When Takuma Sato passed Scott Dixon on lap 172 of the 2020 Indianapolis 500 Presented by Gainbridge, it was technically for third position. But since Zach Veach and Max Chilton, running 1st-2nd respectively, had not yet pitted, Sato’s move was really for the hypothetical race lead. When first Chilton and then Veach finally pitted for fuel, Sato elevated to the race lead on lap 186. Sato held off Dixon over the next several laps, and was leading the race when Spencer Pigot spun out of turn four and crashed hard into the pit attenuator. The caution came out on lap 195 and with so few laps remaining, the race finished under yellow with Sato claiming his second Indianapolis 500 victory. Sato had previously been victorious in the 2017 race. Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner, came home second, his third runner-up finish at Indy.

Scott Dixon, who qualified second, took the lead at the start and led a total of 111 laps during the race. His laps led total elevated him to third on the All-Time Lap Leaders List (through 2021 his total is 570), behind only Al Unser Sr. (644) and Ralph DePalma (612). Dixon entered the event as a pre-race favorite. He dominated the race at times, and in the second half, after Alexander Rossi crashed on lap 144, it appeared Dixon may indeed be on his way to a long-awaited second Indy 500 triumph. The six-time IndyCar champion and winner of 51 Indy car races (between CART and INDYCAR), has been one of the most dominating open wheel drivers of the 21st century. Dixon has won four Indy 500 pole positions, and has had six front row starts at the Indy 500, since arriving as a race rookie in 2003. As of 2021, he has 12 top ten finishes in 19 starts, and set a record during the 2014 race when he completed 1,733 consecutive laps in Indy 500 race competition. But curiously, Dixon has won The Greatest Spectacle in Racing just once, 2008. Though well-earned, it was a race that did not necessarily stand out as an instant classic. It was one with a field featuring several former Champ Car World Series participants, as the open wheel unification had occurred just three months earlier.

Screenshot © 2020 NBC Sports
Takuma Sato passed Scott Dixon down the mainstretch on lap 172 of the 2020 Indianapolis 500

But alas, August 23, 2020 would be Takuma Sato’s day. With no spectators in the grandstands due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the only ones in attendance being a spattering of race-loyal folks in lawn chairs across the street, the driver who started in the middle of the front row failed to win the race once again. Sato celebrated in the updated victory lane, with only his crew and a small handful of social-distancing media members surrounding him.

Takuma Sato, the 2020 Indianapolis 500 winner, races through the final turn of the IMS road course during the 2020 IndyCar Harvest GP. The Harvest GP was held six weeks after the Indianapolis 500, and up to 10,000 spectators were permitted to attend. (Johnson Collection).

Like the much better-known Andretti Curse, another perceived superstition has made its presence known in the past fifty-plus years at the Indianapolis 500. In fact, the former is semi-related to the latter, but more on that in a moment. Since 1970, only one driver has won the Indianapolis 500 from the second starting position (middle of the front row). The Second Starting Position Jinx is now almost half as old as the race itself. Counting the races from 1970 through 2021, the second starting position has a win-loss record of 1–51.

Background

Library of Congress Digital ID npcc 00316
Babe Ruth was the subject of the “Curse of the Bambino” between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees

Sports-related curses come in many forms. The are dozens of superstitions, folk beliefs, and spurious relationships that have permeated over the years, some with strong following, others largely forgotten. The projection that powers beyond natural fate affect the outcome of games/races/etc. may be comforting to a fanbase of a perpetually losing franchise. The famous Curse of the Bambino and Curse of the Billy Goat were used to explain the bad luck suffered by the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, respectively. Both of those “curses” ended in the 21st century, as did the Cleveland Curse, Tampa Bay Curse (no NFL team had ever won the Super Bowl in a season in which they lost a game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and others. The Redskins Rule (which “predicted” the outcome of the United States Presidential Election) also fizzled in the 2000s. In 2021, another longstanding “curse” was snapped when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first NFL team ever to play in (and win) the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

There is no pit stall #13 at Indy; it’s typically numbered as #12A (Johnson Collection)

Auto racing has also had its own curses and superstitions, the aforementioned and ongoing Andretti Curse being the most notable. There is also the Talladega Curse, which states that Talladega Superspeedway (Talladega, Alabama) itself is cursed. One explanation being that it was perhaps constructed atop an old Native American burial ground. Aside from perceived “curses”, superstitions have also been prevalent at Indianapolis for decades. Over the years, bad luck has been associated with cars painted green, the number 13, and eating peanuts at the track.

Danica Patrick in 2018 is the most recent driver to carry car #13 (a green car to boot). She crashed out on lap 67 to place 30th, her final IndyCar race
(Johnson Collection)

The recognized and on-going Sports Illustrated cover jinx has produced more than one Indy 500 related victim. Bob Sweikert, the 1955 Indianapolis 500 winner, appeared on the cover of the May 28, 1956 edition. He finished 6th in the 500, but was killed in a sprint car crash less than three weeks later. Pat O’Connor appeared on the cover of the May 26, 1958 edition. Four days later, he was fatally injured in the 15-car pileup in turn three on the opening lap. In 1968, Graham Hill appeared on the cover, driving one of Andy Granatelli’s Lotus 56 Turbine-powered machines. Hill crashed out of the race, while teammates Joe Leonard and Art Pollard (both also driving Lotus 56 Turbines) both dropped out late in the race almost simultaneously with fuel pump drive shaft failures. Leonard was leading the race with 9 laps to go when the failure occurred.

Lining up the field

The field of 33 on the
parade lap in 1988

The field for the Indianapolis 500 traditionally consists of 33 cars, lined up in eleven rows of three. However, not every race has had exactly 33 cars, nor has every race had cars lined up in rows of three. In 1911 and 1912, the cars lined up in rows of five. For 1911, the pace car was situated in what normally would have been the pole position spot, so the front row had the pace car and four starters. Rows 2-8 had five cars, and row 9 had only one car, for a 40-car field. In 1912, the 24-car field was lined up in rows of five (the pace car taking its now more familiar position ahead of the field). Rows 1 through 4 had five cars, and row 5 had four cars.

In 1913-1916 and 1919-1920, the cars lined up in rows of four (the race was not held in 1917-1918 due to World War I). It was not until the 1921 race that the familiar rows of three was utilized.

The traditional 33-car field stems from a 1912 AAA Contest Board mandate stipulating a maximum of one car for every 400 feet of track. However, early races saw a varying number of starters, from as low as 21 (1916) to as many as 42 (1933). Speedway president Carl G. Fisher set a 30-car limit for the field from 1912 to 1914, but only once did the field fill to thirty cars. The Speedway subsequently adopted the AAA Contest Board’s allowed maximum of 33 cars beginning with 1915 race. Under Speedway president Eddie Rickenbacker, from 1930-1933, the field size limit was briefly lifted. But since 1934, there have only been a handful of exceptions to the traditional 33-car field.

Starting positions for Indy 500 winners

Starting near the front has always been a much sought after status at the Indianapolis 500. Through 2021, a total of 45 out of 104 (43.3%) of the races have been won by the driver starting 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. If we look only at the races since they have used rows of three cars (1921-2020), that total improves to 43 wins out of 96 races (44.8%).

The first three rows (starting positions 1st-9th) have produced 73 winners (69.5%), while only four races (3.8%) have been won from a driver starting of 23rd or lower. The pole position (21 wins) is the starting position that has produced the most wins, most recently Simon Pagenaud in 2019.

 

As the bar chart illustrates, the pole position and the rest of the top five account for the most wins. It should not be a mystery as to why the top five, etc., account for the most wins. The cars starting up front are typically the fastest cars in the field, and would naturally start the race as favorites. Note that while seven races have had more than the traditional 33 starters (most recently there were 35 in 1997), no race has been won from that far back. The furthest back any race has been won from is 28th starting position (twice). For simplicity, starting positions 34 through 42 (accounting for zero wins) were left off of the bar chart.

Johnny Rutherford won the 1974 race from 25th starting position
(Johnson Collection)

Starting up front is not entirely necessary. In 1974, Johnny Rutherford was the second-fastest qualifier in the field, but since his run came on the second day of time trials, he lined up behind the pole day qualifiers in 25th spot. Having a fast car, he quickly charged to front, running second by lap 45, and taking the lead for the first time on lap 65. He would lead 122 laps and cruise to his first of three Indy wins. In 1992 Scott Goodyear started 33rd and finished second in the closest finish in Indy history. Al Unser Jr. beat Goodyear to the finish line by 0.043 seconds. In 2002, Paul Tracy started 29th and nearly won the race. In doing so he would have set a new Indy record for the lowest starting position to win the race. However, in a controversial finish, Tracy placed second.

