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Here are the six best Indy 500s ever — by generation

Fort Lauderdale residents Ryan Hunter-Reay in front and Helio Castroneves in second at the finish of the 2014 Indianapolis 500, one of the best Indy 500s in the race's 101-event history.
Fort Lauderdale residents Ryan Hunter-Reay in front and Helio Castroneves in second at the finish of the 2014 Indianapolis 500, one of the best Indy 500s in the race's 101-event history. Associated Press

What's the best of the 101 previous Indianapolis 500s before this Sunday's 102nd? Like most sports arguments, it often depends on the age of the person you ask.

People often find it hard to say their peers or their children's peers matched the giants seen from the perspective of their younger days.

And, it's not as simple as "closest finish." That's 1992, Al Unser Jr. edging Scott Goodyear by .043 of a second. For one thing, Goodyear didn't make a move to pass Little Al until the finish line. For another, the first 189 laps of that race tortured fans. Yellow flag, yellow flag, Michael Andretti running away by a second per lap, yellow flag, yellow flag, Andretti runaway, yellow flag, etc. Six crashes in 48 laps during one stretch, over an hour of life with about five minutes of green flag racing.

Anybody who puts that race in contention for Best Indy 500 Ever didn't sit through it. Maybe they slept through it.

The First Car Generation — 1911. Marmon engineer and retired race car driver Ray Harroun knew the Speedway well from winning some of the shorter races there in 1909 and 1910. For this first 500-mile race, Harroun figured a steady 75 mph pace would let him preserve tires on the Marmon “Wasp,” a bright yellow car with a sleek, stinger-like tail that Harroun helped design.

Racing custom back then dictated the use of “riding mechanics,” who mainly did the job of a modern day spotter, checking for oncoming cars. Harroun’s answer to drivers worried he would ride solo became a standard automobile part – he put a mirror in front of his driver’s seat.

Harroun outlasted David Bruce Brown’s Fiat and Ralph Mulford to win. Harroun re-retired. Harroun’s last race would be the first for what would become the world’s most massively attended single day sporting event.

The First Tech Generation — 1923. Everybody knew somebody with a telephone, and radio stations started popping up like car companies had the previous two decades. But what they hadn't yet seen was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Rarely did drivers truly dice back and forth for the lead. So Race Day 1923 grabbed the 150,000 fans by their stomachs and pulled them to the edge of their seats like no Indy 500 before and few would for decades.

In the first 110 laps, there were 27 lead changes, more than some entire eras of Indianapolis 500 history. The lead bounced among 1922 500 champion Jimmy Murphy, 1921 winner Tommy Milton, 1919 winner Howdy Wilcox, Cliff Durant and clock consistent Harry Hartz before Milton’s car passed Hartz for the lead on Lap 110. It was Milton’s car, but with Wilcox behind the wheel after his own car suffered clutch problems. Milton needed relief for blistered hands before becoming a two-time winner.

The final total of 28 lead changes set a record that wouldn’t be broken until 1960.

The Greatest Generation — 1947. The crowd that packed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1946 Indianapolis 500 clearly didn’t care that older cars roared around the facility, renovated by new owners Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw after neglect throughout World War II. They just wanted another piece of prewar normalcy back.

But by 1947, fans wanted something new and fast. High-octane fuels, disc brakes, hydraulic shock absorbers and other improvements developed during the war made their way onto race cars. And, while the Novi’s V-8 brought distinctive noise and speed, Lou Moore’s Blue Crown Specials ran better (and looked prettier) on race day.

With 25 laps left, the Blue Crown Specials driven by rookie Bill Holland and 1941 co-winner Mauri Rose ran Nos. 1 and 2. Moore worried a battle for the lead might end with both cars in the wall. So, he flashed “EZY” at each driver on his pit board. Holland slowed his pace. Rose didn’t. Holland, believing Rose a lap down, waved him on by as Rose passed on lap 193. When Holland finished and heard Rose announced as the winner, he held his famous temper in check. Well, held it enough to not get fired. He'd finish second in a Blue Crown to Rose the follwoing year and win in a Blue Crowd in 1949.

