The Grid: 33 Greatest Indy 500 Drivers of All Time—Ranked

Hundreds of drivers have started the Indianapolis 500, but only a select few had enough horsepower to make our definitive lineup—and it took more than just checkered flags.

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This article is part of IM’s special May 2016 coverage of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

In 99 runnings, 756 drivers have started their engines in hopes of winning the world’s most famous 500-mile race. But only 33 had enough horsepower to make our definitive lineup—and it took more than just checkered flags.

Qualifying: Seventy different drivers have finished first at the Indianapolis 500. But winning, as the old saying goes, isn’t everything. To pick the top 33 Indy 500 drivers of all time, we factored in the relative strength of competition, as well as personality, impact, and contribution to the sport. And, of course, we prized an appreciation for the institution and its hallowed traditions.

In the Pits: We got a push from a crew of experts, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson, 14-time Indy starter and 1998 winner Eddie Cheever, nine-time starter and former car owner Sarah Fisher, and longtime auto-racing journalist Robin Miller. But we made the final call at the finish line. Feel free to disagree—but prepare for a fight (unless you happen to be A.J. Foyt, in which case we want no piece).

 

1. A.J. FOYT (starts: 1958–92)

No way around it: A.J. won in rear-engine cars and front-engine roadsters, on the pavement and, in 1961, on the actual bricks! His record of 35 consecutive starts will likely never be touched. And the names “Foyt” and “Indy” have become virtually inseparable. “His favorite line is that Indy made A.J.,” says Miller. “But I’ve got news for the first four-time winner—it was badasses like him that made us fall for the Indy 500.”

2. WILBUR SHAW (1927–41)

Shaw won three times and finished second in three other runnings. But if he hadn’t convinced Terre Haute baking-powder mogul Tony Hulman to buy a shuttered and dilapidated track after World War II, there’d be no IMS, no race, and no linchpin event for the city. “If it wasn’t for Wilbur Shaw,” says Davidson, “we wouldn’t be here.”

3. HELIO CASTRONEVES (2001–current)

Whether he was scaling the fence in his fire suit after one of his three Indy victories, or cutting a nationally televised rug in a yellow zoot suit, Helio has always found the spotlight. And he deflects that attention onto the entire sport. “To me, his greatest accomplishment was winning Dancing with the Stars,” says Davidson. “It was great for racing.”

4. RICK MEARS (1978–92)

Everyone knows Mears was formidable on race day—a four-time winner who, in 1982, was 0.16 seconds away from beating Gordon Johncock for what would’ve been a record fifth Borg-Warner. But Mears owned the entire Month of May, setting the mark for poles with six and starting an astonishing 11 of his 15 races on the front row. “He was smooth, smart, and built for speed,” says Miller.

5. AL UNSER (1965–93)

This list would be black-flagged if an Unser didn’t make the top five. “One family won nine Indianapolis 500s—NINE!” says Cheever. “Big Al” had four of them, spanning 17 years. He is also the all-time lap leader with 644, and collected 11 podium finishes. With the media, however, Unser kept to the back of the pack and couldn’t quite keep up with the spokesmen who finished ahead of him on this list.

6. LOUIS MEYER (1928–39)
The first three-time winner. After racing, Meyer bought the Offenhauser engine company, which made every 500 winner from 1947 to 1964. Plus, at an event that treasures its traditions, Meyer was the first to win the Borg-Warner Trophy, the first to receive the pace car as part of his winnings, and the first to drink milk (buttermilk!) in Victory Lane.

7. MARIO ANDRETTI (1965–94)

Ask anyone in this country to name a 500 driver, and you might get “Foyt” or “Unser.” Ask around the world for the name of a racecar driver, and you’ll more likely hear “Andretti.” For 50 years, Mario has lent international renown to the Spectacle as a champ, ambassador, and racing-dynasty patriarch. That he won Indy only once is a testament to the competition. “I regard that era with awesome respect,” says Cheever.

8. DANICA PATRICK (2005–11)

Hate if you must. But in 2005, when Danica became the first woman to lead a 500 lap, an IndyCar driver graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time in 20 years. Like it or not, “Danicamania” achieved what no one else on this list could at the time: She made America care about the Indy 500 again.

