mario Andretti did not help Michael overtake the soon-to-be four-time Indy 500 champion.

While the final lap was anticlimactic, the race between the two legends during the race was spectacular.

8. Brazilian Tony Kanaan finally wins – 2013

It is always good for the popularity of the sport when an American wins arguably the biggest race in the world, but no one can argue the excitement that surrounded Kanaan's victory in the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

There were a record 68 lead changes, double the previous high of 34 in 2012. The most important lead change came on the restart on lap 198 when Kanaan, sensing there could be another caution quickly, jumped past Ryan Hunter-Reay to take the lead. Seconds later, Dario Franchitti hit the wall, bringing out the caution and handing Kanaan the win in his 12th attempt.

7. J.R. Hildebrand crashes in turn 4 – 2011

Just a few tenths of a mile stood between Hildebrand and racing immortality. After inheriting the lead with three laps to go after the leaders had to pit for fuel, Hildebrand looked poised to become the first rookie to win the Indy 500 since Castroneves in 2001.

With just one turn to go, Hildebrand went wide to pass the lapped car of Charlie Kimball. Hildebrand got out of the racing line, slammed into the wall and slowed. Dan Wheldon passed Hildebrand over the final few hundred feet to earn his second career Indy 500 victory.

Hildebrand never truly recovered and eventually lost his ride with Panther Racing following the 2013 Indy 500.

The win by Wheldon was his 16th and final open-wheel victory. He was tragically killed less than five months later in a racing accident at Las Vegas.

6. A.J. Foyt wins fourth Indy 500 – 1977

No name embodies the Indianapolis 500 and the month of May more than Foyt. Already a three-time winner, Foyt added to his legacy in 1977 by winning his fourth Indy 500, becoming the first driver to ever reach the milestone.

Al Unser and Rick Mears went on to tie Foyt atop the victory chart at Indy, but Foyt will forever hold the honor of being the first. He inherited the lead when Gordon Johncock suffered a broken crankshaft on lap 185 and drove away from Tom Sneva to preserve the win.

The post-race celebration was emotional as track owner Tony Hulman rode with Foyt in the pace car around the track. It was the only time that Hulman rode with the winner at the conclusion of the Indy 500. He passed away from heart failure five months later.

5. Hornish Jr. edges Marco, adds to Andretti Curse – 2006

As rookie Marco Andretti crossed the start/finish line with one lap to go in the 2006 Indy 500, he led second-place Sam Hornish Jr. by a full second. Victory seemed inevitable for Andretti, who was two-and-a-half miles away from becoming his family's first Indy 500 winner since his grandfather Mario in 1969.

Yet Hornish Jr. closed the gap over the final half lap, eventually finding himself closing in on Andretti coming out of turn 4. Hornish timed his pass perfectly, jumping ahead of the rookie and winning by 0.0635 seconds, the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history.

4. Danica leads late at Indianapolis – 2005

Love her or hate her, there is no question that Danica Patrick moves the needle when it comes to mainstream interest in auto racing.

So when the rookie Patrick took the lead with 10 laps remaining, TV ratings soared as the public counted down the laps to the first-ever woman winning the Indy 500.

It was short-lived, however, as Dan Wheldon passed Patrick three laps later and held on to win the race over Vitor Meira.

While Wheldon earned the victory, it was Patrick and the IndyCar Series as a whole that truly won, with Patrick becoming a household name and the race earning the highest TV rating in years, effectively putting North American open-wheel racing back on the map for the first time since "The Split".

3. Johncock holds off Mears – 1982

The lead-up to race day was marred by the horrific crash that killed Gordon Smiley on Pole Day, but the finish of the 1982 Indy 500 was epic.

Closing in on the win, Gordon Johncock held an 11-second lead over Rick Mears, but Mears began to gain over a second a lap as his heavier car was handling better than Johncock's lighter machine.

With just six cars left on track due to crashes and attrition, there was no other action other than at the front. With three laps to go, Mears was within three seconds, then less than a second with two to go.

On the final lap, Mears pulled alongside on the frontstretch, but Johncock fought Mears off heading into the short chute. Mears made another run at Johncock on the backstretch and again out of turn 4, but Johncock held on by 0.16, the closest-ever finish to an Indy 500 to date.

2. Sullivan's Spin and Win – 1985

One of the most iconic moments in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, Danny Sullivan's spin and subsequent victory at the 1985 Indy 500 still draws awe.

On lap 120, Sullivan attempted to pass Mario Andretti for the lead. Andretti did not budge and forced Sullivan to the apron, where he spun after attempting to climb back onto the track.

Sullivan did a complete 360-degree spin and stalled the car, but did not hit anything or get hit himself. He put the car in gear and took off in pursuit of Andretti again.

Sullivan took the lead for good on Andretti on lap 140 and cruised to the victory.

1. Little Al inches past Goodyear – 1992

Auto racing can sometimes be a sport of inches. That truly held serve in the 1992 Indy 500 that saw Al Unser Jr. hold off Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in the closest finish in the event's history.

The final seven laps between "Little Al" and Goodyear were epic, culminating in a race to the finish line as Goodyear closed the gap. Goodyear pulled alongside Unser Jr. headed towards the yard of bricks, but there was not enough track as Unser Jr. held on for the victory.

In Victory Lane after the race, Unser Jr. uttered the famous line after getting emotional.

"Well, you just don't know what Indy means."

(c)2014 The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

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INDY 500


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