It’s amazing how a race 500 miles long that takes at least three hours to complete can often come to down to a pair of drivers, or more, battling it out tooth and nail for to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In fact, sometimes the deciding distance isn’t measured in laps or seconds, but in feet.
In its 100 years of existence, the Indianapolis 500 has produced some of the most memorable late-race battles in the history of motorsports, many of them coming the last three decades. It is a testament to the drivers and their determination that such finishes can take place, with some even overcoming early-race trouble to be in contention.
10. Kenny Brack Takes Victory After Robby Gordon’s Gamble Fails: 1999 Indianapolis 500
The stage was set for this showdown on lap 164. Gordon, driving for Team Menard, entered the pits that lap for what they hoped would be the final time. They were planning to run the final 36 laps of the race without stopping. He assumed the lead when the rest of the leaders pitted under a caution between laps 169 and 171.
Gordon took off on the restart, trying to save as much fuel as he could. Kenny Brack, one of the front runners on the day, began charging up through the field, eventually taking second from Jeff Ward on lap 188. Brack then began closing the gap to Gordon.
With two laps remaining, Brack was within 1.5 seconds of the lead and gaining fast, with Gordon still conserving fuel. The stage was set for an epic battle on the final lap…until Gordon’s gamble went south.
As the pair exited turn four to take the white flag, Gordon’s car ran out of fuel and he dove for pit lane. Brack went by unchallenged and cruised for the final 2.5 miles to take his first Indy 500 win and the fifth overall for team owner A.J. Foyt. Gordon would finish fourth.
9. Dan Wheldon Outlasts Rookie Danica Patrick: 2005 Indianapolis 500
Despite, winning three of the first four races and dominating the early part of the 2005 season, Dan Wheldon entered that year’s Indianapolis 500 under the radar. Struggles in qualifying saw him grid 16th and he was vastly overshadowed by rookie standout Danica Patrick, who turned the fastest lap of the month and narrowly missed the pole, a miscue on her first lap placing her fourth in the lineup.
However, Wheldon quietly marched his way forward and, with 30 laps remaining, he held the lead. A caution a few laps later saw the leaders pit for fuel and tires except for Bryan Herta and Danica Patrick, who assumed the top two spots (Patrick was in position to gamble after an earlier spin forced her to go off sequence).
Wheldon had moved back up to second on lap 186 and was closing fast on Patrick, who had been told conserve fuel in order to make it to the finish. Wheldon made a move for the lead heading down the front straightaway on that lap. At the same time, Kosuke Matsuura hit the turn four wall, bringing out another caution. Wheldon was just ahead of Patrick and assumed the lead.
Their battle continued on a restart with 10 laps left. Patrick used the slipstream off of Wheldon to snatch the lead away going into turn one. However, she was still conserving fuel, preventing her from pulling away. Wheldon reeled her back in and passed her back at the same spot with seven laps left. Patrick would falter further and ended up fourth while Wheldon fended off a charging Vitor Meira for the win.
8. Foyt Survives a Wild, Two-Day Long Event to Claim His Third “500:” 1967 Indianapolis 500
This was the first year for the famous Andy Granatelli turbine cars, which dominated the race. Driver Parnelli Jones, who started sixth, was leading race halfway through the first lap. He led the first 18 laps before rain halted the event, postponing it for one day.
Jones picked up where he left off the following day, streaking away with the lead. However, chaos would reign as the race went on. Five laps after the restart, defending winner Graham Hill fell out with engine trouble, with teammate Jim Clark suffering a similar fate on lap 35.
Jones would actually get together with Lee Roy Yarborough on lap 70, with both spinning. Each continued, but Dan Gurney assumed the lead briefly before Jones repassed him. However, Gurney would eventually fall out on lap 160. Other incidents included Mario Andretti losing a wheel, Carl Williams and Bob Veith crashing out in turn three, Wally Dallenbach crashing on the front straightaway, and Cale Yarborough spinning out during a caution!
Despite all the carnage, Jones appeared to be on cruise control, leading 171 laps and gapping second place A.J. Foyt by a full lap. But, it all went wrong for Jones with four laps remaining. A $6 part in the transmission failed, bringing the mighty turbine car to a halt.
Foyt took over the lead and, like Jones before him, seemed set for an easy win. But, a wreck on the final lap complicated matters. Four cars crashed on the front straight away as Foyt approached the checkered flag. This forced Foyt to use some evasive driving to weave his way through.
Foyt would do so without damage and took his third Indy 500 win.