Baby Boomers — 1960. No two drivers ever have fought for an Indianapolis 500 lead for the lead as long as Roger Ward and Jim Rathmann in this longer, stronger sequel to their 1959 duel, won by Ward. Of the then-record 29 lead changes, 14 were between Rathmann’s Ken-Paul Special and Ward’s Leader Card over the last 77 laps.

And that only counts the leader at the end of the lap, not the lead changes that were reversed before the lap was done. Each worried about tire wear and considered letting the other lead. But Rathmann’s competitive nature and Ward wanting to stay clear of lurking third place Johnny Thomson overrode those concerns.

Until lap 197. Ward saw the cords in his tires. He wanted another Indy 500 win, but he also wanted to live. Rathmann went on to a 12-second win, his first after three second-place finishes.

Generation X — 1982. Here’s he first Indy 500 decided by less than a second and the first with an attempt at a last-lap pass for the win. And what happened before the race even started remains as discussed as the finish.

As the field came down to take the green, something (it’s never been publicly stated exactly what) broke on the car of second-fastest qualifier Kevin Cogan. From the middle of the front row, Cogan’s car suddenly swerved right, bumped living legend A.J. Foyt, then arrowed across left into also living legend Mario Andretti. Andretti and Cogan were out of the race, Foyt’s front left wing was damaged.

Halfway through the race, a three-way fight emerged among Tom Sneva; pole-sitter Rick Mears; and Gordon Johncock in a car that started the race handling like an old shopping cart. Mechanical trouble took out Sneva. Mears too-long last pit stop left him trailing Johncock by a seemingly insurmountable 13 seconds with 12 laps left.

Mears began lopping off a second per lap, 1.5 seconds on a couple of laps, as Johncock’s handling left him again. Mears caught Johncock and pulled out for the pass as they shot down the front straightaway to complete Lap 199 of 200. The needle nose of Mears’ PC10 edged in front, but the ever-tenacious Johncock slammed the door on Mears in Turn 1. In Turn 3, Johncock saved the car when it bottomed and wiggled, then held off Mears to win by 16-hundredths of a second.

Johncock and Mears
Gordon Johncock leads pole-sitter Rick Mears down the front straightaway into turn one during the closing laps of the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Johncock held Mears off on the final lap to win the race by just 16-hundredths of a second ahead of Mears. Associated Press

Millennials and These Kids Today — 2014. The only absence of yellow this day would be flags, for most of the race. The first 149 laps were run under green flag conditions, the longest run of Indy 500 action without caution ever and twice the previous record for longest run of green from the start of the race.

Under a bright yellow sun, nine drivers led in the first 66 laps and there were 34 lead changes among 11 drivers for the race. Fort Lauderdale residents Ryan Hunter-Reay, in his yellow DHL car, and Helio Castroneves, in the beloved yellow Pennzoil livery, led the most laps with Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell also in the mix as the race hit Lap 175.

When Hinchcliffe, Carpenter and Bell went three abreast into Turn 1 battling for second on Lap 176, only Bell made it to Turn 2. Bell’s messy crash on Lap 191 got the race red-flagged by officials who didn’t want another finish under yellow, as had been the case the previous two years.

When the green flew again, Hunter-Reay led Castroneves with Andretti present mainly as an observer and perhaps Indy’s greatest mini-shootout commenced.

Castroneves slingshot by Hunter-Reay on the inside going into Turn 1 with five laps left. Hunter-Reay got Helio back on the backstretch two laps later. Two laps to go: Castroneves got Hunter-Reay in Turn 1 again, this time on the outside. White flag lap: Hunter-Reay did the same to Castroneves in the same place, then protected that lead to the checkered flag by 0.060 seconds, the second closest finish ever.

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