Mario Andretti: 1969
This year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is paying tribute to Mario Andretti on the 50th anniversary of his only victory at the famed oval.
Driving the dayglo orange No. 2 STP Oil Treatment Hawk III-Ford for legendary car owner Andy Granatelli, Andretti dominated the second half of the 1969 racing by leading 116 laps with a comfortable margin over second-place finisher Dan Gurney. The famous victory lane kiss planted by an exuberant Granatelli on fellow Italian Andretti summed up the glee felt by the two, who had struggled for years to achieve the win, which could be considered a surprising one.
Granatelli, known as an innovator, gave up on the revolutionary turbine cars that were fast but ultimate failures in 1967 and 1968, opting for a state-of-the-art four-wheel-drive Lotus 64/Ford designed by intrepid designer and Lotus founder, Colin Chapman. Andretti and his team manager Jim McGee were suitably impressed.
Because it featured wings and ground effects in addition to the four-wheel-drive, it was 3 too 4 miles per hour quicker than the second-fastest car during the first week of practice.
“That car was a slug down the straightaway because of the aerodynamic drag,” Andretti told The Star in 1999, “but I could use so much throttle in the corners. I damn near was able to run flat in Turn[s] Two and Four. It handled the bumps real well and I was warming up to it.”
Before he could get too used to it, Andretti crashed it. Fortunately – or, not – the first weekend of qualifying was rained out. On the second weekend, a wheel came off as Andretti exited Turn 4. At that point, Chapman decided to pull all his cars out of the race, leaving the Granatelli team with only a spare they hadn’t intended to run: the Hawk.
Suffering from facial burns sustained in the crash, Andretti put the Hawk in the middle of the front row during qualifying. But, because it was prone to overheating, his mechanics installed an external cooler for the race. However, sanctioning body U.S. Auto Club insisted the cooler be removed since it wasn’t on the car for qualifying. Legend has it that the crew worked all night to hide the cooler behind the seat. They completed the job by 4 a.m. on race day morning.
Pole sitter A.J. Foyt led much of the first half of the race, but fell many laps down due to a lengthy pit stop to repair a broken manifold. Lloyd Ruby then assumed the lead, but when he left the pits with the fuel hose still attached, he ripped a hole in the fuel tank and was forced to retire. Andretti inherited the lead.
But, it wasn’t smooth sailing. During his final pit stop, he knocked over chief mechanic Clint Brawner and almost stalled the engine. Another near-miss almost put him into the Turn 2 wall. The cooler wasn’t keeping the engine temperature in check, his transmission fluid was low and the clutch was slipping. Andretti ran the entire race without changing tires.
Nevertheless, he held a full-lap lead over the rest of the field and finished with a time of 3:11:14.71, the fastest Indianapolis 500 up to that date, breaking the previous record by nearly five minutes – thanks in part to the lack of cautions during the second half, which let the field run under green conditions for the last 110 laps.
Emerson Fittipaldi: 1989
A much more hard-fought victory was won 20 years later by another foreign driver. In 1989, Mario Andretti was driving for Newman Hass Racing with teammate and son, Michael. But it was another former Formula One World Champion who ended up in Victory Circle at the end of the 73rd Indianapolis 500, still considered one of the most dramatic finishes ever.
Brazilian and two-time F1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi drove the single car fielded by Patrick Racing. Longtime owner Pat Patrick had announced his impending retirement at the end of the 1989 season, at which time Fittipaldi would move to Penske Racing, taking his Malboro sponsorship with him. As part of the deal, Patrick Racing was given the Penske PC-18 chassis and Penske Racing received enough sponsorship money to run a third car for Al Unser Sr. Ironically, none of the Penske Team’s cars finished the race; all retired with mechanical issues – marking the only time in the 1980s that the team failed to score a top five finish.
Fittipaldi qualified on the outside of the front row, but took the lead in dramatic fashion in the first turn. He led 156 of the first 195 laps and seemed to own the day. Michael Andretti passed him on Lap 154, relinquishing the lead back to Fittipaldi when his engine let go.
Gambling on a fuel mileage strategy, third-place Al Unser Jr. erased Fittipaldi’s sizeable margin during a caution on Lap 181. An intense battle ensued, with the two cars nearly touching wheels as they worked their way through traffic. On Lap 196, Unser Jr. took the lead in Turn 3 and stretched out a gap due to having lighter fuel tanks.
Fittipaldi wasn’t giving up. Slower traffic allowed him to catch Unser Jr. and on Lap 199, the pair encountered lapped traffic. Boxed in by back markers, Unser Jr. rode a high line, allowing Fittipaldi to get the inside line in Turn 2. Maintaining those positions, they entered the corner side-by-side as the crowd rose to its feet and roared.
