The Greatest 33

John Atlas – With the 100th Anniversary Indy 500 almost upon us, Speedway historians are thinking about what an all-star lineup of the greatest 33 Indy drivers of all time would look like. It’s always been a challenge to mix and match people from different eras, because it’s hard to find a common “yardstick” with which to measure them. However, in this case, the Speedway itself provides us with the necessary “tool”. Except for the actual surface, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has remained a constant size, shape and banking since 1909.

To me, merely looking at stats is not enough to determine true greatness at Indy. I feel we must look for that almost intangible thing called “flare”. Over the decades since 1911, certain drivers demonstrated a special feel for the Speedway that set them above their competitors. For example, some of the single race winners could and should have won more “500’s”, while some multiple winners just flat got lucky. Like everything else in life, I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Steve Zautke – Totally agree, plus this subject has been a winner for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has generated a lot of thought and of course bench racing.

Along with fellow historian John Atlas, I have picked my top-33. So here, in our opinion, are the Greatest 33, based on those racers who demonstrated a special feeling for the Speedway. This is one “can of worms” that’s always fun to open. Don’t forget to vote for your greatest 33, see details below.

John Atlas Steve Zautke
Row 1    
1 Wilbur Shaw: Even if we forget the fact that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would not even exist today had it not been for the persistence of Mr. Shaw, this little Hoosier lead-foot had all the right stuff. Had a wheel not failed while easily leading near the end of the 1941 Race, Wilbur would have become the first four-time winner, with three victories in a row, a feat that has yet to be accomplished. Simply the best

Bill Vukovich: One of the greatest to come from California, this Fresno native was leading in 1952 when mechanical failure stopped him. Won in 1953 and 1954. Was leading in 1955 when killed in a accident not of his doing. Who knows what he could’ve done in George Salih’s laydown.

2 Bill Vukovich: Hard as nails Vuky, whose abrasive personality probably would have prevented him from even getting a ride today, really should have won four in a row. Even Wilber would have had trouble with this guy.

Al Unser, Sr. Four wins with three teams, even brought John Menard his best finish, 3rd in 1992. Eleven top-3’s. Unmatchable. Didn’t have Team Penske to fall back on most of his career (not to diminish others). Even got a top-5 in a Longhorn! Numero uno in laps led, 644 in 11 races, ’nuff said.

3 Parnelli Jones: I know he only ran seven Races, and won only once. No matter; if there is such a thing as "flair", Parnelli had it. He broke the magic 150 MPH barrier, and easily could have won five of the seven "500’s" be competed in. In my lifetime, which started in 1956 at the Speedway, he was the best I ever saw

Rick Mears: Gotta go with Rapid Rick, he was made for Indianapolis. True as John says, he had Penske equipment throughout his career, but his outside, turn one pass of Michael Andretti for the win in 1992 proved what we should have already known: the man was a RACER!

Row 2
4 Al Unser: The greatest of the Unser clan at Indy; a four time winner and the all time lap leader at the "500". Maybe the best in threading through traffic I’ve ever seen.

A.J. Foyt: Raced in the greatest race 35 times! Not the best batting average, however, four wins, could’ve easily won in 1975 and 1976. Nine top 3 finishes, speeds went from 145mph to over 230mph in those 35 years. A.J. was correct, "Indianapolis made A.J. Foyt."

5 Rick Mears: Sure he had Penske equipment throughout his career, but his outside, turn one pass of Michael Andretti for the win in 1992 proved what we should have already known: the man was a RACER!

Wilbur Shaw: Indiana native, Shaw saved the Speedway, however this is about drivers. He was one of the best. Could’ve not only won 1941, but who know what would’ve happened in 1942-1945, he was at his peak. Seven top-5 in 13 races.

6 A.J. Foyt: The first four time victor won some he should have lost, and lost some he should have won. No matter: he’s forever a Speedway icon, and one of the all time great Speedway characters. But, I feel the five guys ahead of him in this fantasy line-up would have and/or could have beat him at the Speedway in a heads-up battle. Too bad we’ll never really know.