7. Tom Sneva Takes On the Unsers: 1983 Indianapolis 500
By 1983, Tom Sneva had earned the nickname “The Gas Man” for his outstanding qualifying efforts. The first man the break the 200 mile-per-hour barrier, Sneva captured three poles at Indianapolis and was twice a USAC champion (1977 and ’78). However, success at The Speedway always eluded him, as he finished second three times but hadn’t yet won.
In the ’83 race, it seemed like Sneva may be doomed to finish second again. While battling Al Unser for the lead late in the race, Unser’s son, Al Unser Jr., a lap down at that point, began helping protect his father’s lead, ignoring the blue “mover over” flags.
However, Sneva would use his cunning to get around both Unsers as they worked through more traffic, passing both on the front straight away on lap 190.
Sneva held Unser off for his first and only “500” win.
6. Rick Mears Duels With Michael Andretti: 1991 Indianapolis 500
To think, if not for a flat tire, we may not have seen of the most memorable battles in history.
Michael Andretti dominated the race and seemed set to lap Rick Mears at one point. However, a flat tire forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop, allowing Mears to stay on the lead lap.
Andretti led Mears by 15 seconds in the final 20 laps, but needed one final stop in order to make it the rest of way. Fortunately, in an apparent sign that the Andretti Luck may be turning for the good, such a caution came on lap 182 for Danny Sullivan’s blown engine.
Andretti pitted for fuel, allowing Mears to lead on the restart with 13 laps to go. However, Andretti was right with him as they crossed the start/finish line.
Andretti would use a pair of lapped cars, which included cousin John Andretti, to get a run on Mears entering turn one. In a daring move, Andretti tried a pass on the outside…and made it stick.
He assumed the lead that lap and tried pulling away from Mears. However, the cunning Mears wouldn’t have it, and passed Andretti right back, in the same spot and in the same manner, one lap later.
Mears led the rest of the way to take his fourth Indy 500 crown while Michael was left wondering how Mears found that extra speed.
5. Bobby Rahal Bests Kevin Cogan and Rick Mears For an Emotional Victory: 1986 Indianapolis 500
Bobby Rahal, Kevin Cogan, and Rick Mears gave us of the most thrilling fights in the history of the race. Mears led Rahal and Cogan with 14 laps left, with Michael Andretti hanging on in fourth, the last driver on the lead lap.
Rahal jumped into the lead going into turn three with 13 laps to go, while Cogan then jumped around Mears on the outside of turn four. When Rahal encountered traffic on the following lap, Cogan the leapt around him for the lead.
Cogan would hold a lead as high as three seconds. But, it was all erased on lap 194, when Arie Luyendyk spun exiting turn four and brushed the inside wall, bringing out a caution.
The green flag came back out with two laps left, setting up an all-out dash to the checkered flag. Rahal would snooker Cogan on the restart and had actually had nosed in front of him at the line and cleared him as they entered turn one. Mears would try to pass Cogan as well, but couldn’t quite complete it. Rahal stretched his lead over the final two laps and claimed the win.
It was a very emotional win for Rahal and his Truesports team. Owner Jim Trueman had been stricken with cancer and his health was beginning to fail him at that point. Though, he had strength enough to celebrate with the team in victory lane. On June 11, only a couple weeks after the triumph, Trueman passed away at the relatively young race of 52. Rahal and the team carried on, claiming the championship that year in honor of Trueman.
4. Sam Hornish vs. The Andrettis: 2006 Indianapolis 500
Team Penske vs. The Andrettis: where have we seen this before?
On the day, the dominant driver was defending winner Dan Wheldon. Wheldon led 148 laps and had the fastest car much of the race. However, strategy would be his undoing and allowed Hornish and the Andrettis to steal the spotlight at the end.
Al Unser Jr., returning from retirement that year, crashed in turn three on lap 149. While the leaders pitted, Hornish exited too early, taking the fuel nozzle with him. However, his crew stopped him before he completely exited the pit box, allowing them to remove the damaged nozzle. Still, Hornish, the pole sitter that year, dropped to the end of the lead lap and was eventually issued a penalty for the ordeal.
With the race set for a restart on lap 155, Jeff Simmons crashed on the front straightaway, extending the caution. On lap 160, Hornish, along with Michael Andretti, would pit for the final time, taking enough fuel to make it to the finish.
Wheldon led on the lap 163 restart, while Hornish served his penalty and dropped to the tail end of the lead lap.
