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The Nearly Top 10: Ten Indy 500s that could have made our list of the best at the Brickyard

IndyCar: Indianapolis 500

May 25, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates after winning the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates after winning the 2014 Indy 500 (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports).

INDIANAPOLIS – Amid more than 60 hours of coverage devoted last month to the 107th Indy 500, NBC Sports unveiled its Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time.

NBC Sports commissioned a panel of broadcasters, journalists and former drivers to choose the list. Four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, IMS president Doug Boles and IndyCar on NBC analyst Townsend Bell were among the voters.

From inside the cockpit of an Indy 500 winning race car to the top of the pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the broadcast booth on NBC, to the media center, this panel had the daunting task of picking the top 10 using various criteria.

Races were ranked on a scale of 1-20 in five categories :

  • Quality of racing
  • Memorable moments
  • Strength of field
  • Historical significance
  • Spectacle

The totals for each race in the five categories were tabulated to determine the top 10 below:

No. 10: A.J. Foyt becomes a three-time winner in 1967 as Parnelli Jones’ dominant Granatelli turbine car breaks

No. 9: Sam Hornish Jr. beats Marco Andretti in 2006 on the race’s first last-lap pass

No. 8: Al Unser Jr. edges Scott Goodyear in 1992 for closest finish in the race’s history

No. 7: Rick Mears becomes a four-time winner of the race with a thrilling pass in 1991

No. 6: Louis Meyer becomes the first three-time winner and starts milk tradition in 1936

No. 5: Dan Wheldon wins second Indy 500 in 2011 after J.R. Hildebrand crashes on last lap

No. 4: A.J. Foyt becomes the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1977

No. 3: Helio Castroneves “reopens America” in 2021 with his fourth Indy 500 victory

No. 2: Gordon Johncock holds off Rick Mears in 1982 thriller

No. 1: Jim Rathmann outduels Rodger Ward in 1960 epic

Choosing from 106 options meant some great races missed the top 10, so it’s time to take a crack at picking 10 Indianapolis 500s that also would have been worthy of the list.

This is a completely subjective exercise and in no way does it infer that these should have been the “next” 10 in the rankings.

It’s a list of 10 Indianapolis 500s that had great racing, memorable, moments, a strong field of competitors, historical impact, and spectacle.

Here are my 10 that didn’t make it but should certainly be remembered for various reasons because of their impact on the Indianapolis 500:

No. 1: Emerson Fittipaldi outduels Al Unser Jr. in a 1989 finish for the ages

This is remembered as one of the truly dramatic Indianapolis 500s of all time. In many ways, it might have been just as exciting (if not more so) than the race that set the standard for Indy 500 finishes.

That, of course, is the 1982 battle between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears that marked the first wheel-to-wheel finish in the closing laps at the Brickyard. Mears pulled even but not ahead of Johncock on the 199th lap entering Turn 1.

What makes 1989 different is Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. traded the leads several times over the final 15 laps, culminating with the classic, “Two men go in, but only one came out” situation in Turn 3 on Lap 199.

Fittipaldi was a two-time Formula One champion who revived his career by competing in the Indy 500 in 1983 and joining CART in 1984. In 1989, he was racing for Patrick Racing with former driver Chip Ganassi as the team’s co-owner.

Fittipaldi started third but would dominate the race in the Penske PC-18 by leading 158 of 200 laps.

Michael Andretti took the lead from Fittipaldi on Lap 154 and seemed to be pulling away until Andretti’s engine blew up on Lap 163, Fittipaldi was back in the lead and had a wide margin over Unser.

Gambling on fuel mileage, the son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser was attempting to win the Indy 500 for the first time. He had the good fortune of a caution period on Lap 181 and on the restart with 16 laps to go, was on Fittipaldi’s tail.

From the point on, the two drivers were engaged in a fierce duel that was much closer than the ’82 battle between Johncock and Mears.

Unser passed Fittipaldi for the lead on Lap 196 but couldn’t shake the Brazilian. On Lap 199, Unser was in front of Fittipaldi when the two cars caught up to traffic down the backstretch. They weaved through the slower cars before Fittipaldi dove underneath Unser going into Turn 3.

They touched wheels, and Unser spun out, smacking the outside wall in Turn 3. Fittipaldi momentarily went sideways in the north chute but regained control.

The yellow light came on and when Fittipaldi made it to the “Yard of Bricks” the yellow and white flags were waving signaling the final lap of the race.

Fittipaldi drove to the checkered flag behind the pace car and scored the dramatic victory. Unser was uninjured and as the victor drove through Turn 3, Unser walked out to the apron, clapped his hands, and gave Fittipaldi the thumbs up.