It is notable enough that since 2001, nine winners have come from 10th or lower on the grid. Ryan Hunter-Reay started 19th in his 2014 victory, the furthest back a winner had won from since Al Unser Sr. started 20th in 1987.

Prior to 1969

Going into the 53rd Indianapolis 500 in 1969, the pole position was not the starting position that had, up to that point, produced the most race winners. At the time, second starting position had produced the most wins (9) from 1911 to 1968. The pole position had produced only seven, and the next best was 7th starting position with five. Incidentally, 7th starting position (the inside of Row 3) has not produced another winner since A. J. Foyt’s first victory in 1961.

Most Indianapolis 500 races wins (1911-1968)

  • 9 wins – 2nd starting position (1915, 1919, 1925, 1937, 1940, 1951, 1960, 1962, 1965)
  • 7 wins – Pole position (1922, 1923, 1930, 1938, 1953, 1956, 1963)
  • 5 wins – 7th starting position (1912, 1913, 1952, 1958, 1961)
  • 4 wins – 3rd starting position (1939, 1947, 1948, 1968)
  • 4 wins – 6th starting position (1920, 1929, 1933, 1959)

The first half of the 1960s saw wins by Jim Rathmann (1960), Rodger Ward (1962), and Jim Clark (1965), all from the second starting position. Between that, Bobby Marshman (started 2nd in 1964) dropped out with a broken transmission oil plug. The damage was attributed to Marshman going too low in turn one on lap 39, which bottomed out the car. He was said to be uncharacteristically obsessed with putting A.J. Foyt a lap down, and his aggressive drive may have ended his day early. In 1963, Jim Hurtubise started second and dropped out with an oil leak, while in 1961, Don Branson started second and finished last after suffering bent valves.

Rodger Ward’s 1962 winning car, the Leaders Cards entry, on display at the IMS Museum in 2011 (Johnson Collection)
  • 1960 — Jim Rathmann (Winner, 200 laps)
  • 1961 — Don Branson (33rd place, 2 laps, bent valves)
  • 1962 — Rodger Ward (Winner, 200 laps)
  • 1963 — Jim Hurtubise (22nd place, 102 laps, oil leak)
  • 1964 — Bobby Marshman (25th place, 39, oil plug)
  • 1965 — Jim Clark (Winner, 200 laps)
  • 1966 — Jim Clark (2nd place, 200 laps)
  • 1967 — Dan Gurney (21st place, 160 laps; piston)
  • 1968 — Graham Hill (19th place, 110 laps; crash)

The noticeable woes of the second starting position can be traced perhaps as early as 1966. Defending race winner Jim Clark started second and led 66 laps, but spun twice during the race. With ten laps to go, leader Jackie Stewart parked his car due to low oil pressure, handing the lead – and ultimately the race win – to Graham Hill. Clark and his crew believed they were a lap ahead of Hill at the finish, and thus should have been the rightful winner. Much to the confusion of spectators and crews, the running order on the scoring pylon changed somewhat sporadically during the latter portions of the race, and it took a bit of time to properly settle the scoring serials. When the official results were posted, the standings were unchanged, with Hill the winner and Clark second. Despite their dissatisfaction, Colin Chapman and Andy Granatelli declined to protest the ruling. Hill himself was ‘puzzled’ and ‘surprised’ to be the winner, and some observers quipped that Hill ‘never passed a car all day long’. (Racer 5/20/16, Star 1966)

Mario Andretti wins the 1969 race

The 1969 Brawner-Hawk (replica) driven by Mario Andretti to victory in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in 2005
(Johnson Collection)

In 1969, Mario Andretti won the 53rd Indianapolis 500 for prolific car owner Andy Granatelli. In victory lane, an exuberant Granatelli famously planted a kiss on Mario’s cheek. The win came in the young Andretti’s fifth Indy 500 attempt. After winning the rookie of the year award in 1965, Andretti won back-to-back pole positions in 1966 and 1967. But success on race day had eluded him up to that point.

Andy Granatelli, likewise, had experienced mostly frustration since arriving at Indy as a participant for the first time in 1946. Granatelli’s entries gained notoriety, first fielding the Novi engine, and later the turbine-powered cars. Two years in a row his STP Turbine cars were leading the race only to fail with less than ten laps to go.

After the heartbreaking losses in 1967 and 1968, and after changes in the rules, Granatelli abandoned the turbine program. Andretti had been driving for Al Dean, but after Dean died in 1967, the team eventually became associated with Granatelli. Andretti, with former Al Dean associates Clint Brawner and Jim McGee, was entered to drive a revolutionary new four-wheel drive Lotus. Mario would be part a three-car Granatelli effort, along with Art Pollard and Carl Williams.

A favorite during the month, Andretti had been at or near the top of the speed charts during practice. After the first weekend of time trials was rained out, pole qualifying was moved to May 23. On Wednesday May 21, he suffered a broken right-rear hub and crashed hard in turn four. Andretti’s injuries were relatively minor, suffering burns to his face, but the car was totaled. The team wheel out a back-up car, a one year old Brawner-Hawk/Ford and put the car in the middle of the front row. Due to the burns he had suffered, Mario had his twin brother Aldo stand in for him for the traditional qualifying photographs. (Star 5/31/69)

On race day, despite numerous issues, Andretti led 116 laps en route to victory. He drove car #2 from the second starting position. After close competitor Art Pollard dropped out on lap 105 (due to ripping a hole his fuel cell pulling away too soon during a pit stop), Andretti cruised to the win by over a lap. Andretti’s day was not without difficulties. He engine suffered from overheating, he nearly hit the wall in turn two on one occasion, knocked over Clint Brawner during a pit stop, had a slipping clutch, and had lost most of the transmission fluid. His effort marked the fourth time a driver won the race from the second starting position during the decade of the 1960s, and the tenth time overall. But never again in the 1900s would the middle of the front row produce a winner. (Star 5/31/69)

Screenshot © 1969 ABC's Wide World of Sports
Andy Granatelli plants on kiss on the cheek of 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti
in Victory Lane (ABC’s Wide World of Sports)

1970 to Present

With only one exception (2000), the middle of the front row has seen more failure than success on race day at the Indianapolis 500. Many drivers who started second dropped out, some were also-rans, while a few suffered frustrating near-misses. The win-loss record for the second starting position since 1970 stands at 1–50. Meanwhile, during the same time frame, the pole position has since produced 14 winners, and the third starting position (outside of the front row) has produced nine.

The decades have been characterized with different degrees of failure. In the 1970s, the driver from the second starting position dropped out nine times out of ten. The one time the driver did not drop out was a rain-shortened race. In the 1980s, the second starting position also produced only one driver running at the finish – and one of the most controversial moments in Indy history. The 1990s and 2000s were kinder, with several drivers making it to the checkered flag (but only one winner). The decade of the 2010s was particularly stinging. Nine out of ten completed the full 500 miles, but a myriad of circumstances kept all of them out of Victory Lane.

After Andretti’s popular victory in 1969, a string of misfortunes befell the driver that qualified for middle of the front row. Before long, observers and writers began to notice a trend (Star 5/22/98). During the prerace coverage of the 1990 Indianapolis 500 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, turn four reporter Bob Lamey noted the following: “Ten have won from the middle of the front row, but the last to do that was some twenty years ago, Mario Andretti back in 1969”. The many trials and tribulations of the second starting position “jinx” are summarized as follows:

1970 — Johnny Rutherford (18th place, 135 laps; header)
The future three-time Indy winner, at the time still looking for his first 500 win, Johnny Rutherford started second and was a factor in the first half. He stalled exiting the pits around lap 54 and lost considerable ground. His day ended on lap 135 due to a broken header. Pole-sitter Al Unser won the race, becoming the 8th driver to win from the pole.

