Ideally, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing would run without issue each May, but the Indianapolis 500 has seen many controversies in its 100 years. Which moments stand out above the others?
10. The Beginning of the End For USAC: 1997 Indy 500
The 1997 race saw a couple points of contention. First, it had 35 starters, only the second time in the race’s 100-year existence that more than 33 cars started. A result of the 25/8 rule, a hand full of drivers fast enough to make the field were left out due to a lack of owner point. USAC contested the 25/8 ruling, citing that the track always hosted the 33 fastest drivers. As a result, Lyn St. James and Johnny Unser, whose owner points initially kept them out despite having fast enough speed, were added to the field after final qualifying; they took were 34 and 35 on the grid.
In the race itself, with two laps left Tony Stewart brushed the wall coming onto the front stretch and bringing out a caution. Arie Luyendyk led teammate Scott Goodyear (both ran for Rick Treadway that year) to the late-race caution.
Appearing that the race would end under yellow, Luyendyk, Goodyear and the rest of field coasted around to take the white flag. Suddenly, the green flag waved with one to go. Luyendyk hit the throttle, leaving Goodyear in his wake. But, even though the green had waved, yellow lights were still on around the track. This prompted Luyendyk to call over the radio ‘What the **** are they doing?”
Luyendyk won, but USAC’s blunder left a major black mark. A scoring error at Texas a couple weeks later saw INDYCAR, then the Indy Racing League, remove USAC of scoring duties.
9. Lotus’ Near Miss: 1963 Indy 500
Colin Chapman brought the Lotus name to the Speedway in 1963 in hopes of challenging the dominant Offenhauser engine. Battling with Parnelli Jones late in the race, Lotus’ pilot Jimmy Clark was set to end Offy’s reign. However, the Scotsman couldn’t prevail and Jones took the victory.
The controversy came later when it was revealed that Jones’ car had been leaking oil. Protocol was to black flag him for such an incident, but none was ever flown.
Chances are, didn’t hear much about this controversy. That’s because Chapman, a known gentleman in the racing world, did not want to make a stir, especially as a rookie that year. Chapman and Lotus stayed quiet about it, leaving Jones the victor without much debate. Few knew of the oil leak on Jones’ car.
In 1965, Chapman and Lotus would redeem themselves with Jimmy Clark behind the wheel and leading them to a win. However, 1963 was the one that got away.
8. The Granatelli Turbines Run Wild: 1967, 1968 Indy 500s
Parnelli Jones in Andy Granatelli's turbine engine car (The "Whooshmobile") dominated most of the month in 1967. Leading a race-high 171 laps, Jones was on his way to a second victory in the all-conquering turbine. However, a tiny part broke in the last few laps and denied him victory.
No matter, though. The speed was more than apparent and Granatelli brought the turbines back in 1968, hoping to seal the deal. Relatively arbitrary limits were set for them in 1967, with USAC tightening the rules for air intake in 1968. But, Granatelli still fielded three "wedge" turbine cars.
Once again, they seemed poised for victory, with Joe Leonard holding the lead late in the race. But just like the year prior, reliability was their downfall and the cars for Leonard and teammate Art Pollard lurched on lap 191. Each had snapped a fuel pump drive shaft.
Though not always reliable, the turbine cars were fast. In fact, they were too fast. USAC reduced the air intake allowance even further in 1969, putting an end to the turbine engine at Indianapolis. Some say the engine was "ruled to death.” Indianapolis has seen its share of innovation, but few car designs and rule decisions elicit as much debate and argument as the gas turbine cars Andy Granatelli produced.
7. Ray Harroun Wins the Inaugural Indy 500…Or Does He? 1911 Indy 500
From the very first running, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has seen controversy.
Ray Harroun is credited with winning the initial running. But immediately following the race, rival Ralph Mulford protested, claiming a he should have been scored the winner. Mulford’s claim was he had lapped Harroun when the Marmon driver pitted to replace a worn tire. It seemed reasonable, given that scoring was disrupted by an accident at the same time of Harroun’s stop. But officials noted that Mulford’s subsequent stop allowed Harroun back by.
