On Saturday’s Bump Day at Indy, the sport was left shocked when Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe was knocked out of the Indy 500 field. Hinchcliffe, who currently sits fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings, took his DNQ in a humble manner, never shifting the blame to anyone else, saying that Indianapolis was a “cruel mistress.”
That last part is quite true. Hinchcliffe isn’t the first fan favorite to miss the show. Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to qualify in 2011, although he did take over Bruno Junqueira’s spot in the field. In 1995, Team Penske drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi missed the field a year after Unser won and Fittipaldi led 145 laps before a late-race crash knocked him out of contention. The list goes on and on, further showing that no one driver or team is larger than the legacy of the Indianapolis 500.
One of the biggest names in American motorsports, Mario Andretti, attempted the Indy 500 29 times, yet finished all 500 miles just five times including his only win in the event in 1969. His run of luck in the event was so troubled that it was dubbed the “Andretti Curse,” as it extended to other Andretti family members including his sons Michael and Jeff, neither of which ever won the 500, and although Marco Andretti is still a competitor at Indy, his 2006 loss as a rookie is seen as the epitome of the curse, as he was leading coming to the checkered flag before being passed in the last 400 feet by Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr.
Smokey Yunick, believed by many to be the greatest engineering mind in racing, made several attempts to win Indy as a crew chief and team owner, which he did in 1960 with Jim Rathmann. He came close again in 1969, with driver Joe Leonard posing a major threat to race leader Andretti, but on lap 150 his radiator was punctured by a hose clamp – a hose clamp! – and he finished sixth in the final rundown. Yunick went on to mount the hose clamp on a wall in the office of his shop in Daytona Beach, Florida. Leonard himself had a heartbreak all his own the year before when his turbine stopped running while he was leading with 10 laps to go.
The 1960 event came down to a battle between Rodger Ward and Rathmann, and although Ward led with five laps to go, he slowed to keep second place once the chord began showing on the right front. The next year Eddie Sachs made a pit stop with three laps remaining when a cord began showing through a tire. 1966 saw Jackie Stewart stopping with 10 laps to go when he began losing oil pressure. In 1967 Parnelli Jones stopped after a gearbox bearing failed with three laps to go after he led over 400 miles. Then, in 1987, perennially snake-bitten Colombian Roberto Guerrero added one of many 500 heartbreaks to his list when his engine stalled on a pit stop on lap 182. Guerrero had taken the lead shortly before when Mario Andretti’s engine had failed after leading 170 of the race’s first 177 laps.
It was Yunick who claimed that the spirit of the Indy 500 was a bull that sat in the first turn. Purely metaphorical, of course, but taking into consideration how difficult it is to win the 500, is it a wonder that only a select number of drivers have won the race more than once? Dario Franchitti is a three-time winner, while Helio Castroneves is also a three-time winner of the event. Only three drivers have won the race four times, with Rick Mears, Al Unser, and A.J. Foyt all managing to tame the bull more than anyone else.
Sometimes, though, the Indy 500 is like Stephen King’s Dark Tower. It’s the nexus of size and time in the racing world, and the road to success is fraught with peril. This isn’t the lowest point for Hinchcliffe at Indy. In 2015 he almost lost his life in a spectacular practice crash that kept him out of the car for the rest of the season. He did eke out a small measure of revenge in 2016 when he returned to win the pole for the 500, only to finish seventh after leading 27 laps.
Ralph DePalma led 196 laps in the 500 in 1912, but with a lap and a half to go a connecting rod broke, ending his dominating run. In 1955, Bill Vukovich was well on the way to his third consecutive win in the 500 but lost his life when lapped cars in front of him tangled and he was collected in the crash. In 2011, JR Hildebrand was set to be the first rookie to win the 500 since Castroneves in 2001, but going high around Charlie Kimball on the last corner of the last lap Hildebrand collided with the wall, leading to Dan Wheldon scoring his second and final 500 win.
All of this goes to show that it’s not an easy road to Indy success. But when that success is reached, it’s the highlight of a career. Andretti’s ’69 500 win was his only win in the event, but had he not won the race at all, his career would forever be deemed incomplete. Meanwhile, Buddy Rice’s lone 500 win kept his career from being mired in semi-obscurity before he followed it up with a 24 Hours of Daytona win in 2009. Buddy Lazier was a relative unknown before his 1996 win in the event which led to a full-time ride, seven more IndyCar wins, and the 2000 series championship. Sam Hanks won the event in 1957. Hanks had raced before and after World War II and had even served in the military. Hanks had made at least 8 FIA starts and retired following his 500 win. 1955 500 winner Bob Sweikert made five FIA starts and finished sixth a year after winning the 500 before losing his life shortly after in a Sprint Car crash.
Indy is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. No legacy can surmount Indy, no matter how big the name. Now, given the current state of the sport, it’s possible that Hinchcliffe and SPM could buy out another entry in order to keep him in the race. But that goes against what makes Indy such a tough race. It’s an indiscriminate animal, indifferent to both driver and team. Only the best make the field, and only the best combination of luck and talent will allow a driver to drink the milk in Victory Lane.
Thank you to Christopher DeHarde (@CDeHarde on Twitter) for research assistance.