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IMS Writers’ Roundtable, Volume 14: Unsung Defining Moments in Indy 500 History

Today’s question: What’s a defining moment in Indianapolis 500 history that few people bring up in such a discussion?

Curt Cavin: My answer is based on an event which people relatively new to the sport don’t know much about. Rodger Ward is celebrated as a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion – he won in 1959 and ’62 -- but convincing John Cooper, co-founder of England’s Cooper Car Company, to bring a rear-engine car like the one he drove in the 1959 U.S. Grand Prix at Sebring to Indianapolis Motor Speedway is arguably his greatest contribution to the event. Ward didn’t drive the T54 at IMS – that honor went to two-time-reigning Formula One champion Jack Brabham in the fall of 1960 – and then Brabham finished ninth with it in the ’61 race as a rookie. That small and nimble Cooper-Climax started a revolution that changed the sport.

Zach Horrall: When talking about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we often talk about the importance of 1945 and the purchase of the run-down facility by Tony Hulman. But something I think gets overshadowed by that is the 1946 race and how the Indianapolis 500 came roaring back to life. Leading up to that May, there was genuine concern that interest in the race had diminished after a five-year hiatus, but massive crowds showed up that May, traffic jams ensued in the Town of Speedway, speed records were set, “Back Home Again in Indiana” became an Indy 500 tradition, George Robson won, and race fans proved this race was back and better than ever.

Paul Kelly: May 5, 2002 is a date that probably no Indianapolis 500 fan remembers or has circled. But to me, it remains one of the most important dates in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” That was the day that Robby McGehee earned the unwanted distinction of becoming the first driver to impact the revolutionary SAFER Barrier in the four turns at IMS. McGehee spun in Turn 3 during practice and backed into the SAFER Barrier with a massive hit. He suffered broken bones in his back and left leg, ending his participation that year at Indy. But McGehee insisted 15 years later that the outcome could have been much, much worse if he hit bare concrete instead of the new steel-and-foam energy-absorbing barrier. That was a huge initial real-world test of the safety innovation, and it passed. Oval tracks across America then followed the lead of IMS and INDYCAR – which also spearheaded development and funding of the barrier – and quickly began installation of the SAFER Barrier.

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