The Indianapolis 500 is the world's greatest race. One-hundred years of racing at the famed 2.5-mile oval certainly secures that ranking. But who are Indy's top all-time drivers? We've picked 25 racers, dating all the way back to the first race through today. This list is in no way intended to diminish the accomplishments of other drivers who have raced at the Indy 500 but to shine a spotlight on a select few drivers who've had the greatest impact at the race regardless of the number of wins they've achieved. A couple of drivers listed here never won the Indy 500.
Like his modern day counterpart Michael Andretti, Rex Mays never won the Indianapolis 500. But Mays made an impact at the great oval few ever have. Mays was the first driver to earn the pole position at Indianapolis four times. Mays also led the race in nine of the 12 races he was entered. In all, Mays led 266 total laps at Indy. Many believe he is the greatest driver to never win the Indianapolis 500. Mays was tragically killed while still in his prime, driving in an IndyCar race held in Del Mar, California in 1949.
Tommy Milton was the first two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Milton won the race in 1921 and again in 1923. Amazingly, Milton was a racing champion despite being completely blind in his right eye. His disability never slowed him down. Milton was quite successful in other forms of racing, setting what was then the world land speed record of 156 mph in 1920 at Daytona Beach.
Tom Sneva was the first man to break the 200 mph barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, doing so in 1977. Sneva was always fast there, earning the pole position three times. His speed earned him the much-deserved nickname "the Gas Man." Sneva while fast also had a hard-luck reputation at Indianapolis, as he was involved in some of the most spectacular crashes ever witnessed at Indianapolis. Further, Sneva finished second three times at Indy before finally winning in 1983. His victory was one of the most popular wins in Indianapolis 500 history.
No list of the top Indianapolis 500 drivers can be complete without including Ray Harroun, the very first winner of the Indianapolis 500. Harroun, who won the race in 1911, was contracted to design and build his race car by the Indianapolis-based Marmon Motor Car Company. The car Harroun designed, known as the Marmon Wasp, was more sleek and narrow than typical race cars of that era, and did not have a seat for a riding mechanic as was the norm in those days. Riding mechanics generally served as the additional eyes for race drivers many years ago. Because of that, Harroun is credited with developing the very first automobile rear view mirror, which he used during the first 500. Harroun drove to victory in just under seven hours. His average speed was 74 mph.
For many years Gordon Johncock had to live with the memory of being the winner of one of the most tragic 500 mile races of all time—1973. That year the race which took three days to complete was marred by rain and death. Driver Swede Savage was killed from injuries he suffered during the race. A pit crew member was also killed. It is a race many would rather forget. Johncock though would persevere as a top driver at Indy, but it wasn’t until 1982 that Johncock really made his name. In that race Johncock held off hard-charging Rick Mears to win what was then the closest and most dramatic finish in Indy history. The spine-tingling race to the checkered flag with Mears cemented Johncock’s place in Indy history.
If you think Mario Andretti had bad luck at Indy, his son Michael would trade for his father’s results in a heartbeat. Michael Andretti raced at Indy 16 times, never winning but leading in just about every Indy 500 in which he competed. Michael Andretti led more than 400 total laps at Indy over the years, more than any driver without a win. Some sort of gremlin plagued him every time. As an owner though, Andretti did finally make it to Victory Lane with two wins: with Dan Wheldon in 2005 and in 2007 with Dario Franchitti.
It is easy these days as IndyCar racing struggles to fly above the radar screen to overlook Dan Wheldon. But the fact is the British driver won Indy in 2005 and has finished second at Indy the last two years. He’s also finished third and fourth there. Wheldon truly knows how to drive around the 100-year-old oval. Because of sponsor issues, Wheldon is inexplicably no longer driving full-time in IndyCars. But despite sitting on the sideline for the first four races of this season, Wheldon is once again near the front at Indy this year and is certainly a threat to win it for a second time. Despite his sponsorship woes, Wheldon’s relatively short career at Indy (eight races) is already one of the best in history.
The Dutch driver won the 1990 Indy 500 and won again in 1997. He was always a driver to be taken seriously because of the way in which he competed. But it was 1996 the year of the infamous “split” in IndyCar racing that Luyendyk made his lasting impression. That was the year he set the single lap track record of over 237 mph. That record still stands.