However, only he and the elder Andretti had enough fuel to make the finish, while the other leaders needed to pit. Those stops began on lap 184, with Wheldon the first to peel off. Marco Andretti, in his rookie race, had been running in the top five, but also needed to pit, doing so on lap 190. At the same time, though, Felipe Giaffone clipped the turn two wall, bringing out a caution.
Michael Andretti had assumed the lead, while Marco and managed to end up second as the stops cycled through. Hornish lined up fourth.
Michael led the field for the restart with four laps remaining, but Marco passed him on the outside as they entered turn one on the next lap. Hornish was also on the gas and moved around Michael for second on the back straightaway and set his sights on Marco.
Hornish tried a move for the lead entering turn three with two laps left, but Marco held him off, with many thinking the youngest Andretti had sealed the win then and there.
However, Hornish kept the charge on, and was on Marco’s tail on they headed toward the checkered flag. He ducked inside Marco and just edged him as they crossed the start/finish line.
It was Hornish’s first Indy 500 win, while the Andrettis failed to overcome the might of Team Penske once again.
3. Emerson Fittipaldi Wins As Al Unser Jr. Crashes: 1989 Indianapolis 500
Emerson Fittipaldi was the runaway leader in 1989, leading 158 laps and was unchallenged for much of the race. However, a restart with 15 laps remaining set up one of the classic moments in Speedway history.
Fittipaldi led on the restart, while Al Unser Jr., looking for his first “500” win, had to battle around the lapped car of Raul Boesel (Boesel ran third, but was six laps off the lead). Unser cleared Boesel and immediately began closing on Fittpaldi.
The two were nose-to-tail with seven laps to go and began battling. In fact, the two touched wheels the following lap as they encountered slower traffic.
With six laps to go, Unser Jr. overtook Fittipaldi for the lead and began to draw away from him. However, Fittipaldi began closing back in and the two were side-by-side once again as they continued to battle through traffic.
Neither driver was going to give an inch and something would have to give. As they headed into turn three before taking the white flag, something DID give. Fittipaldi, on the inside, bumped wheels with Unser Jr, sending the American into the wall. Fittipaldi nearly spun himself, but managed to save the car and continue on.
Fittipaldi would the take win under caution, while Unser applauded his rival as he passed on the cool down lap, showing no ill will toward the driver he fought so valiantly with.
2. Gordon Johncock Outlasts a Young Rick Mears: 1982 Indianapolis 500
A carnage-filled 1982 race left Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock the only two on the lead with 20 laps to go.
With each needing one final pit stop, Mears was the first to peel off. But, slight contact with Herm Johnson cost him several seconds getting into the pit box, while his crew then chose to fill the car with 40 gallons of fuel. Johncock’s team took a different approach, going with a timed stop.
Johncock held the lead after the stops, but Mears was closing quickly in a much faster car. In fact, Mears was closing as much one full second per lap at times!
With two laps left, the gap was down to less than one second. On the white flag, Mears had closed enough to try to draft his way around and the two took the white flag side-by-side to the delight of the fans (announcer Jim McKay indicated that the cheers were louder than cars).
The entered turn one wheel-to-wheel, with Johncock holding Mears off. Mears would continue to push, eventually getting back onto Johncock’s tail as they headed toward the checkered flag.
Mears would try a late dive to the inside, but to no avail. Gordon Johncock won in what was then the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history (.16 seconds).
1. Al Unser Jr. Edges Scott Goodyear After Michael Andretti Falls Out
“Michael Andretti slows down at Indianapolis!” That was the call from Paul Page 11 laps from the end. In one of the coldest races in history, Michael Andretti led 160 of the first 189 laps and was in front Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear by half-a-lap with 11 laps left when his fuel pump failed him on the back straightaway.
Andretti’s car coasted to a halt in the North Chute while Unser Jr. and Goodyear streaked passed. A caution was brought out to remove Andretti’s stricken car; the green flag came back out with seven laps remaining.
Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear then staged a dogfight for the ages. Goodyear tried desperately to set up Unser Jr. for a pass, but Unser used his savvy driving to keep Goodyear at bay.
With one lap left, Goodyear gave it one more try. As the two headed for home, Goodyear was tucked on the gearbox of Unser Jr. and tried a late move to the inside as they approached the finish line. Though he managed to draw even with Unser Jr.’s rear wheels, he came up just short.
Al Unser Jr. won his first Indianapolis 500 by .043 seconds, the closest finish in history. In victory lane, an emotional Unser Jr. expressed his joy and relief in finally winning his first Indy by famously saying “You just don’t know what Indy means.”