In the last few months I’ve seen several articles about the “Mt. Rushmore” of various sports and entertainment topics and I started to think about the “Mt. Rushmore” for Indy 500 drivers. There are innumerable “Best of” driver lists and in 2011 The Indianapolis Motor Speedway published a list of the 33 best 500 drivers for the 100th Anniversary of the 500. The latter list stirred up a good deal of discussion. Since then the 3 races were won by Weldon, Franchitti and Kanaan. My picks will be based on Indy 500s alone with no weight added for accomplishments outside of Indianapolis. I have further limited my review to drivers who participated in 500s since WWII (1946) for 2 reasons. First I don’t feel I know enough about the racing prior to the WWII race hiatus and second the racing after the war was so much different than in prior years. I hope that my picks will cause much discussion so I stress that this is my opinion so please feel free to have your own opinion and disagree. For me the first 3 were really not difficult, number 4 however is where trouble begins. My picks were not based on statistics alone even though stats were considered. My own personal experiences and intangible factors also played into my picks, particularly number 4.
Driver number 1 on my list is A. J. Foyt. Statistically there is no comparison. A.J. was the first 4 time winner; 3 wins as an owner-driver; 2 wins in roadsters and 2 in rear engine cars; 1 win in a car of his own design powered by an engine badged with his name. In addition he had 4 poles and led 13 races. He was the oldest driver to start a 500 (57 years) and has the most starts (35). He also won a 500 as a car owner but we are only considering driving here. As far as intangibles go he is clearly the driver most identified with Indianapolis and his escapades at Indianapolis are legend.
Second and third on my list are practically interchangeable so, since this a “Mt. Rushmore” collection, and since there are no numbers on Mt. Rushmore I won’t differentiate. They are Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. Both are 4 time winners. Mears had 6 poles in his 15 Indy 500s. Unser Sr. led 11 of his 27 starts. Both were great ambassadors for the Speedway. If I had to choose position I would have Mears second and Unser Sr. third.
Now we reach the critical point. Who gets that final spot? In the era that I am considering there are 12 multi-race winners, 5 with 3 (including Mauri Rose whose first of 3 wins came in 1941 prior to this period) and 7 with 2. In addition there are several single race winners and non-race winners who have made a significant mark at the Speedway.
I narrowed all of these down to 4 drivers, 2 with 2 wins and 2 with 3 wins. I admit that this elimination process was not scientific. I relied a great deal on my own experiences and gut feeling. The 4 finalists are Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Bill Vukovich, and Dan Weldon Many of you will say Bill who? So I will start this final analysis with him.
Vuky only raced in 5 Indy 500s. He won consecutive races in 1953 and 1954. Now for the interesting statistics. In 1952, his second race, he was leading on lap 192 when he DNF’d with a mechanical failure. In 1955 he was leading by a remarkable 17 seconds when he was tragically killed in a multi-car accident on the back stretch. Here we had a potential 4 consecutive race winner. I know; coulda, woulda, shoulda. None-the-less he was clearly a Speedway standout.
Let’s look at 2 drivers, each with 3 wins and very similar careers Indy careers. Dario Franchitti and Helio Castorneves each have had relatively short spans at the Speedway primarily as a result of the “Split” which had them in CART during the early part of their careers. Each has 3 wins and Helio has 4 poles. Both are deserving of their Indianapolis successes.
Finally another dark horse whose career, like that of Bill Vukovich, was tragically shortened by a racing accident. In only 9 starts Dan Wheldon had 5 top 10s, including 2 wins and 2 seconds, and 3 front row starts. His last win was accomplished with an underfunded team as a one-off race and was a tactical masterpiece which was aided by rookie J. R. Hildebrand’s brain fade on the final lap. I really don’t think I ever saw more than a handful of drivers who simply understood how to get around the Speedway like Dan Wheldon did.
So how do I decide among these final 4. I go with my gut and my heart and pick Dan Wheldon. So there you have it my Indianapolis 500 “Mt. Rushmore” memorializing the best Indy has to offer – A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and Dan Wheldon.
Bill Rottner 3/1/14
©2014 William L. Rottner