1987: Al Unser comes from nowhere to win his fourth 500.
Despite being a three-time champion and one of the most successful drivers in Indy 500, Al Unser sat out the first week of practice for the 1987 race without a ride. Penske Racing asked Unser to fill in for injured driver Danny Ongais, and Unser qualified on the eighth row in a back-up car.
The 48-year-old Unser slowly worked his way through the field, finally taking the lead on lap 183. Unser held onto the lead and became the oldest winner in the history of the race. (His brother, Bobby Unser, had previously held the record.) The win gave Unser four Indianapolis 500 victories, tying A.J. Foyt for most all-time.
1991: Rick Mears passes Michael Andretti late, takes his fourth checkered flag.
Wichita native Rick Mears qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1978. The following year he took the checkered flag.
From 1979 to 1991 Mears had a 13-year run unlike anything anyone had ever seen at the Brickyard. Mears won the race a record-tying four times, took pole position a record six times, and posted eight top-five finishes.
His 1991 victory may have been his most impressive.
Mears trailed Michael Andretti late in the race but managed to take the lead briefly when Andretti pitted under yellow. When the race resumed Andretti passed Mears to regain first place. One lap later Mears returned the favor. Mears turned up his turbocharger and held the lead the rest of the way.
1992: Al Unser, Jr. wins his first 500, by the narrowest margin ever.
The 1992 Indianapolis 500 field featured a record ten former champions, including all three four-time winners. But Al Unser, Jr., the defending CART circuit champion and two-time International Race of Champions winner, was not among them.
The younger Unser was leading the 1989 race with two laps to go but touched wheels with eventual winner Emerson Fittipaldi and spun into the turn 3 wall.
With 11 laps to go in the 1992 race, Little Al passed Scott Goodyear to move into second place behind Michael Andretti, who led 160 of the race’s 200 laps. Shortly thereafter, Andretti had car problems and coasted to a halt. Unser took the lead under yellow.
Racing resumed with 7 laps remaining, and Goodyear chased Unser to the finish line. Goodyear never took the lead, but Unser won by a margin of only 0.043 seconds, the smallest margin of victory in Indy 500 history.
Big Al—Al Unser, Sr.—finished third in 1992. Little Al won again in 1994.
2002: Hélio Castroneves follows his win as a rookie with a win as a sophomore.
When Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George ended the race’s relationship with CART in 1994, he also ended its relationship with many of the sport’s top stars. But the Indianapolis 500 remained open-wheel racing’s premiere event and had the potential to create new stars for the fledgling Indy Racing League (IRL).
In 2001 Brazilian rookie Hélio Castroneves won at the Brickyard. It was the second consecutive race won by a rookie. (Colombian rookie Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2000 Indy 500. Montoya was the first rookie winner since Graham Hill in 1966.)
Castroneves returned to Indianapolis the following year and won a second consecutive race, making him the only driver to win his first two Indy 500s. The IRL had a new star. In 2003 Castroneves finished second.
After winning the third season of Dancing With the Stars and being acquitted on six counts of tax evasion, Castroneves won a third Indianapolis 500, in 2009. He is currently second in this year’s IRL standings.
2005: Danica Patrick becomes first woman to lead a lap at Indianapolis.
Danica Patrick today has a reputation for failing to live up to the hype that surrounds her. But in 2005 the hype was justified.
As a rookie in Indianapolis Patrick posted the month’s fastest practice lap. She qualified fourth, the best starting position for a woman at Indianapolis and an impressive accomplishment for a rookie, regardless of gender.
Patrick briefly took the lead early in the race. And, after falling out of the top ten, she worked her way into the lead twice more late in the race. She held the lead going into lap 194 (of 200) when her her team gambled, deciding to dial down the fuel mixture instead of bringing in Patrick for one last pit stop.
The gamble didn’t quite work out. Three drivers passed Patrick, but she finished fourth, and on the lead lap, the best finish for a woman in race history. Patrick would finish in the top 10 at Indianapolis five more times, including a third-place finish in 2009.
Patrick went on to have a good, but not great, IRL career, winning only a single race but finishing in the top 10 of the IRL standings for six consecutive seasons before moving full-time to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series.
2011: Dan Wheldon passes J.R. Hildebrand on the final lap to take the checkered flag, after Panther Racing had dumped Wheldon and replaced him with Hildebrand.
The 2005 race is often remembered as Danica’s coming out party, but the winner of the 2005 Indianapolis 500 was British driver Dan Wheldon. Wheldon finished second in the 2009 and 2010 races but was nonetheless dropped by his team, Panther Racing, before the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Panther replaced Wheldon with rookie driver J.R. Hildebrand.
Wheldon found a ride for Indianapolis and qualified on the second row.
With only a few laps remaining, Hildebrand passed race leaders Bertrand Baguette (who made a pit stop) and Scott Dixon (who was conserving fuel) and appeared to be en route to his first checkered flag. But on the final stretch Hildebrand went high to avoid traffic and hit the wall. Dan Wheldon, who had not led a single lap, overtook his Panther Racing teammate and won his second Indianapolis 500. Hildebrand slid across the finish line and finished in second place.
Months later Wheldon would die in a 15-car accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the final race of the IRL season.
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