Indianapolis 500 – Closest Finishes
The closest finishes in the history of the Indianapolis 500, in several distinct categories, are summarized below. Due to changes in the way the race has been run over the years, close finishes for the win did not necessarily become prevalent until the 1970s-1980s. The modern way that yellow flag caution periods have been administered has had the most influence on the proliferation of close competition as well as close finishes. To understand the correlation between cautions and margin of victory, some context and background is needed.
The first yellow light caution system was installed at the Speedway in 1936. If an incident occurred on he track (crash, debris, etc.), the yellow lights would come on around the circuit. From 1936 to 1971, drivers were instructed to slow down and hold their positions under yellow. The field was not bunched up behind a pace car. Passing cars and gaining track position was not permitted when the yellow lights were on, and infractions could be grounds for penalties. The Speedway management felt that drivers who were able to build up a large lead under green should not be penalized and lose it if a caution came out and the field were to be bunched up behind a pace car. Additionally, if the incident was minor, sometimes the yellow light condition lasted less than a lap, and the green was back on after only a minute or so once the situation was safe. Generally, officials wanted as much “natural” green flag racing as possible.
Many drivers and crews found loopholes in the old system. They figured out ways to make up track position under the yellow lights, mostly undetected. From 1972 to 1978, the PACER light number board system was utilized. Similar in concept to the modern Virtual Safety Car (VSC) utilized in Formula One, and the similar “Slow Zones” at Le Mans, a series of number message boards were situated around the track, recording the intervals between the cars. To make things simpler, the intervals were displayed in “units of time”, not exact seconds. The object was to keep the numbers constant around the track. For example, if the caution period began, and a car’s interval was 5 “units” behind the car in front of him, the driver was supposed to maintain 5 units of distance around the track. If the next board he encountered stated 4 units, the driver was going too fast, and needed to slow down a little. If the next board said 6 units, the driver was lagging behind, and needed to speed up slightly. The boards even had three additional small lights on top, which were for “fine-tuning” and represented fractions of a unit. By 1978, all other Indy car races and all other American oval track races utilized a pace car for caution periods, packing up the field with the pace car ahead of the race leader. For safety, most drivers preferred the pack-up rule, conceding it would work for them just as many times as it might work against them. Emergency crews also preferred the pack-up rule, since it would concentrate the race traffic into one pack rather than having cars spread out all over the track. This would allow them to work on cleaning up crashes, debris, etc., with a clear track, and longer time gaps between cars passing through the work zone. After mixed results with the PACER system (and after new ways to “cheat” the system were discovered), USAC adopted the “pack-up” rule, in which the pace car (sometimes known as the safety car) leads the field during yellow flag conditions, beginning in 1979.
For many years, when the winner crossed the finish line, the race was not yet over. Other drivers still on the track were allowed to complete the rest of the race. Until 1963, the policy of the officials was to let as many cars finish the full 500 miles as possible within a reasonable time frame. Some years, it was an even 8, 10, 12, or more, depending upon attrition, and depending upon the closeness of the field. In some early years, drivers were required to complete all 500 miles in order to receive prize money. In early years cars might be running up to an hour or more after the winner finished, but by the 1950s, the additional time was limited to about 15-20 minutes. In those cases, while the winner was in victory lane, cars would still be roaring by on the track, and many spectators would already be heading for the exits. Additional motivation for allowing cars to finish the full 500 was to induct new members into the Champion Spark Plug 100 MPH Club – a prestigious honor which recognized drivers who completed the Indianapolis 500 at an average speed over 100 miles per hour, without relief help.
In 1964-1970, the race was shown on live closed-circuit television. In order to better accommodate the television audience, the extra time to finish the race was reduced to about five minutes. In 1974, fans stormed the track to greet winner Johnny Rutherford on his cool-down lap, despite the fact that other cars were still racing. Officials had to red-flag the course and decided a policy change was in order. Starting in 1975, the race was to be over once the winner crossed the finish line. The remaining cars were allowed to complete the lap they were on, then be “flagged” to the pits. Rain shortened the race in 1975 and 1976, so both finished under the red flag. Without rain, the 1977 race would end up being the first race finished under the new “flagged” to pits rule.
With the “pack-up” rule, as well as increased levels of competition, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, close finishes were becoming more prevalent. Prior to World War II, margins of victory of a lap or even several laps, were commonplace. Large leads that were built up were not erased if a yellow caution period were to come out. In the 1950s and 1960s, on average the margin of victory was about a half a lap. In 1961, A.J. Foyt beat Eddie Sachs by 8.28 seconds, after Sachs gave up the lead to pit for tires. It was the second-closest finish up to that point. By the 1980s, an increased number of cars were finishing on the lead lap, ostensibly aided by the “pack-up” rule during cautions. This inevitably led to closer finishes, especially if a late yellow bunched up the field and set up a restart with only a handful of laps remaining.
