Every Memorial Day, some of the greatest racer drivers from around the world converge on Indianapolis for the running of auto racing’s greatest spectacle, the Indy 500. The race has been contested 101 times since 1911 and won by some of the greatest drivers in all of motorsports. Andretti, Foyt, Rahal, and Mears are just some of the names that echo through the grandstands at Indy to this day. You can ask any driver on the Indycar circuit what they’d rather have, an overall season championship or a an Indy 500 win. You’d get the same answer from everyone — they’d trade it all for an Indy 500 win.
There have been countless incredible moments in the race’s history but the following ones still stand out to this day. These are the 15 greatest moment in Indy 500 history.
15. Milk is for Winners? – 1936
Every edition of Trivial Pursuit has the question “What drink is enjoyed by winners of the Indianapolis 500 in victory lane.”
It’s milk. Yup, milk. But why?
It all started in 1936 when Louis Meyer would win his third Indy 500. He drove his car into victory lane and decided that he would enjoy a bottle of buttermilk to celebrate. Apparently this was something that Meyer did quite often to refresh himself on hot days so he figured he’d do the same after 500 miles of racing.
After a photo surfaced of Meyer drinking the buttermilk, an executive at the Milk Foundation made it his duty that the practice become a tradition. It happened on and off until 1956 when it became an official part of the post race celebrations. To this day it is still one of the weirdest things in sports.
14. Robby Gordon’s Out of Gas – 1999
Yes, I am a Robby Gordon homer. I loved the guy, I still love the guy. And yes, it does pain me to write about this.
In 1999, Gordon was set to finally win a major auto race by locking up the victory in the Indy 500. Gordon’s team crunched the numbers and figured that if they stopped at lap 164, they’d have enough fuel to get to the finish. Meanwhile, the rest of the field made their stops several laps later which ensured they had enough gas.
Gordon would lead the final portion of the race and looked ready to get that elusive win. But it wouldn’t happen. As the white flag flew, Gordon ran out of gas and conceded the lead to Kenny Brack, who took the victory.
This finish is still talked about every year when things rev up at Indy. I guarantee you that the pre-race hype video this year will feature the announcer’s call about Gordon being out of gas. And I guarantee that it will cut me deep.
13. Tom Sneva Top 200 & 210 MPH In Qualifying – 1977, 1984
In 1962, Parnelli Jones became the first driver to top 150 miles per hour at Indy. No one thought any driver would ever go faster. Well, that record was broken dozens of times as the years went on. It would only be a matter of time before a driver topped the hallowed 200 mph mark.
In 1977, Tom Sneva turned in a lap during qualifying that registered at 200.535mph. Sneva was heralded for ringing in a new era of speed at Indy. Once again, many thought that this speed would never be topped. Funnily enough, Sneva was also the first driver to top 210 miles per hour in 1984.
12. Ralph DePalma Dominates, Loses – 1912
Sometimes it’s an absolute joy to relish in the failure of professional athletes. What amateur, 32-handicap golfer doesn’t love watching a pro shank it into the creek? But other times, watching a professional fail can be an absolute heartbreaker. This was the case in the second running of the Indianapolis 500 back in 1912.
Ralph DePalma drove arguably the most dominating race in the history of the event, leading from lap three to lap 196. He had a lead of five and a half laps when his engine failed. Joe Dawson would end up taking the lead and won the race by two laps over the second place finisher.
Although DePalma lost, he was a true competitor. He actually got out of his car and pushed it down the entire length of the front stretch to finish the race.
11. Janet Guthrie Breaks Barriers – 1977
Janet Guthrie was breaking gender barriers in motorsports before most of you reading this were even born. These days it’s all Danica Patrick this and Danica Patrick that. But Guthrie raced in a time when women racers essentially didn’t exist and the few that did were met with the harshest of criticism.
Guthrie is probably most famous for her time racing in NASCAR, in fact she finished sixth at Bristol in 1977. But later that year, Guthrie would look to Indianapolis to for a new challenge. Guthrie actually attempted to qualify for the 1976 running of the Indy 500, but was bumped from the field due to her slow qualifying time. Many drivers stated that her slow time was due to her gender, a notion which only fueled her drive to prove them wrong. In 1977 Guthrie would qualify for the race and make history as the first woman to do so. She would unfortunately finish 29th after engine trouble but her legacy as a trailblazer at Indy is still firmly intact.