1971 — Mark Donohue (25th place, 66 laps; gears)
Mark Donohue put his McLaren on the middle of the front row, the first front-row start for Penske Racing. Donohue grabbed the lead at the start, and led the first 50 laps. He gave up the lead during pit stops, then was back in the lead on lap 65. One lap later, he coasted to a stop in turn four with a broken gearbox. He parked the car at north end of the mainstretch, and walked back to the pit area. Later in the race on lap 167, Mike Mosely lost a wheel and crashed, tangling with Bobby Unser. Mosely’s burning car slid across the track, and plowed into Donohue’s parked car. (Star 5/30/71, Star 5/30/71)

1972 — Peter Revson (31st place, 23 laps; gearbox)
Due to rain, pole qualifying stretched over three days. Peter Revson qualified for the middle of the front row, but he experienced a discombobulated start. A slight bit of confusion – largely due to A.J. Foyt’s car failing to fire and being momentarily parked and tended to at the south end of the pits – saw the officials considering and possibly signaling for an extra pace lap. Pace car driver Jim Rathmann, however, suddenly pulled the pace car in and the green flag waved. With Foyt pulling out of the pit area and onto the apron almost directly in front of the field, some cars checkup up, including Revson. He hesitated, but avoided incident and recovered to emerge in sixth. He charged back up to second place, but suffered a broken gearbox and dropped out after only 23 laps. (Star 5/28/72, Star 5/28/72)

1973 — Bobby Unser (13th place, 100 laps; blown engine)
Johnny Rutherford won the pole position with a new 4-lap track record (198.413 mph), including a 1-lap track record of 199.071 mph. He was just shy of breaking the 200-mph barrier. Late in the day, Bobby Unser took his shot at history, but managed only a 198.183 mph average, good enough for second. His best single lap came in at 198.588 mph.

In a race that is better known for tragedy, Bobby Unser’s day ended in unspectacular fashion. On Monday May 28, at the start, Unser grabbed the lead going into turn one, but the race was immediately red flagged due to the terrible Salt Walther crash. The start was negated, and before cleanup could be completed, rain washed out the rest of the afternoon. Rain then prevented any chance to run the race on Tuesday. The race finally got going on Wednesday afternoon. Unser grabbed the lead at the start, and led the first 39 laps. Unser relinquished the lead with a long, 45-second pit stop on lap 40. Unser dropped in the standings and was not much of a factor after that. His day ended with blown engine on lap 100. Due to heavy attrition, Unser was credited with 13th place. The race would be red-flagged and ended due to rain on lap 133.

1974 — Wally Dallenbach (30th place, 3 laps; piston)
During time trials, Wally Dallenbach’s Offenhauser engine was fitted with a controversial “king-sized” turbocharger. The larger blower, intended to increase horsepower, saw Dallenbach qualify second. But its reliability for 500 miles, as well as the increased fuel consumption, was a question come race day. At the green flag, Dallenbach out-accelerated pole-sitter A.J. Foyt and darted into the lead with the powerful Offy. Dallenbach led laps 1 and 2, then his car started smoking on lap 3. He slowed going into turn two and nursed the car back to the pits. Dallenbach was out of the race with a broken piston, and placed 30th, completing only 3 laps. (Star 5/26/74, Star 5/27/72, Star 5/27/72)

1975 — Gordon Johncock (31st place, 11 laps; ignition)
On pole day, Gordon Johncock put in a qualifying run of 191.652 mph to put himself tentatively on the top spot. His speed held up for over three hours until A.J. Foyt knocked him off the pole spot. For the first time in Indy history, the front row consisted of three former winners (Foyt, Johncock, and Bobby Unser). On race day, Johncock led the first 8 laps, but dropped out on lap 11 with ignition failure. (Star 5/26/1975)

1976 — Gordon Johncock (3rd place, 102 of 102 laps)
For the second year in a row, 1973 winner Gordon Johncock started in the middle of the front row. On lap 103, the red flag came out for rain, and the race was halted. Johncock had led a total of 18 laps up to that point, but had slipped down to third by that point. His car had suffered a broken weight jacker, causing handling problems. Though the crew made repairs during the red flag, he never got a chance to improve. Just when the field was about ready to go back to racing, it started raining again. USAC officials called the race at that point, and reverted scoring to the conclusion of lap 102. Johncock became the first driver since Mario Andretti (1969) to start second and have a respectable finish. But since the race did not go the full 500 miles (it only went 255), Andretti remained the last such driver to complete all 200 laps. Pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford won the race (his second Indy victory), becoming the 9th driver to win from the pole. (Star 5/31/1976)

1977 — Bobby Unser (18th place, 94 laps; oil leak)
Pole day in 1977 was a historic day as Tom Sneva made history breaking the 200 mph barrier on his way to winning the pole position. Sneva clocked in with two laps over 200 mph, and a four-lap average of 198.884 mph. Later in the day, Bobby Unser had a respectable qualifying effort (197.618 mph) to put his car in second. Unser’s second lap was his best (198.851 mph), but his four-lap average slipped to 197.618 mph.

On race day, Unser ran in the top five most of first half, leading two laps (69-70) before dropping out on lap 94 due to an oil leak. (Star 5/15/77)

1978 — Danny Ongais (18th place, 145 laps; engine)
At the start, Danny Ongais darted into the lead and led the first 11 laps. Ongais would lead a total of 71 laps, and on lap 110, had stretched out to a lead of over 16 seconds while Al Unser Sr. pitted. While running a strong second on lap 145, Ongais’ engine suddenly let go. Smoke poured from the back of the machine due to a turbocharger failure, and Ongais coasted back to the pit area to finish 18th. (News 5/29/78)

1979 — Tom Sneva (15th place, 188 laps; crash)
Tom Sneva, the pole-sitter in 1977 and 1978 was looking to become the first driver in Indy history to win three consecutive poles positions. During pole qualifying, Sneva was tentatively the fastest qualifier, but Rick Mears, the final car eligible for the pole round knocked him off the top spot. During the race, Sneva was about four laps down running in the top ten when “something broke”. He crashed in turn four with 8 laps to go, and wound up 15th. Pole-sitter Rick Mears won the race, becoming the 10th driver to win from the pole, tying the middle of the front row for the most wins. (News 5/28/79)

1980 — Mario Andretti (20th place, 71 laps; engine)
Mario Andretti started in the middle of the front row, his best starting position since winning the race in 1969. After missing the race in 1979 due to a conflict with his Formula One commitments, Andretti was back for 1980. It was his final start at Indy for Penske. He led ten laps, but dropped out before the halfway point with an engine failure. He was running third at the time. Pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford won the race, becoming the 11th driver to win from the pole. It was Rutherford third Indy victory, and second time he won from the pole. In addition, the pole now surpassed the second starting position for most “500” wins. (Star 5/26/80)

The front row follows the pace car through turn four during the pace lap in 1981. Bobby Unser is on the pole, Mike Mosley is in the middle, and A.J. Foyt is on the outside
(Johnson Collection).

1981 — Mike Mosley (33rd place, 16 laps; radiator)
On race day, Mike Mosely started second in the 355 Chevy stock block powered machine. But the #48 “Pepsi Challenger”, entered by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers team, blew a radiator and dropped out after only 16 laps. He became the first driver since Don Branson in 1961 to start second and finish last (33rd). (Star 5/25/81)

1982 — Kevin Cogan (30th place, 0 laps; crash)

The 1982 Penske PC-10 driven by Kevin Cogan was restored and was on display at the Speedway in 2013. It is depicting the livery of Rick Mears, who also drove the chassis during the 1982 CART season (Johnson Collection)

One of the most controversial moments in Indy 500 history occurred at the start in 1982. Kevin Cogan, driving for Penske Racing had qualified for the middle of the front row, next to his teammate Rick Mears on the pole. As the field was coming down the mainstretch anticipating the green flag, Cogan’s car suddenly veered to the right. It hit and bounced off of A.J. Foyt’s car, and spun directly into the path of Mario Andretti. The crash took out both Cogan and Andretti, as well as two other cars that crashed separately deeper in the field. The incident was highly controversial, prompting heated words from Andretti, Foyt, and much disdain from several others. Cogan believed that something broke, such as a half-shaft or CV-joint, but the incident was never fully explained by the Penske team. Other theories emerged, but it nevertheless damaged Cogan’s reputation, and he was released from Penske at season’s end. After the crash was cleaned up, the race was restarted with only two cars (Mears and Foyt) on the front row, and Andretti’s 4th starting position also left vacant.

1983 — Mike Mosely (13th place, 169 laps; crash)
For the second time in three years, Mike Mosely started in the middle of the front row. Once again his race was cut short, this time by a crash. Running about three laps down in 6th place on lap 172, Mosely spun in turn one, almost directly in front of race leader Tom Sneva. Mosely hit the outside wall and suffered a bruised foot. Sneva narrowly avoided contact, and would go on to win the race. It would be Mosely’s final competitive lap at Indy, as he was killed in a highway accident less than a year later

1984 — Howdy Holmes (13th place, 185 laps; flagged)
Howdy Holmes was a surprise front row starter. Late in the afternoon on pole day, he secured a spot on the front row, bumping eventual race winner Rick Mears out to third. Holmes was not a factor on race day, quickly falling out of the top ten. He made a long, 8-minute pit stop for an electrical issue during the first half. He finished 15 laps down in 13th place.