9. BOBBY UNSER (1963–81)

In the Golden Age of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Al Unser, “Uncle Bobby” gets forgotten (even among his own kin). But three wins, two poles, and 440 laps led cinch his top-10 spot. “As fearless as they made them,” says Miller. “Never backed off the throttle—or his opinion.”

10. JANET GUTHRIE (1977–79)

She was the first woman to start at Indy and finished ninth in 1978. “As a woman in that era, you were not even allowed in the pits,” says Cheever. “This is as male as it gets. And here she comes, gets in a car, and does well—at a time when it was a lot more difficult.” Long term, her feat made IndyCar racing one of the few sports where men and women compete together.

11. JOHNNY RUTHERFORD (1963–1988)

“JR” failed to finish his first nine starts, earning him the nickname “Wreckaford.” But he’d go on to win three times. In retirement, Rutherford became a full-time Indy Racing League employee, driving the 500 pace car and coaching young drivers. “These guys don’t have to come back and be a part of it,” says Fisher. “But JR came back to help out rookies coming along.”

12. AL UNSER JR. (1983–94, 2000–07)

“Little Al” did his family proud by adding two more Borg-Warners to the Unser stockpile. And like his father and uncle, he’s been a pillar of the track ever since. “You see him on Main Street [in Speedway] taking his mother to Dawson’s,” says Fisher. “The Unsers are true, hardcore racers who want to have that presence at the Indy 500.”

13. BILL VUKOVICH (1951–55)

Only ran five times—but what a five-year run. Two wins. One pole. Led four races, including a stretch between 1952 and 1955 when he was out front for 485 of 647 laps. “In his time, he was clearly the man,” says Davidson. Vukovich led his last lap before dying in a multi-car accident on the back straightaway.

14. PARNELLI JONES (1961–67)

Known simply by his first name, “Parnelli” never started worse than sixth, and although he only won once, he led 120 laps in 1962, finished second in 1965, and led 171 laps before a bad bearing forced him out of the 1967 race. “When you ask other drivers about the toughest they ever ran against,” says Davidson, “Parnelli gets the most first-place votes.”

15. RODGER WARD (1951–66)

In his first eight tries, Ward finished higher than 16th only once. Then he found the gas pedal. In a six-race stretch of dominance from 1959 to ’64, his finishes were first, second, third, first, fourth, and second. When he started winning, he decided to take a class in public speaking.

16. DAN WHELDON (2003–11)

“Greatest publicist the race ever had,” Davidson says of the two-time victor. Wheldon rarely gave an interview without mentioning the 500, at times almost teary-eyed. No matter his wins were upstaged by Danicamania in 2005 and overshadowed by JR Hildebrand’s last-minute wreck in 2011.

17. JUAN PABLO MONTOYA (2000, 2014–current)

He led 167 laps to win in his first start, but didn’t seem too impressed: He bolted for F1 and NASCAR—only to return and score an impressive win in 2015. “He didn’t show a lot of emotion after waxing the field as a rookie,” says Miller. “But he cherished sitting in Victory Lane with his son 15 years later.”

18. GORDON JOHNCOCK (1965–92)

In 24 starts spanning four decades, Johncock led seven races. He won a rain-soaked, three-day 1973 marathon that saw two deaths, and he fought off Rick Mears in 1982 for the closest finish in race history at the time. As Davidson is fond of saying, “He went from winning the race that no one wanted to remember to winning the race that no one could forget.”

19. RAY HARROUN (1911)

He won the inaugural race then called it quits. But Harroun and his Marmon Wasp never really left: Both commemorated the 50th running in 1961, and while Harroun died in ’68, it’s a good bet his iconic ride will appear this month.

20. EMERSON FITTIPALDI (1984–94)

Being a two-time Formula One World Champion who attracts international attention to Indy on the way to two 500 wins? Sure, that’ll land you on this list. But turning down the sacred bottle of milk in favor of orange juice from your own Brazilian groves? That’ll just squeeze you into the top 20.

21. MAURI ROSE (1933–41, 1946–51)

A workingman’s driver in every sense. An engineer at Allison in 1941, Rose clocked out each day at lunch to practice and qualify. “After he won the first of his three 500s, he bragged that he practiced, qualified, and won the race without ever taking time off work,” says Miller.

