In case you haven’t heard, Fernando Alonso will be competing in the Indianapolis 500 this year, to which we say: good on him. He’s far from being the first F1 driver to do so, as the field including Juan Pablo Montoya, Takuma Sato and our designated favourite Max Chilton would indicate, but it’s generated quite a buzz nonetheless. “A Formula One world champion at Indianapolis? That’s amazing!”, some people have been saying. A few lesser informed individuals have shrugged it off with “All he has to do is turn left 800 times, what’s the big deal?”
Others still have cast their minds back to those wonderful days when Jacques Villeneuve put his family name back on top thirteen years after his father’s death, when Nigel Mansell battled Emerson Fittipaldi for the Borg-Warner, when Clark, Hill and Stewart all mirrored the rising popularity of the Beatles and Stones in the US by bringing the fight to the likes of A. J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones. To be fair, those were all great moments in racing and there are perfectly good reasons why they’re still fondly remembered.
What we’re sad not to hear, though, are the achievements of F1’s underdogs in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing: When Jim Crawford took the Buick engine to the front, when Kevin Cogan uttered those famous words to Sam Posey over his radio approaching the finish, when Danny Sullivan spun (and won!) taking the fight to Mario Andretti himself. These are the top ten performances in the Indy 500 from F1’s rejects.
For the purposes of this list, the 1950s Indy 500 events have been discredited as criteria for defining rejects. We already exercise this somewhat informally for profiles and by doing so here we can avoid filling the list with A. J. Foyt’s top ten drives. In short: It’s far more interesting this way.
1960: Rodger Ward
Some of you are probably already familiar with Rodger Ward’s novel attempt at the 1959 US Grand Prix in an old Kurtis Kraft midget, where he claimed he would beat those rear-engined Coopers with good old American engineering. In a nutshell, he was proven wrong in his belief that a 1940s midget car could take corners faster than Brabham’s T51.
Ward was no slouch behind the wheel, though, as two USAC national titles, two Indy 500 wins and three further top three finishes at the Brickyard will show. Quite a few options for Rodger in terms of this list, then. However, a decision has been made, and it’s his 1960 second place performance that stands out to us.
Rodger started from the outside of the front row and immediately took the lead, briefly losing it to Eddie Sachs before pulling out in front again on lap three. An epic duel would soon develop between Ward, Sachs, Troy Ruttman and Jim Rathmann. Ruttman and Sachs would both drop out of the race shortly after the 300-mile mark, however, and Ward himself almost joined them when he stalled his engine twice during a pit stop, but he made a determined charge through the field to catch up with the leading Rathmann, the two partaking in one of the greatest duels the speedway had ever seen.
Ward, an experienced tyre tester, was concerned about the condition of his Firestones after his charge back to the front and allowed Rathmann to stay in first, knowing Jim’s reputation for driving at a conservative pace whenever he was leading. However, this allowed Johnny Thomson to close in on the two leaders, so they turned the wick up again, trading the lead with each passing lap; the Thomson threat was soon neutralised when his engine lost power.
Towards the end Ward’s fears were realised when he noticed a significant amount of wear on his right front tyre. He was forced to slow down and on lap 197 he relinquished the lead to Rathmann, who went on to win by 12.75 seconds from Ward, the second closest Indy 500 finish up to that point.
1968: Bobby Unser
Bobby Unser is another figure whose F1 record is more a brief flirtation than a full-time commitment, consisting of a single outing in a works BRM in 1968. Yet again, this says nothing of his incredible achievements at home.
Bobby is, simply put, a legendary figure in American motorsport, with two USAC titles, an IROC title, three Indy 500 wins (retiring from the sport after the controversy that mired his 1981 victory) and he is one of the members of a racing dynasty only rivalled in terms of success in American single seaters by the Andrettis; his brother Al and nephew Al Junior are also multiple Indy car champions and have both tasted the milk in Victory Lane.
In 1968 Bobby started the Indy 500 from the outside of the front row. Polesitter Joe Leonard led initially, but Unser got past on lap eight and he would remain in front for much of the first half of the race, which would soon develop into a battle between the gas turbine Pratt & Whitney powering Leonard’s Lotus and the well-proven piston engine Offy pushing Unser’s Eagle. Lloyd Ruby was also not far behind in third.