Howdy Holmes races down the backstretch in 1984
(Johnson Collection)

1985 — Scott Brayton (30th place, 19 laps; cylinder)
Scott Brayton and Pancho Carter made headlines during the month of May 1985 with the first notable run of the Buick V-6 stock block engine. The two drivers were near the top of the speed chart during the first week of practice, and were favorites for the front row. The Buick engine’s reliability for race day, however, was still in serious question. Undeterred, Brayton was the first car out to qualify and set 1-lap and 4-lap track records. His 1-lap record of 214.199 mph (set on the third lap) shattered Tom Sneva’s 1984 record (210.689 mph) by almost 4 mph. It also established a stock block engine track record. Brayton’s fourth lap dropped off though due to transmission trouble. Less than twenty minutes later, Pancho Carter had a more consistent 4-lap run (212.533 mph) to secure the pole position and yet another 4-lap track record on the day. Brayton was bumped to the middle of the front row, but his superb 1-lap track record still stood. Bobby Rahal in the March-Cosworth rounded out the front row in third.

At the start, Rahal darted into the lead and led the first 14 laps. Carter and Brayton began slipping down the standings almost immediately. Carter was out of the race after only 6 laps with a failed oil pump, the first polesitter to finish last (33rd) since Cliff Woodbury in 1929. Brayton’s day was not much longer. He dropped out after 19 laps with a blown engine due to a cracked cylinder wall to place 30th. Later Rahal too would drop out, and all three front row starters failed to finish. (Star 5/27/85)

Scott Brayton’s car is smoking down the backstretch early in the 1985 race
(Johnson collection)

Incidentally, race winner Danny Sullivan snapped a similar jinx in 1985. From 1911 to 1984 (68 races), no driver had ever won the Indianapolis 500 from the 8th starting position (middle of row three). Sometimes called the “8-ball spot”, Sullivan started eighth, and won the race from the previously unlucky grid position. Sullivan’s victory was famously called the “Spin and Win” after he survived a 360° spin on lap 120, one of the most electrifying moments in Indy 500 history. (Star 5/24/86)

Danny Sullivan races down the mainstretch in 1986
(Johnson Collection)

1986 — Danny Sullivan (9th place, 197 laps; flagged)
On pole day, defending champion Danny Sullivan set a 1-lap and 4-lap qualifying record, but ultimately was bested by his teammate Rick Mears for the pole position. Sullivan started 2nd, but was never a factor on race day. Handling problems beset his car from the start of the race, and despite numerous attempts to make adjustments, he was unable to stay with the leaders. Sullivan somehow held on to the ill-handling machine, and finished 3 laps down in 9th. (Star 6/1/86)

1987 — Bobby Rahal (26th place, 57 laps; ignition)
While many teams struggled during the 1987 month of May, Bobby Rahal and the Truesports team were among the few that had relatively comfortable months. The defending Indy 500 and defending CART series champion had switched to the Lola chassis for the 1987 season, and fielded the still reliable and competitive Cosworth DFX V-8 engine. (They would go on to win the 1987 CART championship.) Mario Andretti notably dominated the month and won the pole position, but Rahal qualified a strong second. On race day, Andretti took the lead at the start, with Rahal running near the front. But it did not last long as on lap 34 he came to the pits with an ignition problem. After three lengthy pit stops, Rahal dropped out after having completed only 57 laps. (Star 5/25/87)

Screenshot © 1987 ABC Sports
Bobby Rahal’s RaceCam view during the pace lap (1987)

1988 — Danny Sullivan (23rd place, 101 laps; crash)
For the second time in three years, Danny Sullivan started in the middle of the front row. He again set 1-lap and 4-lap qualifying records on pole day, and again was beaten for the pole later in the day by his teammate Rick Mears. Sullivan was part of an all Penske front row with Mears on the pole, Sullivan himself in the middle, and Al Unser Sr. on the outside. On Carburetion Day, Sullivan’s Miller High Life team won the Pit Stop Contest, and Sullivan set the second-fastest lap of the final practice session. Come race day, Sullivan grabbed the lead at the start and dominated the first half. He 91 of the first 101 laps, at times running laps in the 210 mph range. While running fourth on lap 102, a front wing adjuster broke, sending his car hard into the outside wall in turn one. (Star 5/30/88)

Danny Sullivan’s sharp 1988 Miller High Life PC-17 Chevy crashed on lap 102
(Johnson collection)

It should be noted that Danny Sullivan’s misfortune in 1988 hearkens back to the aforementioned green car superstition at Indianapolis. Car owner Roger Penske is said to be strongly opposed to the color green appearing on his race cars. For 1988, sponsor Miller High Life beer introduced a sharp new paint scheme of gold and white, resembling the beer can. Sullivan’s Indy car sported the new livery, as did the Stavola Brothers NASCAR team with Bobby Allison and Bobby Hillin Jr. The colors were also used in IMSA GTP and NHRA. Bobby Allison won the 1988 Daytona 500 in February, and Busby Racing won the 1989 SunBank 24 Hours of Daytona carrying the colors.

Green pinstriping accented the gold and white Miller paint job, and despite misgivings from the Penske team, they agreed to allow it. Sullivan’s crash in the 1988 race raised eyebrows about the green superstition. Away from Indianapolis, Sullivan had a tremendous year in the CART PPG Indy Car World Series season. He won four races, including the Michigan 500, nine poles, and won the CART championship. At the 1989 Indianapolis 500, Sullivan was back, again in the gold/white/green Miller-sponsored Penske machine. During a practice run, his car suddenly lost the engine cowling, causing it to break into a hard spin going into turn three. He slammed the wall and suffered a broken arm. After undergoing surgery, Sullivan qualified a back-up car during the second weekend of time trials. Wearing a special cast on his right arm, he dropped out of the race with clutch failure well before the halfway point. Incidentally, in June 1988, Bobby Allison suffered a career-ending crash at Pocono. After 1989, the gold/white/green Miller High Life livery was retired from racing. Beginning in 1990, Miller switched their liveries primarily to the black and gold Miller Genuine Draft livery. Al Unser Sr. carried Miller High Life on his car in the 1990 race, but by then it was changed to white/red/gold, with green omitted. (TS 5/26/18)

1989 — Al Unser Sr. (24th place, 68 laps; clutch)
Four-time winner Al Unser Sr. started second in 1989, his last front-row start. Pole day was rained out Saturday, and pushed to Sunday. Unser drew first in line to qualify, and set 1-lap and 4-lap qualifying records. About two hours later, Unser was bumped to the middle of the front row by Penske teammate Rick Mears. On race day, all three cars of the Penske team dropped out. Unser was sidelined after completing 68 laps with a failed clutch. (Star 5/29/89)

1990 — Rick Mears (5th place, 198 laps; flagged)
Looking for a record third consecutive Indy 500 pole position, Rick Mears was fast all week during practice. Pole day was rained out on Saturday, and rain kept cars off the track until late in the afternoon on Sunday. Emerson Fittipaldi was the first car out, and he set a new track record to qualify for the pole. Mears managed to get out on the track Sunday before the track closed, but was about a mile per hour slower and had to settle for second starting position.

