Iindy Countdown:/I Five 500S
May 25, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Competitors from CART, NASCAR and the Indy Racing Northern Light Series have come together to fight for the right to have their face featured on the Borg-Warner trophy, but only one will have the honor.
In other words, the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500 is expected to be one of the most memorable in a long time.
There are plenty of memorable moments of past Indy 500s, and 2001 will have to be pretty special to top them. Here are some of the highlights that this year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing will have to live up to.
Gordon Johncock vs. Rick Mears: The year was 1982, and a young, lightning-fast Rick Mears is gunning for his second Indy 500 win in three years while the soft-spoken veteran Gordon Johncock tries for his second win in 18 starts.
Eventually, it would come down to the final 14 laps of the 66th running of the Indy 500.
Johncock came in to the pits for the final time on Lap 186, stayed in for 13 seconds and bolted out, 11 seconds ahead of the stalking Mears. The comfortable margin shrunk to 6.4 seconds on Lap 193, and by Lap 196, Mears is just three second behind the No. 20 of Johncock.
The final lap, however, is the one etched into fans’ memories. Mears continued his charge and was right behind Johncock as the white flag is displayed. Mears, driving for Roger Penske, pulls alongside Johncock on the front straight, but Johncock moves down and blocks Mears entering Turn 1.
Mears falls back a bit and regroups on the backstretch. When the two approach Turn 3, Mears catches Johncock again, but Johncock holds him off again. This time, Mears stays right with Johncock and tries another pass on the outside on the exit of Turn 4. Johncock drifts up, and Mears darts to the inside, setting up a drag race to the checkered flag.
Johncock wins the race to the finish by .16 seconds, then the closest finish in Indy 500 history. The margin of victory represents less than a car length.
Danny Sullivan’s Spin and Win: In 1984, rookie Roberto Guerrero spun his car on the exit of Turn 2 and went on to finish second to Rick Mears. Guerrero won the Rookie of the Year title.
Not to be outdone, Danny Sullivan spun just after passing leader Mario Andretti in 1985 and went on to win the Indy 500 in his third try. It all happened on Lap 120.
Sullivan caught Andretti on the frontstretch and the two race side by side into Turn 1. In the short chute between turns 1 and 2, Sullivan gets around Andretti but loses control of his car. Sullivan gets out of shape right in front of Andretti, completes a perfect 360-degree spin and ends up pointing the right direction. Andretti, just inches away from Sullivan when the spin begins, sprints away.
“For some reason, I thought there were only 12 laps left,” Sullivan said. “That’s why I was anxious to get by Mario.”
Forty laps after his close call, Sullivan tries an identical pass of Andretti in the same turn but completes it successfully.
Sullivan would go on to win the Indy 500 title for Roger Penske.
Guerrero’s Choke: In his first three Indy 500 starts, Colombian Roberto Guerrero finished second, third and fourth. Many predicted a win for the likable newcomer in 1987, when he joins Vince Granatelli’s team and qualifies fifth fastest.
Thanks to a patented Andretti mechanical failure, Guerrero appeared to be cruising to victory when he assumed the lead on Lap 177.
Guerrero nearly laps Al Unser Sr., who is driving for Roger Penske. On Lap 182, Guerrero ducks into the pits for a final dose of fuel that will get him to the finish. As he tries to exit his pit box, however, Guerrero stalls his engine. The quick-thinking crew push-starts Guerrero, but Guerrero stalls again, this time a fair distance from his pit.
The Granatelli crew again retrieves Guerrero and gets him going, but by this time Unser Sr. has taken the lead and lapped him.
Guerrero has one final charge left. On Lap 190, Guerrero passes Unser Sr. to get his lap back. The yellow flag flies a lap later, allowing Guerrero to line up six cars behind Unser Sr. on the re-start. Racing resumes on Lap 196, but Guerrero is unable dispose of the lapped cars between his No. 4 and Unser’s No. 25.
Instead of win No. 1 for Guerrero, Unser Sr. collects win No. 4, joining A.J. Foyt as a four-time winner.
Al Unser Jr. vs. Emerson Fittipaldi: The 1989 Indy 500 will best be known for the final, 10-lap duel between second-generation driver Al Unser Jr. and former world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi held the advantage over Unser Jr. by more than a second as the two entered the final 25 miles of the race, but Unser Jr. was closing. Turning laps at more than 220 mph, Unser Jr. cuts his deficit to a half-second by Lap 192. On Lap 195, Unser Jr. works his way around Fittipaldi on the backstretch on Lap 195.
Fittipaldi stays with Unser Jr. until the two are on the backstretch on Lap 199 of the 200 laps. As they enter Turn 3, Fittipaldi goes under Unser Jr. but can’t hold his line. Fittipaldi slides up into Unser Jr., sending Unser Jr. into a spin that ends with him hitting the wall and sliding back across the track into the grass.
Unser Jr. remains with his car, and as Fittipaldi comes back by on the way to the win, Unser Jr. gives him a thumbs-up salute.
Closest Finish in History: The 1992 Indy 500 is not memorable as a whole, but the finish to the crashfest makes up for it.
Michael Andretti dominated for much of the day, leading 160 laps, but on Lap 189 he dropped out with fuel pressure problems, handing over the lead to Al Unser Jr.
The yellow flag waves for Andretti’s stopped car, and the green comes out again on Lap 194 with Unser Jr. in the lead and Scott Goodyear, who started last, close behind.
Goodyear is all over Unser Jr. for the final laps of the race, and on the last lap, Goodyear moves to the inside of Unser Jr. after Unser Jr. wiggles coming out of Turn 4.
Goodyear has the momentum on his side, but it’s not enough. Unser Jr. holds on to win by .043 seconds, the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.
The 2001 Indianapolis 500 may not match these moments, but the anticipation has reached a level not experienced in many years. Who knows, maybe the race will exceed the hype.
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