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Classic Indianapolis 500

Murray: Gentlemen, Start your coffins!

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Classic Indy 500 moments

ESPN Classic looks back at some of the most memorable moments in the storied history of the Brickyard.

May 19, 1991
Willie T. Ribbs
In 1991, Williy T. Ribbs became the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
In an amazing run that has the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway screaming, Willy T. Ribbs makes history. The 35-year-old driver becomes the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indy 500 with a burst of 217.358 miles per hour, the fastest on the final day of qualifying, to bump former Indy winner Tom Sneva from the field with less than 45 minutes left in the session.

In realizing his boyhood dream, Ribbs, the son of an amateur race driver from San Jose, blew four engines, including two loaned to him by Buick in the final days. Four hours before his historic run, his turbocharger blows up.

But Buick engineers fix the problem and Ribbs qualifies with the four fastest laps he's run this month. He's so elated that when he drives back into the pits he takes both hands off the wheel, with the car still rolling, to wave to the crowd and high-five his crew.

"When you're growing up and it's all you wanted to do in your life, it's very satisfying," Ribbs says. "I didn't have basketball or football heroes. My heroes were race drivers. It's been my life's only ambition."

In the Indy 500 a week later, Ribbs will exit the race after six laps because of engine failure.

May 22, 1977
Last year, Janet Guthrie was the first woman to officially enter the Indy 500, the first woman to drive around the track in actual practice and the first woman driver to complete the mandatory rookie test. However, she did not make a qualifying attempt because her car wasn't fast enough.

This year, she has a faster car. She did more than 191 mph before hitting the wall 12 days ago. Today, the 39-year-old physicist-turned-racer becomes the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 with a four-lap average of 188.403 mph in the No. 27 Lightning-Offenhauser.

"I want to thank my folks for not bringing me up thinking I couldn't do something because I was a woman," Guthrie says. "Over the course of the last year, I've given a lot of thought to the symbolism of being the first woman here. It's important to credit the women's movement with creating the climate that made this possible."

May 24 is a great day for the Unser family at the Indy 500.

Unser's at Indy
Unser Indy 500 win
Bobby 1968
Al 1970
Al 1971
Bobby 1975
Al 1978
Bobby 1981
Al 1987
Al, Jr. 1992
Al, Jr. 1994

1981: Bobby Unser crosses the finish line first, but is penalized a lap by track stewards and Mario Andretti is named the winner. However, Unser and car-owner Roger Penske will appeal the decision to the U.S. Auto Club, and four months later they win their case. It is Unser's third Indy 500 victory.

1987: Al Unser Sr., driving in a year-old car he had to beg to drive, wins his fourth Indy 500, tying A.J. Foyt's record. At 47, Unser is the oldest to win the race. Quite a feat, considering the only reason he was even competing is that Danny Ongais crashed during a practice run and wasn't healthy enough to race. Unser's victory margin is 4.496 seconds over runner-up Roberto Guerrero and his average speed is 162.175 mph.

"It means everything to Dad," says Al Unser Jr., who finishes fourth. "They called him retired and washed up and all that. He's far from that. I've got goose bumps. I'm ecstatic for Dad."

1992: Today, Al Sr. is ecstastic for his son. Al Jr. maintains the family tradition as he beats Canadian Scott Goodyear by .043 seconds in the closest finish in the 76 runnings of the Indy 500. After taking his victory lap, Little Al and his father hug at the end of the pit lane. "We both had tears in our eyes," Little Al says.

May 25, 1980
Despite 13 caution flags that stay up for 60 of the 200 laps and keep the field together, and despite the controversial limitations of power that helped equalize the field, Johnny Rutherford wins the Indy 500 for the third time in seven years.

Rutherford is the first driver in the 64 years of the race to win it twice from the pole position. He averages 142.862 mph, the slowest in 18 years and 16 mph slower than the winner averaged last year.

"We were running like turtles," four-time winner A.J. Foyt says testily.

Rutherford is the fastest turtle, finishing more than a mile ahead of runner-up Tom Sneva. While the green light is on, Rutherford is never passed on the track as he leads for 119 of the 200 laps. "I was not in any serious trouble all day," he says.

That's because no matter the speed -- fast, slow or in-between -- Rutherford's car is the swiftest. "The Chaparral is two or three years ahead of its time," Rutherford says.