Rick Mears in the Pennzoil Z-7 Special during the 1990 race
(Johnson Collection)
The 1990 car of Rick Mears on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in May 2021. It was part of the special “Rocket Rick Mears” display (Johnson Collection)

On race day, Rick Mears was not much of a factor. At the start, polesitter Emerson Fittipaldi beat him into turn one, and Mears tucked into second. Before long, he started sinking in the standings, battling handling problems. On lap 41, Mears was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop. His car was so loose he had prematurely worn out the right rear tire. The crew changed tires and made a wing adjustment. About seven laps later, a caution came out, which trapped Mears a lap down. On the lap 50 restart, Mears was the first car in line, running 8th at the tail end of the lead lap. He desperately tried to cling to the lead lap, but he was eventually lapped again by Fittipaldi. Later in the race, he like others, suffered blistering tires. At the finish, Mears was two laps down in fifth place. (Star 5/28/90)

1991 — A.J. Foyt (28th place, 25 laps; suspension damage)
At the 75th Indianapolis 500, four-time winner and Indy legend A.J. Foyt qualified a surprising second. Pole day was hot and humid, and several cars pulled out of line awaiting better conditions. Foyt had announced he was going to retire after the race (plans that were later retracted). Foyt drew first in line to qualify and posted a four-lap average of 222.443 mph. It was not a track record, but it was enough to sit on the provisional pole for two hours. Rick Mears eventually bumped Foyt off of the pole, while Mario Andretti rounded out the front row in third. With several fast cars waiting for the final hour, a sudden rain storm moved into the area just after 4 p.m. The track was eventually closed for the day and Foyt astonishingly secured the middle of the front row. (Star 5/12/91, Star 5/12/91, Star 5/12/91, Star 5/12/91)

A. J. Foyt (middle) chats with John Andretti (right in yellow) in 1991
(Johnson collection)

At the start, Foyt faded and was running deep in the field when Kevin Cogan and Roberto Guerrero tangled in turn one on lap 25. Foyt approached the crash scene and run over a piece of debris. His left front suspension was damaged and he limped back to the pit area. He received a standing ovation as he climbed out of the car and walked back to the garage area. He finished 28th, and would return for one last Indy 500 start in 1992. (Star 5/27/91)

1992 — Eddie Cheever (4th place, 200 laps)
Eddie Cheever became the first driver to qualify second and complete the full 500 miles since Mario Andretti’s winning performance in 1969. Roberto Guerrero started on the pole with a new track record, driving the Kenny Bernstein-owned Buick entry. Guerrero, however, lost control and crashed on the pace lap. The incident was attributed to the unseasonably cold temperatures observed that day. With no polesitter, Cheever served as the impromptu pace setter, and unexpectedly led the field to the green flag. Cheever did not make it to turn one before Michael and Mario Andretti split him on either side, to lead the first lap.

Screenshot © 1992 ABC Sports
The start of the 1992 race. Eddie Cheever (red car in front) is about to be passed on either side by Michael Andretti and Mario Andretti (the two white cars immediately behind) as they go into turn one. Both Mario and Michael would drop out, while Cheever came home 4th.

Though he managed to avoid the numerous crashes and high attrition, Cheever’s day was not without struggle and strife. Midway through the race, Cheever was assessed a 1-lap penalty for allegedly passing two cars (John Andretti and Raul Boesel) under the yellow, for which he vehemently disagreed. He led a total of 9 laps, but his car’s handling went away in the second half. Describing the car as “terrible”, he was nevertheless the only one of the four Ford-Cosworth XB entries still running at the finish. While Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear famously battled for the win, Cheever was locked in a similar, but almost completely unnoticed, battle for 3rd-4th with Al Unser Sr. At the checkered flag, “Big Al” nipped Cheever at the finish line by a mere 0.045 seconds. The unofficial results still showed Cheever a lap down finishing 6th, but overnight the Target Chip Ganassi Team planned to protest the aforementioned penalty.

When USAC posted the official results on Monday morning, Cheever’s 1-lap penalty was rescinded. John Andretti and Boesel indicated that they had waved Cheever by during the caution period in question. Cheever was scored rightfully in 4th place, credited with completing all 200 laps, the best finish for the middle of the front row since Gordon Johncock finished 3rd in the rain-shortened 1976 race. (Star 5/25/92, (Star 5/26/92)

Raul Boesel leads Arie Luyendyk and Mario Andretti down the backstretch on the first lap of the 1993 race (Johnson Collection).

1993 — Mario Andretti (6th place, 200 laps)
Mario Andretti started from the middle of the front row, and led the most laps (72), but finished a rather distant 5th. On Pole Day, Mario was the first driver in the field, and held the top spot until 5 p.m. when Arie Luyendyk bumped him to second. Mario was a factor most of the day, his final competitive run at Indy (He retired after the 1994 season). The 1993 race was remembered as the first race after the apron was removed (and replaced with the warm-up lanes and rumble strips), a bevy of new (and sometimes controversial) pit rules, as well as the arrival of Andretti’s Newman-Haas Racing teammate Nigel Mansell. Andretti was the victim of a stop-and-go penalty after allegedly entering the pits while they were closed on lap 134, which dropped him from 1st to 2nd. On lap 169, Andretti was back in the lead when a caution came out. All of the leaders, including Andretti, made pit stops. Andretti took on a bad set of tires, with improper stagger, which ruined his car’s handling. Battling understeer, Andretti was passed for the lead on the subsequent restart on lap 175, and ultimately slipped to 5th at the finish. Andretti became only the second driver since 1970 (after Cheever in 1992) to start second and complete all 200 laps/500 miles. (Star 5/31/93)

1994 — Raul Boesel (21st place, 100 laps; water pump)
After starting third in 1993, Raul Boesel qualified second in 1994. He managed to squeeze himself between the Ilmor Mercedes-Benz 500I machines of Penske Racing teammates Al Unser Jr. (pole) and Emerson Fittipaldi (3rd). At the start, Unser and Fittipaldi got the jump coming out of turn four, and with their powerful purpose-built pushrod engines, left Boesel in their dust. Unlike his strong performance the year before, Boesel was not a factor in 1994. His car was running hot and losing water from the beginning. He fell back to about tenth place, then dropped out after 100 laps with a failed water pump. (Star 5/30/94)

1995 — Arie Luyendyk (7th place, 200 laps)
Menard teammates Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyk qualified 1st-2nd, with the powerful stock block Menard V-6 engines. Both cars on race day, however, were also-rans. A little-known, and rarely publicized, controversy was linked to those cars, and affected their performance on race day. According to the late Tim Wardrop, who recounted his first-hand account at Trackforum, during time trials, Team Menard was caught illegally over-boosting their engines and tampering with their pop-off valves. The V-6 stock block engines were permitted 55 inHG of turbocharger “boost”, as compared to 45 inHG for the V-8 quadcam engines. It was kept quiet from the public, but USAC issued the team a fine. They were not stripped of their front row starting positions, but USAC reportedly provided them with 50 inHG pop-off valves for the race.

Luyendyk in the 95 Lola/Menard, sometimes nicknamed the “humpback” (Johnson Collection).

Brayton and Luyendyk were noticeably off the pace in the race, with Brayton quipping he was so slow he felt like he was “in the way”. Luyendyk managed a better result, clinging to the top ten despite being underpowered. On lap 37, Luyendyk was being blocked by Scott Sharp. When he gestured his displeasure, he dislodged his helmet headrest cushion, which flew out and brought out the yellow for debris. During the final few laps, after Scott Goodyear’s controversial passing of the pace car, and subsequent disqualification, Jacques Villeneuve elevated to the lead. Luyendyk, running a lap down in 7th, chased down Villenueve, and got his lap back at the start/finish line as the checkered flag dropped for the winner. Luyendyk was able to circulate the final lap, and became the third driver in four years to start second and go the entire 200 laps.

The field comes through turn one on the pace lap in 1995. Luyendyk is in the middle of the front row. (Johnson Collection)

Incidentally, Scott Goodyear’s penalty prevented the third starting position from notching yet another Indy victory. Goodyear started on the outside of the front row driving the 95 Reynard/Honda HRH V-8 for Tasman Motorsports. It would have been the first Indy victory for Honda (they would have to wait until 2004), and the first victory for Firestone tires since 1971. Both Reynard and Firestone would be victorious a year later with Buddy Lazier. (Greuter, 2012, (Wardrop, 2003)

1996 — Davy Jones (2nd place, 200 laps)
The open-wheel “Split” and the formation of the Indy Racing League dominated the headlines during the month of May 1996. Most teams from the CART series chose to boycott the Indianapolis 500, and instead ran the U.S. 500 at Michigan. Only two CART-based teams – Galles Racing and Walker Racing – elected to enter the Indianapolis 500, albeit not with their regular full-time CART drivers. Galles fielded a Lola/Ilmor Mercedes-Benz 265-D for veteran driver Davy Jones, the only Ilmor-powered machine in the field. Jones started strong second, and was a favorite on race day.

Jones led five times for 46 laps, battling up front much of the day. Fuel strategy, however, was working against Jones in the latter stages. An unscheduled pit stop during the first half – precipitated by what he thought was a bad tire – had set him off-sequence with the rest of the leaders. He pitted on lap 161, with the team calculating that he would be about two laps shy of making it to the finish on fuel. A caution six laps later helped his chances, but also allowed Buddy Lazier to pit under yellow and take on plenty of fuel to finish the race. When the green flag came out on lap 169, the lapped car of Eliseo Salazar blocked Jones, and pinched him to the inside. Jones brushed the inside wall, upsetting the car’s balance. Salazar’s move was said to be intentional, in order to aid his Scandia teammate Alessandro Zampedri.

