It is May once again. Since its inaugural running in 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been one of the world’s most prestigious motorsports events. Despite the 500-mile race producing iconic moments throughout its history, the contest didn’t have particularly close finishes until the 1980s. Technical advances created increasingly faster cars year after year but also contributed to lower rates of attrition.
The introduction of paced caution periods also meant that the 500-mile race and the month of preparation could come down to a sprint of a dozen laps or less. The distance between first and second place at Indianapolis is the difference between immortality and obscurity. Winning “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is a career-defining achievement, and finishing second is a record-book footnote. Here are the 15 closest finishes in Indianapolis 500 history.
15. Helio Wins His Third in 2009 by 1.982 Seconds
2009 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast 1080p
In 2009, Helio Castroneves won his third Indianapolis 500, safely maintaining a gap around two seconds back to Dan Wheldon for the race’s final stint. Castroneves became the sixth driver to win three 500s and the first foreign-born driver to achieve the feat.
14. Dixon Defeats Meira in 2008 by 1.750 Seconds
2008 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast 1080p
In 2008, Scott Dixon won his first and so far only Indianapolis 500 by staying ahead of Vitor Meira as the pair scythed to lap traffic during the closing laps. It also was the first 500 after reunification between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car.
13. Helio Wins His First in 2001 by 1.737 Seconds
2001 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast
Helio Castroneves’ first Indianapolis 500 victory seemed more like a coronation than a competition with Penske teammate Gil de Ferran finishing second. Due to the then-ongoing civil war in IndyCar, Penske returned to the Speedway for the first time since the team’s failure to qualify in 1995.
12. Rahal Wins Two-Lap Sprint in 1986 by 1.441 Seconds
1986 INDIANAPOLIS 500
Arie Luyendyk crashed with six laps to go in the 1986 Indianapolis 500. The race resumed with two laps to go. Bobby Rahal was able to pass Kevin Cogan during the restart and quickly pulled a small lead. In the process, Rahal became the first winner to complete the 500-mile race in under three hours.
11. Lazier Wins the First IRL 500 in 1996 by 0.695 Seconds
1996 INDIANAPOLIS 500
The field for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 was significantly different from the event in prior years as the Spilt resulted in many of IndyCar’s star drivers and prominent teams being shut out from the event. Buddy Lazier won the 500 over Davy Jones, his first-ever IndyCar race victory.
10. Arie Wins Under Controversy in 1997 by 0.570 Seconds
1997 Indianapolis 500 - ORIGINAL TUESDAY COVERAGE
A late-race restart botched by race organizers USAC meant that Scott Goodyear couldn’t make a serious attempt to pass his teammate Arie Luyendyk for the 1997 Indianapolis 500 victory. Treadway Racing still finished 1-2 with Luyendyk beating Goodyear by 0.570 seconds.
9. Helio Wins His Fourth in 2021 by 0.493 Seconds
IndyCar Series: Indianapolis 500 | EXTENDED HIGHLIGHTS | 5/30/21 | Motorsports on NBC
Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in a tense duel with second-year phenom and eventual champion Alex Palou. The 2021 race was one of the most competitive in the event’s history with 361 passes, including 35 lead changes.
8. De Ferran Beats Helio in 2003 by 0.299 Seconds
2003 Indianapolis 500
Gil de Ferran was able to hold for his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves in a six-lap shootout in 2003, avenging his 2001 defeat and preventing Castroneves from becoming the first driver to win the 500 three years in a row. The teammates celebrated together after the race, and De Ferran retired after the season ended as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion.
7. Pagenaud Keeps Rossi Back in 2019 by 0.209 Seconds
RACE REWIND // 103RD RUNNING OF THE INDIANAPOLIS 500 PRES. BY GAINBRIDGE
In 2019, Simon Pagenaud became the first French-born winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Pagenaud had to fend off Alexander Rossi, the rookie winner of the 2016 500.
6. Sato Wins His First in 2017 by 0.201 Seconds
2017 The 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500
In the race overshadowed by the participation of two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, Takuma Sato became the first driver from Japan and Asia to win the Indianapolis 500. Sato fought his way past Max Chilton and Helio Castroneves to take the historic victory.
5. Johncock Survives in 1982 by 0.160 Seconds
1982 Indianapolis 500
It seemed like Gordon Johncock was going to win the 1982 Indianapolis 500 by a comfortable margin when he left his final pit stop with a lead over 11 seconds. However, a handling issue meant that he was losing a lot of time to second-place runner Rick Mears. Mears caught Johncock on the final lap and attempted to pass him on the run to the finish line. Mears fell short.
4. Montoya Wins Three-Way War in 2015 by 0.105 Seconds
2015 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast
Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2015 Indianapolis 500, a record 15 years after his first 500 victory in 2000. The veteran Colombian outdrove fellow members of IndyCar’s old guard Will Power and Scott Dixon.
3. Hornish Jr. Beats Marco in 2006 by 0.063 Seconds
2006 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast
The final laps of the 2006 Indianapolis 500 had rookie Marco Andretti fighting for the race victory that has eluded members of the Andretti family since Mario’s win in 1969. Marco’s father Michael came out of retirement to race alongside his son, but the father-son duo could hold off Penske’s hard-charging Sam Hornish Jr.
2. Hunter-Reay Outduels Helio in 2014 by 0.060 Seconds
2014 Indianapolis 500 | Official Full-Race Broadcast
After 2006, there wouldn’t be another American winner of the Indianapolis 500 until 2014. Ryan Hunter-Reay held off Helio Castroneves in a six-lap sprint. Hunter-Reay took the lead for the last time at the start of the final lap.
1. Little Al Beats Goodyear in 1992 by 0.043 Seconds
1992 Indianapolis 500
The seven-lap duel between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear is the definitive Indianapolis 500 ending. Filled with uncertainty and emotion all the way to the checkered flag as Goodyear weaved side-to-side, desperately trying to find a way around Little Al. Though, Unser Jr in victory lane, nearly in tears saying, “Well, you just don’t know what Indy means!” Little Al became the first second-generation driver and the third Unser family member to win the 500.
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