Parnelli Jones only drove in seven Indy 500s but they were seven of the most productive years ever at Indy. Jones never started worse than sixth in those races, and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. Jones always found the fast way around the track and was the first driver to qualify at Indianapolis with a speed over 150 mph. Jones also drove the revolutionary turbine car in 1967. Jones dominated that race in the whisper quiet turbine, leading 171 laps until an inexpensive bearing failed with just three laps to go. Jones also went on to win Indy two times as an owner. He owned the winning cars driven in 1970 and 1971 by Al Unser, Sr.
Success makes heroes and few were as successful as two-time winner Rodger Ward. Ward was a huge name at the Indianapolis 500 in the late '50s and early '60s. Ward won the race in 1959 and again in 1962. From ‘59 until ‘64 Ward finished no worse than fourth. In that stretch he recorded two wins, two second-place finishes, a third place and a fourth place.
Dario Franchitti won his first Indianapolis 500 in a downpour in 2007, and he won again last year. Franchitti, who drives for the top-flight Target/Ganassi Racing team is almost always in the front. Despite having taken a brief one-year detour to NASCAR in 2008, Franchitti, returned to IndyCars and the 500 and again became one of the dominant drivers. In another time, with two Indy victories and a movie star wife in Ashley Judd, Franchitti would easily be one of the kings in all of motor sports. Unfortunately he is one of the star-crossed victims of the ongoing decline in the popularity of IndyCar racing.
Two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittapaldi created a successful second act in racing when he came to IndyCar in the 1980s after a Formula One career in which he won two world championships. His move to IndyCar was highlighted by his crowd pleasing driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His classic duel with Al Unser Jr. in 1989 in the closing laps when he won his first 500 is unforgettable. Fittipaldi, who hails from Brazil, was the first of many of his countrymen to enjoy great success at Indianapolis and in IndyCars.
Mauri Rose won the Indianapolis 500 three times, first in 1941 and then back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 1947 and '48. If you include the fact that due to World War II, there were no 500-mile races run in 1942, ‘43, ‘44 or ‘45 then, Rose won three out of four Indy 500s. Rose was the third man to win three Indianapolis 500s.
Louis Meyer was the first man to win three times at Indianapolis. As the years pass and other drivers earn victories and make a name at the world famous Speedway, Meyer’s name somehow gets lost. But in his day he was considered one of the best. He won in 1928, 1933 and 1936. Beyond his wins, Meyer is perhaps best known for starting the Indy winner's tradition of drinking milk in Victory Lane.
Little Al won twice at Indianapolis in 1992 and 1994. Unser had a run of excellence at Indy that few will ever match. A beloved racer, he was at his best when IndyCar racing, then sanctioned by CART was at its peak of national and international popularity in the late 1980s and early '90s. His duel in the closing laps with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 will go down as some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing in Indy 500 history. After winning his first race at Indianapolis, an emotional Al Jr. exclaimed, “You just don’t know what Indy means!”
It took nearly a decade for the Texas native to become a star at Indianapolis, but once the driver nicknamed Lone Star J.R. finally made his mark, he was dominant, winning Indy three times in six years. He was a hard charger who was in the hunt as long as his car held up. Perhaps his most dominant performance came in 1980 while driving the yellow Pennzoil Special. It was one of the first so-called ground effects cars that literally hugged the track and made Rutherford virtually untouchable on the track. His daring driving style made him a huge fan favorite.
The Penske driver has always been Mr. Excitement. But for all of his smiles and personality at Indianapolis, he absolutely knows his way around the track. Helio Castroneves earned the nickname “Spiderman” for climbing the fence to celebrate his victories. While the fence-climbing routine has been imitated by others—like NASCAR’s Tony Stewart—Castroneves was indeed the originator. He’s fast, winning the pole at Indianapolis four times and obviously racy, winning the race three times. Although a lot of press has gone the way of Danica Patrick in recent years, Castroneves is the one IndyCar driver who exudes the personality and poise that draws fans. Castroneves is also a winner of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
In the mid 1960s one of the world’s greatest drivers, Formula One champion Jim Clark traveled across the pond from Scotland and literally helped change the look of IndyCars. Clark raced in five Indy 500s, winning once and twice finishing second. In Clark’s rookie year in 1963, he drove his rear engine Lotus to second place. In 1964 Clark sat on the pole that year had to drop out of the race because of a suspension failure. In 1965 Clark started second but dominated the race to lead 190 of the 200 laps. Clark became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in a rear-engine car. Rear-engine cars have won every Indy 500 since then. Jim Clark was killed racing in Germany in 1968.