Jones was able to take the lead from Zampedri on lap 189, but was forced to run “full-lean”, as his team did not think he had enough fuel left. Fighting a push, and running low on fuel, Jones was passed by Buddy Lazier for the lead with seven laps to go. A late caution for Scott Sharp’s crash erased Jones’ fuel concerns, and set up a 1-lap green/white sprint. Lazier got the jump on the restart, and cruised to victory. Jones was unable to mount a significant challenge, and settled for second. (Star 5/27/96)

It was the fourth time in five years the driver that started second finished all 200 laps en route to a top-ten finish. Momentum was building that the jinx was primed to be broken soon. However, an asterisk can be applied to the 1996 situation.

On Pole Day of 1996, Scott Brayton (233.718 mph) qualified for the pole position, with Arie Luyendyk (233.390 mph) second, and rookie Tony Stewart (233.100 mph) third. Initially, Davy Jones was fourth. It was Brayton’s second consecutive pole and it came after he withdrew an already-qualified car. Brayton shocked the field by deciding to re-qualify in a Team Menard backup. He beat Arie Luyendyk by 0.216 seconds to take the pole. A couple hours later, Luyendyk’s run was disallowed. During post-inspection, officials discovered that the car was 7 pounds underweight. Luyendyk’s car was removed from the field (he re-qualified the next day), Tony Stewart was elevated to second, and Jones to third. Six days later, Brayton was fatally injured in a practice crash. On race day, Danny Ongais drove Brayton’s car , and it was moved to the rear of the field. Tony Stewart elevated to the pole spot, and he started first on race day. Jones was elevated to second, and he started the race from the middle of the front row.

It is unclear if the jinx really should apply to Jones, since he technically qualified 3rd. It was Tony Stewart that qualified second and due too extemoraneous (and tragic) circumstances, started first. Stewart led the first 31 laps (and 44 overall) but dropped out on lap 82 with a blown engine. Stewart won the rookie of the year award, finishing 24th.

On Monday May 26, 1997 Johnny Rutherford in the Oldsmobile Aurora pace car leads the front row
(Tony Stewart in the middle) on the pace laps (Johnson Collection).

1997 — Tony Stewart (5th place, 200 laps)
In his second Indy start, Tony Stewart started in the middle of the front row and led the first 50 laps. He would lead a total of 64 laps, but suffered from handling problems in traffic. Under yellow with 8 laps to go, Stewart had to make a splash-and-go pit stop for fuel, shuffling him from 3rd place back to 5th for the restart. Mired behind at least six lapped cars, Stewart was unable to mount a serious charge for the lead. As the leaders crossed the line to complete lap 198 (two laps to go), Stewart brushed the wall coming out of turn four. With the yellow light now on, his right front suspension was bent, but he stayed out on the track. He managed to limp around the final two laps – the last lap surprising going green – and held on to 5th position, the last car on the lead lap. (Star 5/28/97)

1998 — Greg Ray (18th place, 167 laps; gearbox)
After losing his primary sponsor going into month, second-year starter Greg Ray qualified a surprising second. With mostly blank sidepods on the black #97 car, the small budget Thomas Knapp Motorsports/Genoa Racing Team put their car in the middle of the front row. They even taped a $20 bill to the side of the car, donated by a member of the Safety Patrol. They attracted associate sponsors during the week and on race day, Ray managed to lead 18 laps. His time up front was short-lived, however. While leading on lap 32, he coasted to a stop on the backstretch with broken gears. The team made repairs and he later returned to the race. He ultimately dropped out after completing 167 laps and placed 18th. (Star 5/17/98, Star 5/25/98, @marshallpruett)

The field (Greg Ray in the middle of the front row) enters turn one on the first parade lap in 1998
(Johnson Collection).

1999 — Greg Ray (21st place, 120 laps; crash in pits)
For the second year in a row, Greg Ray started second, led laps during the race, but dropped out of contention while leading. Ray led a total of 32 laps, battling with Arie Luyendyk much of the first half. When Luyendyk crashed out on lap 118, Ray assumed the lead. He made a routine pit stop under the subsequent caution. But as he departed his pit box, Ray swung out and clipped wheels with Mark Dismore. The two cars slid into the inside pit wall, and Ray suffered serious damage to the left front suspension. Dismore was able to continue, but Ray climbed from the car, and was out of the race after 120 laps. (Star 5/31/99)

2000 — Juan Pablo Montoya (Winner, 200 laps)
Target Chip Ganassi Racing “broke ranks” and returned to Indy for the first time since 1995. After four years of the ongoing open wheel “Split”, Ganassi marked the first major crossover by a CART-based team to the Indy Racing League and the IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500. They also managed to snap the second starting position jinx. Ganassi entered with regular drivers Jimmy Vasser (who drove at Indy with the team in the 1995 race), and Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya was the 1999 CART series champion, but would be an Indy 500 rookie.

In 2000, race rookie Juan Pablo Montoya started second and dominated the race
(Johnson Collection)

Faced with having to adjust to the IRL equipment, the Ganassi team nevertheless was quickly up to speed with the IRL regulars. Greg Ray, the 1999 IRL champion, took the pole position for Team Menard, with Montoya qualifying second. The top two cars were separated by only 0.071 seconds. The front row shaped up such that the defending IRL champion and defending CART champion were lined up 1st-2nd.

Al Unser Jr. drives Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2000 race winning G-Force/Oldsmobile for a ceremonial lap
on race morning of 2011 (Johnson Collection).

On race day, Ray took the lead at the start, but eventually hit the outside wall in turn two (on two separate occasions) and finished 33rd. Montoya took the lead for the first time on lap 27, and dominated en route to his first Indy 500 victory. Montoya would go on to lead a total of 167 laps, and became the first rookie winner since 1966. Montoya was the first driver to win the race from the middle of the front row since Mario Andretti (1969). He snapped a 30-year losing streak by the second starting position, and notched the 11th all-time victory from that grid position.

Through the 2020 race, this remains the last victory from the middle of the front row, and the only such victory in the past 52 races. (Star 5/21/00, Star 5/29/00)

2001 — Greg Ray (17th place, 192 laps)
It was Greg Ray’s fourth consecutive front row start, and third time starting in the middle of the front row. After polesitter Scott Sharp crashed out at the start, Ray took the lead for the first time on lap 23 and led a total of 40 laps. Ray was leading the race at the halfway point, with second place Michael Andretti right on his rear wing. The skies were threatening, and there was concern that a sudden rain shower could halt the race or even end the race early. On lap 103, trying to hold off Andretti, Ray drifted high exiting turn three, and lightly brushed the wall. He would have to make an unscheduled pit stop of nearly five minutes to repair suspension damage.

The rain that had threatened to end the race early never really came. A brief caution, and later a brief red flag halted the race, but that was all that transpired due to precipitation. The race ultimately resumed and went the full 500 miles. Ray finished 8 laps down in 17th. (Star 5/28/01)

After rain in some form fell on race day in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2001, clear blue skies greeted fans on race day 2002. Greg Ray is in the middle of the front row in turn one on the parade lap (Johnson Collection).