The protest was thrown out and Harroun was confirmed the winner. Thus began the scoring debates, which the Speedway would see many times throughout the years.
6. Penske’s Trick Mercedes: 1994 Indy 500
The 500 was under USAC sanction at the time. They followed USAC’s rules, not CART’s. USAC had allowed for “stock block” push-rod engines in their regulations, though with certain parts production-based. The most notable of these engines were the Buick V-6’s used by Team Menard.
The required use of productions parts was lifted in 1991, with the displacement of such engines increased to 209.3 inches. This allowed teams to create purpose-built engines for the race.
Roger Penske took full advantage. With Mercedes on board, they introduced the Mercedes Benz 500l engine just days before opening practice in 1994. Their project produced more than 1,000 horsepower, 150-200 more than their competitors. Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi took pole and third spot on the grid, with the pair leading all but seven laps that day. Unser won after Fittipaldi crashed in turn four on lap 185. At the time, only he and Unser were on the lead lap. The Penske cars dominated the month, unchallenged by anyone.
Much like the aforementioned turbines, the Mercedes engines were deemed too fast, with rule changes would see the engine banned going forward. In fact, the engine was so powerful that it masked inherent flaws in the Penske chassis. Dick Simon notied in his pre-race interview that the Penske cars were very slow through the turns that year.. Those flaws went unchanged for 1995 and showed themselves in Indy 500 qualifying when no Penske car made the race.
The banning of the 500l engine made Team Penske in the ’94 race, and broke them I ’95.
5. Kevin Cogan Crashes Before the Start: 1982 Indy 500
A brilliantly close duel between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears was overshadowed by an incident that took place before the field ever took the green flag. Kevin Cogan was starting from the middle of Row 1 as the field rolled towards the start of the race. Suddenly and without warning, Cogan's car swerved, smashing into A.J. Foyt's carand wrecking Mario. As cars tried to avoid the accident, an additional two cars were taken out of the race before a single lap had been completed.
Precisely what happened on Cogan's car has never been explained; some believe it was a case of driving error. In the aftermath, A.J. Foyt made his displeasure known, famously saying “That damn Coogan.” He purposely misspelled Cogan’s naming, adding further insult. Andretti would get into a small shoving match with Cogan as they walked back to the pits, later remarking "That's what you get when you have children doing a man's job up front.”
Few drivers have incurred such ire. It would not be the first time that Cogan would suffer misfortune at Indianapolis. In 1986, he was leading on a restart with two laps left when Bobby Rahal jumped around him as they crossed the start/finish line to take the green.Cogan settled for second. In 1989, Cogan was involved in frightening crash exiting turn four He spun into the inside pit wall and slid down pit lane on his side. Two years later, in 1991, Cogan got together with Roberto Guerrero and the two crashed in turn one. Amateur video showed Cogan, who broke his arm in that wreck, to be at fault.
Cogan retired from racing in 1993.
4. The Pace Car Dupes Scott Goodyear: 1995 Indy 500
The 1995 race was one dominated by officiating. An enormous number of penalties were handed out that day, notably to eventual winner Jacques Villeneuve. On lap 50, he was penalized two laps for passing the pace car (Villeneuve did so in hopes of letting the pace car pick up the leader, but didn’t know HE was actually the leader).
With 10 laps left, a restart saw Villeneuve trail leader Scott Goodyear. Both picked up their speed heading into turn four, but Villeneuve backed up when he saw the pace car had not entered the pits yet, nearly losing second in the process. Goodyear kept going, flying past the pace car on the outside in turn four. USAC ruled he passed before the green and he was black-flagged. When he didn’t pit, USAC stopped scoring him, putting Villeneuve in the front.
Villeneuve took the win and team owner Barry Green declared “We just won the first 505 mile race!” referencing their earlier penalty. A disappointed Goodyear was left wondering how it slipped away from him and declared, “I think everybody throughout the world knows he won this race.” Goodyear believed the pace car slowed up, leaving him no option but to pass.