Bobby’s run was not trouble-free, for when he made his final pit stop his car was stuck in top gear. As he crawled away from his pit, Leonard and Ruby passed him and he now had Dan Gurney for company. Ruby saw his victory chances slip away when he was forced to pit with a faulty ignition and Leonard looked set to win at the conclusion of a caution period on lap 191 when both he and his teammate Art Pollard were near-simultaneously side-lined by broken fuel pump drive shafts.
Unser swept past and by now had built up a lead of almost a lap from Gurney, and so he was able to cruise home and take both his and the Unser family’s first Indy 500 win.
1969: Lloyd Ruby
One of the Indy 500’s most popular legends is the Andretti Curse. Not since Mario’s win in 1969 has a member of the illustrious Italian-American racing family won the Memorial Day classic. However, if anyone was cursed, surely it was the man who Mario took the lead from on lap 106 in his winning year. Lloyd Ruby was a very skilled driver whose claim to F1 reject-dom comes from a single attempt in a privateer Lotus at Watkins Glen in 1961. He took a few wins in Indy cars, as well as winning both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona, but for some reason the cards just never seemed to fall right for him in Indianapolis.
Ruby led the 500 five times, suffering from some sort of mechanical trouble in all of them, with four of them ending in retirement. We’ve already touched upon one of his Indy woes while discussing Bobby Unser’s 1968 win, but 1969 was a year when victory looked all but certain before yet again fate decided to kick poor Lloyd Ruby in the teeth.
For the 1969 race, Ruby started low down the order in the middle of the seventh row, but made a charge in the early stages to find himself fighting for fourth position with Wally Dallenbach by lap 40, also helped along the way by retirements and other misfortunes for a number of key contenders, among them defending race winner Bobby Unser.
While Dallenbach and Ruby were jockeying for position, Roger McCluskey, who had been battling for the race lead with Andretti and A.J. Foyt, ran out of fuel and had to coast to the pits. Andretti and Foyt also came in for their scheduled stops, so Dallenbach and Ruby were now fighting for the lead for the time being until they, too, had to stop for some extra juice. Ruby emerged in second ahead of Andretti, with the two constantly trading places and gaining on new race leader Foyt at a rate of one second per lap. Joe Leonard was also closing in at this point and, indeed, a four-way battle unfolded at the pointy end of the field.
Foyt then started to slow down due to engine trouble, which allowed Ruby to grab the lead. At the next pit stop phase around the halfway mark, Andretti was starting to struggle with overheating problems and was not running at the same pace he had been earlier. Ruby was now in a strong position to win, but it seemed that fate had other things in store for him. As Lloyd came in for another pit stop, a mechanic made the signal for him to pull away too soon, and the still-attached refuelling hose tore a hole in the Mongoose-Offy’s fuel tank. A despondent Ruby extricated himself from the car, shaking his head in disbelief as he walked down pit road, having lost yet another Indy 500.
1978: Danny Ongais
Danny Ongais came from a varied background. He was a champion on motorcycles in his native Hawaii, he was a champion in drag racing on the national circuit and, of course, he drove in F1 in 1977-78 with a best result of seventh, which he achieved once. The Flyin’ Hawaiian is notorious for his reclusive nature, but Ongais is best known as the only native Hawaiian to race in the Indy 500, which he competed in as late as 1996, filling in for the late Scott Brayton at the age of 54, but he never won.
In 1978 he came closer than most would get, though. Starting from the middle of the front row, Ongais would take the lead and set a new first lap Indianapolis record of 185.185 mph. He pulled out a comfortable lead in the first 25 laps, interrupted only by Tom Sneva getting the jump on him at the end of a caution period on lap 12, but Danny quickly got back past again. The caution lights came on once more when Spike Gehlhausen crashed at turn two.
Ongais was in the pits for an unusually long stop at the time, but the caution negated the potential loss of ground. This gave the lead to Tom Sneva, but again this situation did not last long and Danny easily got past rather quickly to resume his dominance of this early stage of the race. Coming towards half distance the story was beginning to look different as Al Unser took the lead on lap 76 and, unlike Sneva, was able to hold onto it from Ongais, who at this stage no longer had a functioning radio.
The gap was not particularly large though, with Unser’s lead more a result of a quicker pit stop than his raw pace, which was quick nonetheless. Sneva also remained in contention in third. Lap 145 saw Danny’s race end in tears, however, as he pulled his black Interscope Racing Parnelli into the pits with a smoking Cosworth engine. Unser went on to win, with Sneva the only other car on the lead lap.