22. JIM CLARK (1963–1967)

Clark was on his way to the first of two Formula One World Championships when he showed up in Indy in 1963, bestowing that international Grand Prix prestige on our humble brick oval. “I think he was reluctant,” says Davidson. “But he was surprised at how well he was received by American fans.” Clark repaid them with a win and two runner-up finishes in five starts.

23. ARIE LUYENDYK (1985–99, 2001–02)

No one topped his 1990 winning average speed of 185.981 mph for two decades. The feat is diminished by the fact that Indy has since sacrificed speed for safety, just as his second win in 1997 is tempered by a weaker field after “The Split” with Champ Car. “Was it less of a field? Yes,” says Cheever. “But you cannot divorce the driver from what he was driving. He was driving average cars.”

24. BOBBY RAHAL (1982–1995)

Rahal is another name that has become oft-associated with Indy. Having a win, five top-five finishes, one win as an owner, and a son, Graham, who already has a pair of top-10 results in his first eight starts, will do that for you.

25. RALPH DEPALMA (1911–15, 1919–1923, 1925)

Before Mears and the Unsers, before Foyt, Parnelli, and Shaw, there was DePalma, who dominated the first two decades of Indy’s existence—despite coming away with only one win. His record of 612 laps led stood for 62 years. And the Italian-born driver was a standout ambassador for the race long after he retired.

26. DARIO FRANCHITTI (2002, 2004–07, 2009–13)

“Dario didn’t care for Indy at first,” says Miller. “But he fell in love with the tradition and had the perfect mentality.” Having an Italian name, a Scottish accent, a movie-star wife (now-ex Ashley Judd), and, of course, three wins helped offset his lackluster dalliance with stock cars.

27. TONY KANAAN (2002–current)

The 2004 IndyCar Series Champ, “TK” stayed true to Indy while NASCAR lured away contemporaries like Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. When Kanaan’s loyalty finally paid off with a win in his 12th start, nearly everyone from the stands to the pits celebrated. “He just cares so much,” says Fisher. “He cares about seeing the 500 go another 100 years, and he’ll be here to make sure that happens.”

28. MICHAEL ANDRETTI (1984–95, 2000–03, 2006–07)

Michael led 431 laps, the most of any Indy 500 driver who never won. But the so-called “Andretti Curse” didn’t follow him into ownership: His teams have won the 500 three times. Though not as outspoken as his famous father, Mario, Michael continues to be a steadfast supporter of IndyCar’s signature race, and his son, Marco, carries on the dynasty as one of the most popular young drivers at the Indianapolis 500.

29. REX MAYS (1934–41, 1946–49)

A legendary also-ran (who, like other top drivers on this list, lost years to World War II), Mays might be the most accomplished non-winner. He took four poles and led in nine of 12 starts. And he never let the public see him sweat. “He was a fan favorite,” says Donaldson. “He was young, handsome, and polished in a time when many weren’t.”

30. TONY STEWART (1996–99, 2001)

Like any true Hoosier racer, “Smoke” has always considered the IMS hallowed ground. Even after jumping to more popular and lucrative stock-car racing, he pulled double duty between here and Charlotte, bringing much-needed publicity to Indy. “He does a lot for racing in general,” says Fisher. “I’d like to see him have more involvement with IndyCar these days.” To which Cheever, Stewart’s former teammate, quips: “He’d have to lose 150 pounds first.”

31. SCOTT DIXON (2003–current)

Question: Which active driver is among the top-10 all-time lap leaders in 500 history? The fact that it’s Scott Dixon is the reason he’s on this list. The fact you didn’t know it was Scott Dixon is why the 2008 winner is on the back row.

32. JACKIE STEWART (1966–67)

Perhaps the strongest pure driver on this list, Stewart led his first 500 by more than a lap with only nine to go when his Lola car broke down. Engine failure ended his second bid. Then the “Flying Scot” moved on—and won three F1 World Championships. Stewart returned in the 1970s to add his brogue and race cred to ABC’s Indy 500 broadcasts.

33. TED HORN (1935–41, 1946–48)

One of the greatest drivers never to win, Horn finished fourth or higher in nine of his 10 starts between 1935 and 1948, missing four years because of World War II. “He probably lost some of his best years because of the war,” says Davidson. Horn died in a racing accident in 1948.

 

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