The last Sunday in May can only mean one thing: All eyes will be on Speedway, Indiana.
The most prominent point of interest in Speedway is a huge rectangular oval track with banked curves and a grand history. They sometimes call it "The Brickyard." Officially, it is called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year marks the 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" – the Indianapolis 500. Throughout its history, this race brought out the greatest feats of open-wheel auto racing this country has ever witnessed. Embedded with tradition and glory, the Indy 500 remains the one race a driver aspires to win. With it comes his or her likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy, a carafe of milk and a legend that one will sing praises of for decades.
The cars and drivers may have changed over 100 races, but the stories continue. In my lifetime, the Indy 500 ran 51 times with some of its best races recorded on the 2.5-mile track. In honor of its 100th running of this storied race, here are some of my favorite Indy 500s during my lifetime. Maybe some of these are your favorites, too…
1965: A revolution has begun. It started with the engines being firmly placed behind the cockpit. The bodies were sleeker than before. The leader in the United States Auto Club's premier racing series was Colin Chapman's Lotus chassis, powered by a Ford engine. The so-called "British Invasion" was not just in popular music, but in auto racing. The penultimate force that completed the so-called revolution was the best driver of its time – Jim Clark. Clark was simply conquering the world – between Formula 1 and, now, the Indy 500. While he averaged just over 150 MPH, Clark took the checkered flag in his Lotus-Ford in grand style. We would lose this legend on at Hockenheim three years later.
1969: One name comes to mind – Mario Andretti. He started running the 500 during the revolution that sent engines to the rear of the cockpit in 1965. Four years later, he finally mastered the race. He did so with a new car by Hawk – a replacement for a technologically advanced machine that Andretti crashed in practice. The replacement car did Andretti well to take the checkered flag for his only time in his career. He remains a huge presence at Indy every May.
1982: This was a classic with one of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history. The battle between Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock did not materialize until the second half of the race. Both had owned the series throughout the year going into Indy, so a showdown was eminent. No one expected the margin of victory Johncock and his Wildcat-Cosworth had on Mears – 0.16 seconds.
1992: Mario Andretti never won another Indy 500 since his great victory in 1969. It was up to his son, Michael, to keep the family's name on the Borg-Warner Trophy. The younger Andretti lead for 160 laps, which was a huge feat for any driver in this race. His luck ran out when his engine encountered problems with 11 laps to go. Right behind Andretti were Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Goodyear. They took over the rest of the race with one nipping at the other. In the end, Al, Jr. and his Galman-Chevrolet edged Goodyear at the Yard of Bricks.
1999: Part of motorsports is the game of numbers. Fuel becomes a key number that can win or lose races. Ask Robby Gordon, who pitted with 36 laps to go for fuel. The question came up whether Gordon had enough fuel to win the race. In the lead, Gordon played with the edge as he and his crew thought they had enough fuel to finish. Meanwhile, the rest of the grid went in for their final fuel pit stop during laps 169 to 171. On Lap 199, Gordon ran out of fuel while leading the race. Swedish driver Kenny Brack and his Dallara-Oldsmobile took the lead and landed in the Winner's Circle.
2005: History was made when Danica Patrick lead the Indy 500. Her win at Twin Ring Motegi earlier in the season was another history-making event, as she became the first woman in win in IndyCar. Her brief stint in the lead changed the 500 forever. In the past, women drivers ran at the Brickyard. She would end up finishing fourth – still the highest finish for a woman driver. The winner in 2005 was Dan Wheldon in his Dallara-Honda as the race ended under caution. It would be his first of two victories at The Brickyard.
2012: The IndyCar community lost a great competitor the year before in a horrific crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Dan Wheldon. That year, he won his second Indy 500. As the drivers returned to The Brickyard, memories flooded back of Wheldon and his exploits at Indy. With his widow and children in attendance, there was still a theme of loss, grief and love for Wheldon for everyone in attendance and out in Gasoline Alley. Another former winner at Indy, Dario Franchitti and his Dallara-Honda, started in the sixth row in what was one of the best grids in 500 history. He would win the race – in Wheldon's name. It was a Winner's Circle that was fused with victory and grief.
2013: A fan favorite finally wins the big one! Tony Kanaan loved Indy and its fans. He also is a favorite across the IndyCar series – someone who is competitive and is gracious with everyone around him. However, he never won at the Brickyard. From the fourth row, Kanaan clawed his way to the front of the pack in a race that featured 68 lead changes. As the most competitive Indy 500 ever, Kanaan benefitted from a Dario Franchitti crash with three laps to go. It was all Kanaan and his Dallara-Chevrolet – humble, but relieved in victory.