1985: Danny Sullivan
Unlike the aforementioned names, Danny Sullivan went the F1 route before settling into a more successful career in Indy cars stateside. A graduate of the Jim Russell Racing School, Danny went the expected European single seater route of Formula Ford, F3 and F2 before finally landing a drive alongside Michele Alboreto at Tyrrell in F1 for 1983 at the behest of team sponsors Benetton. There were no show-stealing performances in any of the championship meetings, but he did challenge reigning world champion Keke Rosberg for victory in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.
Danny failed to keep his drive for 1984 and instead he joined Shierson Racing in CART, taking three wins in Cleveland, Pocono and Montreal. He earned a Penske drive for 1985, and he would take another, more important win in that year…
Danny qualified in the infamous “8-ball” spot at Indianapolis, so notorious because no-one in the history of the Indy 500 had yet won the race from eighth on the grid. The early stages of the race were led by Bobby Rahal, with Mario Andretti then taking the lead after a fast pit stop on lap 16. Rahal dropped out of the race with a turbocharger wastegate problem on lap 52. Andretti now led comfortably, while Sullivan had quietly made his way up into second place ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi.
Around half distance, Sullivan received a radio message from his pit crew, which he misinterpreted as telling him there were only twelve laps left! Danny increased the turbo boost and began eroding Andretti’s lead in response. On lap 120, one of the most famous moments in Indy car history unfolded at turn one, as Sullivan got past Andretti, but was forced onto the apron. He lost control of the car and spun, almost collecting Andretti, but both drivers somehow managed to avoid contact. Danny regained control after spinning a full 360 degrees, coming out with flat-spotted tyres and having to catch up with Andretti again.
Both Sullivan and Andretti pitted for fuel and tyres, leaving Fittipaldi now in the lead ahead of Tom Sneva, who then got eliminated after failing to avoid a collision between Rich Vogler and Howdy Holmes. The resultant caution period ended with Andretti and Sullivan now leading the way again, as Fittipaldi had made a pit stop shortly before the yellow flag came out. By lap 140, Mario and Danny were in an identical position to where they were twenty laps before, but this time Danny’s move into turn one was more successful, and he managed to pull out a gap to Andretti for the remaining sixty laps to win the 500 miles.
A still image does this moment no justice, the whole event has to be seen to be believed:
1986: Bobby Rahal & Kevin Cogan
Bobby Rahal raced in Formula Atlantic in the late seventies, finishing runner-up to Gilles Villeneuve in 1977, moving into F3 with Wolf in 1978 and eventually getting an F1 drive for them in the North American rounds later in the year. A couple of modest but respectable performances in these two outings did not yield a drive for 1979, as James Hunt was coming into the team and did not want a teammate hassling him. So, Bobby found himself relegated to F2. A few years later he would make his CART début, the series in which he would forge his legacy.
Kevin Cogan, on the other hand, never made an F1 grid, but nevertheless made two attempts in a RAM Williams and in a Tyrrell in 1980-81, before moving into CART in 1981, one year before Rahal did. His actions in the 1982 Indy 500 were noticed for all the wrong reasons, as he caused an accident on the pace lap that took out himself, Mario Andretti, Roger Mears and Dale Whittington. This drew heavy criticism from the likes of Andretti and A. J. Foyt, and Cogan, who had been driving for no lesser team than that of Roger Penske himself, lost his drive at the end of the season.
The 1986 Indy 500 would be a big race for both of these drivers and, indeed, both would be in contention for the win. They ran third and fourth in the opening laps while Michael Andretti led for the first time in his career. Rahal emerged from the first pit stop phase in third before moving up to second, about ten seconds behind Rick Mears in the lead and starting to narrow the gap. He finally took the lead for the first time when Mears pitted on lap 75, but he too pitted a lap later.
On lap 83, Rahal again took the lead and kept it for the next 125 miles, when both he and second-placed Cogan pitted as the caution flag came out for Rich Vogler’s crash at turn three. Rahal’s pit crew made an error when they didn’t change his left front tyre, and Bobby had to pit again to replace it, dropping him from first to fourth. Towards the end, it was Mears, Rahal and Cogan fighting for the win. Rahal took the lead from Mears on lap 187, but then Cogan got past the two of them, first overtaking Mears on the outside of turn four, and then darting down the inside of Rahal into turn one. He had started to build up a gap before the yellow flags came out again when Arie Luyendyk spun at turn four.
