25 Greatest American Drivers of All Time

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2012

25 Greatest American Drivers of All Time

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    Every sport has them: the superstars, the best of the best and the greatest of the great.

    And even though motorsports cuts a wide path in the American sporting fabric, including NASCAR, NHRA drag racing, Indy Car open-wheel racing, motorcycles, boat racing and more, certain names rise to the fore as the best ever behind the wheel, no matter what category of racing they're in.

    Picking the 25 greatest American drivers of all time involved a lot of time, research and some hard calls on who made the list and who didn't. We had a vast number of drivers to go through, but finally whittled it down to the goal of the 25 best.

    There may be some surprises on this list. Likewise, there may be some surprises about who didn't make the list as well.

    In the end, any list like this is going to leave some fans upset that their favorite driver wasn't included. If yours is not on this list, it wasn't an intentional slight.

    (Update) Also, it would be unfair to rank one driver over another, so we simply present drivers by sport and in order -- NASCAR, open-wheel, NHRA, Outlaws/sprint cars and Formula One. Because some readers were getting confused that we had utilized numbers -- even though that was strictly for categorizing, rather than any type of ranking -- we have removed the numbers. Hopefully, that way it is clearer that the 25 drivers chosen are not ranked numerically in any type of fashion.

    We'd love to get your input on who did or didn't make the list. Feel free to leave your thoughts.


    Follow me on Twitter at @JerryBonkowski

Richard Petty, NASCAR

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    At the top of NASCAR's throne sits the man rightfully named "The King," Richard Petty.

    Petty shares the record for most NASCAR Cup championships with the late Dale Earnhardt at seven apiece.

    He also won the Daytona 500 a record seven times.

    But Petty also holds two NASCAR records that are likely to never be broken: 200 wins in his illustrious career and 27 wins in one season (including 10 in a row) in 1967.

    He'll always be known as "The King," and rightfully so.

Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR

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    Ralph Dale Earnhardt became the successor to Petty as the sport's figurehead, and played the biggest role in taking what had been a regional sport based primarily in the Southeast into a multi-billion dollar nationwide entity.

    "The Intimidator," aptly named for the way he turned the contact sport of trading paint into an art form, rivaled Petty for number of fans and championships, also earning a record-tying seven Cup crowns in his career.

    Tragically, Earnhardt, who won 76 races in his Cup career, was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

    The last of four drivers to have died within the previous year (Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper), Earnhardt's death was not in vain as it led to sweeping changes to improve safety in the sport.

    Since those changes were implemented, NASCAR has not had to endure another death or even significant serious injury in the pro ranks.

Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR

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    Jimmie Johnson is a rare bird of sorts: He's one of the sport's greats, yet he's also still in his prime as an active driver.

    With a record five consecutive wins from 2006 through 2010, Johnson established himself as one of the hardest drivers to beat.

    He almost made it six titles in seven years this season, but mechanical failure in the season finale at Homestead cost Johnson the title, eventually relegating him to a third-place season's finish.

    After coming so close this season, you can bet Johnson will be back with a vengeance in 2013.

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR

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    The four-time Cup champion proved he can still win a race, capturing the checkered flag in this season's finale last week at Homestead.

    It was Gordon's 87th career Cup win.

    While no one—Gordon included—knows how long he'll continue racing, he still holds out hope of winning that elusive fifth championship before he hangs up his firesuit for good.

    Gordon has not won a championship since 2001, making for the longest title drought of his career.

    Could 2013 finally be Gordon's year?

David Pearson, NASCAR

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    "Pearson is the best driver I ever raced against."

    Those words of high praise came from none other than the man known as "The King," Richard Petty, who had a fierce rivalry with Pearson throughout their careers.

    Pearson won three Cup championships and a heady 106 races in his career, second only to Petty.

    Had he not been a part-time driver for much of his career—competing in more than 80 percent of each season's schedule of races just four times (and winning the championship in three of those four seasons)—who knows how many more titles and race wins he could have earned?

Cale Yarborough, NASCAR

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    Forget Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson.

    In a poll by ESPN in 2008, the best driver that NASCAR Hall of Famer and legendary driver and team owner Junior Johnson picked as the best driver the sport has ever seen was Cale Yarborough.

    That's pretty lofty praise, indeed.

    Yarborough earned 83 wins in his storied career, including four victories in the Daytona 500, and also three Cup championships, all consecutively, from 1976 through 1978.

    And in a little-known fact that many race fans may not be aware of, Yarborough also tried his hand at open-wheel racing, competing in five Indianapolis 500s, with a best finish of 10th in the 1972 classic.

Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR

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    Darrell Waltrip has essentially enjoyed two great careers in NASCAR, first as a driver and for the past 12 years, as a beloved analyst and broadcaster for Fox TV broadcasts of NASCAR races.

    Waltrip was controversial at times as a driver, both for his brashness and his years-long feud with Dale Earnhardt.

    But in later years, the two became great friends.

    Who can forget Waltrip's voice, breaking with emotion, seconds after cheering younger brother Michael to a win in the 2001 Daytona 500, only to express great concern at the crash behind Waltrip that claimed Earnhardt's life. "Is Dale okay? I hope he's going to be okay," Waltrip said, his voice breaking.

    Tragically, Earnhardt was killed in that wreck.

    Waltrip won three Cup championships and 84 races (including the 1989 Daytona 500) in his career and is now a NASCAR Hall of Famer. 

Junior Johnson, NASCAR

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    The former bootlegger went on to be one of NASCAR's all-time greats, and was included in the sport's first Hall of Fame induction class.

    Johnson won 50 races as a driver and then became one of the most successful car owners in the sport, owning the car that took both Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip to all six of their combined Cup championships.

    One of the greatest examples of Johnson's prowess: He won 50 of the 313 Cup races he entered—winning almost one race in every six he entered.

    He also had 46 poles and 121 top-fives, meaning that he earned top-five finishes in more than a third of the starts in his illustrious career.

Ned Jarrett, NASCAR

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    "Gentleman" Ned Jarrett was indeed one of the greatest racers and ambassadors the sport has ever had.

    Jarrett, who just turned 80 last month, won 50 races and two championships in his Cup career. Just as outstanding is the fact that Jarrett made 352 starts in his Cup career and earned top-10 finishes in more than two-thirds of those races (239 total).

    He also is the father of former NASCAR champion and current ESPN/ABC NASCAR analyst, Dale Jarrett.

Bobby Allison, NASCAR

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    Bobby Allison was one of the original members of the fabled "Alabama Gang," and was both a tough competitor and graceful champion.

    He won 84 races in his career (tied with Darrell Waltrip) and the 1983 Winston Cup championship.

    Allison competed in 718 races over his quarter-century Cup career, including winning the Daytona 500 three different times.

    He remains a fan favorite to this day, even though his racing career as a driver was cut short by a near-fatal wreck at Pocono in 1988.

    Although Allison recovered, tragedy struck him and his family twice in the next five years, as youngest son Clifford was killed in a crash at Michigan International Speedway in 1992 while practicing for a then-Busch Series race, followed by the death of son Davy in a helicopter crash less than a year later.

    Allison is one of only eight drivers in NASCAR history to earn the unofficial career Grand Slam of wins in the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at Talladega, Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington.

    He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year. His brother, Donnie, was also a star driver during his NASCAR career.

Rusty Wallace, NASCAR

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    Russell William "Rusty" Wallace Jr. had a great career, starting 706 races and finishing in the top 10 in more than half (349) of those races, including 55 wins and 36 poles.

    He also won the 1989 Winston Cup championship, the only Cup title of his quarter-century Cup career.

    After retiring following the 2005 season, Wallace became an analyst on NASCAR telecasts on ESPN/ABC.

    Wallace is to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2013.

    He also has two brothers who have enjoyed lengthy careers in racing as well, Mike and Kenny.

A.J. Foyt, Open-Wheel and NASCAR

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    Considered by many as the greatest driver of all time, Anthony Joseph Foyt had success in virtually every racing series he competed in, including open-wheel and NASCAR.

    He earned 67 wins in his USAC career, making Foyt the winningest driver in IndyCar racing history, including being the first of only three drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four different times.

    He competed in the Indy 500 a record 35 times, and is the only driver in that race's history to win the 500 in both a front- and rear-engine car.

    He also won a record seven USAC IndyCar racing championships.

    All told, Foyt, who raced until he was 61 years old (he made his last appearance behind the wheel in the inaugural 1994 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway), is the only driver in motorsports history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of LeMans.

Rick Mears, Open-Wheel

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    Legendary team owner Roger Penske, who has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 24 championships in a variety of racing series (including his first NASCAR Cup title last week) unquestionably knows racing talent.

    And Bakersfield, Calif., native Rick Mears was one of the best Penske ever saw. When he signed Mears to Team Penske, success was almost immediate.

    Mears would go on to win 29 races with Team Penske and become the third and final driver to date to win four Indianapolis 500s as part of his career wins total.

