By: Spencer Neff
May 17, 2019 | 6:23 PM
Today marks the first day of qualifications for this year’s Indianapolis 500 – always a harrowing experience. This afternoon, 36 drivers will begin their quest to be among the field of 33 – with 30 of those positions being locked into the field by 5:50 PM.
In the Indianapolis 500’s history, the front row has been one of – if not the most – coveted starting spots in all of motorsports. Before tomorrow’s Fast 9 run for the pole, here’s a look at some of the race’s most memorable front rows.
These were memorable front rows that just barely missed our list of the top five. They include former winners, comeback stories and future champions.
1996 | Tony Stewart leads Davy Jones and Eliseo Salazar to green in fastest “500” front row.
2002 | Bruno Junqueira, Raul Boesel and Robbie Buhl post first 230+ mph front row of normally-aspirated engine era.
2016 | James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay provide the closest battle for pole in history.
Now, onto the five most memorable front rows in the history of the Indianapolis 500!
1967 | Andretti, Gurney & Johncock claim front row of historic field
The 51st running of the Indianapolis 500 is considered by some to feature the greatest field in history. At the front, three legendary names would lead the field to the green flag.
For the second straight year, Mario Andretti would start on the pole, and fellow third-year driver Gordon Johncock would start on the outside of the front row.
In between, Dan Gurney would join the two with hisbest qualifying effort. Making his sixth start at Indianapolis, Gurney started on the front row for the second time in three years.
Over the next three decades, Andretti, Gurney and Johncock combined for 62 starts in the race, as Johncock won twice (1973 and 1982) and Andretti took victory in 1969.
Although Gurney finished runner-up in 1968 and 1969, he did not ever win as a driver. As a car owner, he went to victory lane with Bobby Unser in 1975. In 1968 and 1973, his Eagle chassis would take victory with Unser and Johncock behind the wheel respectively.
1988 | Mears, Team Penske record an unprecedented front row sweep
Among the long list of accomplishments by Roger Penske’s team at the Indianapolis 500, the 1988 race may rank among the most impressive.
Not only did Rick Mears obliterate the track record in 1988 – with a four-lap average at 219.198 mph – he also would record the first lap over 220 mph. Joining him on the front row would be Penske teammates Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. For the first time, one team locked out the front row.
In the race, Penske’s dominance continued as the team combined to lead 192 of 200 laps. Mears crossed the Yard of Bricks first on the day to win his third Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
1991 | Legends Mears, Foyt and Andretti top 75th Indy 500 field
The “diamond” anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing would be the stage for several history-making moments.
Chief among them was Row 1 on the grid for the start. For the record sixth time, Team Penske’s Rick Mears started on the pole. As he looked to join the ranks of four-time winners, the first man to do so joined him on the front row.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt would start second, his first front row start since 1982. On the outside, 1969 winner Mario Andretti started third as he made the Indianapolis 500 a family affair.
Mario, plus sons Michael and Jeff – along with nephew John – raced together at Indianapolis for the first time. It is the only tie that four relatives raced in the same Indy 500.
Mears went on to win that day, joining Foyt and Unser as four-time winners. This also marked the proverbial beginning to the end of an era. Over the following three years, each driver would make their last appearance in the race.
1995 | Part-timers Brayton, Luyendyk and Goodyear fill colorful Indianapolis 500 front row
Much of the intrigue during qualifying for the 79th Indianapolis 500 centered around Team Penske’s shocking qualifying demise with drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi missing the show.
With Penske struggling, the door was opened for other drivers to stake their claim at the front. Team Menard’s duo of Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyk did just that, giving the Menard (formerly Buick) V6 their first 1-2 start since 1985 with Brayton and Pancho Carter.
On the outside, Tasman Motorsports’ Scott Goodyear showed the mettle of Honda’s engine, which had struggled the previous two years. Even more interesting, none of the three were participating in the series on a full-time basis.
Although the track record from 1992 remained intact, all three drivers posted a four-lap average of over 230 mph, the first time multiple cars had run that fast.
A year later, Luyendyk moved on to the Byrd-Treadway team.
In qualifying for the 1996 race, Brayton and Luyendyk were to start 1-2 for a second straight year. However, Luyendyk’s time was disqualified for not meeting minimum weight and Brayton was fatally injured during practice less than a week later.
2017 | Dixon, Carpenter and Rossi blister the field
Following the blinding speeds of 1996, turbocharged engines were phased out from the Indianapolis 500. WIth that, the record pace seen in qualifying that year was not expected to be replicated any time soon.
By 2012, turbocharged engines had returned to the speedway. Within five years, speeds climbed to near record-pace. During the Fast 9 shootout, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon earned his third career Indianapolis 500 pole and second in three years.
With a four-lap average of 232.164 mph, the 2008 race winner would start up front. In the middle of the front row, two-time polesitter Ed Carpenter would start on the front row for a third time.
Starting third, defending race winner Alexander Rossi backed up his 2016 triumph with the first front row start of his IndyCar career.
Header image by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.