Friday, June 26, 2015

The History of 500-Milers

IndyCar and 500-mile races have a long history beyond the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.

With this weekend's race from Fontana being the second 500-mile race, I decided to look into the history of 500-milers. I have long been wondering more about the history of 500-mile races in IndyCar. How many have there been? Who has won the most 500-mile races? What other places have hosted 500-milers?

After counting, there have been 162 500-mile races in the history of IndyCar and the track to host the most is unsurprisingly Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The famed 2.5-mile over has hosted 98 500-mile races. And I bet you just did a double take. And I bet you are saying that is wrong. And I bet you are saying Indianapolis Motor Speedway has hosted 99 500-mile races. And you would be wrong. The 1916 running of the race traditionally held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend was scheduled for 300 miles. While counted it is an "Indianapolis 500"it wasn't scheduled for 500 miles, therefore it can't be counted as a 500-mile race. The 162 races I have counted do count races that were scheduled for 500 miles but did not reach the full-distance. So it includes the 1950, 1973, 1975, 1976, 2004 and 2007 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, the 1975 and 1981 runnings of the Pocono 500 and the 2001 running of the California 500 from Fontana.

As you know, this weekend's race is the second leg of the Triple Crown. You may have saw the fact sheet has posted. It says there has been 21 years of the Triple Crown and the first occurred in 1971. However, 1971 wasn't the first year that featured three 500-mile IndyCar races in one year. In fact, it was 100 years ago. In 1915, there were three 500-mile races. The first was the Indianapolis 500. The next happened 100 years ago today; June 26, 1915 at Speedway Park, a 2-mile board track outside Chicago in Maywood, Illinois. The third 500-miler occurred at Twin City Motor Speedway, a 2-mile concrete oval in Fort Snelling, Minnesota on September 4, 1915. Ralph DePalma won the Indianapolis 500, Dario Resta won at Speedway Park and Earl Cooper and Johnny Aitken won in Minnesota.

It would be 55 years and 2 days before IndyCar ran another 500-mile race at track other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ontario Motor Speedway hosted the inaugural California 500 on September 6, 1970. Jim McElreath won from 18th on the grid and it would be his fifth and final IndyCar victory. If you though McElreath from 18th winning was a surprise, Art Pollard finished 2nd and started 32nd and Dick Simon finished 3rd from 27th! It was Simon's first career podium and his first finish on the lead lap in ten starts. Gordon Johncock and Peter Revson were the only other two drivers to finish on the lead lap.

The following year, Pocono Raceway opened its doors and the Triple Crown was born or at least revived (got to give 1915 some type of recognition). The Triple Crown would be Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario for ten years. Only once was it accomplished. Al Unser 1978. The same year Affirmed won the American thoroughbred racing Triple Crown. Other came close from 1971-1980. Johnny Rutherford won two of three but the latter two (Indianapolis and Pocono). A.J. Foyt won the bookends the following year (Ontario and Pocono) and Bobby Unser would win the latter two (Pocono and Ontario) in 1980.

Ontario Motor Speedway would host 11 California 500s with the last one coming in 1980. Bobby Unser won the California 500 four times while his brother Al won it twice. Joining McElreath as one-time winners of the California 500 at Ontario were Joe Leonard, Roger McCluskey, Wally Dallenbach and A.J. Foyt.

In 1981, Michigan stepped up and filled the gap for Ontario. Michigan had been on the IndyCar schedule since 1968 but the longest race it held prior to 1981 was 250 miles. Pancho Carter would win the first Michigan 500. It was Carter's only IndyCar victory and it took him 78 starts to get it. Gordon Johncock won the first two legs in 1982 at Indianapolis and Michigan but finished sixth at Pocono after a gearbox failure ended his race after completing only 193 laps. Rick Mears would go on to win.