When the pace car was still out Sam Posey, who was commentating on ABC’s coverage of the race, attempted to talk to Cogan over the radio, but Kevin was in no mood for conversation, only replying “I’m kinda busy right now, Sam, I’ll talk to you afterwards”. Rahal got the jump on Cogan when the pace car left the circuit just as the white flag was about to be shown. Mears also got a little closer to Cogan than Kevin would have liked, but no pass was made. Rahal held a 1-second lead from Cogan and broke the lap record on the 200th and final lap to win the Indy 500, also becoming the first driver to complete the 500 miles in under three hours. Cogan may have gotten a less than ideal restart on the penultimate lap, but it was still seen as a great redemptive drive when looking at what happened in 1982.
1987: Roberto Guerrero
And so we reach our first non-American (well, Roberto Guerrero, being a Colombian, is from South America, but we don’t have time for geographical pedantry). Guerrero was, like Danny Sullivan, an alumnus of the Jim Russell Racing School and followed a more or less identical career path, leading to his F1 break with Ensign in 1982.
After two lacklustre campaigns in 1982-83 with Ensign and Theodore, Roberto went down the CART route in 1984. That year, he shared the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award with Michael Andretti, also winning the same honour for the season as a whole. 1987 would prove to be his breakthrough year, though, as he took his first Indy car win at Phoenix from last on the grid.
In Indianapolis in 1987, Guerrero would be starting from the second row, and was among the favourites to win. Mario Andretti was peerless for much of the race and by lap 50 he had lapped the entire field up to fifth, with only Guerrero, Arie Luyendyk and Sullivan escaping his grasp.
By half distance, only Guerrero was on the same lap as Andretti, keeping him honest a few seconds behind. Tragic events unfolded on lap 130, as Tony Bettenhausen Jr.’s right front wheel came loose and struck Guerrero’s nosecone, dislodging the nose and sending the wheel flying into the air and into the stands. It struck 41-year-old spectator Lyle Kurtenbach in the head, killing him. Guerrero pitted to replace his nose during the resultant caution period, but was a lap down when he was sent back out. By the end of lap 170, Al Unser Sr. was the only runner on the same lap as Guerrero and they briefly fought for second, with Guerrero holding the upper hand for the moment and stretching out a gap.
The Andretti Curse struck again on lap 177, as Mario began to slow down with a broken fuel meter. Mario, who had now led nearly the whole race and lapped the field, handed the lead to Roberto Guerrero, who proceeded to lap Unser moments later. Andretti’s luck appeared to be contagious, however, as Guerrero stalled his engine in his final pit stop. It was later revealed that the damage to his nosecone from the Bettenhausen incident also damaged the clutch slave cylinder, causing immense difficulties in getting the car into gear when exiting the pit.
This left Al Unser in the lead by a full lap. Roberto was not going to give up by any means, though, and he unlapped himself before the yellow flag came out again in response to Andretti’s still-running car finally coming to a stop in the exit of turn four. Now Guerrero was right behind Unser, but couldn’t pass him in the closing stages, leaving Big Al to win his record-equalling fourth Indy 500.
1988: Jim Crawford
One feature that has been a mainstay of the Indy 500 over the years is one-off entries, a practice that F1 has long since abandoned. Fernando Alonso would be the most obvious example from this year, Buddy Lazier is another name that has been popping up on Indy entry lists in the past few years despite not having had a full-time drive since 2003, and other famous drivers like Jacques Villeneuve and Jean Alesi have also made recent appearances.
Similarly, Jim Crawford was not a regular in the CART series, but always made an attempt at qualifying for the Indy 500 in the latter half of the 1980s. His F1 career consisted of two appearances for Lotus in 1975 and he went on to win the final edition of the British F1 series in 1982. He had a few Indy car drives in 1984-85 too, finishing fourth on début at Long Beach.
Jim’s 1987 Indy qualifying attempt ended with him suffering terrible leg injuries that took almost a year to recover from, but, just like James Hinchcliffe, he was able to come back even stronger the following year. In 1988 Crawford would be driving a year-old Lola powered by the hitherto unsuccessful Buick engine. The Penskes of Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. swept the front row, a clear indication of their pace, as they dominated on race day.
Crawford, who had started well back on row nine, had worked his way up through the top ten to second before lap 90. On lap 93, the yellow flag came out as a beer can was discovered on the track. Race leader Sullivan pitted, which left Crawford leading the field when the race went green again. He remained in front, easily disposing of any traffic he came across and taking a risky line through the turns by crossing the apron.
