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Indianapolis 500 retrospective: the run-up to 100

INDIANAPOLIS — In the lead-up to the 100th running of the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” The Associated Press interviewed the 27 living race winners on topics ranging from the greatest driver to most memorable moment.

Their answers to the eight questions ahead of the 2016 race provide a glimpse into the history and mystique of the storied race. The story, originally sent May 27, 2016, is below, has been updated with comments from the four winners since 2016.

Greatest driver

“It’s probably the most difficult question you can ask about Indy,” said 1998 winner Eddie Cheever, when asked to identify the greatest driver. He went on to list the three four-time winners as the leading candidates.

A.J. Foyt ultimately received the most votes among former winners, but Rick Mears and Al Unser received plenty of support in what proved to be the most difficult question on the list.

“I’m just glad to be part of the discussion,” said Foyt, who along with Mario Andretti declined to answer.

“I thought I was the best,’” quipped 1963 winner Parnelli Jones. “Obviously Foyt has the best track record of anybody. There’s not really one. A bunch of them.”

Greatest race

The crash-filled 1992 race that came down to Al Unser Jr. holding off Scott Goodyear in the closest finish in history was chosen in 2016 by the living champions as the greatest race.

Michael Andretti appeared on his way to a long-awaited win, only for his fuel pump to fail in the final laps. Little Al held off Goodyear in a frantic final seven laps, prompting his father Al Unser Sr. to call him taking the checkered flag “one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Other fantastic finishes included Little Al’s duel and defeat to Emerson Fittipaldi in the ‘89 race; the 2006 race when Sam Hornish Jr. passed Michael Andretti within sight of the finish; the 1982 battle between Mears and Gordon Johncock; and the 2011 race won by the late Dan Wheldon.

Two of the four winners since the 2016 survey by AP also picked the 2014 race won by Ryan Hunter-Reay as one of the greatest races in Indy 500 history.

Memorable moments

When asked for their most memorable moment, the majority of past winners recalled their earliest memories — not necessarily when they reached victory lane but when they first set eyes on the track.

“The biggest thing I really remember was sitting up in the grandstands of Turn 1, and you are just enjoying the time with my mom and dad and the beautiful weather and watching cars,” Hornish said. “One of those was (Danny) Sullivan spinning and winning it (in 1985). So that wasn’t bad.”

For many other former champions, winning the race remains their moment second-to-none.

“No question, there’s nothing that can match seeing the checkered flag,” said 1969 winner Mario Andretti. “It’s just a huge weight off your shoulders because you know how important it is to your career.”

Biggest innovations

Ten former winners singled out safety measures as the race’s greatest innovation.

It makes sense when you consider rear-view mirrors made their debut at the Indy 500, and seat belts were introduced in 1922. Disc brakes, SAFER barriers and other advancements also made their mark at Indy.

“The No. 1 greatest is safety,” said 1996 champion Buddy Lazier. “You can argue everything from seatbelts to disc brakes filtered down to the auto industry and now, every single American car enjoys them.”

In terms of racing, the SAFER barrier was a game-changer at major speedways.

“Anyone who has ever hit the SAFER barrier and the concrete barrier has felt the difference,” three-time champion Dario Franchitti said. “It’s saved a lot of lives and prevented many injuries.”

Greatest traditions

The milk given to winners in victory lane dates to 1936, when Louis Meyer professed to drink it to refresh himself on hot days. Photographers captured him guzzling from a glass bottle and the tradition has stuck.

Thirteen of the 27 living winners called it the greatest tradition.

“It’s so unique,” said 2004 champion Buddy Rice. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else.”

Seven former winners chose the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” as the greatest tradition, while others chose the Borg-Warner Trophy and the iconic three-wide starting grid.

“It was always my favorite part of pre-race,” Franchitti said of the race’s unofficial anthem. “I can neither confirm nor deny that I used to sing along whilst sitting in my car.”

Best bridesmaid

The question of best driver never to win the Indy 500 finally made Michael Andretti a winner.

After so many near-misses during his career, Andretti received 17 of the 27 votes. Lloyd Ruby received four, while others mentioned were Tony Stewart, Roberto Guerrero and Alex Zanardi.

“Being the best driver to have not won Indy is an unfortunate honor,” Andretti told the AP. “I’d much rather be one of the winners and not be honored in this category at all.”

Since Mario Andretti won his lone race in ‘69, the patriarch, his sons Michael and Jeff, nephew John and grandson Marco have come up empty time and time again.

“Was he capable of winning it? You’re darn right he was,” Mario Andretti said. “So he can be proud.”

Greatest rivalry

When it came to deciding the greatest rivalry, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser received the most attention, though just who their rivals happened to be was another subject of debate.

The clear winner among past champions was Foyt-Andretti. But Foyt versus the field wasn’t far behind.

“The one I paid attention to was A.J. and myself,” Andretti said. “I lived it.”

Or, as 1986 winner Bobby Rahal explained: “The greatest rivalry had to be A.J. Foyt against anyone else. Super Tex was the yardstick in the ‘60s and 70’s, and no matter who else was there, the man to beat was A.J.”

Top VIPs

It makes sense that the winners would chose Tony Hulman as the most important non-driver in Indy 500 history. The Terre Haute businessman saved the speedway and its iconic race. He purchased it after it was virtually abandoned during World War II, pumping money into the property.

The only other individual who received nearly the same amount of attention was Roger Penske, whose teams have won 18 times, including in 2018 and 2019.

Penske this January completed his purchase of the speedway from the Hulman-George family and in addition to investing millions in capital improvement, he’s guiding the IndyCar Series through the coronavirus pandemic.

Many owners have cited Penske’s leadership in keeping the series afloat while focusing on the Indy 500, which will be held in August after it was moved from Memorial Day weekend for he first time since 1946.


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