2002 — Robbie Buhl (16th place, 198 laps)
Robbie Buhl was running second during the first segment, but lost several positions during the first round of pit stops on lap 31 during the first caution. He battled a pushing condition most of the day and finished two laps down in 16th position. (Star 5/27/02)

Tony Kanaan is in the middle of the front row in 2003
(Johnson Collection)

2003 — Tony Kanaan (3rd place, 200 laps)
In his second Indy start, Tony Kanaan qualified second, just weeks after suffering a broken arm and other injuries from a crash at Motegi. Kanaan led two laps and set the fastest lap of the race (229.187 mph). Towards the end of the race, he was running third, but was no match for the Penske cars of Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. (Star 5/26/03)

2004 — Dan Wheldon (3rd place, 180 out of 180 laps)
In his second Indy start, Dan Wheldon led 26 laps and ran near the front most of the afternoon. Wheldon emerged in third place after all of the leaders cycled through their final pit stops. Less than ten laps later, a severe thunderstorm ended the race twenty laps early on lap 180 with Buddy Rice the winner. Tony Kanaan, Wheldon, and Bryan Herta finished an impressive, but somewhat disappointing, 2nd-3rd-4th for Andretti-Green Racing. At the time, Michael Andretti (co-owner of Andretti-Green Racing, which is now Andretti Autosport) was still looking for his first Indy 500 win as an owner. (Star 5/31/04)

2005 — Sam Hornish Jr. (23rd place, 146 laps; crash)
With a goal of simply finishing the full 500 miles for first time since arriving as a rookie in 2000, Sam Hornish Jr. fell short again. Hornish, now driving for Penske Racing, led a race-high 77 laps, and was jockeying for the lead during the first half. On lap 147, running on worn tires, he was racing with Sébastien Bourdais. The two cars went side-by-side into turn one, with Hornish on the outside. The cars nearly touched, and Hornish up got into the marbles. His car slid high and smacked the outside wall in turn one. The car slid along the wall all the way to the backstretch. (Star 5/30/05)

Sam Hornish Jr., in 2005
(Johnson Collection)

2006 — Helio Castroneves (25th place, 109 laps; crash)
In his lengthy career, four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves has made a total of five front row starts. He has won the pole position four times, but only one time (2006) has he qualified for the middle of the front row.

Car #3 Helio Castroneves races behind Penske teammate, and eventual race
winner #6 Sam Hornish Jr. in the 2006 race (Johnson Collection)

At the start, pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr. grabbed the lead into turn one, but down the backstretch Castroneves got by and led the first lap. Castroneves would lead the first nine laps, but that was the only time he would be up front. On lap 110 while running 9th, he came up on the car of Buddy Rice in turn four. The two cars clipped wheels and crashed hard into the outside wall. It was the first time Castroneves had dropped out of the race, completing every lap in Indy 500 competition up to that point (2001-2005). It was also the first time two former Indy 500 winners were involved in the same crash incident since 1992.

As of 2021, this accounts for one of only two times in his career Castroneves has dropped out of the Indy 500. The other time was 2018. In twenty-one starts, he has four wins and a total of 15 top ten finishes. (Star 5/29/06)

2007 — Tony Kanaan (12th place, 166 out of 166 laps)
In the 2007 race, Tony Kanaan very nearly snapped the second starting position jinx, as well as a personal Indy jinx he was suffering. He qualified a strong second, and led a race-high 83 laps. With storm clouds approaching, it appeared the race may not go the full distance. On a restart on lap 107, Kanaan passed Marco Andretti for the lead in turn one. Moments later, a crash by Phil Giebler brought out the caution. Rain started to fall before the crash could be cleaned up, and the red flag was put out on lap 113 with Kanaan the race leader. The race had passed lap 101, making it official, thus if the rain washed out the rest of the day, officials could call the race at that point.

After a three-hour delay, the rain stopped and the track was dried. The race restarted shortly after 6 p.m., with Tony Kanaan still the leader. On lap 151, Marty Roth crashed in turn 1, triggering an exciting series of events. The skies were darkening, and rain was approaching again. Under the caution, Kanaan and several of the leaders pitted for tires and fuel. Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and a few others stayed out to gain track position.

The race was going back to green on lap 157. In turn four, Kanaan came up fast on the back of Jaques Lazier, sending Lazier into the wall, and sending Kanaan’s car into a spin towards the pit wall. He miraculously avoided contact with the inside wall, but blew a tire and coasted into the pits. Any chances of victory were dashed, as he fell to the tail end of the lead lap. On the ensuing restart, a four-car crash on the backstretch brought out the caution again. Kanaan, near the rear of the field, was able to avoid the melee. A couple laps later, heavy rain began to fall, and the race was ended on lap 166. Kanaan wound up a disappointing 12th.

2008 — Dan Wheldon (12th place, 200 laps)
Starting in the middle of the front row for the second time, Dan Wheldon led 30 laps – all in the first half. During the second half, his car’s handling deteriorated, possibly due to a broken shock. He ended up 12th. (Star 5/31/10)

The pace lap in 2008. Emerson Fittipaldi drives the pace car, followed by pole-sitter Scott Dixon and teammate Dan Wheldon (Johnson Collection)

 

2009 — Ryan Briscoe (15th place, 200 laps)
Ryan Briscoe led one time for 11 laps during the first half. He fell back in the standings due to a bad set of tires, but used a short-fueling strategy during a late round of pit stops and moved up to second. Drafting teammate Helio Castroneves, and trying to save fuel, Briscoe’s strategy did not pan out. While running second, Briscoe had to make a splash-and-go pit stop for fuel during a caution with twenty laps to go. He wound up 15th at the finish.

Under caution, Helio Castroneves (#3) leads Ryan Briscoe (#6) and Dan Wheldon (#4) on lap 169 of the 2009 race (Johnson Collection).

2010 — Will Power (8th place, 200 laps)
During a pit stop on lap 39, Will Power pulled away with the fuel nozzle still attached. He had led five laps up to that point, but was assessed a drive-through penalty. The hose ripped off but the probe remained engaged in the buckeye, with remnants dangling. Part of the ripped hose fell out on the track, causing a yellow. Power dropped to 25th and was not a factor the rest of the race. Additional pit problems continued to foil his day, but he managed to work his way back up to 8th place at the finish. (Star 5/31/10)

2011 — Scott Dixon (5th place, 200 laps)
Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon (started 2nd) and Dario Franchitti (started 9th) led a total of 124 laps (Dixon led a race-high 73). But fuel mileage issues thwarted their chances of victory. Dixon made his final pit stop on lap 179, about ten laps later than the other leaders. Seemingly Dixon was in the best position to make it to the finish, while many of the other leaders were either forced to make splash-and-go pit stops, or go into strict fuel-conservation mode. Dixon’s crew deliberately short-filled his tank, but accidentally disengaged too soon. Not enough fuel flowed into the tank, and their subsequent calculations came up about one gallon short. With no cautions during the final 36 laps, neither Ganassi car was able to race hard to the finish. Dixon limped around and ran out of fuel on the final lap. When J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall in turn four while leading (handing the win to Dan Wheldon), Dixon was behind the accident. He was able to skirt through the scene and coasted across the finish line to place 5th. He pulled over at the south end of the pits and parked the lifeless car in the turn one warm up lane. (Star 5/30/11)

Scott Dixon on Carb Day, 2011 (Johnson Collection)

2012 — James Hinchcliffe (6th place, 200 laps)
Ryan Briscoe won the pole position by the closest margin in Indy 500 history. Briscoe took top spot by 0.0023 seconds over James Hinchliffe, who qualified second (RESULTS). On race day, Hinchcliffe led five laps and ran in the top ten for a good portion of the race. One bad pit stop put him down in the standings, and in the middle portion of the race, he was forced to play catch up. He finished 6th.

James Hinchcliffe during Carb Day, 2012 (Johnson Collection)

2013 — Carlos Muñoz (2nd place, 200 laps)
Rookie Carlos Muñoz, making his first-ever IndyCar Series start, qualified a strong second. He led the practice chart twice during the month, and during the Fast Nine Shootout, squeezed himself onto the front row, bumping his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti out to third. The 2013 race was the Fastest Indy 500 in history to that point, with a record average speed of 187.433 mph. (It was subsequently beaten by the 2021 race). Muñoz led 12 laps during the race, an event that saw a record 68 official lead changes (and 84 lead changes unofficially). As the field was coming down for a restart with three laps to go, Ryan Hunter-Reay was leading Tony Kanaan, and Muñoz. The three cars went three-wide down the mainstretch, with Kanaan on the inside, and Muñoz going to the outside. Kanaan took the lead, with Muñoz tucking in right behind him in second. Just seconds later, Dario Franchitti brushed the outside wall in turn one, bringing out the yellow. With only two laps to go, the race finished under caution with Kanaan the winner. Muñoz finished second and won the rookie of the year award. He never got the chance to set his sights on Kanaan over the final two laps. We will never know if Muñoz would have been able to reel him in, and possibly win from the middle of the front row as a rookie, much like Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. (Star 5/27/13)

Carlos Muñoz goes through turn three on Carb Day 2013 (Johnson Collection)

2014 — James Hinchcliffe (28th place, 156 laps)
A controversial crash took out the driver that started in the middle of the front row in 2014. Ed Carpenter qualified for the pole (for the second year in a row), with James Hinchcliffe starting second. During the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course on May 10, a small piece of debris hit Hinchcliffe in the helmet, causing a concussion. Hinchcliffe recovered and was cleared to drive again on May 15, in time for a couple days of practice prior to time trials. The race went a record 149 laps before the first caution. Hinchcliffe led the first 9 laps, and 14 laps total.

