Benner/Sports and Indianapolis 500 and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Sports Business

BENNER: Wrapping up this too-short, festive month of May

May 21, 2011

Understanding the modern-day necessity that the “month” of May—at least in terms of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race—has been reduced to just a bit more than a fortnight, this month seems to have come and gone too quickly to fully capture the essence of the great race’s 100th anniversary.

I blame it on the rain. Just when will the proverbial window over Terre Haute arrive?

In any case, I promised (threatened) that I would conclude my historical look at the centennial celebration with a recap of what I considered to be its biggest and best moments. Certainly, there have been times we would choose not to remember. After all, drivers, mechanics and even fans have lost their lives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Our entertainment does not come without risk and, admittedly, some are drawn to the Speedway by the possibility of peril.

I, like many others, am lured to the Speedway by the spectacle itself because I am most definitely not a gear-head. The sights, the sounds, the racing, the sheer magnitude of it all—and that it bears the name “Indianapolis”—make it a must-see. I’ve missed only a handful of races since my first in 1963. If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, I hope not to miss any more.

Now then, my all-time 500 top 10:

10: For the same reason we’re having this centennial celebration and for the same reason I listed 1911 winner Ray Harroun among my all-time 33 drivers, this list has to include the vision of Carl Fisher and his pals who built the place, and the first 500-Mile Race that took place there. Who could have imagined how it all unfolded?

9: There was the birth of IMS and the 500, and then there was the re-birth. With the track in ruins after the World War II-idled years of 1942-45 and the possibility the land would be sold, three-time winner Wilbur Shaw found owner Eddie Rickenbacker a buyer, a businessman from Terre Haute named Anton “Tony” Hulman, who plowed profits back into the track and, indeed, turned it into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

8: The sub-one-minute lap was like the sub-four-minute mile. When Parnelli Jones broke the 150-mile an hour barrier in qualifying in 1962, it seemed like the limit for man and machine had been reached. It hadn’t. Not even close. And only safety issues have curtailed the pursuit of faster and faster.

7: There had been rear-engined cars before at the Speedway, but the arrival of Englishman Jack Brabham and the Cooper Climax in 1961 signaled the beginning of the end for the famous roadsters. Of course, 1961 also was famous for another reason: the first of A.J. Foyt’s four wins.

6: Danny Sullivan’s spin-to-win around Mario Andretti in 1985 would have to be included in any all-time 500 highlight reel.

5: I was sitting in the south short chute in 2005 when Danica Patrick passed Dan Whelden for the lead with 10 laps to go. I don’t ever recall a louder roar from the crowd, or a greater letdown when Whelden re-took the lead a few laps later and drove to victory.

4: The side-by-side duel going into Turn Three between Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi on the penultimate lap in 1989 is an indelible moment. Wheels touched and Unser’s car half-looped into the wall. Fittipaldi remained under control and took the checkered flag on the next lap. “Two guys were going into the turn and only one was going to come out,” Unser would say. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t me.”

3: It was Michael Andretti’s race (he led for 163 of the first 189 laps) in 1992 until the Andretti curse wrought engine failure. But that set up a seven-lap duel to the finish that resulted in Al Unser Jr.’s .043-second victory over Scott Goodyear, the closest finish ever.

2: Sam Hornish’s front-straight pass of 19-year-old rookie Marco Andretti just a hundred feet from the finish line in 2006 is an instant classic and came after the two had almost touched wheels in the third turn of the 199th lap.

1: Gordon Johncock’s 0.16-seconds victory over Rick Mears in 1982 was actually decided on the first turn of the 200th lap when Johncock slammed the door on Mears’ attempt to pass. “I knew when I went into the No. 1 corner, I wasn’t about to back off,” Johncock said.

Here’s hoping the 100th anniversary race gives us our first moment for the next 100.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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