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Shadows of the Speedway

Illustration for article titled Shadows of the Speedway

On 99 occasions, men and women from around the world have ventured to the 2.5 mile speedway in Indianapolis, searching for a prize many consider greater than any other. Hundreds have come and gone, but only a select few have cast their shadow over the speedway, for all those who came after to follow in.


Ray Haroun was the first, opting for a rear view mirror over a spotter and winning in front of 80,000 on that day in 1911. Tom Milton was the first to score two and not long after, Louis Meyer reached three.

Over the years, the world came to Indy; Formula One stars like Jim Clark and Graham Hill set examples for other international racers to follow. Future F1 winners like Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya would make their names at the speedway before heading to the world stage.


At the same time, the event has had no shortage of American heroes. There’s the four-time champions club: A.J. Foyt, the passionate driver turned owner who is perhaps the speedway’s most popular figure. Then came Al Unser, Sr. – a man who led more laps at IMS than any other. Rick Mears, The Captain’s man, who refused to let a crash in the 80’s keep him from success. But upon achieving their fourth victories, both Unser and Mears added to another story.

“Andretti is slowing” became the second most famous sentence in American auto racing. Unser won his fourth following mechanical failure for Mario in 1987. In 1991, Rick Mears equaled the record for most wins after a dramatic duel with Michael. When it looked like the curse would finally end, it was Michael’s son – a rookie – who passed him with three laps left. However, it was not to be. Sam Hornish, Jr. passed Marco in the final half-mile to win by the third closest margin, ever. It’s been 47 years since an Andretti victory.


Hornish belongs to a club of a different kind: drivers who have succeeded at the highest level for Roger Penske, whose cars have won on 16 occasions. The list reads like an honor roll: Mark Donahue, Big Al, Little Al, Uncle Bobby, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Emmerson Fittipaldi, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Individual performances are there to be admired as well. There was Tom Sneva winning in 1983, exacting revenge on Penske for dumping him. In 1996, Buddy Lazier returned two months after breaking his back to drink the milk. 2011’s finish was unlike any other. As J.R. Hildebrand looked set for victory, his car slammed the turn four wall on the final lap. As he slid against the barrier, Dan Wheldon – in a one-off entry – took advantage to win his second Borg-Warner. Wheldon, like the 68 others who have shared the glory, will live forever through the triumph they’ve experienced at Indianapolis.


The participants in this year’s race will look to the past in order to create history of their own. Will Power and Simon Pagenaud look to write their name on the Penske honor roll, while young Americans such as Conor Daly and Alex Rossi try to become new heroes. James Hinchcliffe looks to complete a remarkable come back of his own, a year after nearly losing his life.

Down the front straight, three-wide at 230 miles an hour, slipstreaming into turn three, and gliding to a perfect stop in pit-lane, these drivers will do everything in search for the ultimate prize. Daring themselves and challenging danger in pursuit of glory, 33 will drive through the shadows of the past, but only one will emerge into an eternal spotlight.


100 years of history. Countless memories. 200 laps to be remembered at the end of the next century.

The greatest spectacle in racing: the Indianapolis 500.

Follow the author on Twitter @dannycatsteve or email him:


If you enjoyed this, check out my Bathurst essays:

No Mountain is Too High

Dreams of Fighting

Why Bathurst is The Great Race

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