Closest Finishes (2-Car)
Closest finishes all-time at the Indianapolis 500 between the 1st place and 2nd place cars. List encompasses all races in which the margin of victory was less than 1 second. The list includes races that finished under caution (denoted in yellow). However, generally speaking, races that finished under yellow are often omitted in official lists.
|2012||Dario Franchitti||0.0295||Scott Dixon||Under caution|
|1992||Al Unser Jr.||0.043||Scott Goodyear||Unofficially 0.0331 seconds|
|2020||Takuma Sato||0.0577||Scott Dixon||Under caution|
|2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||0.0600||Hélio Castroneves|
|2006||Sam Hornish Jr.||0.0635||Marco Andretti||Last lap pass|
|2015||Juan Pablo Montoya||0.1046||Will Power|
|2013||Tony Kanaan||0.1159||Carlos Muñoz||Under caution|
|2005||Dan Wheldon||0.1302||Vitor Meira||Under caution|
|2010||Dario Franchitti||0.1536||Dan Wheldon||Under caution|
|2004||Buddy Rice||0.1559||Tony Kanaan||Under caution (450 miles due to rain)|
|1982||Gordon Johncock||0.16||Rick Mears||Closest finish at the time|
|2017||Takuma Sato||0.2011||Hélio Castroneves|
|2019||Simon Pagenaud||0.2086||Alexander Rossi|
|2003||Gil de Ferran||0.299||Helio Castroneves|
|2007||Dario Franchitti||0.3610||Scott Dixon||Under caution (415 miles due to rain)|
|2021||Hélio Castroneves||0.4928||Álex Palou|
|1997||Arie Luyendyk||0.570||Scott Goodyear||Green & white flag for lap 200|
|1996||Buddy Lazier||0.695||Davy Jones||Green & white flag for lap 200|
The closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history occurred in 1992. Officially, Al Unser Jr. beat second place Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds. However, it is understood that the margin is closer than the official record. Unser was driving a Galmer G92 chassis, a car that was commissioned by Galles-Kraco Racing, designed by Alan Merins, and build in Bicestor, England. At the time, multiple teams in Indy car racing had taken initiative to embark on “in-house” chassis programs, with varying levels of success. Goodyear was driving the more conventional “customer chassis”, a 1992 Lola T92/00 chassis.
At the time, USAC was utilizing the Dorian Automatic Timing Apparatus (DATA-1), a computerized scoring system which had been first introduced in 1990. The DATA-1 scoring system consisted of a series of antennas buried in the track pavement. Each car carried a radio transmitter device. Every time a car passed over one of the embedded antennas, it would relay a signal to the mainframe computer, which kept track of its running position and calculated its speed. The system, innovative, versatile, and revolutionary for its time, was said to be accurate to 1/10,000 of a second. It not only could keep track of as many as 40 cars at the start/finish line, but it could also calculate interval times such as trap speeds down the straightaways and through the corners. It was the first time a fully-automated timing and scoring system was employed, after decades of various manual hand scoring methods, semi-automated methods, and serial scoring with simple paper and pencil.
The transponder device was placed in the left sidepod of each race car. This allowed easy access and established a standard location. Though timing and scoring is typically observed when the front of the car (or the front wheels) touch the finish line, housing the transponder in the sidepods (several feet back from the nose) was irrelevant, since it would be relative for all cars. The Galmer chassis, however, did not have room to accommodate the device in the sidepod location. In 1992, Al Unser Jr. and his teammate Danny Sullivan were the only two cars in the field driving a Galmer. USAC officials that year permitted the team to instead install the transponder in the nose of the car as an alternative.
When Al Unser Jr. crossed the finish line to win the race, his transponder actuated the scoring antenna when the nose of his car crossed the finish line. That is where his radio transponder was located. But Scott Goodyear’s Lola (which had its transponder in the sidepod), did not register his car crossing the finish line until the sidepod crossed the line. That relative distance created a fraction of a second lag. The timing and scoring system calculated a margin of victory of 0.043 seconds, which went into the record books as the official margin. However, about a month after the race, USAC technical director Mike Devin announced that a more accurate margin of victory of 0.0331 second was calculated, taking into account the lag and the relative speeds of the two cars down the straightaway.