Parnelli Jones: Could easily been number one, could have had a ride in 1960, almost drove his car in 1969 when Al Unser broke his ankle. He could easily have two wins if the turbine didn’t break a bearing. Won in 1963, lost his brakes the previous year while leading. Many have said the best pure driver they’ve ever have seen. I saw him take laps at the Speedway in 2007, looks like he could still race!

Row 3
7 Louis Meyer: The first three-time winner, the great Louis Meyer made it look almost easy. Mr. Meyer crashed out of his last "500" with three laps to go while trying to catch Wilber Shaw to win what would have been his fourth Race. One of the smartest drivers ever at Indy.

Ralph DePalma: Unfortunately lost to the history books, this guy was a driver. Anybody that can manhandle a car like him can race. Almost won in 1912, won in 1915, seem to be always in the mix. World War I caused him to miss two opportunities to race at Indy, finished half of his "500’s" in the top-6. Racing’s first superstar.

8 Mauri Rose: Cool and calculating, the little man with the big mustache was a real "money" driver. Kind of an earlier day Rick Mears, Mauri drove for Lou Moore (an earlier day Roger Penske), and knew how to get to the front and stay there. When he crashed out of his last Race in 1951 due to a bad wheel, he reportedly said, "Some days, you just can’t make a dime" and walked away. You gotta love it.

Louie Meyer: Won the first time out in 1928 in one of the prettiest Miller racecars ever made. Seems like if he finished the race, he was in contention to win. With the exception of one race, finished six times either winning (three times) or finishing in the top-4.

9 Ralph DePalma: Probably the first Speedway super-star, Ralph won in 1915, and probably should have won at least two more. When he and his "mechanician" pushed their blown-up Mercedes toward the finish line in 1912 still in pursuit of victory, they painted a picture that will never fade in the annals of Speedway history.

Mario Andretti: Won the one race he shouldn’t have, car was overheating, out of oil, ready to blow up. Had the field covered in 1987, had the fastest car in 1966 and 1967. Still has six top-5’s third in laps led with 556.

Row 4
10 Bobby Unser: Three-time winner Bobby was probably the fastest and feistiest of the Unser clan. In his era, nobody could mess with Bobby when his car was right. Like the rest of his family, Unser would probably been a Western gunfighter in another era

Bobby Unser: My personal favorite as a kid growing up. Knew how to go fast, perhaps a bit too fast? Three wins, led ten races, top-10 in laps led with 440. Should’ve won in 1972 by three laps.

11 Billy Arnold: It’s a shame few people today remember what a great leadfoot Billy Arnold was. For three straight years (1930-32), he simply ruled the Speedway, much like Bill Vukovich did in the early ’50’s. His total domination in 1930, leading a record 198 of 200 laps to score his only victory is still unchallenged to this day

Jim Clark: I know this is a Indy 500 only listing but this fella was a pure and smooth driver in Formula One and Indianapolis. Dominated in 1965, almost won as a rookie in 1963. Almost won in 1966 after spinning twice. Wished we could had seen race the Lotus-56 turbine, tragically killed at his peak. Only raced in five “500’s” but is in the top-15 in laps led, only Vuky and Billy Arnold are ahead with same amount of races. Top third of the field is a must for the Scottish racing legend.

12 Al Unser Jr.: Two-time winner “Little Al” was truly a chip off the old block. His near miss in 1989; his near photo-finish win over Scott Goodyear in 1992 made him a Speedway legend. Al Jr. had as much “flair” for the Speedway as anyone.

Rodger Ward: A two-time winner, Ward after a rough start, really took to the speedway. His finishes between 1959-1964 of 1-2-3-1-4-2 is nearly unmatched. Roadster driver whose last two starts came in rear-engine equipment.

Row 5
13 Mario Andretti: It’s amazing that Mario has only one Speedway win on his stat sheet. His skill was beyond question, but his judgment in picking Speedway rides might have let him down a bit over the years. But, in equal equipment, Andretti could run with anybody.

