Indy 500 2012: The 10 Greatest Late Passes in Indy 500 History

James Walker@@JamesWalker90Analyst IMay 22, 2012

Indy 500 2012: The 10 Greatest Late Passes in Indy 500 History

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    The Indy 500 is recognised as one of the biggest challenges in motorsport, and coveted as the biggest prize in North American racing.

    Consisting of 200 laps and 500 miles in length, it has been dominated by individual drivers in the past. Jules Goux once won the race with 13 minutes lead over second-placed driver Spencer Wishart. Similarly Rick Mears defeated Roberto Guerrero by two laps in 1984, with Al Unser beating A.J. Foyt by a similar margin in 1967.

    Sometimes however, the field is more closely matched.

    Despite the incredible distance, physical demands, mental challenges and differences in strategy, the lead cars can be little more than a few seconds apart in the dying stages of the race. An overtake can claim glory from the lead driver on the cusp of a hard-fought victory.

    These are the encounters that fans remember; when a driver passes the leader late in the race to steal glory. They cause controversy, shock, heartbreak and ecstasy in one decisive motion.  

    This slideshow is a compilation of the greatest 10 late passes in Indy 500 history, each of which enabled to bravest drivers to win.

1912: Indianapolis Native Wins

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    In 1912 Ralph DePalma drove the most dominant performance in the history of the race, but it was not enough to secure him victory. The Italian-American was passed by 22-year-old Joe Dawson with two laps to go.

    DePalma arrived at the 1912 Indy 500 on the back of four consecutive AAA national dirt track championships and lived up to his sterling reputation by leading 196 laps, a record that still stands to this day.

    Disaster struck in the form of a mechanical failure on turn four of Lap 198. Joe Dawson was five laps down when De Palma’s car coasted to a stop but was able to eradicate the five-lap deficit and overtake with two laps to go. DePalma and his riding mechanic tried in vain to push their car down the front straightaway, but their efforts were unrewarded.   

    DePalma led all but the first two and last two laps of the race. Joe Dawson was the youngest driver to win the Indy 500 until Troy Ruttman won in 1952.

1967: A.J. Foyt Wins a Third Indy 500

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    "Did he get through? Did he get through? Did he get through? There he is! There he is!"

    A cacophony of enthusiasm and awe from public address announcer Tom Carnegie had immortalised one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of the Indy 500. A.J. Foyt meandered through a four-car crash on turn four of the final lap to claim his third victory at the Brickyard.

    Earlier in the race, Parnelli Jones had rocketed to an early lead, only to be hindered by a continuous string of misfortune. Heavy rain brought the race to a premature end on Lap 18, forcing organisers to reschedule the remainder until Wednesday.

    Jones led nearly the entire race and amassed a one-lap lead over Foyt until a $6 transition bearing in the gearbox failed. Foyt passed him with three laps remaining.

1982: So Close for Rick Mears

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    An IndyCar classic.

    Gordon Johncock had amassed a substantial lead over second-placed driver Rick Mears, but a handling problem later on made the lead car a sitting target. Mears got into Johncock’s slipstream on the final lap before being ruthlessly blocked from making a pass.

    Mears earned another chance to steal the victory and moved side by side with Johncock’s car on the final straightaway, but his desperate push went unfulfilled. Johncock won the race by .16 seconds.

    The same race gained infamy for a crash before the start. Kevin Cogan, starting in the middle of Row 1, swerved into A.J. Foyt to trigger a domino effect of collisions. Foyt veered left into Mario Andretti, creating a crash which forced Cogan, Foyt, Andretti, Dale Whittington and Roger Mears out of the race.

    It may not strictly count as a pass, but sometimes fantastic defensive moves deserve to be held in the same esteem as a heroic pass.

1986: Bobby Rahal Wins

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    With 14 laps to go, there were just four drivers remaining on the lead lap: Bobby Rahal, Kevin Cogan, Rick Mears and Michael Andretti.

    Rahal seized the lead from Mears going into turn three with 13 laps remaining; Cogan jumped into second on the outside of turn four. The following lap Rahal encountered traffic which prompted Cogan to leap around him for the lead, amassing a three-second advantage by lap 194.

    Cogan’s hard work was eradicated on with six laps to go when Arie Luyendyk spun exiting turn four, bringing out the yellow flag.  The green flag was waved with two laps to go and Rahal had teed himself up sublimely for a shot at the lead, clearing Cogan at turn one.

    Cogan was unable to mount a fight back; instead, he had to defend from Rick Mears in third place, allowing Rahal to claim glory.