Closest Finishes (Three-car)
The closest finishes all-time at the Indianapolis 500 between the 1st-2nd-3rd place cars. This list only includes races that finished under green flag conditions. As noted, prior to the 1970s, it was not common for three cars to be running 1-2-3 close together on the lead lap at the finish.
In the 1986 race, four cars were running on the lead lap towards the end. The top three had been running closely together for nearly the entire race, a mostly unprecedented situation during that era. A late-race yellow set up a restart with only two laps go. Kevin Cogan led Bobby Rahal and polesitter Rick Mears. Rahal got the jump on the restart, and passed Cogan as they crossed the start/finish line. Rahal pulled away for the victory, while Cogan desperately held off Mears to finish a disappointing second. The three-car margin of 1.881 seconds was by-far the closest 1-2-3 finish in Indy history up to that point.
Previously, among the few races with three cars on the same lap at the finish, the 1962 race saw Leader Cards teammates Rodger Ward and Len Sutton finish 1st-2nd, with Eddie Sachs in third (+19.93 seconds).
Rahal’s mark has since been bettered several times, but still ranks as the 8th-closest such margin.
|Second Place||Third Place|
|2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||0.3171||Hélio Castroneves||Marco Andretti|
|2019||Simon Pagenaud||0.3431||Alexander Rossi||Takuma Sato|
|2017||Takuma Sato||0.5278||Hélio Castroneves||Ed Jones|
|2021||Hélio Castroneves||0.5626||Álex Palou||Simon Pagenaud|
|2015||Juan Pablo Montoya||0.7950||Will Power||Charlie Kimball|
|2006||Sam Hornish Jr.||1.0087||Marco Andretti||Michael Andretti|
|2003||Gil de Ferran||1.2475||Hélio Castroneves||Tony Kanaan|
|1986||Bobby Rahal||1.881||Kevin Cogan||Rick Mears|
In the 1984 race, the Dataspeed system crashed around lap 70. Officials were forced to revert to back-up hand scoring methods for the remainder of the race. Rick Mears won the 1984 race by two laps, so at no time was there much uncertainty as to who was leading the race. However, it took a longer time to produce the official timing reports for some of the other positions.
Closest Multi-Car Finishes
The closest finishes between the winner and various other finishing positions at the Indianapolis 500. The most cars ever to finish the entire 200 laps/500 miles on the lead lap was twenty-two in 2021.
In 2021, a total of thirty cars were running at the finish, a race record. Of those thirty, 22 of the cars were on the lead lap, and eight were running either 1, 2, or 3 laps down at the checkered flag. The 31st place car completed a record 169 laps, and the 32nd place car completed a record 118 laps. It was the first time the 32nd place finisher made it beyond the halfway point of the race. The most laps ever completed by the 33rd place finisher (last place in most years) was 74 in the 1954 race.
|2 cars||1992||Al Unser Jr.||0.043||2nd||Scott Goodyear|
|3 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||0.3171||3rd||Marco Andretti|
|4 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||0.7795||4th||Carlos Munoz|
|5 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1.2424||5th||Ed Carpenter|
|6 cars||2017||Takuma Sato||1.7154||6th||Juan Pablo Montoya|
|7 cars||2017||Takuma Sato||2.4222||7th||Alexander Rossi|
|8 cars||2017||Takuma Sato||2.5410||8th||Marco Andretti|
|9 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||3.2848||9th||Sage Karam|
|10 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||3.4704||10th||J.R. Hildebrand|
|11 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||4.1077||11th||Oriol Servia|
|12 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||4.5677||12th||Simon Pagenaud|
|13 cars||2017||Takuma Sato||5.6993||13th||Mikhail Aleshin|
|14 cars||2017||Takuma Sato||6.0513||14th||Simon Pagenaud|
|15 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||8.5936||15th||Sebastian Saavedra|
|16 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||9.1043||16th||James Davison|
|17 cars||2015||Juan Pablo Montoya||11.2151||17th||Alex Tagliani|
|18 cars||2015||Juan Pablo Montoya||12.0431||18th||James Jakes|
|19 cars||2015||Juan Pablo Montoya||12.7328||19th||Simona de Silvestro|
|20 cars||2014||Ryan Hunter-Reay||13.8391||20th||Jack Hawksworth|
|21 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||40.8464||21st||James Hinchcliffe|
|22 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||41.5762||22nd||Ryan Hunter-Reay|
|23 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap + 6.2217||23rd||Dalton Kellet (199 laps)|
|24 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap +15.9350||24th||Max Chilton (199 laps)|
|25 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap + 21.4109||25th||Pietro Fittipaldi (199 laps)|
|26 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap + 25.3524||26th||Sebastien Bourdais (199 laps)|
|27 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap + 26.1254||27th||Felix Rosenqvist (199 laps)|
|28 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||1 lap + 36.9611||28th||Ed Jones (199 laps)|
|29 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||2 laps + 21.3441||29th||Alexander Rossi (198 laps)|
|30 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||3 laps + 13.8833||30th||Will Power (197 laps)|
|31 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||-31 laps||31st||Simona de Silvestro (169 laps)|
|32 cars||2021||Hélio Castroneves||-82 laps||32nd||Graham Rahal (118 laps)|
|33 cars||1954||Bill Vukovich||-126 laps||33rd||Bill Homeier (74 laps)|
Al Unser Jr.’s split-second margin of victory in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 set a record for the closest finish in Indy 500 history which still stands as of 2021. It bested the famous 1982 race in which Gordon Johncock beat Rick Mears by a then-record 0.16 seconds. Prior to that, the closest finish in “500” history had happened in 1937. Wilbur Shaw beat the hard-charging Ralph Hepburn by a mere 2.16 seconds, an almost unheard of margin at the time.