Despite crashing, Unser was credited with second place. Third place went to Raul Boesel, who was six laps down to the leader.

Fittipaldi received $1,001,600 in prize money, the first time an Indianapolis 500 winner received more than $1 million, and also was the first foreign-born Indianapolis 500 winner since Mario Andretti in 1969 and the first driver from outside the United States to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966.

No. 2: Jacques Villeneuve completes 505 miles to win in 1995

This was the last Indianapolis 500 before “The Spilt”, the auto racing civil war that left CART teams boycotting Indy over the rival Indy Racing League making its debut in 1996.

The 1995 field featured CART at the peak of its power, with four engine manufacturers (Ford, Cosworth, Mercedes Benz, Honda and the Menard V6_, two different chassis builders (Lola and Reynard) and two tire suppliers (Firestone and Goodyear).

The deep grid featured tremendous drivers, and it ended in a stunning and controversial finish.

The month leading into the race featured some extreme political posturing between the United States Auto Club (USAC), the sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500 since 1956, and CART, which was trying to exert control and fend off a power grab by Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George and his IRL.

But one of the biggest stories in the history of the Indy 500 came in qualifications when Team Penske, which had crushed the field in 1994 with the Mercedes-Benz 209 pushrod engine, struggled to make the 33-car starting lineup.

Neither defending Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. or two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi were fast enough during the first two days. On Wednesday, May 17, Rahal-Hogan Racing announced that they would supply Team Penske with backup Lola chassis, in a goodwill effort to help Penske’s drivers get up to speed. A year earlier, Penske had loaned chassis to Rahal’s team when they were struggling to qualify the 1994 Honda-powered machines.

The Rahal-Hogan entries easily had made the field and had given Team Penske a “turn-key setup” that easily should have made the race. But Team Penske engineers decided to put their own setup on the car, and it proved to be futile as Fittipaldi and Unser both missed the race.

It was the first time since 1968 that Penske Racing had failed to race in the Indianapolis 500 -- and it would begin a six-year absence from the race as Roger Penske kept his teams exclusively in CART until 2001.

“I’ve got to take the responsibility for not getting into the race, but a lot of my fellow team owners came up to me and offered me help, and I want to thank them for that from the bottom of my heart,” Penske said after one of the biggest disappointments of his career. “We are not going to buy our way into this race. We had an opportunity to compete on a level playing field, and we did not get the job done.”

The race got off to a very scary start when Stan Fox dove low in Turn 1 at the car, lost it and spun toward the Turn 1 wall. The car shot directly into the wall, and an impact with Eddie Cheever’s car ripped the front nose off Fox’s car, essentially cutting the car in two.

Fox, strapped to his seat but with his legs and body exposed, was launched into the catchfence as his feet actually touched Cheever’s rear wing. Fox suffered serious head injuries and was listed in critical condition for weeks. Though he ultimately recovered, Fox never raced again.

After the race went back to green on Lap 10, the drama and controversy began. Jacques Villeneuve passed the pace car twice; unaware they were trying to pick him up as the leader. Because of the infraction, USAC issued a two-lap penalty to Villeneuve for passing the pace car twice, dropping him from third place to 27th.

Scott Goodyear, who had led 42 laps for Tasman Racing, appeared to be in control with 11 laps to go as he led the field under caution. Villeneuve had made up his two laps and was scored in second place.

As the field prepared to go back to green on Lap 190, Don Bailey appeared to be going quite slow in the Corvette pace car entering Turn 4. Goodyear and Villeneuve accelerated out of Turn 3 for the restart, but the pace car had not pulled off the track.

Villeneuve slowed down, and Goodyear passed the pace car as starter Duane Sweeney waved the green flag. Goodyear had a huge lead, but a few moments later, USAC race control issued a stop-and-go-penalty to Goodyear -- giving him five laps to serve the penalty. Team owner Steve Horne ordered Goodyear to stay out while protesting the call.

On Lap 195, USAC quit scoring Goodyear on the track, putting Villeneuve in the lead. The French Canadian won the Indianapolis 500 in only his second attempt. He would also win the CART championship that season before leaving for Formula One and winning the 1997 championship.

Goodyear crossed the finish line first but was scored 17th because of the penalty.

“Disbelief is the best word to describe how I feel,” he said afterward. “I feel like I won this race. The pace car was going too slow. ... I almost hit it. Scott Pruett almost hit it; Villeneuve almost hit it. He wasn’t on the gas, and I saw the green lights turn on and that meant go.

