Rewind: 1985 Indianapolis 500

By: Spencer Neff
August 19, 2020

Welcome to IndyCar1909 and the first installment of our “Rewind” series. This will be a collection of classic IndyCar races, detailing the events surrounding the running and how it has shaped the landscape of the series.

First up in “Rewind” is the 1985 Indianapolis 500. Although this race is remembered primarily for a thrilling battle of its top finishers, the 69th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing also featured new records, innovative technology and historic feats.

Sullivan Completes “Spin and Win”

The lead-up to the 1985 Indianapolis 500 was highlighted by the Hulman Family’s 40th “500” as owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In the months following the race, ABC announced that 1986 race would be featured on live television for the first time, marking the end of a 15-year run of tape-delayed coverage for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. At IMS, the barn-style garages would see their last year of utilization and be replaced prior to 1986.

On the track, the race would mark a triumphant return for two-time and defending race winner Rick Mears. After a devastating crash at Sanair in late 1984, Mears suffered injuries to both feet. Following his recovery, the 1979 and 1984 winner joined Al Unser and Danny Sullivan on Penske Racing.

Race Recap

Early on in the month of May, the headlines belonged to the V6 Buick engines. On Pole Day, Scott Brayton set new one-lap record on each of his first three laps.

Later in the day, Pancho Carter set a new four-lap record in his March-Buick. In his 12th start, the second-generation driver took the pole with a four-lap average of 212.583 miles per hour.

Carter after his pole-winning and record-setting run in qualifying (IMS)

Despite their horsepower, the Buick entries were fraught with concerns over reliability. At the start of the race, Bobby Rahal overtook Carter and Brayton, as the third-place starter led the first 14 laps.

By Lap 6, trouble had already come to fruition for the Buick entries, as Carter pulled into the pits with a broken fuel pump, ending his day. With his 33rd-place finish, he joined Cliff Woodbury (1928) as the only pole winners to finish last.

On Lap 15, Brayton was able to briefly take the lead before his engine let go due to a cracked cylinder wall on Lap 20.

During the first caution on Lap 15 for George Snider’s blown engine, Newman-Haas’ Mario Andretti took the lead.

Andretti (3) and Sullivan helped produce one of the most memorable Indianapolis 500s (IMS/INDYCAR)

Still seeking his second “500” crown, the 1969 race winner emerged as the dominant driver of the day. Over the next 104 laps, Andretti stayed out front for 89 of them, with Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi joining their fellow Formula 1 alumnus as leaders of the race.

On Lap 120, Sullivan mounted a challenge on Andretti for the race lead. After a thrilling Turn 1 pass on Andretti, his March-Cosworth broke loose and spun in the south chute. Miraculously for the third-year driver, Sullivan did not hit anything and continued on, while he and Andretti pitted for fuel under the yellow flag.

After a ten-lap caution on Lap 124 for a Turn 1 crash involving Rich Vogler and Tom Sneva, Sullivan battled with Andretti again. On Lap 140, he took the lead and never looked back, despite three cautions over the final 55 laps.

Sullivan’s famous Lap 120 spin (IMS/INDYCAR)

Sullivan would go on to win his first “500” in his third start, besting Andretti by 2.477 seconds. He also became the first driver to win after starting eighth, as drivers sometimes dubbed it the “8-ball spot” for its unlucky history. In the 35 years since, his triumph has become affectionately known as “spin and win”.


With Sullivan’s victory, Roger Penske tied Lou Moore as the winningest Car Owner at the Indianapolis 500. In 1987, Al Unser became the second four-time winner of the race and made Penske the winningest car owner. On Sunday, Penske will run his first race as owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since his January acquisition.

If one of his four drivers won, it would be his 20th victory. If fellow car owners Michael Andretti or Chip Ganassi saw one of their cars go to victory lane, they would surpass the five win mark. Although Mears’ return in the 1985 race was ended by by throttle linkage issues, he won again in 1988 and 1991, matching Unser and A.J. Foyt.

Sullivan celebrates his victory as Penske is interviewed by ABC’s Jim Lampley (IMS/INDYCAR)

Despite Sullivan’s early success, he would not finish better than fifth at Indianapolis during the rest of his career and his 1985 win was his sole lead-lap finish. In 1995, he completed an impressive charge from 18th to 9th in his last Indianapolis 500.

For the following two years, he provided analysis during ABC’s Indianapolis 500 race broadcast.

While the Buick V6 engines (later the Menard V6) would break the track record four times and become the fastest qualifier three times.

Despite their qualifying success, the engine completed all 500 miles just twice- with Al Unser in 1992 and Arie Luyendyk in 1995. Ten years prior, Luyendyk earned Rookie of the Year honors for his seventh-place finish in the 1985 race.

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