The 1992 Indy 500 was also the closest finish at the time for any race in the history of Indy car racing. It beat the 1986 CART Budweiser/G.I. Joe’s 200, at Portland International Raceway, where Mario Andretti beat Michael Andretti to the finsh line by 0.070 seconds. Unser also set a mark for the closest finish ever for a 500-mile Indy car race. Previously that record was 0.14 seconds (Mario Andretti over Tom Sneva) at the 1984 Michigan 500
During the decade of the 2000s, the Indy Racing League/IndyCar Series had a succession of very close side-by-side finishes, particularly on the 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” intermediate ovals. The all-time closest finish in the history of the IRL/IndyCar Series occurred on September 8, 2002. Sam Hornish Jr. edged Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds at the Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. Chicagoland Speedway was also the site of the closest finish in the history of the Indy Lights Series (then known as the Indy Pro Series). On September 9, 2007, Logan Gomez beat Alex Lloyd by 0.0005 seconds (approximately 1.65 inches). The Guinness Book of World Records certified the 2007 Chicagoland 100 as the closest margin of victory in an car race.
Al Unser Jr.’s 1992 margin stood as the closest finish in the history of any race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval until 2013. On May 24, 2013 (Carb Day) during the Firestone Freedom 100 for the Indy Lights series, a spectacular four-wide finish shattered the record. Peter Dempsey beat Gabby Chaves by 0.0026 seconds, with Sage Karam, and Carlos Muñoz also side-by-side. First place to fourth place spanned 0.0443 seconds.
The closest finish ever on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course occurred in 2002 during the Formula One race. During the 2002 SAP United States Grand Prix, race leader Michael Schumacher slowed down on the final lap to allow his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello to catch up. The cars crossed the finish line side-by-side, seemingly attempting to stage a “dead heat” or a “photo finish” for Scuderia Ferrari. Barrichello nosed just ahead, and won by 0.011 seconds. Afterwards, it was suggested that Schumacher allowed Barrichello to win as payback for a similar team ordered move (in reverse) at Austria earlier that season.
References & Works Cited
- Drivers to coach Special Olympics The Indianapolis Star 19 May 1982: page 50 via Newspapers.com 28 August 2017.
- Harris, Betsy. Stopwatch idea ‘clicks,’ gives pilot second job The Indianapolis Star 23 May 1982: page 113 via Newspapers.com 13 May 2021.
- McDill, Kent. Computerized Scoring To Be Used 1st Time The Indianapolis News 28 May 1982: page 48 via Newspapers.com 13 May 2021.
- Overpeck, Dave. USAC finds bug in its computer The Indianapolis Star 28 May 1984: page 9 via Newspapers.com 28 August 2017.
- Schwanted, John. Computers find their niche at the old Brickyard The Indianapolis News 2 July 1992: page 13 via Newspapers.com 13 May 2021.
- Mittman, Dick. 500 Finish: 8 feet! The Indianapolis News 25 May 1990: page D-12 via Newspapers.com 13 May 2021.
- Hallinan, Joseph T. Splitting seconds – Time runs out for stopwatches at speedway The Indianapolis Star 25 May 1991: page 27 via Newspapers.com 28 August 2017.
- IndyCar writers’ roundatable: Volume 3
- 8W: 1992 Indianapolis 500 – An Indy record deliberately listed incorrectly
- 1990 CART Media Guide
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