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The last 20 years have produced many changes in the...

May 18, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — The last 20 years have produced many changes in the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but one constant has been the excitement of the unexpected that has continued to make it the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

There have been five multiple winners in that span, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, Al Unser Jr. and Helio Castroneves. Plus, Al Unser Sr. posted the last of his four victories.

Six winners, accounting for nine victories, were foreign-born: Fittipaldi and Castroneves from Brazil; Luyendyk from the Netherlands; Jaques Villeneuve from Canada; Kenny Brack from Sweden and Juan Montoya from Colombia.

There was not always a new winner but each race had its memorable moments.

There have been Danny Sullivan's "spin and win" year in 1985, the wire-to-wire wins of Mears in 1988 and 1991, Al Unser Jr.'s failed attempt to block Tom Sneva so Unser's dad could win in 1983 and, four years later, Big Al becoming the oldest winner, driving what had been a show car a few weeks earlier.

Memorable also were Scott Goodyear's finishing first in 1995 but being disqualified for ignoring a black flag ordering him to his pit, giving the win to fellow Canadian Villeneuve; Luyendyk's living up to his Flying Dutchman name with the fastest 500 in history in 1990, Little Al's eyelash margin of .043 of a second over Goodyear in 1992, Buddy Lazier's dramatic victory in 1996, even though he was driving with a broken back.

Then there was Robby Gordon running out of fuel two laps from the checkered flag while leading in 1999, giving the victory to Brack, and of course, last year's controversial finish between Castroneves and Paul Tracy, both drivers claiming victory amid the confusion of a late yellow flag.

All of those winning drivers are alive, testimony, perhaps, to the safety of the modern race car. A few decades earlier, fatalities were commonplace -- and expected. As it is now, the last 500 winner to have lost his life in a race car was Mark Donohue, the 1972 winner. He was killed while practicing for a Formula One race in Austria in 1975.

Eight of the 14 winners are still full-time drivers.

Here's a look at the men whose likenesses are on the Borg-Warner Trophy for the last 20 years, how they won and what they are doing now:

TOM SNEVA, 1983

After posting runner-up finishes in 1977, 1978 and 1980, the former schoolteacher from Spokane, Wash., finally broke through to win. Sneva had been the first driver over 200 mph at the speedway in 1977 and had twice started on the pole, but in '83, with rookie Teo Fabi a surprise pole winner, he started fourth. Sneva, who had been fired by car owner Roger Penske, despite having won two national championships, drove the Texaco Star, a March-Cosworth, for Bignotti-Cotter. It was his 10th start in the 500.

The race was the first with a father-son entry as Al Unser Jr. made his rookie appearance. He provided some drama near the finish when, several laps down, he tried to make it difficult for Sneva to pass him, hoping that his father, Big Al, might catch Sneva. Sneva managed to get around Little Al, however, and cruised to an 11-second win.

Sneva lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and is co-owner of a company that designs, constructs and operates golf courses. He also was an ABC-TV analyst for three years at Indy Racing League races.

RICK MEARS, 1984, 1988, 1991

After having won in 1979, the one-time off-road racer from Bakersfield cemented his reputation as one of the greatest oval drivers in history, winning from the front row all three times, qualifying on the pole six times -- half of the 12 by Penske drivers -- and starting from the front row a record 11 times.

He won in all ways, dominating in 1984, when he led 119 of 200 laps and finished two laps ahead of Roberto Guerrero; running the race's fastest lap of 209.517 mph in 1988 on Lap 168 and pulling away from runner-up Fittipaldi, and in 1991 coming from far back in the field by working with his crew to improve the car as the race developed. He took the lead on Lap 188 and beat Michael Andretti by three seconds.

All of Mears' 15 Indy 500s were with Penske and after abruptly retiring at the team banquet in 1992, Mears, who lives in Jupiter, Fla., remained with the team as coach and team advisor. Both current Penske drivers, two-time winner Castroneves and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran, credit Mears with masterminding their Penske team successes.

DANNY SULLIVAN, 1985

The son of a well-to-do Louisville family, Sullivan set out on his own to become a race driver. One of the things he did along the way was drive a cab in New York.

So, after spinning in front of Mario Andretti in the first turn in a battle for the lead, Sullivan jokingly credited what he'd learned as a cabby for saving his car. He later re-passed Andretti and beat him by two seconds, frustrating Andretti, who'd led for 107 laps. Sullivan's victory, in a March-Cosworth, was the second in succession for Penske.

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