INDIANAPOLIS – Very few major sports events in the world can boast of the tradition and history of 100 years.
But on Sunday, the Indianapolis 500 will celebrate its Centennial at the old Brickyard at 16th and Georgetown.
From its humble beginnings to today, the Indy 500 has been both a center of innovation in automobile technology and racing, and a site for some of the most famous moments in sports history.
The Indy 500 was where the rearview mirror, now a fixture in passenger cars, was first created. It has seen speed barriers broken. It has been the site of tragic fatal crashes. And, it now is an international sporting spectacle seen around the globe.
When the race began in 1911, a driver had to average 75 mph over a one-mile section of the course. Today, drivers need to traverse the 2 ½-mile oval at speeds of more than 220 mph to qualify.
Before the Centennial Indy 500 on Sunday, three of the race’s most accomplished drivers recounted their memories of this historic race.
Indy 500 champions Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, and veteran driver Davey Hamilton reflected on their most memorable 500 moments.
Franchitti is a three-time IndyCar Series champion, and a two-time winner of the Indy 500. He is the defending champion.
“I think because it’s the Indianapolis 500 and it’s such a big race and has been going on for so many years, it has a special feeling,” he said. “When you win it, to be part of that club, I think, only adds to it. It’s a very special event at a very special track.”
Franchitti also said he was “going to be selfish” and use his wins as his most memorable moments.
His first 500 victory came in 2007. Rain caused delays, but Franchitti’s mood wasn’t dampened by the weather. Before returning to the track after a rain delay, Franchitti’s wife, actress Ashley Judd, told her husband to “go pick them off one-by-one like the gentleman racer that you are.” Franchitti, who was trailing badly before the rain delay, proceeded to go out and win the race.
Franchitti competed in NASCAR before his return to IndyCar in 2009.
In 2010, he maneuvered around wrecks and survived on low fuel to hang on for the win. A devastating wreck by Mike Conway brought out the caution flag, and Franchitti lead to the finish.
Hamilton is a veteran driver who has started 50 IndyCar races, but has yet to win.
He is no stranger to comebacks.
Hamilton was forced to retire following a horrific crash in 2001 that caused him to undergo 21 operations. Amazingly, he returned for the Indianapolis 500 and finished ninth in 2007. Last year, he crashed on Lap 1.
Hamilton’s difficulties have caused him to relish driving in the 500 more and appreciate the race and people involved.
“A.J. Foyt was my hero, there’s no question about that,” Hamilton said. “I watched him. He was my first car owner and I remember him in 1977 when he won his fourth. Then I remember him in 1981 with that new Coyote car that was the baddest looking machine ever. I figured he was going to win his fifth one for sure but he had problems and I think he had an accident. But 1981 that was my first time here that stuck with me, that day stuck with me.”
This year, Foyt is the official driver of the Pace Car for the 100th Anniversary of the 500. In 1977, he became the first driver to win four 500’s.
Dixon, who will start in the middle of the first row on Sunday, won the 2008 race.
“To achieve a win at this place is pretty special, and you join a very short list of 67 people in the world that have ever achieved this,” Dixon said. “But I think it goes back to close finishes. 2006 was a fantastic finish between Marco Andretti and Sam Hornish when Hornish came out on top. Those are the races you want to witness. The controversy of 2002, with Helio (Castroneves) and Paul Tracy that was one of the top here, and A.J. Foyt.”
The controversial finish Dixon was referring to occurred in 2002 at the 86th running of the race.
Castroneves was leading the race, but on the next-to-last lap Tracy appeared to pass him for the win.
Tracy’s pass, however, occurred while a crash took place simultaneously on another section of the track that brought out the yellow caution flag.
The Indy Racing League concluded that the flag came out before Tracy completed his move, and it declared Castroneves the winner.
With that win he became just the fifth driver in 500 history to win back-to-back races.
Daniel Gibson is a reporter in the Indy 500 Student News Bureau, a part of the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center.