“That’s all I can say. I stayed out because in my eyes it was perfect ... and if I came in and later found I didn’t make a mistake then what are you going to do? It would have been too late, and you won’t get it back.”

No. 3: The arrival of “Danicamania” in 2005

A race with a lasting impact because rookie Danica Patrick inspired young women around the world to pursue careers in racing.

Dan Wheldon won the race, but Patrick became the first female driver to lead the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick nearly won the pole, but a bobble in Turn 1 on her first qualifying lap kept her from recording the fastest speed. She started fourth and was a major storyline entering the race as lifestyle publications such as “Glamour Magazine” sent writers to cover the phenomenon.

When she took the lead on Lap 56, the massive crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway roared. She led 19 laps for team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman and was in front with seven laps to go.

Wheldon took the lead on Lap 194. Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta also passed her in the closing laps, and she finished fourth.

But that finish made her racing’s “Cover Girl” and created “Danicamania” which continued until her final start in the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

Patrick remains an international celebrity and is the only analyst on television that regularly does Formula One on Sky Sports, NASCAR Cup Series on FOX, and the Indianapolis 500 on NBC.

But it’s her impact on thousands of girls and women in racing that is her greatest legacy 18 years later, making the 2005 Indianapolis 500 important for that reason alone.

No. 4: Danny Sullivan’s “Spin and Win” in 1985

Danny Sullivan’s “Spin and Win” is one of the most iconic moments in Indianapolis 500 history. What could have been a disaster turned out to be one of the lasting highlights in Indianapolis 500 history.

Sullivan took the lead from Mario Andretti on Lap 120 but while completing the pass on the apron in Turn 1, he lost control. Sullivan did a 360-degree spin directly in front of Andretti.

Andretti veered to the inside and slipped by unscathed, and Sullivan’s car somehow avoided contact with the concrete wall.

Sullivan was able to continue without stalling the engine. He later retook first from Andretti and led the final 61 laps to win his only Indianapolis 500. It was also the fifth win for team owner Roger Penske, tying the record for most wins by a car owner at that time held by Lou Moore.

Penske extended that record to 19 victories with Josef Newgarden’s win in the 107th Indy 500 on May 28, 2023.

No. 5: A centennial clutch and coast for Alexander Rossi in 2016

After years of decline from its peak when nearly 400,000 filled the Indianapolis 500 from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a time to celebrate its incredible history, while setting it on a path for future success.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway properly promoted the grand occasion, and the grandstands were sold out.

The Speedway also sold infield admission in advance and when total tickets sold reached 350,000, it was declared a sellout and the local television blackout in Central Indiana was lifted. That meant residents of Indianapolis could watch the race live on their TVs for the first time since 1951.

From a spectacle standpoint, the event lived up to its grand status. The suspense over the winner was heightened by a long green flag stretch.

Rookie driver Alexander Rossi, driving the No. 98 Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport, had fallen out of sequence because of a midway pit stop miscue that dropped him to the back of the lead lap.

The team turned that mistake into an advantage. Already at the back, Rossi was called into the pits again to top off for fuel in the event they could stretch to the end.

One by one, the leaders of the race in the final laps had to dive onto pit road for fuel before Rossi was finally in the lead on Lap 197 of 200.

With former driver Bryan Herta on the radio, Rossi was instructed to clutch and coast to reach the finish. As he came out of Turn 4 on the final lap, Rossi was running on fumes.

He had a large enough lead on Carlos Munoz to crawl across the finish line at the checkered flag and become the first Indy 500 rookie to win since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

The winner from Nevada City, California, was incredulous. Rossi climbed out of the winning car and announced to the world, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

No. 6: Tony Human saves the Indianapolis 500 from extinction in 1946

The impact of this race cannot be stressed enough. If Wilbur Shaw had not sought out Terre Haute, Indiana, businessman Anton “Tony” Hulman to buy the shuttered Indianapolis Motor Speedway from previous owner Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945, the race would have ended in 1941.

Because of World War II, Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shut down from 1942-45. The facility fell into disrepair with weeds growing out of the brick frontstretch surface.

Hulman agreed to buy the facility with three-time winner Shaw serving as the track’s frontman and president.

The Memorial Day Classic returned in 1946 with a field of 5- and 6-year-old cars that had last run in the 1941 Indianapolis 500.

George Robson won the race by 34.05 seconds over Jimmy Jackson. Ted Horn was third followed by Emil Andres and “Thrill Show” driver Joie Chitwood.

Only nine of the 33 cars that started the race were running at the finish. The ninth-place car had completed only 139 laps.

But none of that mattered. If this race had not been held, the property where Indianapolis Motor Speedway sits today could have been a subdivision or a strip mall.