His lead was cut short by another caution period following a crash by Sullivan. Crawford then pitted and rejoined in third, the only driver on the lead lap apart from the Penske duo of Mears and Unser. By three quarters distance, Mears had a lap on the whole field, but Crawford was still well in contention in second place. He was beginning to have a tough time, though, as his radio had stopped working and he was right behind Rich Vogler when the latter crashed at turn three, only just avoiding what could have been a huge accident. Ten laps from the end it was Mears in first, Emerson Fittipaldi in second and Crawford third, but Jim’s podium chances evaporated when he spun at turn three on lap 194, flatspotting his tyres and having to pit for a new set. He would end up sixth in the end.
2016: Alexander Rossi
And so we’re back to the present (or as close as the nature of the list allows us) with our final entry. Alex Rossi is one of seemingly fewer and fewer American drivers who journeyed to Europe in the hopes of one day winning the Formula One World Championship. He can be pretty satisfied with what he achieved in GP3, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2, finishing runner-up to the highly-rated Stoffel Vandoorne in the latter.He’s also had a few F1 races and, again, he can be contented with his achievements in the modest car provided to him by the Manor team in the final races of 2015.
While it can be said that his performances should have earned him the right to continue for Manor in 2016, money talks as always in F1 and Rossi’s money was just not enough compared to Indonesian trailblazer Rio Haryanto. But not all was lost, as Rossi had an opportunity to not only race closer to home, but to do it for a top IndyCar team: Andretti Autosport.
The first few races of Rossi’s rookie IndyCar season didn’t go spectacularly, but, come May 29, he was the highest placed débutant on the grid for the 100th Indianapolis 500, starting from the middle of the fourth row having only just missed out on the Fast Nine. The early stages of the race were dominated by the battle for the lead between Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, while Rossi more or less stayed in the same position he started.
By the first pitstop window Rossi briefly ran third, but he was soon back in eleventh and running consistently behind Scott Dixon. The first half of the race was a quiet one for Rossi, keeping his blue car between the lines while others crashed around him, including Sage Karam, Mikhail Aleshin, Conor Daly and defending winner Juan Pablo Montoya, but what proved to be the decisive moment of the race – and for Rossi in particular – happened at the beginning of lap 120, when, during the caution period following the incident involving Daly and Aleshin, Townsend Bell bounced off Hélio Castroneves in the pit lane and collected teammate Hunter-Reay. Although both of them would continue, they were out of contention for the win after having been at the front all day, Bell himself earning a stop and go penalty.
Alex Tagliani led the field at the restart and Rossi had moved up into second, the top two electing not to stop during the caution. Rossi immediately passed Tagliani for the lead into turn one as soon as the race went green again, but the two started exchanging places every few laps. Rossi finally pitted on lap 139, putting him out of sequence with the majority of the field and setting him up for a crucial finish, though quite naturally he was now running near the back.
Another caution period for Buddy Lazier’s three-wheeled car opened up another phase of pit stops, but Rossi, now running inside the top ten, stayed out. He came in on the next caution after Takuma Sato hit the wall at turn four, hoping for one final caution period in the closing stages to eliminate the need for any further refuelling. The promise of another full-course yellow was never delivered, however, and the leaders began to duck into the pits one by one, starting with Tony Kanaan on lap 192, followed shortly thereafter by Oriol Servià, then Josef Newgarden and Hinchcliffe.
Carlos Muñoz’s stop on lap 196 left Rossi in the lead and showing no signs of slowing. In fact, he could hardly be going any slower, as it became clear that Rossi was running on fumes. Despite a short-fuelled Muñoz making a late charge to retake the lead from teammate Rossi, the American was able to hold on to win, but only just, running out of fuel at the exit of turn four and coasting to the line. Alexander Rossi became the first rookie winner of the 500 since Castroneves in 2001.
That concludes our list. It has been tremendously difficult to put together and, obviously, there are honourable mentions in order: Troy Ruttman for being the only man able to keep up with Bill Vukovich in 1952, Vern Schuppan for his perseverance rewarding him with third place in 1981, and Fabrizio Barbazza and Tora Takagi for their respective Rookie of the Year performances in 1987 and 2003. The big question now going into Sunday: Will the supremely talented Max Chilton beat Fernando and join this list? We do hope it will need updating for a republication next year…