According to the Racer fact sheet, Johncock is the last driver to win two Triple Crown legs in one year and that after 1989, the Triple Crown would go dormant in IndyCar as the series did not return to Pocono after an 18-year run. However, 1989 would not be the final year to feature multiple 500-mile races in the same year. Indianapolis and Michigan still each hosted a 500-mile race. In 1991, Rick Mears accomplished The Double as he won his fourth Indianapolis 500 and the Marlboro 500 at Michigan. The Marlboro 500 victory would be Mears' 29th and final IndyCar victory. There would be two 500-mile races until 1995. And then things got messy.

We all know about the split. We all know about how dirty 1996 was. We all know there were two 500-mile races held on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend that year. The Indianapolis 500 vs. the U.S. 500. Buddy Lazier won with a broken back and Jimmy Vasser won his fourth race of the year on his way to a championship. Later that year, CART returned to Michigan for the Marlboro 500 and André Ribeiro scored his third and final IndyCar victory. The following year, the Marlboro 500 moved to the newly opened California Speedway in Fontana, California. From 1996-2001 there were three 500-mile IndyCar races a year, they were just split across two series, making the Triple Crown a near impossible task due to politics.

Politics may have made the Triple Crown a near impossible task but it was still possible and it nearly happened at the turn of the millennium. Chip Ganassi Racing went to Indianapolis for the first time since the split and Juan Montoya won the Indianapolis 500. Two months later at Michigan, Montoya won the Michigan 500. The Colombian headed into his final IndyCar race before heading to Williams F1 with a chance of being the second driver to accomplish the IndyCar Triple Crown. However, just like Johncock in 1982, it wasn't meant to be. Montoya led 33 laps and his engine failed after completing 219 laps. He would finish tenth. Christian Fittipaldi scored his second and final IndyCar victory.

After 2001, Michigan left CART to host the IRL and at that time the IRL was keen on the Indianapolis 500 being the only 500-mile race on the schedule and Michigan was shortened to 400 miles. Fontana still hosted a 500-miler though and in 2002, both the IRL and CART went to Fontana with IRL racing a 400-miler in March and CART running 500 miles in the fall. Sam Hornish, Jr. won one, Jimmy Vasser won the other. It would be the final victory of Vasser's career. CART was scheduled to run another 500-miler at Fontana in 2003 but wildfires in the San Bernardino caused what was suppose to be the CART season finale to be cancelled. The Indianapolis 500 would be the lone 500-mile race for nearly a decade.

The IRL would run 400-milers at Fontana until 2005. IndyCar would return to the track and 500-mile races places other than Indianapolis in 2012. Pocono returned in 2013 and so did the Triple Crown, however that year's race at Pocono was a 400-miler. In 2014, another 100 miles were added to the distance at Pocono. Just when thinks looked to be going up for IndyCar and 500-mile races, it appears everything is falling apart at the seams. After just two years of three 500-mile races, this year could mark the end for Fontana and Pocono. Fontana is on its fourth different date in four years and Pocono is in the final year of its deal and moved to the end of August after racing on July 4th weekend proved to be only good on paper. As someone who attended both Pocono races on July 4th weekend I am sure the mess on I-80 that the track funneled all the traffic to when the race ended turned off a few people from returning. Hopefully late August proves to be a better date and Pocono returns not just for 2016 but for many years in the future and the same goes for Fontana. Hopefully the 2-mile Southern California track is on the IndyCar schedule for a long, long time.

