Winning an IndyCar race is hard. In fact, IndyCar victory never comes for even the most persistent of drivers.
Dick Simon started 193 IndyCar races without winning a race. Raul Boesel started 209. Scott Brayton started 163, and was killed shortly after winning the pole at the Indianapolis 500 with what was likely his best chance to win.
It’s, of course, not a huge surprise. Generally speaking, a handful of drivers in top teams take home the majority of victories in a racing season. The reason is simple: top teams with top talent, and top funding have the means to often turn racing randomness on their side.
But, racing is often just that – random, and sometimes drivers catch a break where everything lines up for them.
These are 5 of our favorite racing miracle stories:
Hector Rebaque – 1982 Road America 200, September 19, 1982
Ask even the most hardcore of IndyCar fans, and Hector Rebaque isn’t a name that comes up often – if at all. By today’s standards, you’d probably consider him to be a “pay driver” or a “gentlemen driver”. The son of a wealthy construction and architecture magnate, he achieved moderate success taking 41 starts in Formula 1 and scoring 13 points for Hesketh, Brabham, and his own bespoke team. His 10th place in the 1981 World Championship for Brabham was his best career finish, but he was replaced by Riccardo Patrese for 1982.
He then tried his hand at IndyCar during the 1982 season, partnering with Forsythe Racing while pushing out existing driver Danny Sullivan. He didn’t make many friends, including a crash with A.J. Foyt in the Michigan 500, on his way to his previous best finish of 13th. But in his fifth start at Road America, he outlasted Bobby Rahal and Al Unser in a fuel mileage race to win his first, and ultimately only, IndyCar race. It was the first win in IndyCar racing in the United States for a non-American driver since the 1966 Indianapolis 500.
But the joy was short lived, as just a week later he had a heavy crash during practice for the Detroit News Grand Prix at Michigan International Speedway and decided ovals were not for him. He retired soon after another failed F1 bid, and now pursues architecture related businesses in Mexico.
He appeared as the Grand Marshal at the 2002 Road America CART race, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his surprise win.
Carlos Huertas – 2014 Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, Race 1, June 28, 2014
Dale Coyne is a savvy businessman and a survivor. He started out in IndyCar with an extremely limited budget, a stock block Chevy engine, and a dream while running around the back of IndyCar fields for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
But his team, often with budgets a fraction the size of the biggest teams, has outlasted dozens of racing teams who have come and gone since he first took the green flag in 1984. In all, his team has made more than 800 starts in the IndyCar series. He survives (and thrives) in this two ways: having an eye for young talent (often with money), and doing whatever it takes to keep his cars on the road.
During the 2014 season, his team consisted of veteran Justin Wilson, Indy 500 entry Pippa Mann in her second start for the team, and … Carlos Huertas.
You wouldn’t be remiss in not knowing who Huertas was when Dale Coyne signed him to drive in 2014, and may not even be remiss if you’ve forgotten all about him since his last appearance in Indianapolis 500 qualifying was just a year later. But Huertas brought enough talent in mid-level racing and, well, money, and he had himself a drive.
On June 28, 2014, Huertas did the unthinkable and won the first race of a doubleheader in Houston, in a race filled with accidents, heavy rain, and a fuel mileage gamble that gave him the unlikeliest of victories. He led a Colombian drivers sweep of the podium, with Juan Pablo Montoya second, and Carlos Munoz third.
A week later, Huertas was fined for two technical infractions, one of which was involving the capacity of his fuel tank, but his win was allowed to stand.
The rest of his 2014 season did not go well, with his best finish after the win being a 14th in Toronto. Then, money ran out and Huertas first found himself replaced at Long Beach the following season by Rocky Moran, Jr. with little explanation, and then ruled out of the Indianapolis 500 with a mysterious “inner-ear issue”. He was never seen in the IndyCar paddock again.
But for one day, in the Texas sun (rain), Huertas was on top of the IndyCar world.
Arie Luyendyk – 1990 Indianapolis 500, May 27, 1990
His sponsors were flaking, and ready to bail out. His car owner was looking to sell the team (and ultimately did). He had not won an IndyCar race in 75 career starts. And he was surrounded by racing stalwarts (and two-car teams) Team Penske, Newman-Haas and Galles-Kraco Racing from his 3rd position on the starting grid.
But, Arie Luyendyk would stay at the front of the pack all day, and took the lead for good on Lap 168, winning the 1990 Indianapolis 500 by nearly 12 seconds over Bobby Rahal. The race would be the fastest 500 in history for 23 years, and marked a landmark first win for Luyendyk.