10. Hornish Beats the Rookie – 2006
In 2006, Marco Andretti looked to live up to the family name by stealing a win in the Indy 500. He almost pulled it off. The 19-year-old raced alongside his father Michael in the waning laps of the race and passed him for the lead with three laps to go. Michael then attempted to block the oncoming car of Sam Hornish Jr. to protect his son’s lead. Hornish would eventually pass Michael and run down the younger Andretti.
Marco took the white flag and held the lead down the backstretch, but Hornish got a huge run on him through the final two turns and executed a perfect slingshot pass on the front-stretch. Hornish would pass Andretti just 400 feet from the finish line and claim the victory by just six one-hundredths of a second, the second closest finish in history.
9. The Inaugural Running – 1911
It would be criminal not to have the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 on this list. In 1911, the first edition of the Indy 500 was contested by 40 cars and 56 drivers, as driver changes were legal at the time. Ray Harroun came out of retirement to run the 500 and would go on to win an overall unexciting event. But these were the early days of motorsports and the cars weren’t nearly as fast and agile as they were today. There were also far less professional drivers at this time, which led to several inexperienced drivers running the race.
Although the race wasn’t the most exciting one on record, it did have some very distinct moments. As previously mentioned, co-drivers were permitted and several cars used multiple drivers. Even the eventual winner Ray Harroun was relieved by Cyrus Patschke for 35 laps. But perhaps the most interesting moment of the inaugural Indy 500 happened before the race. Harroun made history by being the winner, but he also made history by rigging a mirror above his dashboard so he could see oncoming traffic. This was the first known instance of any car having a rear-view mirror, now a standard safety feature on all automobiles.
Sure, it wasn’t anything to write home about in the excitement department, but the first running of the Indianapolis 500 is obviously an important moment in the race’s history.
8. A Battle For The Ages – 1960
Let’s be honest. No one wants to watch a fuel-mileage race where the announcers are constantly giving updates on how much fuel each driver has and debate about whether they’ll be able to stretch it to steal the win.
We want real RACING!!!
The 1960 Indy 500 definitely didn’t disappoint in the racing department. In the second half of the race, Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann swapped the lead 14 times. The battled all over the track, running nearly nose-to-tail lap after lap. They were neck-and-neck until lap 197, when Ward began having tire issues, giving up the lead to Rathmann, who would go on to win. Although it didn’t feature a last lap pass or photo finish, the 1960 race featured one of the first great on-track battles in the race’s history.
7. Rookie Rossi Beats the Odds – 2016
In the 101 different runnings of the Indy 500, can you guess how many times a rookie has won?
Nine. Yes, just nine.
So clearly it takes at least one year of failure and disappointment for most drivers to get a win. In the 100th running of the race in 2016, though, perhaps one of the most inexperienced rookies of all-time achieved the feat.
Before the 2016 race, Alexander Rossi had driven in just four Indycar races and had never raced on an oval track. Sure, he’d raced in GP2 series and even had a few starts in Formula One, but Indy is a whole other world.
Rossi started in the tenth position and was a complete afterthought until the final ten laps of the race. Several of the leaders would need to stop for a splash of fuel, but Rossi’s team owner Bryan Herta made the call to stay out and try to conserve fuel to make it to the end. Rossi inherited a huge lead and slowed his car considerably to save fuel. Rossi’s lead would shrink to 4.5 seconds by the final lap, but he would hold on for the win.
The win was the first for a rookie since 2001 and the second upset win at Indy for owner Bryan Herta.
6. Last Lap Carnage – 1989
The 1989 Indianapolis 500 featured one of the greatest finishes in the race’s history. With 14 laps to go, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. embarked on an incredible battle. With four laps left, Under took the lead and began blocking Fittipaldi like a madman. The two drivers would then encounter slower traffic with two laps to go.
Unser and Fittipaldi would race side-by-side heading into turn three and make contact, sending Unser’s car careening into the outside wall. Fittipaldi was able to drive away unscathed and take the checkered flag.