Without the 1946 Indianapolis 500, what followed likely never happens.

It was the beginning of the modern Indianapolis 500 that continues to this day and under Hulman’s regime, it became the Mount Olympus of all sporting events.

No. 7: A.J. Foyt beats Eddie Sachs in the 1961 “Golden Anniversary”

A.J. Foyt’s first Indianapolis 500 victory came in the “Golden Anniversary Indianapolis 500.” It was the 50th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, and Ray Harroun drove his famed Marmon Wasp around the track before the race – the same car he drove to victory 50 years earlier.

More than 250,000 came out on a sun-splashed day and were treated to a dramatic duel at the end of the race between popular Pennsylvanian Eddie Sachs and a young hotshot from Houston, Texas, named A.J. Foyt.

On Foyt’s final scheduled pit stop, his crew was unable to properly engage the fuel mechanism, and his car did not take on a full load of fuel. Foyt returned to the track and was pulling away from Sachs because of the lighter fuel load. His crew signaled that he would be unable to make it to the finish without another pit stop.

After borrowing a fuel feed mechanism from Len Sutton’s team, Foyt pitted to give up the lead on Lap 184 for a splash-and-go stop. That gave the lead back to Sachs, who was in front by 25 seconds.

But with three laps to go, the cords started to show on Sachs’ rear tire. If the tire blew, it would be disastrous.

Sachs played it safe and pitted on Lap 197. Foyt took the lead with three laps to go and won the first of his four Indianapolis 500s by 8.28 seconds.

This race was notable for two other reasons.

Two-time Formula One World Champion Jack Brabham competed in a British-built Cooper rear engine car. It was the beginning of the “British Invasion” and the “Rear Engine Revolution” that would dramatically change the course of the Indianapolis 500. Four years later, nearly every car in the field had a rear-engine design, and the front-engine Roadster was obsolete.

This was also the final race where the frontstretch was paved with the original bricks used since 1911 (giving the track its nickname of “The Brickyard”). After the 1961 race, the frontstretch was paved except for the “Yard of Bricks” at the start/finish line that remains today.

No. 8: Bobby Rahal wins for his dying team owner in 1986

Bobby Rahal’s dramatic two-lap dash to the checkered flag gave team owner Jim Trueman the Indianapolis 500 victory just 11 days before he died from cancer. Rahal had a perfectly timed restart, passing leader Kevin Cogan with two laps to go. Rick Mears was third in what was then the closest 1-2-3 finish in Indianapolis 500 history.

This was the first time the Indianapolis 500 was shown on live network TV after being tape-delayed for two decades (sometimes for as much as a week or two later).

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. Rain postponed the race by nearly a week after Indianapolis Motor Speedway convinced The Milwaukee Mile to move its race later in the season. The Indianapolis 500 was held on Saturday, May 31.

Rahal completed the 500 miles in 2 hours, 55 minutes, 43.470 seconds -- the first Indy 500 winner in less than three hours.

His average speed of 170.722 mph broke Rick Mears’ 1984 record. Rahal later claimed his fuel light had come on during the final lap, and a postrace inspection showed that only two gallons of methanol fuel remained in his tank.

No. 9: Ryan Hunter-Reay defeats Helio Castroneves in 2014’s second-closest finish

The final laps are among the greatest in the race’s history. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves even cut through the grass with three laps to go. With two laps to go, Castroneves went to the outside to pass Hunter-Reay into Turn 1 to retake the lead.

As the field came down the frontstretch to receive the white flag, Hunter-Reay made a slingshot pass to the outside to again retake the lead. He pulled out to a lead down the backstretch, and Castroneves was unable to challenge going into Turn 3. As they came off Turn 4, Castroneves tried to close the gap, and drafted going down the main stretch. He made a move to the outside, but Hunter-Reay was able to hold off the challenge and won by 0.0600 seconds.

It was the second-closest finish in race history behind 1992. Hunter-Reay was the first driver from the United States to win the Indy 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

No. 10: Bryan wins a thriller in 1958

Though this race is known for a massive first-lap crash in Turn 3 that killed popular driver Pat O’Connor, the racing was incredible for the era. There was a 19-lap stretch of 10 lead changes among four drivers under green.

Only 3.7 mph covered the fastest to slowest qualifiers, and the first- and second-fastest qualifiers were separated by 0.0811 second over the four laps. At the time, it was easily the narrowest margin between first and second.

It was Jimmy Bryan’s only Indianapolis 500 win for one of the great drivers of the 1950s. Bryan was killed in a crash in a champ car race at Langhorne Speedway on June 19, 1960 at 34.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500