Mauri Rose: Another cool customer who’s driving talents matched the speedway. 16 races, led seven of them, three wins, seven top-5’s. Would work at Allison Corporation across the street in the morning and run a racecar at practice in the afternoon.

14 Helio Castroneves: Our latest three-time winner, Helio has now proved his special “gift” for achieving results at the Speedway. By the time he’s done, Helio may turn out to be the greatest foreign driver ever to come to Indy.

Johnny Rutherford: Lonestar JR was another late bloomer. Broke both of his arms in 1966 in a sprint car crash which nearly derailed his career. JR and Team McLaren really jelled. Won twice with the Tyler Alexander-led team. Opportunity presented itself to run Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2K and he dominated the field in 1980 for his third win. 24 races, three wins, fives races led for 296 laps.

15 Tommy Milton: Indy’s first multiple winner, was a class act and a true leadfoot. And, few realize he did it all with sight in only one eye. Probably the most respected racer of his time

Emerson Fittipaldi: Another driver from Formula One who had a renaissance in CART and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Won in 1989 and 1993, was dominating in Penske’s “Panzer” in 1994 when he screwed up. However in 11 races, led seven of them for 505 laps. Finished 2nd in 1988 and third in 1990.

Row 6
16 Gordon Johncock: Gordie scored a great win over Rick Mears in 1982, and a sad win in the tragic Race of 1973, and could easily have won a couple more. One thing for sure: nobody can say that they EVER saw Johncock back down from ANYONE. A very tough little dude

Tommy Milton: Was the one to beat in the 1920’s and was luckily able to survive the decade too. Drove in eight “500’s” and won two of them, four top-5’s.

17 Rodger Ward: Another two-time winner, Rodger had an amazing string of Indy finishes between 1959 and 1964 (1st; 2nd; 3rd; 1st; 4th; 2nd) before winding down his 15 year Speedway career in 1966. His rather lackluster early Speedway results might prevent Ward from a higher starting position in this fantasy line-up.

Billy Arnold: One of the forgotten heroes at the speedway. Has an incredible record who walked away at his peak. Five races, led three of them for an incredible 410 laps, has record for most with his 1930 win (198 of 200 laps). Dominating driver of the early 1930’s.

18 Bill Holland: Here’s another Speedway legend with a incredible series of finishes. Had he not been snookered by wily teammate Mauri Rose, Holland would have surly won his rookie race in 1947. But, with his results during a relatively brief career (2nd; 2nd; 1st; 2nd between 1947 and 1950), Bill Holland earned every body’s respect.

Rex Mays: Rex was made for the Speedway, like Ted Horn amassed incredible stats, just never found victory lane. One thing they both have in common, killed in a racing accident at the zenith of their career. Both were experienced drivers who perhaps would’ve found that elusive victory. I put Mays in front of Horn because of his pole positions (4) and led more laps, 266 to Horn’s 94 and led laps in nine of his 12 races.

Row 7
19 Jim Rathmann: Jim was a three-time bridesmaid at the Brickyard before copping his only win over arch rival Rodger Ward in 1960, in a battle that many Speedway historians consider the greatest “500” ever run. Nobody ever drive the Speedway harder than Jim Rathmann. Nobody.

Ted Horn: Like I wrote about Rex Mays, incredible stats. Ten races, led three, his finishes from 1936-1948 are 2-3-4-4-4-3-3-3-4. Wow.

20 Jim Clark: The little Scot was obviously one of the greatest racers who ever lived. Even with the “unfair advantage” of having the first well-sorted rear-engined car at his disposal, it was obvious that Jimmy was a very special person. If only he had lived longer

Gordon Johncock: If one driver needed to win that second “500” it was Gordie. Won the tragic rain-shortened ’73 race. Thankfully won the thrilling 1982 duel with Rick Mears. Drove 24 “500” and led seven for 339 laps. 11 top-9 finishes.