Ultimately, his sponsors did bail. His team was sold (and ultimately collapsed). But unlike others on this list so far, Luyendyk would continue to find success after his shock win, winning the 500 again in 1997, and holding the track’s official one-and-four lap qualifying records, and ending up with 7 total victories across nearly 100 more IndyCar starts after his first 500 win.
Mike Conway – 2011 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, April 17, 2011
Mike Conway makes this list not because he wasn’t talented, or because he was a pay driver, or because of some fluky combination that found him in victory lane.
Rather, he makes this list because of what he overcame surviving one of the worst racing crashes ever seen and how his talent and commitment shined through extraordinary circumstances.
We’ll pick his 2011 win at Long Beach, though other picks for this list could easily include:
First, the crash: If you’ve been a follower of IndyCar racing over the last 20 years, you are no doubt familiar with Conway’s crash in the 2010 Indianapolis 500, where he ended up in the catchfencing after running over Ryan Hunter-Reay’s out-of-fuel race car in front of him.
I won’t link to the video here, but suffice it to say, it was a miracle Conway made it out alive. Conway missed the rest of the 2010 season with leg fractures and endured deep physical rehab to return to racing with Andretti Autosport in 2011. His first two races were 23rd- and 22nd-place finishes, and given the circumstances, a little time to get up to speed would have been more than understandable.
Except in Race No. 3 at Long Beach. Conway surprised everyone by taking the win. Starting 3rd, Conway stuck with the lead pack and took the lead for good with 14 laps to go. He was never challenged after that, taking an emotional win for everyone involved.
After racing on ovals through the rest of the 2011 season, the death of Dan Wheldon later that year in 2011 on an oval, combined with his experience in 2010, made Conway decide that ovals were not for him.
With broad support from follow drivers and his team, he opted out of racing on the high-speed oval at California’s Auto Club Speedway in 2012, itself the site of another fatal crash of a young IndyCar star with Greg Moore’s passing in 1999.
Conway continues to find success racing today in the World Endurance Championship with Toyota, including winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2021.
Dan Wheldon – 2011 Indianapolis 500, May 29, 2011
This story has been shared countless times, as told by the people who were there or by the people who knew him, but we’ll add it one more time here. Perhaps one of the greatest in racing miracles was Dan Wheldon’s triumph in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Most people know Wheldon won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IndyCar championship, giving Michael Andretti, who had tried and failed to win the race 16 different times, his first win in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing as a car owner.
Indeed, Wheldon won 16 IndyCar races of his own, and the championship in 2005, but the road to how he ended up in the one-off drive for Bryan Herta Autosport that would take him to a second Indy 500 win six years later in 2011, is a winding one that starts just after his first Indy 500 win in 2005.
Chip Ganassi Racing signed Wheldon away from Andretti Green Racing for 2006. After 3 years at AGR, Wheldon was looking for a fresh start. He won 5 races for Ganassi between 2006 and 2008, and thought he had an agreement for an extension with Ganassi in the summer of 2007.
But when he found out that Ganassi had been talking to Tony Kanaan about his seat, he felt betrayed, and started exploring an exit from the team to return to Panther Racing, where he had gotten his start.
Indeed, three months before the end of the 2008 season, Wheldon announced that he would be leaving Ganassi, and Ganassi announced that Dario Franchitti would be returning to the series after a failed NASCAR experiment, for 2009.
Outside of Indy, where Wheldon finished 2nd in 2009 and 2010, a best place finish of 3rd at Kentucky was all the Panther squad would muster with Wheldon. Even worse, the relationship ended up in a tough place, as Wheldon ended up suing Panther Racing for nonpayment of wages and travel expenses.
This left for an awkward situation for the 2011 season, and indeed Wheldon was left without the Partner ride when the team signed rookie J.R. Hildebrand to replace him.
So, entering 2011, Wheldon did not have a ride, and missed the first four races. Out of options, a fateful phone call to former teammate Bryan Herta led to the formation of Bryan Herta Autosport. At that point, the team consisted of a 2003 chassis, and a loose partnership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and very little money.
New team, old car, little practice. What are the odds?
But the alliance held, the car was fast, and again, Wheldon found himself in the front pack at Indianapolis with a few laps to go, running second when the unexplainable happened.
You can’t help but think Wheldon had a very sly smirk on his face when Hildebrand, driving for the team he had to sue to get paid, in the lead of the race, slammed the wall on the last turn of the race, handing Wheldon his second Indy 500 triumph.
The joy, of course, was short-lived, as Wheldon was killed less than 6 months later in a tragic crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sadly, Oct. 16 will mark 11 years since we lost him.
But his legacy lives on as both a champion and an underdog, a fighter, and a winner, and someone who left a massive impact on everyone that knew him.
Got any other IndyCar racing miracles to share? Tell us in the comments below!