Saturday, May 14, 2011

Indy 500 History to be Made This Month

The Indianapolis 500 is full of history dating back to the first "International Sweepstakes" in 1911. So who will make history this month? WIll Helio Castroneves join the ranks of 4-time winners? Will a newcomer steal the show? Or will a little team, ala Bryan Herta's "Two Men & A Truck" team last year, squeak in at the last minute on bump day to oust one of the big boys? So much drama is likely to be packed into the seven days of practice and two days of qualifying that predicting what will happen with arguably the strongest driver and team lineup in many years would seem foolish. One this is certain:  some very good drivers are not going to make this race. After all, even Roger Penske has felt the sting of not qualifying for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And while it is said that you cannot win a race on the first lap, the biggest challenge this year is going to be just making the race as at least seven drivers and teams are going to pack up and go home bitterly disappointed after 6:00 p.m. May 22nd.

With that said, this post is dedicated to some other historical tidbits from a personal perspective before the practice action begins in earnest today. The weather forecast is not favorable for opening weekend, and my schedule for going to the track this week is going to be erratic with teaching and graduate school, so I thought a look back at some Indy milestones would help set the tone for the month. Here are some big moments from past months of May:

1946 - 65 years ago Anton "Tony" Hulman bought the Speedway and resurrected it following years of neglect during World War II and staged the first post war race. This race started the current Hulman-George era of Speedway ownership. Tom Carnegie, the public address system announcer with the booming voice and famous sayings who passed away earlier this year, was hired by Tony to man the mic and did so in dramatic fashion continuously through 2006.

Indy 500 legend AJ Foyt

1961 - 50 years ago AJ Foyt won his first Indy 500 after a stirring duel with the late Eddie Sachs, who had to make a late pit stop for tires. Sadly, Sachs was killed just three years later in the 500 where AJ won his second Indy race, the last one won by a roadster. Another Indy legend, Parnelli Jones, was rookie of the year that year.  AJ has gone on to become Indy's first 4-time winner as a driver and first former winner to also win as a team owner. To honor his accomplishments, the Speedway selected AJ to drive the pace car before this year's 500 and replace the dubious selection of Donald Trump who was ousted by fan outrage as much as his own busy schedule. Tom Carnegie is also being honored by the Speedway opening weekend, and rightly so.

1971 - 40 years ago Al Unser Sr. won his second straight Indy 500 in one of the most famous cars at Indianapolis, and one that every kid had to have in their diecast collection:  the Johnny Lightning Special. The year before Al won his first 500 and it was also the first 500 I attended, as a birthday gift from my Dad.

1976 - 35 years ago Johnny Rutherford won the shortest Indy 500 ever run after rain brought out the red flag just two laps past halfway. This race was the first of my college years and I remember huddling under a tarp in the back of a friend's pickup truck in the infield of Turn 3 waiting for the rain to stop. At one point it looked like the track would get dry then it rained again and the race was called. This 500 also started my consecutive string of Indy 500's that I hope to continue this year, God willing.

Turn 3 Indy infield insanity

1981 - 30 years ago controversy broiled for months after the 500 when Bobby Unser initially took the checkered flag but was later penalized for a blend line violation coming out of the pits and the win was given to Mario Andretti, which would have been Mario's second 500 win. After months of legal wrangling, Unser was restored as the winner and was able to retain his 3rd win after all and deny Mario a second Indy victory. It was another of many close calls for the Andretti family as history would prove out. This race was three years before I started as a photographer with United Press International at Indy but I still had a camera handy for shots like the one at left.

Bobby Rahal in his Budweiser gear at Indy

1986 -25 years ago Bobby Rahal won his only 500 just a few days before his team owner Jim Trueman died of cancer. Rahal snookered Kevin Cogan on the final restart with two laps to go and this race still stands as the closest 1-2-3 finish in history as Rick Mears trailed Cogan in third. Bobby's son Graham Rahal is of course now a budding Indycar star and has already won in the IZOD Indycar Series. Bobby has also returned to Indy as a team owner the last few years and will try to join AJ Foyt as a former winning driver who also has been able to collect a Borg Warner trophy as a team owner.

Emerson Fittipaldi pits at Indy 1991

1991 - 20 years ago Rick Mears became 4-time winner after an epic battle with Michael Andretti. Late in the race Michael had passed Mears in Turn 1 for the lead but Mears came back on the very next lap and made a textbook pass on the OUTSIDE through Turn 1 to retake the lead and then cruised to the win. I was shooting in the pits that year for the Indianapolis Star and had a great vantage point for the closing laps after all the pit stops were done.

1996 - 15 years ago Buddy Lazier won his only 500 and did so with broken back! It was also the first race under the Indy Racing League banner after the acrimonious and painful split with CART. Still using the 1995 spec turbo cars, I will never forget the morning practice session on pole day that year as Arie Luyendyk ran over 239 mph for the fastest unofficial lap ever run at the Speedway. Scott Brayton went on to win the pole that day and was tragically killed in practice later in the month, hitting the wall in Turn 2 by the suites directly across from my normal shooting position that year. Thankfully, I was not at the track that day as I did not become a motorsports photographer to shoot those kinds of pictures. The missing man formation to start that year's 500 is still one of my most poignant memories of Indy. God rest your soul Scotty. 

Juan Pablo Montoya won Indy
 as a rookie in his only Indy 500

2001 - 10 years ago Helio Castroneves won the first of his three Indy 500's as Roger Penske led the CART teams which had started to come back to Indy. Helio's win followed Juan Pablo Montoya's dominating win the year before for Chip Ganassi and as everyone knows, the battle at the top in Indycar has been consistently fought by Penske and Ganassi ever since.

Sam Hornish Jr attacks Turn 1
 during Indy practice in 2006

2006 - 5 years ago Sam Hornish won his only Indy 500 in dramatic fashion with pass of Marco Andretti coming off of the 4th turn on the final lap to add more heartache at Indy for the Andretti family. I was shooting in Turn 1 for this race and when the white flag came out, I thought there was no way Sam could overcome Marco's lead and I was shocked to hear he had made the pass at the yard of bricks. Sam has been one of my favorite Indycar drivers ever since he raced for PDM in 2001 and I would love to see him come back to Indy. 

Mike Conway flies at Indy in 2010

2010 - Last year Dario Franchitti got his second Indy 500 win and another one for Ganassi. The race ended horribly for Mike Conway right in front of me but thankfully Mike is becoming one of the best comeback stories of 2011 as he has already won a race this season for Andretti Autosport and could be a real darkhorse to win Indy. Of course you know Dario will be a contender to join Helio and Bobby Unser as 3-time winners in the Hulman-George era. 

If it's May, this must be Indianapolis, and my friends and family all  know where I will be most of the time this month. This is also my birthday month which falls right around race day every year, so I like to joke that it's nice that 300,000 people come out each year to help me celebrate. It is a year of celebration for the Indy 500 after all, and it is going to a very special month indeed as someone, maybe several someones, are going to make history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. See you at the track! 

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