May 26, 1991
Rick Mears streaks into Indy 500 history when he wins the event for the fourth time, joining A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. as the only drivers to accomplish the feat.

Mears, 39, gets into the Indy record book after outracing Michael Andretti in a brilliant duel. Andretti has a lead of almost 15 seconds before making a pit stop for a brief splash of fuel when the yellow flag comes out 15 laps from the end. When Andretti gets back on the track, Mears is the leader, but not for long as Andretti makes a bold move and passes him.

However, on the next lap, the usually conservative Mears returns the favor and passes Andretti on the high side and pulls away. "I don't know if I ever have done that before," Mears says. "I got the draft down the straightaway, he stayed down low, and my tires were cool and fresh."

Mears races on to win by 3.1 seconds with an average speed is 176.46 miles per hour in his Penske-Chevrolet. He is the first to win from the pole position three times.

May 27, 1979
The number 27 appears to be good luck for Rick Mears. It's his age when he becomes the youngest driver to win the Indy 500 in 27 years.

In only his second start in the Indy 500, Mears, who started from the pole position, takes control when leader Bobby Unser Sr. loses his fourth gear on the 181st lap.

Mears pilots his Gould Charge to almost a lap victory over A.J. Foyt, who nurses a sick engine to finish second. In becoming the youngest winner since 22-year-old Troy Ruttman in 1952, Mears averages 158.899 miles per hour.

"Rick drove a great race and stayed out of trouble," says four-time winner Foyt. By 1991, Mears will join Foyt and Al Unser Sr. as the winningest Indy drivers with four victories each.

May 29, 1977
Janet Guthrie
In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500.
A.J. Foyt, the people's choice, wages a brilliant and grueling bumper-to-bumper battle with Gordon Johncock at the Indy 500. But under the pressure of Foyt's pursuit, Johncock's engine blows on the final turn of the 184th lap and the driver steers his car off the track and parks on the grass. As Foyt zips into the lead in his red Gilmore Coyote, Johncock waves to him.

Foyt eases up the pace and all but coasts to his fourth Indy 500 victory, the first driver to achieve this feat. He averages 161.331 mph, easily beating runner-up Tom Sneva.

"I talked to the car. I talked to the good Lord and everybody that would listen that I could win and nobody would get hurt today," says Foyt, the 42-year-old grandfather whose previous victories came in 1961, 1964 and 1967.

Finishing 29th in the field of 33 is Janet Gurthrie, the first woman driver in the Indy 500. She completes only 27 laps before her engine fails.

May 30, 1982
Gordon Johncock takes the lead at the Indy 500 on the 160th lap, and with 15 laps left, it looks like he's going to be an easy winner after his last pit stop. But Rick Mears isn't about to let that happen.

Trailing by 11 seconds on lap 186, he reduces his deficit to a half-second by lap 199 and is battling Johncock wheel-to-wheel in the final miles. But Johncock holds off Mears' charge and wins by .16 of a second.

"One more lap," Mears says, "and it could have been 16-hundredths of a second the other way."

"There was no way I was going to back off," Johncock says.

Driving a Wildcat-Cosworth, Johncock averages 162.026 mph in winning his second Indy 500. This time, he goes the full 500 miles; in his 1973 victory, the race was shortened to 133 laps because of rain.

May 31, 1967
With just 10 miles to go, it looks like Parnelli Jones will win the Indy 500 as he has more than a 50-second lead. But then his turbine car's engine fails and he limps into the pits with a failure in the gear box. After leading 171 laps, a $6 bearing prevents Jones from receiving the first-place prize of $105,052.

Taking advantage of Jones' hard luck is A.J. Foyt, who wins the third of his four Indy 500s. The victory is all the sweeter because Foyt Enterprises had built the winning Coyote Ford to Foyt's own specifications and because he had a miserable season in 1966 involving three wrecks.

Foyt avoids a five-car pileup on his final lap and coasts to the finish line more than a lap ahead of runner-up Al Unser Sr. In spite of 64 minutes of yellow lap time, Foyt averages 151.207 mph, the fastest of the 51 Indy 500s.

The race has taken two days to complete. It was stopped yesterday because of rain, with Jones and his turbine special looking sensational in taking the lead through 18 laps.

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