By: Spencer Neff
February 21, 2019 | 6:35 AM
Each year, the Indianapolis 500 presents an interesting cross-section of past, present and future. The race’s history, dating back to 1911, is celebrated with the esteem of events like the Kentucky Derby and the Masters.
Thousands of fans flock from around the world to see the race and witness a part of history each year. They do this with the knowledge that they are witnessing some of the greatest racers on earth. Fans and many other observers of the race also look forward to the evolutions and revolutions prevalent in each race.
The race distance has remained the same, 200 miles around the 2.5-mile rectangle-shaped track. However, that is one of the few elements of the race that has remained a constant. In the 102 runnings, almost every element of the Indianapolis 500 has changed.
For this week’s IndyCar Flashback, we recall the 2012 Indianapolis 500, a race that exemplifies this cross-section more than almost any of recent times.
Franchitti Takes 3rd 500 after Sato’s Last Lap Crash
The lead-up to the 96th Indianapolis 500 was interesting for a plethora of reasons, both exciting and saddening.
On track, the new Dallara DW12 chassis would make its debut on an oval as it was the first time the “500” was the first oval of the season since 1985.
After turbo-charged engines had been phased out in 1996, Honda debuted a new 2.2-liter V6 turbo engine. Chevrolet (2005) and Lotus (first-time) also returned to provide engines for the IndyCar Series.
Despite all the excitement, there was an aura of sadness around the race. In October 2011, Dan Wheldon, winner of the 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500, passed away after a racing accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Tributes from around the racing world poured in for the popular driver. Most notably, the new Dallara chassis he spent much of 2011 testing and developing was renamed DW12 in his honor.
Honda-powered teams, mainly the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of 2008 winner Scott Dixon and 2007 and 2010 winner Dario Frnachitti, dominated the first week of practice.
With complaints about the lack of speed from the new engine and chassis combo, IndyCar implemented an increase in turbocharger boost for qualifying weekend. The extra horsepower would turn the tables in Chevrolet’s favor.
Ryan Briscoe earned a record-extending 17th pole for Team Penske. Briscoe would lead a Chevrolet lockout of the front two rows. Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing rookie and 2011 Indy Lights Champion, is the lone Honda-powered entry in the Top 10.
When Carb Day practice rolls around, Honda’s advantage becomes clear once again. Franchitti and Dixon (qualified 16th and 15th) lead the final practice after receiving an upgrade of their Honda engines.
Briscoe and second-place starter James Hinchcliffe each lead three separate times. With this being done in the first 19 laps, the DW12’s drafting prowess is further on display.
With the exception of a four-lap caution Bryan Clauson’s Lap 14 spin, the first 79 laps are run under green. The two Lotus-powered entries of full-timer Simona de Silvestro and former F1 racer Jean Alesi are flagged off the track because of their underpowered cars before Lap 11.
From starting fourth on the grid, Marco Andretti takes control of the race soon after. In the first 79 laps, the third-generation driver paces the field for 46 laps.
Andretti leads the next 11 laps as the day’s biggest crash broke out. After returning to the track from a pit stop due to a broken wing, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Mike Conway spun in Turn 1.
With nowhere to go, Team Penske’s Will Power is collected as well. Conway’s race ended in a heavy crash for the second time in three years (he did not qualify in 2011). Power, meanwhile, saw his chance at four consecutive wins end in the Lap 80 crash.
Just as Scott Dixon takes the lead for the third time in the race, the yellow flag flies. Andretti-Conquest Racing’s Ana Beatriz, the highest-qualifying female of three in the race, spins in Turn 2.
Similar to Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Bryan Clauson (who exited on Lap 47 due to handling issues), Beatriz recovers and continues on. Dixon continued to lead until the Lap 118 pit stop cycle.
In the midst of pit stops, another Honda driver emerges as a contender. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato leads the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his third start.
Sato paces the field for 31 of the next 34 laps. The stalled cars of Sebastian Saavedra and Josef Newgarden brought out two separate cautions. Soon after, Dixon and Franchitti join Sato in the fray.
The teammates combine for eight lead changes over the next 34 laps. Dixon’s pass of Franchitti on Lap 178 is the race’s 30th lead change, a new record. The previous race record was 29, which had stood since the 1960 race won by Jim Rathmann.
With 21 laps to go, Ed Carpenter spins in the south chute. Running in fifth place at the time, his chances at winning in his first 500 as an owner/driver are dashed.
Although double-file restarts had not remained from 2011, the restarts were still thrilling. After Carpenter’s spin, KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan thrills the crowd, rocketing from sixth to first on the Lap 186 restart. Franchitti and Kanaan trade the lead twice over the next three laps.
On Lap 188, the yellow flag would fly again. Despite leading a race-high 59 laps and posting the fastest lap of the day, Marco Andretti crashe in the south chute.
As his grandfather Mario (1985,1987 and 1993) and father Michael (1991 and 1992) had done, he led the most laps, but ended up short of victory.
Mario’s win in 1969 remains the lone win for the family.
The Ganassi duo asserts themselves at the front of the field soon after the Lap 194 restart. Dixon holds off his teammate at the front until Lap 199, as Franchitti and Sato slip by him.
Sato’s aggressive move puts him in position to battle Franchitti for the win with two to go. On the last lap, Sato moved to the inside to pass Franchitti in Turn 1.
His attempt is not be successful this time. Sato spins and crashes into the outside wall. With the yellow flag being displayed, Franchitti coasted en route to his third 500 win. The 34 lead changes are the most of any Indianapolis 500. The 10 different leaders are the most since 1993.
Franchitti joins a list that includes Wilbur Shaw. Bobby Unser, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Louis Meyer and Helio Castroneves.
He also joins Shaw as the only drivers to earn three victories over a six-year span.
Dixon finishes second, giving Ganassi their first 1-2 at Indianapolis.
In third is Kanaan, the highest-finishing Chevrolet-powered car.
Kanaan’s teammate and longtime friend, Rubens Barrichello earns Rookie of the Year. Making his first start, he leads two laps after starting 10th and finishes 11th.
Franchitti notes after the race how special it is to have won the year before and the year after Wheldon’s triumph.
He also exclaims how special it is to have the late racer’s three best friends finish 1-2-3.
A year after another close call, Kanaan finally breaks through for his first 500. In what turns out to be his final start in the race, Franchitti crashes in the south chute on Lap 198 to bring out the race-ending yellow.
Kanaan’s win is not only the fastest in race history but also features the most lead changes (68).
Sato, meanwhile, would also earn his redemption. The same “No attack, No chance” mantra that defines his 2012 race serveS him well later on. In 2017, the hard-charging Sato holds off Castroneves to win.
Sato earns his victory utilizing the same No. 26 Wheldon won the 2005 race with at what is now Andretti Autosport.
Header Image By LAT Photo USA