Now you might think that Unser Jr. would be pretty upset about the incident, but on Fittipaldi’s victory lap, Unser climbed from his car and gave him a thumbs-up to signify no hard feelings. What’s better than two legends battling it out in the final laps? Not much.
5. Danica Patrick Arrives – 2005
Danica Patrick wasn’t the first woman to race in the Indy 500, but she might as well have been with the buzz she created in 2005. In her rookie appearance in the 500, Patrick would live up to all the hype she received by becoming the first woman to ever lead laps in the race. She would lead 19 laps in total and was in contention for the win until having to slow her pace to reserve fuel, settling for a fourth place finish.
Patrick would be named the Rookie of the Year for the 2005 race and for the overall Indycar season. Patrick would go onto race at Indy the next six years, with a career best finish of third in 2009. In 2012, Patrick would jump to NASCAR full time but returned to Indy in 2018 to race the 500 one more time before she retires from racing.
4. Foyt Gets Number Four – 1977
A.J. Foyt is arguably the greatest racer in the history of American open-wheel racing. His seven USAC championships is a record that will never be broken. Foyt also had one of the longest tenured careers in open-wheel racing. Foyt competed in the Indianapolis 500 a grand total of 35 times during his career and holds the distinction of the being the first four-time winner of the event.
In 1977, it had been ten years since Foyt’s third Indy 500 victory and he had a laser-like focus on becoming the first four-time winner. Foyt would drive a great race and would would beat Tom Sneva by over 28 seconds to claim the victory.
Although Foyt’s record of four victories has since been matched by Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr., his 1977 victory is forever remembered as one of Indy’s most notable moments.
3. Bobby Rahal’s Emotional Victory – 1986
Bobby Rahal is one of open-wheel racing’s most decorated drivers, with a career spanning three decades. He would win three Indycar championships in his career to go along with 24 race wins. But as any Indycar driver will tell you, the only win that really matters is the Indy 500.
In 1986, Rahal would earn his first and only Indy 500 in emotional fashion. The owner of Rahal’s team, Jim Truman, was battling cancer and didn’t have long to live. This would only help fuel Rahal to win the race. He would run a perfect race and pass Kevin Hogan with two laps to go to earn the victory.
The race’s best moment happened in victory lane, when Jim Trueman could be seen taking a big swig of the celebratory bottle of milk, grinning from ear to ear. Unfortunately, Truman passed away just a few weeks later.
2. Unser Jr. Wins by Slimmest of Margins – 1992
The 1992 Indianapolis 500 would feature Michael Andretti dominating the better part of the race, leading nine different times for a total of 160 laps. But as usual at Indy, things didn’t work out for Andretti. He fell prey to engine failure 11 laps from the finish. It was a bummer for Michael, but it led to one of the best finishes in Indy’s history.
Al Unser Jr. took the lead after Andretti fell out of the race and battled a hard-charging Scott Goodyear in the races’ waning laps. Goodyear did everything he could to try and get around Unser, but Unser would hold on for the victory by just half a car length — officially 0.043 seconds. This is still the closest finish of any Indy 500.
1. Dan Wheldon, Right Place, Right Time – 2011
Everyone loves an underdog story? The 2011 Indy 500 featured one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of auto racing. The small, single-car team of Bryan Herta Autosport secured free agent driver and former Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon to drive it’s No. 98 car in a one-off attempt at an upset victory. Wheldon showed good speed in qualifying and started the race in the sixth position. As the race unfolded, Wheldon was hardly a legitimate contender. But as the laps wound down, Wheldon would become perhaps the luckiest driver in Indy 500 history.
In the final laps of the race, several drivers attempted to steal the win by stretching their fuel. Rookie J.R. Hildebrand inherited the race lead and looked poised to take the checkered flag as he had saved enough fuel to finish the race. But things wouldn’t work out for the rookie. As he exited turn three on the final lap, Hildebrand attempted to move around the slower car of Charlie Kimball and crashed into the outside wall. Wheldon, who had made his way up to second place, cruised by him and stole the victory in perhaps the most unlikely finish in Indy history.
A small, single-car team that showed up at Indy with nothing but hope on their side managed to do the impossible and win the race. Wheldon would win his second Indy 500, but would tragically lose his life in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway later that season season. Wheldon will forever be remembered as the winner of the most memorable Indy 500 in history.