James Hinchcliffe drives through the pit lane during Carb Day practice, 2014
(Johnson Collection)

On a restart with 25 laps to go, Ryan Hunter-Reay led Ed Carpenter, Townsend Bell, James Hinchcliffe, and Hélio Castroneves. As the field jockeyed down the main stretch, Hunter-Reay led into turn one. Directly behind him, Carpenter and Bell went side-by-side going into turn one. At that moment, Hinchcliffe dove to the inside, making it three-abreast into turn one. Hinchcliffe touched with Carpenter, sending both cars spinning and crashing into the outside wall. Bell, Castroneves, and the rest of the field slipped by unscathed. After the race, Carpenter angrily said “if he didn’t have a concussion last week I would have punched him in the face.”

The aftermath of the 2014 Hinchcliffe/Carpenter crash (Johnson Collection)

2015 — Will Power (2nd place, 200 laps)
In his eighth Indy 500 start, Will Power was still looking for his first Indy victory. Power won the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course on May 9, and qualified second for the 500. Power led five times for a total of 23 laps, and led as late as lap 196. With four laps to go, Power’s Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya used the slipstream to take the lead, and held on over the final three laps to win by 0.1046 seconds.

Will Power, 2015 (Johnson Collection)

2016 — Josef Newgarden (3rd place, 200 laps)
The milestone 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will be remembered as one of the greatest fuel-mileage gambles in Indy car history. Race rookie Alexander Rossi stretched his fuel over the final 34 laps and coasted to victory. The final result, while spectacular, was also a bitter disappointment to the drivers finishing second and third, Carlos Muñoz and Josef Newgarden, respectively. Newgarden ran in the top ten nearly all afternoon, taking the lead for the first time on lap 179, and led 14 laps total.

The final caution period of the race came out on laps 163-166 when Takuma Sato hit the wall in turn four. All of the leaders pitted, and with 34 laps to go, it was believed that unless another caution came out, no one would be able to make it to the finish on fuel.

The field comes through turn one on the pace lap in 2016.
Josef Newgarden (#21) is in the middle of the front row.
(Johnson Collection)

With ten laps to go, Newgarden led Muñoz at the start/finish line. Tony Kanaan was close behind in third, and Alexander Rossi was lurking in fourth. Muñoz took the lead going into turn one on lap 191, then Kanaan ducked into the pits, the first of the leaders to make a pit stop for fuel. Newgarden and Muñoz traded the lead back and forth over the next five laps, but neither were going to be able to make it to the finish. Newgarden made his splash-and-go pit stop with five laps to go. James Hinchcliffe, pulling into his pit stall just ahead, momentarily blocked Newgarden, and Newgarden likely lost a second or two as he waited to be cleared to pull away. The next time by, Muñoz was in the pits for his splash-and-go. Attention was still focused primarily on Muñoz and Newgarden, as it was believed that whoever of the two emerged with the faster pit stop would ultimately re-take the lead, and likely win the race. Muñoz’s stop was quicker, and he came out just ahead of Newgarden.

The rest of the leaders cycled into the pits, including Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais, and others. The only car that stayed out was Alexander Rossi, who was being heavily coached to the finish by his crew. There were now less than four laps to go, and Rossi was slowing down and drafting, desperately trying to stretch his fuel to the end. Muñoz and Newgarden, each with plenty of fuel, were charging hard and narrowing the gap. With three laps to go, Rossi had a half-lap lead. At the white flag his lead was down to 14 seconds. Newgarden was on the back bumper of Muñoz, and both raced to catch the sputtering car of Rossi. Coming out of turn four, Rossi coasted across the finish line to take the checkered flag in dramatic fashion. A sad and disappointed Muñoz came up 4.4975 seconds short – his second runner up finish at Indy. Josef Newgarden, who started in the middle of the front row, and for a moment had his eyes on victory lane, wound up third. He was 0.4329 second behind Muñoz, and after the race said “it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest.” (Star 5/29/16)

2017 — Ed Carpenter (11th place, 200 laps)
After winning the pole position in 2013-2014, and suffering a vicious crash in practice in 2015, Ed Carpenter was back on the front row in 2017. He qualified second, one of only three Chevrolet-powered machines to reach the Fast Nine Shootout; and the only Chevrolet to qualify in the top five. But race day was a different story. A series of misfortunes foiled the chances for victory for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Carpenter and teammate J.R. Hildebrand were able to stretch their first fuel stint longer than their rival Honda entries, allowing Carpenter to lead five laps during the first sequence of pit stops. Carpenter ran no worse than 7th, until a near collision in the pits on lap 82 dropped him to 13th. He worked his way back into the top ten, but during a series of yellow-flag pit stops around lap 137, he was shuffled back to 18th. On the lap 142 restart, he was mired in traffic and almost got stuck between Pippa Mann and Mikhail Aleshin going into turn one. He got loose and clipped Aleshin’s sidepod, which broke off his front own wing. Carpenter was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop to replace the nosecone/wing assembly. Carpenter finished 11th. (ERC 5/27/17)

2018 — Simon Pagenaud (6th place, 200 laps)
Making his seventh Indy 500 start, Simon Pagenaud (still a year away from his 2019 victory), was making his second front-row start. Penske Racing qualified 2nd-3rd-4th, with Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden, but none could beat polesitter Ed Carpenter, who was about 1 mph faster than all three. On a very hot afternoon, Pagenaud ran in the top five much of the day, but was not a factor for the win. He led one lap (lap 174) during a sequence of pit stops. Meanwhile his teammate Will Power was the winner (from the 3rd starting position), and polesitter Ed Carpenter came home second (his career-best). (Star 5/28/18)

Simon Pagenaud (#22) starts in the middle of the front row, alongside pole-sitter Ed Carpenter (#20) in 2018
(Johnson Collection)

2019 — Ed Carpenter (6th place, 200 laps)
The three-time pole position winner was making his second start from the middle of the front row. He capped off the decade of the 2010s in which the drivers starting second finished the race, completing all 200 laps except one. Carpenter led 7 laps, and was running 3rd on the final restart. Carpenter, however, had lost the balance in his handling, and fell three spots at the end to finish in 6th place. (ERC 5/26/19)

Ed Carpenter, 2019 (Johnson Collection)

2020 — Scott Dixon (2nd place, 200 laps)
The 2008 winner, and (at the time) two-time runner up Scott Dixon qualified second. He was beaten for the pole by Marco Andretti by 0.0113 seconds, the third-closest margin in history. It was Dixon’s fifth overall front row start, and second time starting in the middle of the front row. After the Fast Nine Shootout was completed on Sunday May 16, the post-qualifying practice session was held. Dixon lost control, making contact with the outside wall, then slid across the track making contact with the inside wall. The damage was minor, and the car was repaired such that Dixon returned to the track before the session ended.

On race day, Dixon led the most laps (111) at dominated at times. But he was passed by Takuma Sato on lap 172, which proved to be the winning move of the race. Dixon wound up finishing second, his third runner-up finish.

Scott Dixon in the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing entry races through the final turn of the IMS Road Course during the 2020 Harvest GP. Dixon started second and finished second in the 2020 Indianapolis 500 six weeks earlier. (Johnson Collection)

2021 — Colton Herta (16th place, 200 laps)
In his third career Indy 500 start, Colton Herta qualified for the front row for the first time. On race day, Herta led the first lap, and would lead a total of 13 laps, all in the first half. Herta was running strongly in the top ten until the final stages. During the last stint of the race, Herta’s car suffered from poor handling, and he slipped to 16th at the finish. Though his final position was disappointing, it was the seventh consecutive year the middle of the front row completed all 200 laps.

Colton Herta in 2021 (Johnson Collection)

Statistics

Through the last 52 races (1970-2021), the middle of the front row trails both the pole position and the outside of the front row in most pertinent statistical categories.

Category (1970-2021) Pole
Position
Second
Starting
Position
Third
Starting
Position
Race wins 14 1 9
Top Ten Finishes 33 20 30
Average Finishing Position 11.3 14.9 10.9
Average Laps Completed 162.0 147.6 177.4
Total Laps Completed 8261 7526 9049
Average Laps Led 46.7 24.9 30.5
Total Laps Led 2380 1272 1557
Most last place finishes 4 1 0

Additional References and Works Cited


Revisions

  • Published May 13, 2021
  • Revised June 12, 2021 – Updated to include results from the 2021 race.