NASCAR racing is far and away the most popular motorsport in the United States but for one Sunday each year we all fall in love with open-wheel racing thanks to the Indianapolis 500. The race doesn’t draw the crowds or ratings it once did but it’s still a cultural touchstone. It’s too bad that people’s attention is heading elsewhere since recent years have seen some of the closest and most exciting races ever. Here’s a look at the five closest finishes in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
5. 1997: The Closest Race Nobody Ever Saw
How bad was the weather in 1997? This race was not run on the traditional Sunday of Memorial Day weekend but on both Monday and Tuesday, if that gives you an idea. They tried to run it on Monday after heavy rains on Sunday, but a massive crash on the final pace lap almost made that impossible. By the time the race started, the drivers could only complete 15 laps before the rains started again.
Tuesday’s restart began with two laps of caution and nearly 20 nanoseconds of actual racing before Robby Gordon’s car — and racing suit — caught fire. Things were uneventful after that, until the final 11 laps. A crash brought out the caution flag again, sending leader Jeff Ward into the pits and putting pole sitter Arie Luyendyk into the lead. Luyendyk’s teammate Scott Goodyear was right behind him. The race briefly went green again, then went under caution because of some lingering debris on the track. On lap 197 of 200, the green flag came out but the following lap Tony Stewart (yes, that Tony Stewart) hit the wall and everyone assumed the race would finish under caution.
Everyone, absolutely everyone, was shocked when the green flag came out on lap 199. Luyendyk was the only racer who floored it right away. He won by 0.57 seconds, at the time the second-closest margin of victory ever, but 1997’s edition proved that a race with a close finish wasn’t necessarily an exciting one. The only positive to come out of the event was that very few people actually saw it.
4. 2003: The Brazilians Wax Everyone Except Each Other
What if they held an Indy 500 and nobody showed up to drive in it? The 2003 race wasn’t quite that bad but until the final day of qualifying there wasn’t even a full 33-car field. It wouldn’t have been the first time an Indy 500 started with fewer than 33 cars, but it would have been the first time in 56 years.
The full field ultimately materialized but the race never did. A few minor crashes led to a few lead changes but Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves were in control of the race before it was 75 percent over. Much of the race’s final act happened under caution, though the situation wasn’t quite as bad as 1997’s race. Nine cars were on the lead lap when the final green flag came out with only six laps remaining. While de Ferran held his lead throughout, he only won by 0.229 seconds over Castroneves. Their fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan came in third.
3. 1982: Born in Disaster, Completed in Glory
This race seemed cursed from the opening day of qualifying when Gordon Smiley, trying to make his third Indy field, was killed in a crash. Another crash marred the opening lap of the race as Kevin Cogan, a converted Formula 1 racer in his second Indy 500, swerved suddenly. The chain reaction red-flagged the race and led to four drivers, including Cogan, being unable to continue. After all the drama 1973 winner Gordon Johncock took control. His only serious competition was 1979 winner Rick Mears, running 11 seconds behind after both cars’ final pit stops.
However, Johncock’s car was loose and getting looser due to a lighter than normal fuel load, while Mears was buttoned down tight and flying. Indeed, Mears was cutting away at Johncock’s lead at the rate of almost a full second per lap. With only two laps remaining, Mears was less than a second behind and the track was nearly empty of cars.
The cursed race suddenly became a battle of two veteran drivers with the only question being whether Johncock could stay on line well enough to hold on despite having to fight an ill-handling car. Both cars roared out of turn four side-by-side but Mears couldn’t seal the deal. Johncock won by 0.16 seconds, the closest margin ever at that time. Despite all the mishaps, the showdown between Johncock and Mears made 1982’s race one of the tensest and most thrilling Indianapolis 500s ever.
2. 2006: The Dynasty That Never Was
Eight rookies have won the Indianapolis 500. Marco Andretti, son of Michael and grandson of Mario, was almost the ninth.
The 2006 race looked like it was Dan Wheldon’s to lose, as the late Briton led nearly three-quarters of it. However, Wheldon chose to make a pit stop under green mere moments before a turn two crash put the race under yellow. When the green flag came out again in lap 193, Michael Andretti was leading and Marco was right behind him. Eventually Marco passed his father, who began to run interference for him. However, he couldn’t hold off Sam Hornish Jr., who was closing fast on the younger Andretti.
Racers dream of fighting from behind to win a big race like Indy, so you’d think a last-lap lead change would be a fairly common occurrence. Amazingly, prior to 2006, such a lead change had never happened at all at Indy. But it happened that year. Hornish Jr. shot past Andretti coming out of the final turn and won by 0.0635 seconds. Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indy win remains the only one by a member of the Andretti family. Hornish Jr. hasn’t won a race at a top-level series since 2007.
1. 1992: The One You Shouldn’t Have Slept On
The 1992 edition of the race gave every indication of being an unwatchable dud. A cold front swept through Indiana the night before the race, leaving unseasonably cold temperatures and vicious winds behind it. Drivers had incredible difficulty getting their tires up to racing temperatures.
The pole sitter, Roberto Guerrero, actually spun his car just before the race went green and could not continue. Other crashes and mechanical failures led to only four of the race’s first 21 laps running under green. The slow pace and multiple cautions would continue. Nearly all of the middle-third of the race was run under caution, leaving viewers unsure if they were watching the Indy 500 or a very fast parade.
Even when the green flag came out there wasn’t a lot of excitement. By lap 188 Michael Andretti held an astounding 28-second lead over Scott Goodyear. The race was over and the only real question seemed to be who would finish second, where an intense battle between Goodyear and Al Unser Jr. was going on.
Racing can be a cruel sport because sometimes a dominating driver is taken out of the race by something no one could see coming. On lap 189, Andretti’s fuel pump failed, putting Unser Jr. in the lead. It took five laps of caution to get Andretti’s car off the track, making the end of the race a seven-lap duel between Unser Jr. and Goodyear. Unser Jr. led the entire way but never by a comfortable margin.
Heading into the final straight, the two cars were side-by-side and the race looked too close to call. However, Unser Jr. held on to win by just 0.043 seconds — less than 13 feet at race speeds. A boring, failure-ridden race wound up having the closest, most uncertain finish of all time. It was Unser Jr.’s first of two Indy 500 victories. That was as close as Goodyear would ever get to the bottle of milk.