As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of America’s greatest race—the Indianapolis 500—I am joining the Speedway’s invitation at thegreatest33.com to name the 33 greatest drivers ever to be on the starting grid.
In last week’s column, I listed my last six rows, or 18 drivers. This week, here are the 15 drivers I consider the best of the best.
No. 1: No matter who is doing the balloting, I can’t imagine Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr.’s being anything less than a virtually unanimous choice as the pole-sitter of this virtual field. From roadsters to rear engines, the 500’s first four-time winner was the golden boy of the Speedway’s Golden Era. Was A.J. a choir boy? No. Could he be a cantankerous coot who often opened his mouth before he engaged his brain? Yes. But could he flat drive the wheels off of any kind of machine and live to personify both the myth and the legend of the 500? Absolutely. Think about this: 35 starts (consecutive) and more than 12,200 competitive miles driven at Indy. And one more thing: Thank goodness things fell into place for Foyt to drive the pace car for this month’s 100th anniversary race. Let’s just hope he remembers to pull into the pits as the field forms behind him to take the green flag. One suspects he might just stand on the gas instead and lead the field into Turn One a final time.
No. 2: Bill Vukovich II. The Mad Russian could have won four straight. He was leading when mechanical failure sidelined him late in the 1952 race. He then won 1953 and 1954 in dominating fashion and had a 17-second lead in 1955 when he was killed in a crash at the top of the backstretch.
No. 3: Rick Mears. If not for early retirement, the four-time winner (and six-time pole-sitter) could have had several more. At that, he was only 0.16 of a second from No. 5 in losing to Gordon Johncock in that thrilling 1982 finish. Mears finished in the top three in 11 of his 15 races.
No. 4: Al Unser Sr. His drive from 20th to first for his fourth 500 win in 1987 highlighted a glorious career at Indy. He won back-to-back in 1970 and 1971 and finished second in 1972. In addition to the four wins, Al Sr. finished second three times and third on four occasions.
No. 5: Ray Harroun. Only one can be the first.
No. 6: Bobby Unser. Uncle Bobby was a three-time winner, although No. 3 in 1981 will be forever tinged in the prolonged controversy that kept …
No. 7: … Mario Andretti from winning his second, yet another example of the infamous “Andretti curse” that prevented Mario from multiple wins. Some may recall the line that the four most famous words at Indy are not, “Gentlemen, start your engines,“ but “Mario is slowing down.“ Despite all the heartbreaks, no one ever drove a higher groove at the Brickyard than Mario.
No. 8: Johnny Rutherford. Lone Star J.R. had three poles and three wins in an eight-year span and drove from 25th to Victory Lane in 1974.
No. 9: Wilbur Shaw. Almost won four in a row with three wins and a second from 1937-1940.
No. 10: Mauri Rose. Three wins in four years (1945, 1947, 1948) helped bring the Speedway back post-World War II idle and decay.
No. 11: Louie Meyer. Won as a rookie and became the first three-time winner but, almost as important, started the post-race winner’s tradition of drinking milk (in his case, buttermilk).
No. 12: Helio Castroneves. Four poles and three wins in 10 years. And it’s hard to think those numbers won’t grow.
No. 13: Rufus “Parnelli” Jones. My personal all-time favorite. Parnelli broke the 150-mile-an-hour barrier in 1962, won in 1963, and could have/should have had another driving the STP turbine in 1967 when, while leading, a bearing failed three laps from the finish.
No. 14: Al Unser Jr. Two-time winner and could have been three if Emerson Fittipaldi hadn’t put him in the wall late in the 1989 race.
No. 15: Rodger Ward. From 1959 through 1964, Ward finished first, second, third, first, fourth and second.
Next week, my thoughts on the greatest moments in 500 history.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.