Mario Andretti only won the Indianapolis 500 one time—in 1969—and only completed the race five times in 29 tries. But Andretti’s impact at the track can’t be measured by victories or even finishes. Andretti was a threat to win in virtually every 500 that he competed in. He is third all-time in laps led at the Indianapolis 500. Andretti, who some consider one of the most hard-luck drivers in Indy history, nonetheless is a legendary name at the track. Andretti is second in all time IndyCar victories, a former Formula One champion and a winner of the Daytona 500. Alongside A.J. Foyt, Andretti is considered by most racing historians as America's greatest ever race driver.
Bobby Unser is Al Sr's older brother and the far more outgoing and fiery of the two winning Unser brothers. It took a few years before Bobby really got going at Indy, but once he did he was tough to beat and was always very fast. As a competitor, while he was often overshadowed in the publicity department by A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti—and at times his brother—he was without question the equal of all of them. Bobby Unser was a fearless competitor and is simply one of the best drivers to ever race at Indianapolis. His results back that up. His three wins at Indianapolis pretty much say it all.
Shaw won the Indianapolis 500 three times. But his greatest contribution did not actually come from what he did behind the steering wheel. Wilbur Shaw was the man who perhaps played the most important role in Indy history in helping save the Indianapolis 500 from extinction. Shaw persuaded wealthy Terre Haute, Indiana businessman Tony Hulman to buy the Speedway in 1946 when it appeared the legendary track was going to be demolished. The Speedway which had been closed for four years during World War II was in a state of total disrepair, and then owner Eddie Rickenbacher wanted to tear the track down and turn the land into a housing complex. But Shaw’s determined action to find a buyer who cared about the legacy of the famed track literally made all the difference in the world. Shaw, who was president of the Speedway during this time, was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1954.
Had he been given more time on this earth, Bill Vukovich may well have been the hands down greatest racer in Indianapolis 500 history. Vukovich only raced at Indianapolis five times. He won the race in back-to-back years, 1953 and 1954, and he was leading the race by 17 seconds in 1955 when his car was involved in a chain reaction accident, flipping over the backstretch wall, bursting into flames and killing him. If you include 1952 when Vukovich also led the race for a remarkable 150 laps before having to drop out, he could have won Indy four straight years. Without a doubt Bill Vukovich is one of the greatest racers to ever take laps at Indianapolis.
Probably no driver has been more steady at Indy than four-time winner Rick Mears. In fact with a little luck he could have been the only driver to win five races there. His 1982 dual with Gordon Johncock remains one of the all-time Indianapolis 500 moments. Even though Mears lost by fractions of a second, those final laps trying to reel-in Johncock is my favorite race moment. The finish was electrifying and typified the skill and desire that Mears displayed throughout his racing career. But the four victories he earned at Indianapolis defined Mears and established a standard that few drivers will ever be able to top.
Al Unser Sr. won back-to-back Indy’s in 1970 and 1971. He won those races in dominating fashion. He won again in 1978 and 1987. Unser's only real fault was that he was just a little too vanilla and boring in his dealings with the media. Never one for the interesting quote, he saved is best material for the track. Drivers always knew if “Big Al” was somewhere close to the lead near the end, he had a chance to win. Unser is also the all-time leader in laps led at Indianapolis. This unassuming driver truly deserves his No. 2 ranking.
There should be no argument about which driver deserves the honor of being No. 1 at Indianapolis. No one evokes the legend of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than A.J. Foyt. He was the first driver to win four races at the famed oval. Foyt competed in more 500 mile races than any other driver and embodied the grit and determination it takes to win what certainly ranks as the world's most difficult race. He had a white hot temper, but without it, he probably never would have won so many races. Foyt is IndyCar's all-time wins leader with 67 total IndyCar wins. Foyt also won the 24 Hours of LeMans, the Daytona 500 and scores of other races. Along with Mario Andretti, Foyt is considered by many to be America's greatest race driver. Foyt, who won his first Indy 500 50 years ago, was given the honor of driving the ceremonial pace car for the centennial race. It is an honor well-earned and well-deserved.