Still, the decision was final and Goodyear remains one of the best drivers to never win the Indianapolis 500.
3. Paul Tracy vs. Helio Castroneves: 2002 Indy 500
Paul Tracy had struggled the entire month leading into the 2002 running, qualifying on the second-to-last row. However, fuel strategy saw him able to be full while his competitors were forced to conserve in the late laps of the race.
Trailing Helio Castroneves with two laps left, Tracy made his move on the outside of turn four. At the same time, a crash in turn two involving Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier brought out a caution, Tracy, thinking he had cleared Castroneves by the time of the yellow, sped toward the white flag and screaming on the radio. However, Castroneves was called the leader at the time of the caution. Castroneves took the win.
The debate was furthered by the ABC telecast, which gave a long delay before showing replays of the incident. In total, nearly 15 minutes passed before replays were shown. ABC claimed they waited because they didn’t show subpar coverage and took their time assembling the video. Still, the delay dissatisfied many fans.
Tracy and Team Green attempted to file a protest, but were denied. To this day, Tracy believes he won that race.
2. Courts Decide the Fates of Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti: 1981 Indy 500
Gordon Smiley’s crash on lap 146 set in motion one of the most controversial races in the history of the sport. When Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti exited the pits after their stops, Unser sped up on the apron, passing 14 cars before blending in at the exit of turn two. Andretti passed a couple cars in his own right before blending in at turn one, where he believed the blend line to be.
Unser took the checkered flag as the winner and thus began the merry-go-round of winner declarations. At 8 a.m. the following morning, Unser was issued a penalty for passing under a caution and Mario Andretti was declared the winner.
Roger Penske, Unser’s team owner, immediately filed his own protest in the matter, arguing the vague wording of the Blend Line Rule allowed Unser to pass (drivers had been instructed to look right upon pit exit to see which car was next to them, then accelerate to appropriate speed and blend in behind that car). Unser added,as long on your car stayed below the white line (on the apron), you were allowed to blend in at turn two andpass any cars along the way (the apron being an extension of the pit lane in his view).
USAC faced an unusual dilemma, with the rule too vague to say Unser was wrong.
On October 9, 1981, Unser was reinstated as the winner.
However, despite eventually being ruled the victor, Bobby Unser remained very bitter about the incident and is believed to be the reason for his retirement. He never raced again after that season.
1. CART vs. IRL: 1996 Indy 500
Even though the formation of the IRL had been announced in 1994, it was 1996 that saw the split firmly entrenched and Indianapolis as the focal point. In ’96, the first year for the Indy Racing League, Tony George instituted what we know now as the 25/8 rule.Top 25 in the IRL point standings were locked into the field that year. Though an attempt at luring the CART teams to run the first two IRL races, CART believed George was trying to lock them out.
The response: the U.S. 500 at Michigan was created andheld the same day as the Indy 500. A war of words began, with CART teams and drivers joking that the IRL drivers, youthful and inexperienced, would have trouble at Indianapolis; some even said a big wreck was inevitable.
CART had eggs on its face when THEY, in fact, had the big wreck that day. Jimmy Vasser collided with Adrian Fernandez and Bryan Herta on the start, collecting much of the field. A red flag was flown and drivers were allowed to bring out their backup cars.
Buddy Lazier won the Indy 500, Jimmy Vasser won the U.S. 500 (adding fuel to the fire by quipping “Who needs milk?” afterward) and the split was on. The 25/8 rule was not lifted and CART owners refused to purchase the IRL’s new equipment in 1997. They once more refused to participate in the May classic, though their U.S. 500 had been moved to July at that point.
No CART team would enter the Indy 500 until 2000 when Chip Ganassi brought Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser over, with Montoya a runaway victor.
The two sides remained at odds until 2008 when the remnants of CART (now Champ Car) were absorbed into INDYCAR. Despite unification, many still harbor ill will towards both sides and resent the split.