It is no surprise that A.J. Foyt has the most 500-mile race wins with nine (Indianapolis- 4, Pocono 4, Ontario 1). Al Unser, Rick Mears and Bobby Unser all have eight 500-mile race wins. Johnny Rutherford has five; Juan Pablo Montoya and Danny Sullivan each have four. Ninety-three different drivers have won a 500-mile IndyCar race. Nine drivers have won 500-mile races on three different tracks (Foyt, Mears, A. Unser, B. Unser, Rutherford, Montoya, Sullivan, Mario Andretti and Tony Kanaan). If Montoya were to win at Fontana this weekend, he would become the first driver to win 500-mile races at four different tracks. If Montoya doesn't win this weekend and if Tony Kanaan were to win a Pocono later this year, Kanaan would become the first driver to win 500-mile races at four different tracks. Jimmy Vasser has the most 500-mile victories to not win the Indianapolis 500 at three. The only other drivers with multiple 500-mile victories and to not win at Indianapolis are Joe Leonard, Michael Andretti and Scott Goodyear. Leonard won at Pocono and Ontario while Andretti and Goodyear both won two 500-milers at Michigan.

No surprise that the United States has produced the most 500-mile winners with 64. Brazil and the United Kingdom have each had seven drivers win a 500-miler. Four Canadians, three Italians, two Frenchmen, a Mexican, Colombian, Dutchman, Swede, New Zealander and Australian have all won a 500-mile race.

Will a 94th driver add their name to the list of 500-mile race winners? Will Montoya make history and keep his Triple Crown hopes alive? The 163rd 500-mile race in IndyCar history features a lot of interesting storylines.

List of 500-mile Race Winners
A.J. Foyt- 9
Al Unser- 8
Rick Mears- 8
Bobby Unser- 8
Johnny Rutherford- 5
Juan Pablo Montoya- 4
Danny Sullivan- 4
Louis Meyer- 3
Mauri Rose- 3
Wilbur Shaw- 3
Hélio Castroneves- 3
Dario Franchitti- 3
Mario Andretti- 3
Jimmy Vasser- 3
Al Unser, Jr.- 3
Gordon Johncock- 3
Tony Kanaan- 3
Emerson Fittipaldi- 3
Tommy Milton- 2
Bill Vukovich- 2
Rodger Ward- 2
Arie Luyendyk- 2
Dan Wheldon- 2
Mark Donohue- 2
Joe Leonard- 2
Michael Andretti- 2
Scott Goodyear- 2
Bobby Rahal- 2
Tom Sneva- 2
Ray Harroun- 1
Joe Dawson- 1
Jules Goux- 1
René Thomas- 1
Ralph DePalma- 1
Dario Resta- 1
Howdy Wilcox- 1
Gaston Chevrolet- 1
Jimmy Murphy- 1
L.L. Corum- 1
Joe Boyer- 1
Pete DePaolo- 1
Frank Lockhart- 1
George Souders- 1
Ray Keech- 1
Billy Arnold- 1
Louis Schneider- 1
Fred Frame- 1
Bill Cummings- 1
Kelly Petillo- 1
Floyd Roberts- 1
Floyd Davis- 1
George Robson- 1
Bill Holland- 1
Johnnie Parsons- 1
Lee Wallard- 1
Troy Ruttman- 1
Bill Sweikert- 1
Pat Flaherty- 1
Sam Hanks- 1
Jimmy Bryan- 1
Jim Rathmann- 1
Parnelli Jones- 1
Jim Clark- 1
Graham Hill- 1
Jacques Villeneuve- 1
Buddy Lazier- 1
Eddie Cheever- 1
Kenny Bräck- 1
Buddy Rice- 1
Gil de Ferran- 1
Sam Hornish, Jr.- 1
Scott Dixon- 1
Ryan Hunter-Reay- 1
Mark Blundell- 1
Adrián Fernández- 1
Christian Fittipaldi- 1
Cristiano da Matta- 1
Patrick Carpentier- 1
Ed Carpenter- 1
Will Power- 1
Teo Fabi- 1
Pancho Carter- 1
John Paul, Jr.- 1
Nigel Mansell- 1
Scott Pruett- 1
André Ribeiro- 1
Alex Zanardi- 1
Greg Moore- 1
Jim McElreath- 1
Roger McCluskey- 1
Wally Dallenbach- 1
Earl Cooper- 1
Johnny Aitken- 1