By Bryce Turner

Each year, race fans look forward to the US Memorial Day weekend and its three big motorsports events. Sandwiched between Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, is the legendary Indianapolis 500, dubbed ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic played havoc with the racing calendar. The NASCAR race took place in front of empty grandstands and the 2020 edition of Monaco’s F1 race was cancelled altogether.

As of late June, IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) are aiming to contest the Indy 500 on August 23 at The Brickyard.

So, with the rescheduled event less than two months away, it’s a good time to recall some notable Canadians who have taken part in the Indianapolis 500.

A total of eight Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (CMHF) inductees have competed in the famed event. The first to do so was 2005 inductee George ‘Pete’ Henderson, who raced on the track when it was still entirely made of bricks.

Henderson – from Arran, Ontario and Fernie, BC – was in the field for the 1916 edition of the ‘Indianapolis 300,’ a shorter version of what would go on to be a 500-mile spectacle. He piloted the No. 4 Maxwell to a sixth-place finish, with the win going to Dario Resta. Henderson’s second and final start in the race came in the 1920 ‘500 Mile International Sweepstakes,’ where he drove the No. 15 Duesenberg to a tenth-place result.

The next CMHF inductee to race in the Indy 500 was John Duff, in 1926. The 2006 inductee, from Hamilton, Ontario, drove the #18 Miller to a ninth-place finish.

It took nearly four decades before another Hall of Famer competed in the big event at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Billy Foster, from Victoria, BC, piloted the No. 66 Vollstedt/Offy in 1965, on a track that was, by then, paved with asphalt. He dropped out of the race with a water manifold issue after 85 laps, finishing 17th.

The 1993 inductee – a member of the inaugural CMHF class, returned the next year, where his No. 27 Vollstedt/Ford was involved in a pileup on the opening lap, the driver being credited with a 24th-place finish. Sadly, Foster did not get another opportunity to run at Indy as he was killed in a crash during practice for a NASCAR stock car race in January 1967. He was 29 years old at the time of his passing.

Eldon Rasmussen, an Edmonton, Alberta native and 2001 CMHF inductee, raced in three Indianapolis 500s. His debut came aboard the No. 58 Rascar/Foyt in 1975, finishing 24th after a fuel valve issue. He returned in 1977, retiring with a mechanical issue but still finishing 13th. His final 500 ended with a header issue in his No. 50 Antares/Offy, coming home with a 23rd-place finish, in 1979.

The golden years of Canadians competing in the Indianapolis 500 came in the 1990s, with Scott Goodyear and Jacques Villeneuve.

Goodyear, a Toronto native and 2002 inductee, raced in 11 Indianapolis 500s, with an average finish of 16.7. His first start came in the No. 28 Lola/Judd in 1990, when he finished tenth. Two years later, he came just short of victory when a late-race charge ended in a photo-finish. Goodyear placed second to Al Unser Jr. by .043 seconds, which remains the closest margin of victory in the race’s history.

Goodyear’s runner-up finish came in the No. 15 Lola/Chevy. His next top-five in the historic event came in 1997, where he once again came just short of tasting the traditional milk given to the race winner. Driving the No. 6 G Force / Oldsmobile Aurora, Goodyear was passed by eventual victory Arie Luyendk with seven laps to go. At the finish, the gap was half a second from Luyendyk to Goodyear.

St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec’s Jacques Villeneuve, a 2017 CMHF inductee, raced in two Indianapolis 500s prior to his Formula One career. He returned to compete in another 500, nearly two decades later.

Villeneuve raced full-time in CART for Forsythe-Green Racing in 1994, finishing second to Unser Jr. in the Indianapolis 500. While the margin of victory was huge compared to Goodyear’s loss to Unser – at eight and a half seconds – he was the only other driver to finish on the lead lap, driving the No. 12 Reynard/Ford.

The following year’s 500-mile race saw both Goodyear and Villeneuve make headlines. Goodyear was leading the ’95 Indy 500, in his No. 24 Reynard/Honda, when he was given a penalty for passing the pace car on a restart with 11 laps to go. He went on to finish 14th after leading 42 laps.

If there was any consolation for Canadian racing fans, that day, it was that Villeneuve took over the lead when officials stopped scoring Goodyear, who ignored a black flag. Villeneuve went on to victory, the first and so-far only Canadian to win the prestigious event. He came from two laps down, because of an earlier penalty, to grab the win.

Villeneuve went on to claim the CART championship that season, driving the No. 27 Reynard/Ford for Team Green. He then moved to Formula One, where he spent just over a decade. Following his time in Formula One and occasional starts in NASCAR, Villeneuve returned to IndyCar and the 500 in 2014, finishing 14th in the No. 5 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Another CMHF inductee who went open-wheel racing in the 1990s was 2013 inductee and Toronto native Paul Tracy. Known as ‘The Thrill from West Hill,’ Tracy found himself with top teams but found misfortune in his early Indy 500 starts.

His 1992 race was cut short by an engine failure in his No. 7 Penske/Chevy. His 1993 race ended in a crash in the No. 12 Penske/Chevy. And his 1994 race was cut short by a gearbox issue in his No. 3 Penske/Mercedes.

Tracy raced the No. 3 Lola/Ford for Newman Haas Racing in 1995 and made it past the halfway point of the race for the first time, only to have a throttle issue sideline him after 136 laps. He ended up on the opposite side of the CART-IRL split in 1996 and did not return to the 500 until 2002.

In 2002, Tracy finally completed all 200 laps, finishing second to Helio Castroneves under caution, while driving the No. 26 Chevrolet for Team Green. There are some – including team owner Barry Green, Tracy himself and just about every IndyCar fan in Canada – who are convinced he actually beat Castroneves, but he was ‘robbed’ of the victory because of politics that surrounded the CART/IRL split.

The 500 that year was an IRL race and Tracy was a CART interloper. Officials ruled that the caution came out before Tracy passed Castroneves. Tracy finished ninth in 2009 and 25th in 2011, averaging a 19th-place finish in seven career 500 starts.

The most recent CMHF inductee to race in the Indianapolis 500 is 2014 inductee Alex Tagliani. The Montreal native finished 11th in the 2009 running before recording his best finish in 2010, with a 10th-place result.

Tagliani became the first Canadian to win the pole for the 500 in 2011, taking his No. 77 Honda to a qualifying speed of 227.472 mph, which converts to about 366 km/h, for owner Sam Schmidt. He lost the lead to Scott Dixon on the opening lap, but did go on to pace the field for 20 laps before a crash on lap 148 ended his race.

Tagliani’s most recent Indianapolis 500 was in 2016, finishing 17th for A.J. Foyt in the No. 35 Honda. He has an average finish of 16.5 in eight races.

So while we have to wait a several extra months to watch the 2020 edition of the Indy 500, it’s interesting to recall the Canadians – including eight Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame inductees – who have taken part in one of the most famous and important events in all of racing.