21 Frank Lockhart: Another great racer who died before his time, the 1926 winner only raced in two 500’s, but those who saw him perform at Indy claim that Frank Lockhart would have been a Speedway dominator had his life not been cut short trying for the Land Speed Record at Daytona Beach. Like Jim Clark, we’ll never know what might have been

Helio Castroneves: He’s won three “500’s” how many more are there to come? Time will tell, has an incredible record at the speedway. Seems like if he finishes, he either wins or at least gets a top-5 finish.

Row 8
22 Johnny Rutherford: Lone Star JR managed three Indy wins. His good years came in the middle of his time at Indy; both the beginning and end of his career were a bit shaky but you can’t ignore three wins.

Al Unser, Jr. “You just don’t know what Indy means.” He should be on this list for that quote in victory lane alone in 1992 after his duel with Scott Goodyear. However dominated after Emmo’s miscue in 1994. Always in the mix, 19 races, led eight of them, seven top-5’s.

23 Arie Luyendyk: Arie captured the Borg-Warner Trophy twice, and is still the absolute track record holder at the Speedway. Luyendyk, like everyone else in this line-up, seemed to have a special gift for Indy.

Jimmy Bryan: The cigar chomping cowboy was the epitome of the hard driving, hard living racecar driver of the 1950’s. Won the laydown in 1958, perhaps with a bit more luck with Clint Brawner and the Dean Van Lines cars could have had more wins. Led over 200 laps, only nine races, killed in 1960 at Langhorne.

24 Jimmy Murphy: History tells us that Jimmy was another one of those special guys to have “figured out” the Indy track like no one else in his era. Murphy ran the Speedway five times, with a 1st and two 3rd’s in his final three appearances. They say he was as “good as the game”

Michael Andretti: Wow, the charger who never won. Incredible consistency of running up-front at the speedway but no wins or poles. Top-ten in laps led with 431 and couldn’t find victory lane. After all of his mechanical woes, still has nine top-8 finishes. Lost five races because of the “split.”

Row 9
25 Lloyd Ruby: There are many great drivers who never managed to win the Indy 500, but the great Texan, Lloyd Ruby, HAS to be the benchmark. The poster boy for Bad Luck, Ruby really should have been a four time winner, but sadly has only a best finish of third place in 1964 to show for an 18 year Speedway career. Incredible. “Old Rube” was as good as any of ’em.

Bill Holland: Have to rubber stamp what John wrote Here’s another Speedway legend with a incredible series of finishes. Had he not been snookered by wily teammate Mauri Rose, Holland would have surly won his rookie race in 1947. But, with his results during a relatively brief career (2nd; 2nd; 1st; 2nd between 1947 and 1950), Bill Holland earned every body’s respect.

26 Tom Sneva: Texaco Tom won his only Race in 1983, but it was in time trials that he set himself apart. The 200 MPH barrier was one of the “biggies” in Speedway history, and Sneva is the guy that toppled it. It’s obvious that Mr. Sneva knew the short way around

Jimmy Murphy: Known as the “King of the Board Tracks” Murphy was a driver that excelled on all surfaces, a pure driver who’s career was cut short like many, due to a fatal accident (Syracuse, 1924). His stats don’t lie, five races, finished 4-14-1-3-3. One wonders what could had been.

27 Dario Franchitti: This two-time winner is still working on his career stats. But, based on what he’s accomplished so far, it’s apparent that Dario has earned his spot in this starting grid. How good might he become? Stick around

Arie Luyendyk: No one knew how good this Dutch rookie was going to be when he arrived in 1985. His popular win in 1990 was a masterpiece. Not many realized he raced in 17 “500’s.” Led eight of them, may had drove his hardest race in 1995 finishing 7th for Menard. A racing historian who is honored to be one of the best at the Brickyard.

Row 10
28 Sam Hanks: I feel that Mr. Hanks needs to be included based on his gutsy victory over rival Jim Rathmann on his 12th and final try at the Brickyard. His win was one of the most popular of all time. No one ever ran a better Race than Sam did in 1957.

Frank Lockhart: Another from the “board track” era who only raced in two races. Won one of them, led 205 laps, unfortunately killed at the prime of his career. Was highly respected by his peers in his day.