1987: Al Unser Sr. Wins a Fourth Indy 500

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    All indications suggested the Mario Andretti’s name was engraved on the Borg Warner trophy before the 1987 event had even started.  

    Mario had dominated qualifying and practice sessions and delivered upon the early promise by dominating much of the race. There was growing expectation of a second career victory for Andretti, but Roberto Guerrero passed him on Lap 177 following an engine failure.  

    Five laps late, upon exiting the pits from a scheduled stop, Guerrero stalled his car allowed Al Unser Sr. to pass with 18 laps to go and secure victory.

    Unser’s victory is considered to be one of the biggest upsets in Indy 500 history. At the beginning of May, the American had no ride and no sponsorship money which forced him to sit out of practice sessions. A concussion to Danny Ongais following a crash in practice prompted Roger Penske offer Unser the vacant spot.

1989: Emerson Fittipaldi

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    The 1989 race seemed to belong to Emerson Fittipaldi until a race restart on Lap 185 eradicated a substantial lead.

    Following the restart, Emmo was quick to build a three-second lead over second-placed driver Al Unser Jr., who would lap third-placed driver Raul Boesel.

    When Unser got past Boesel the American dramatically ate into Fittipaldi’s lead, but there were concerns that his car did not have enough fuel in the tank to complete race distance.  

    Despite running on fumes, Unser passed Fittipaldi on Lap 196, but more overtaking drama was to follow.

    On Lap 198 Unser once again found himself hindered by backmarkers, which allowed his Brazilian counterpart to strike back. On Lap 199, the drivers approached turn three side-by-side. Suddenly Emmo’s car drifted slightly to the right and guided Unser’s car into the wall.

    Fittipaldi went on to the win the race and was congratulated by the American, who accepted the collision as a racing incident. The Brazilian was the first foreign winner since Britain’s Graham Hill in 1966.

1999: Gordon Wins

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    Race leader Robby Gordon entered the pits on Lap 164, hoping it would be his last. He assumed the lead when the rest of the leaders pitted under caution between Laps 169 and 171.

    Desperate to save fuel, Gordon hoped to open up a sustainable gap to conserve fuel later in the race. The plan almost worked, but for an audacious surge from Kenny Brack.

    With two laps remaining, Brack found himself 1.5 seconds off the lead, with Gordon still conserving fuel.

    As the duo approached the white flag, Gordon’s car ran out of fuel and was forced to enter the pit lane. Brack passed unchallenged and took victory.

2002: Castroneves Controversy

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    Tomas Scheckter, son of former Formula 1 World Champion Jody, dominated the race in 2002 until he crashed on Lap 170, gifting the lead to Helio Castroneves.

    Despite being low on form, Castroneves, the defending champion, tried desperately to hold off a marauding charge from Paul Tracy in second place.

    The Brazilian’s efforts were in vain and Tracey passed Castroneves’ Penske on turn three of Lap 199. Controversy immediately followed.  

    A crash between Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier at the turn-two wall brought out a yellow flag at the precise moment that Tracy made his pass. Castroneves was found to be marginally ahead of Tracy at the time the yellow came out, which, in accordance to IndyCar rules, awarded the Brazilian the lead.

    To this day, Paul Tracy protests the decision. Many people agree with his appeal.

2006: Luck Evades Another Andretti

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    For the first time in the history of the Indy 500, a driver made a successful pass for the lead on the final lap.

    Sam Hornish Jr. overtook rookie Marco Andretti on the final straight, with 450 feet to go. There was .0635 seconds between the two cars when they crossed the finish line—the second-closest finish in history.

    Marco Andretti assumed the lead with three laps to go following a pass on his father for the lead, which led commentators to assume the race was all but over.

    Dan Wheldon had previously led 148 laps of the race, but a punctured tyre forced him to make an early pit stop and compromised his chances of victory.

2011: Dan Wheldon's Last Win

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    J.R. Hildebrand was metres away from winning the race with three wheels. An error of judgement made the rookie driver veer into the wall of the very last corner of the race. Dan Wheldon seized the victory to claim his last ever career win, and second at Indy.

    By Lap 190 the race was a four-way battle between Scott Dixon, Bertrand Baguette, Wheldon and Hildebrand. Baguette and Dixon seized the early initiative, but both were hindered by low fuel. Baguette was forced to pit with three laps to go, while Dixon opted to stay out at a reduced pace to conserve fuel.

    Poor strategy handed the initiative to Hildebrand and Wheldon. Hildebrand seemed to have the race won, but an error on the final corner saw him make heavy impact with the wall, dislodging his front right tyre.

    The momentum of the impact carried the American’s car over the line, but Wheldon passed with 1,000 feet to go.