By: Spencer Neff
May 21, 2020 | 10:07 AM
As we await the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, the Indianapolis 500 will not occupy its traditional May slot. Due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the race was rescheduled from its original date of May 24 to August 23.
While the IndyCar world looks forward to the 104th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, Open-Wheels will take a look back in history. Sunday marks the 28th anniversary of the closest finish in the race’s storied past – the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
Although the late-race duel is the highlight, the race and month of May itself featured a host of memorable moments.
Unser Jr. tops Gooodyear in closest finish ever
Engine manufacturers once again became the talk of Gasoline Alley as Ford returned to the fray for the first time since 1972, serving as the badge on Cosworth’s engines.
Included in their open-wheel re-emergence are Newman-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing, featuring former “500” winners Mario Andretti and Arie Luyendyk, along with defending series champion Michael Andretti and former F1 racer Eddie Cheever Jr.
Once practice began on May 2, it was General Motors’ efforts which led the way, with Buick being particularly strong. Roberto Guerrero stole the show with a blistering four-lap average of 232.482 mph to take the pole and track record on the first weekend of qualifying.
Less than five years after a near-fatal testing crash at IMS, Guerrero showed the same promise that helped lead him to four top-four finishes in the race during his first four starts.
With the increase in speeds came an inevitable increase in risk. Throughout the month, several drivers suffered injuries that sidelined them for the month, including Nelson Piquet. For the three-time Formula 1 World Driving Champion, the “500” would have to wait.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck at the speedway six days following Piquet’s accident when rookie Jovy Marcello was fatally injured in a practice crash.
Race day morning arrived with cold temperatures and overcast skies. During the pace laps, Guerrero spun into the backstretch inside wall while warming his tires, ending his day before the green flag.
Once the race starts, the father-son tandem at Newman-Haas set the early pace as Mario and Michael used their Ford-Cosworth power to remain up front.
Looking for the win that eluded him a year earlier following a late-race duel with Rick Mears, Michael led the field for 77 of the first 87 laps.
Although just two cautions slowed the race in the first 61 laps, attrition picked up and became a major factor throughout the day. For the next 29 laps, the race was run under the yellow flag as three separate incidents slowed the pace.
During a Lap 75 crash in the south chute, Jim Crawford, 1989 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, and Mears all suffer minor injuries. On the Lap 82 restart, Mario Andretti crashed in Turn 4 and suffered broken toes on both feet.
As Michael continued to dominate the running, his brother Jeff was involved in a jarring Turn 2 crash on Lap 115 after a wheel hub breaks, causing severe orthopedic injuries.
With the laps dwindling, Michael sets the all-time fastest mark at 229.118 mph on Lap 166. Behind Michael, Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear battle for second nearly a half-lap behind. After replacing teammate Mike Groff’s qualified spot, Goodyear started 33rd and made his way into the picture.
On Lap 189, Andretti’s Lola sputtered on the back straightaway and his day is ended by a broken fuel pump.
Following the caution, Unser Jr. and Goodyear would begin a seven-lap fight to the finish.
On the final lap, Goodyear is able to get alongside of Unser Jr.’s Galmer-Chevrolet but is unable to pass him at the Yard of Bricks. In the closest finish in the race’s history, the second-generation racer wins for Galles-Kraco Racing in his tenth start by just .043 of a second.
Three years after his epic battle with Fittipaldi ended in a heartbreaking crash, Unser Jr. added his name to the family legacy at IMS. In Victory Lane, an emotional “Little Al” told ABC’s Jack Arute, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
While his father, Al finished third and Uncle Bobby drove the pace car while commentating for ABC, the youngest Unser added an eighth “500” win to the family’s mantle.
Despite a tenacious effort in the closing laps, Goodyear fell just short in his bid to become the first Canadian-born winner of the race. Two months later, he would earn his first victory in the Marlboro 500 at Michigan International Speedway.
Two years later, Unser Jr. wins from the pole in his first and only “500” with Team Penske. In 1995, Unser Jr. and teammate Fittipaldi would fail to qualify.
With 11 laps remaining in that 1995 race, Goodyear was running up front when he passed the pace car coming back to green – and is black-flagged for refusing to serve the penalty. In 1997, Goodyear also finishes second as teammate Arie Luyendyk sped away during a late-race restart.
For Michael Andretti, the heartbreak of losing his best shot at the Borg-Warner Trophy is compounded by the accidents of his father and brother. All recover but Michael leaves for F1 in 1993. While he returned to Ganassi in 1994 in his father’s final race, 1992 marks their last season as teammates.
With an 11th-place finish, Lyn St. James became the first female Rookie of the Year. After qualifying 27th, the Dick Simon Racing driver became the second woman and first since 1979 (Janet Guthrie) to compete in the race.
Also of note, Al Jr.’s win put the Unser family at 3-for-3 in 500s ran on May 24 (Bobby in 1981 and Al in 1987).
In 1998, Chief Mechanic Owen Snyder wins with Eddie Cheever Jr on May 24. Cheever Jr. also became the third new driver from the 1992 field to win a “500” (Buddy Lazier – 1996). Of the 33 starters, there were 10 previous winners as well.
Header Image By IndyCar