29 Ted Horn: How did Horn miss Victory Lane? For nine straight years, the most popular driver of his era finished no worse than fourth. The greatest 33 drivers ever at Indy? Ted Horn deserves one more shot a victory

Tom Sneva: The “Gas-man” was fast in qualifying, almost won three poles in a row, first over 200mph. Won the race 1983, has three runner-up finishes. 18 races, led 8 of them for 208 laps.

30 Emerson Fittipaldi: Emmo is a two time winner, and obviously a great talent. And, with his face on the Borg-Warner trophy twice, he has to be included in this line-up. Doesn’t he?

Lloyd Ruby: Once again, as John wrote: There are many great drivers who never managed to win the Indy 500, but the great Texan, Lloyd Ruby, HAS to be the benchmark. The poster boy for Bad Luck, Ruby really should have been a four time winner, but sadly has only a best finish of third in 1964.

Row 11
31 Rex Mays: Rex was a qualifying machine; the first four-time Pole winner. Mays lead 266 laps during his 12 years at Indy, but could only manage a pair of runner-up finishes in 1940-41. But, like they say if you can lead it, you can win it.

Jim Rathmann: His duel with Ward in 1959 and 1960 should be enough. However, led six races for 153 laps, 14 total races, five top-5’s.

32 Jimmy Bryan: The Arizona Cowboy was as tough as they came. The 1958 winner also added a 2nd and 3rd in his nine years at the Speedway.

Dario Franchitti: Along with Helio, he could move up. Loves Indy, loves the track and the history, really embraces it. A fan favorite, who is at his prime.

33 Last Place: This is too tough I can’t do it! Dario Resta, Eddie Sachs, Michael Andretti, Tony Bettenhausen, Troy Ruttman, Harry Hartz, George Souders, Danny Sullivan, Jim Hurtubise my head hurts! You pick one

Troy Ruttman: Won as a kid in 1952, had an arm injury that set him back a few years. Always ran well, found his way to the front. Led four races, retired at age 34. Left a lot on the plate, could had been one of the best, he admitted that himself.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media release:

Voting for “The Greatest 33” starts Friday, March 18 at, where fans can choose their dream starting lineup of 33 drivers, win prizes and share their Indianapolis 500 memories. Fan voting will continue through Saturday, May 14.

“The Greatest 33,” as selected by the fans, will be unveiled Sunday, May 15.

“We’re thrilled to open fan voting for ‘The Greatest 33,'” said Jeff Belskus, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and CEO. “The fans have been such vital witnesses to motorsports history at this iconic race for the last 100 years, so there’s no one better to select this prestigious group of motorsports legends. Everyone at IMS is really looking forward to learning of their selections.”

The Greatest 33 program and its interactive website are key components of the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500, scheduled for Sunday, May 29 at IMS.

Fans will choose their Greatest 33 from a list of 100 drivers pre-selected by an esteemed panel of international motorsports media and historians. Statistics, audio from IMS Historian Donald Davidson and images from the vast IMS photo archive are available for each of the 100 candidates, providing hours of entertaining content. A section of the site allowing fans to compare the statistics of up to five drivers simultaneously will help make those tough final picks.

The Greatest 33 site also will form a unique Indianapolis 500 social community. Fans can share memories of all 100 candidates, with comments visible to all visitors. Linking to popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter also is available.

Daily, weekly and grand prizes – including a Kymco ATV and scooters, VIP trips to the 2011 and 2012 Indianapolis 500, Indy Racing Experience two-seater rides, 2011 IMS race tickets, memberships and more – will be offered to fans who visit Fans can continue to enter the sweepstakes at for chances to win prizes through 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 Race Day, Sunday, May 29.

Combined with frequent content updates, the sweepstakes prizes will compel fans to visit the site and interact often.

“The spirit of the Speedway speaks from the innovative, interactive features at,” Belskus said. “We think fans are going to love how the rich history and tradition of the ‘500’ is captured and comes alive through the site.”

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