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IMS Writers’ Roundtable, Volume 7: Tough Luck at Indy

Today’s question: We’re inside 100 days until the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30, a race that delivers immortality to its winners. But what about the drivers who were so close to winning and didn’t get to drive into Victory Lane? Who is one driver you wish the racing gods had been kinder to late in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

Curt Cavin: Michael Andretti is easily the non-winner who most deserved good luck at the end of a “500” (thinking 1992 and 2006, in particular). I also considered Roberto Guerrero, who after finishing second, third and fourth in consecutive “500s” was primed to win in 1987 before twice stalling the car on his final pit stop, handing Al Unser his record-tying fourth win. But my selection here centers on a moment that could have changed a man’s life. Kevin Cogan was leading Bobby Rahal by more than 10 car lengths in 1986 when second-year driver Arie Luyendyk spun off Turn 4 to set up a two-lap shootout. On the restart, Rahal got the jump on Cogan, the driver who had been vilified for the race-starting crash in 1982 and was seriously injured in 1989 when his car split on impact with the pit road attenuator. Cogan did not deserve the ’82 criticism as there was evidence to suggest equipment failure, and he wasn’t owed anything in ’86. But he left the sport badly broken and very bitter, and the racing gods could have done something about that.

Zach Horrall: Ah, a game of “What if?” My favorite! So many wonders run through my head: JR Hildebrand in 2011? Ed Carpenter in 2018? But the one that sticks out the most is what if Danica Patrick didn’t have to save fuel at the end of the 2005 Indianapolis 500? Patrick made a huge splash that year, showing impressive speed all month, and she narrowly missed qualifying on the front row (who could forget that Turn 1 bobble?). On Race Day, she held her own and ran near the front for most of the day until that Lap 155 spin. Sure, that incident is what gave her the strategy to be in position to take the lead from Dan Wheldon on Lap 190, but don’t overlook that she had the speed at the end to compete with Wheldon. After Wheldon passed Patrick on Lap 194, she stayed with him and was even closing in on him before she had to back off and save fuel. What if she didn’t need to back off at the end? Could she have gotten back by Wheldon, or would she have even given up the lead in the first place? The 89th Indy 500 is already one of the most iconic in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for Patrick’s performance, but just imagine how big it would have been if Patrick was the one drinking the milk in 2005. She will always be the one I wish the racing gods had been kinder to.

Paul Kelly: As Curt and Zach mentioned, there has been just as much heartbreak as joy at Indianapolis for the last 110 years. So, the historical pool in which to swim is deep on this one. But it didn’t take me too long to determine my answer on this one since history probably would have changed so much if this driver entered Victory Lane at Indianapolis. The 2002 Indy 500 will live in history for two big reasons: One, it was the second straight win in as many “500” starts for Helio Castroneves, catapulting him to global racing stardom. Two, there was an extended controversy about whether Castroneves or Paul Tracy was leading when Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier crashed on Lap 199, triggering the final caution and ending the race. Castroneves finally was ruled as the winner after lengthy protests and appeals. But here’s a fact many forget: Tomas Scheckter led the race by nearly 10 seconds when he crashed his Red Bull Cheever Racing Infiniti by himself in Turn 4 on Lap 173, just seven laps before his scheduled final pit stop. Before that wreck, the race appeared over: Scheckter was gone, long gone. Rookie Scheckter was brash, fast, fun and only 21, and would have been one of the youngest “500” winners in history. He would have made global headlines as the son of Ferrari Formula One World Champion Jody Scheckter winning “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” And he would have put the Infiniti engine in the winner’s circle at Indy, possibly keeping that engine manufacturer in the series. History would have been completely rewritten.

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