Fittipaldi dove below the white line in Turn 3 to try to beat Unser Jr. Taking the corner flat-out, Fittipaldi said he never lifted. The back end of his car stepped out slightly, making contact with Unser Jr.’s car. Fittipaldi was able to gather it up, but Unser Jr. spun into the outside wall in Turn 3.
“Two guys went into Turn 3 and only one was going to come out,” Unser Jr later told the media. “It wasn’t me.”
Unser Jr walked to the edge of the track with the intention of flipping off Fittipaldi, he admitted, but as he thought about the situation, he reconsidered.
“He wanted to win; he didn’t do anything intentionally.”
Unser Jr. clapped and gave his rival two thumbs up as Fittipaldi drove by, under caution and behind the pace car, on the final lap.
The first foreign-born winner since 1966, Fittipaldi finished two laps ahead of second-place Unser Jr. for the biggest margin of victory since 1984, marking only the second time since 1967 that the winner was alone on the lead lap at the finish.
Fittipaldi was the first Indy 500 winner to earn $1 million (officially, $1,001,600) and was the fourth driver since 1979 to win the Indy 500 and the CART championship in the same season.
Howdy Wilcox: 1919
Going back in history, the the first 500 after a two-year hiatus due to World War I (during which time the facility was used as a training ground for military pilots) was won by Hoosier Howdy Wilcox in a Peugeot owned by Speedway co-founders Carl Fisher and James Allison. This was the fifth consecutive year that a European manufacturer won the race, and the third victory for Peugeot, which also won in 1913 with Jules Goux and in 1916 with Dario Resta.
Ray Keech: 1929
Ray Keech was known as a board track racer who set a land speed record at the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1928. Having finished fourth the year before, in 1929 Keech inherited the lead on Lap 158 after Louis Meyer’s car lost oil pressure. He drove his rear-wheel-drive Simplex Piston Ring Special on to victory, but died 16 days later in an accident at the Altoona 200-Mile Race in Pennsylvania.
Wilbur Shaw: 1939
Running in the top five all day, Wilbur Shaw powered his Maserati to the lead on Lap 150 and stayed at the front of the field all the way to the checkered flag. It was his second of three wins at the Speedway, a track he is best remembered for later saving from demolition after it had become dilapidated due to a racing hiatus during World War II. Shaw brokered the purchase from Eddie Rickenbacker by Tony Hulman and was named president of the Speedway from 1945 until his death in 1954.
Shaw was the second three-time winner and the first to win back-to-back Indy 500s (1939 and 1940).
Bill Holland: 1949
A runner-up the previous two years, Pennsylvania native Bill Holland beat teammate Mauri Rose for the victory in 1929. It was team owner Lou Moore’s third consecutive Indy 500 win. Despite team orders to hold position, Rose challenged Holland until his magneto failed. Rose, the 1947 winner for the same team, was fired for his actions.
Rodger Ward: 1959
Former World War II pilot and midget driver Rodger Ward scored the first of his two Indy 500 victories in 1959 for the Leader Card Racers team with legendary mechanic A.J. Watson. It was the first year all cars were required to have roll bars.
Rick Mears: 1979
In his second Indy 500, Rick Mears started from pole and claimed the first of his four Indianapolis wins, driving for Team Penske.
After USAC denied entries from some of the CART teams, a court injunction was issued, providing for a special qualifying session after the field of 33 had been set. Two cars were added to the field. Thirty-five cars started – the most since 1933.
For the first time, the pace car was used during caution periods.
Kenny Brack: 1999
The 1998 IRL champion, Swede Kenny Brack drove for AJ Foyt when he won the 1999 Indy 500, beating Robby Gordon, who ran out of fuel within sight of the white flag.
Brack switched to CART in 2000, driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, returning to the IRL in 2003 with the team. After suffering a near-fatal injury at Texas Motor Speedway that year, he set the fastest time for the 2005 Indy 500, but retired from driving after a mechanical failure ended his race.
Helio Castroneves: 2009
The flashy Brazilian won his third Indy 500 victory from pole position, driving for Team Penske. He was the first foreign-born three-time winner and is one of five drivers with back-to-back wins (2001 and 2002). He has four poles at Indy, including two back-to-back (2009 and 2010).
Nicknamed Spiderman due to his habit of climbing the fence after a victory, Castroneves nearly didn’t make the show in 2009, having been temporarily replaced on the team by Will Power while he faced federal tax evasion charges.