    What makes that mark all the more prolific is that Mears competed in just 13 Indy 500s. In addition to his four wins, he also recorded five other top-five finishes in the so-called Greatest Spectacle in Racing, still one of the greatest marks ever in Indy 500 history.

    Mears also won CART championships in 1979, 1981 and 1982.

    Mears retired in 1992, but many fans and media experts feel he could have easily competed at least another five years or more, his game was still that high performance-wise.

    Who knows, Mears potentially could have become the only five-time Indy 500 winner if he hadn't have hung up his firesuit for good—maybe even six or seven.

Mario Andretti, Open-Wheel

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    Along with A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti is considered one of the greatest all-around racers that ever lived.

    If it had four wheels, Andretti typically excelled at it. He earned four Indy car championships, one in Formula One and won one Indianapolis 500.

    Andretti is the only American driver to ever win an Indy 500, Daytona 500 and a Formula One championship. What's more, he competed in a career that spanned from 1965 until 1994, nearly 40 years.

    All told, he won 38 IndyCar-style races and four championships spread across USAC and CART. He also won 12 F1 races, the most in that circuit's by any American driver.

    Some may say Andretti doesn't qualify for this list because he was born in Italy in 1940, moved with his family to the U.S. in 1955 and became a naturalized citizen in 1964. But the fact of the matter remains is that Andretti was indeed an American citizen at the time he embarked on what would become such an illustrious racing career.

    He also is the father of another IndyCar great, Michael Andretti, and grandfather of up-and-coming IndyCar driver Marco Andretti.

Al Unser, Open-Wheel

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    Much like Mario Andretti, Al Unser was part of another legendary racing family, the brother of Bobby and father of Al "Little Al" Unser Jr.

    "Big Al" won 39 career IndyCar races in his career, won one USAC and two CART championships and the biggest feat of his storied time behind the wheel: became the second of only three drivers—joining A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears—to win the Indianapolis 500 a record-tying four times.

    Just like the elder Andretti, Unser began racing in 1965 and continued until 1993, one year shorter than Andretti's tenure.

    Brother Bobby won the Indy 500 three times and was just a tick behind Al in overall race wins in open-wheel competition with 35.

    And let's not forget Little Al, who won 34 races in his career, won two CART championships and was a two-time Indianapolis 500 champ. If the last name was Unser, success was an almost foregone conclusion.

Michael Andretti, Open-Wheel

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    Like father, like son. That's the case of Michael Andretti, who proved to be a definite chip off the old block when it came to IndyCar success like father Mario Andretti.

    Son Michael won slightly more races overall on the IndyCar circuit than his father (42 to 38), and won the CART championship in 1991.

    He also followed in his father's footsteps by racing one season in Formula One before returning to the U.S.

    Sadly, one thing always hung over the younger Andretti during the course of his career: Through a combination of bad luck and timing, Michael never was able to win that elusive Indianapolis 500 like his father did.

    But he has since gone on to prominence as an IndyCar team owner—and finally got that elusive Indy 500 win (twice, actually), when the late Dan Wheldon won in 2005 and Dario Franchitti did so in 2007.

    Furthermore, Wheldon and Franchitti won the IndyCar championship in the same season that they won the 500, and Tony Kanaan earned Michael Andretti his first IndyCar Series championship as a team owner in 2004.

John Force, NHRA Drag Racing

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    The winningest driver in NHRA drag racing history, Funny Car driver John Force has become the greatest racer the quarter-mile sport has ever known.

    Force, who is now 63, has won a record 134 Funny Car races and an incredible 15 Funny Car championships in his 35-year NHRA career, including 10 in a row from 1993 through 2002.

    No other Funny Car or Top Fuel driver comes close.

    What's more, he is without question the biggest fan favorite in the sport, often called the NHRA's answer to Dale Earnhardt, as it was Force that led the sport from a small fanbase into a multi-billion dollar national phenomenon.

    And, if he ever decides to retire, which isn't in the cards any time soon, the always excitable Force would make a great stand-up comic, possessing a sense of humor that few athletes, if any, have ever possessed.

    No matter if it's driving and winning championships, or cutting up small or large groups with his ever-present humor, there's no question Force is one of the greatest athletes and entertainers the sports world has ever seen.

    Oh, and three of his four daughters have followed him behind the wheel and become good racers in their own right: Ashley, Brittany and Courtney.

Don Garlits, NHRA Drag Racing

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    "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was to drag racing what Richard Petty was to NASCAR, taking a sport in its relative infancy and helping to establish it as a legitimate nationwide racing draw.

    Garlits was not only NHRA's first big star, but he was also  one of the sport's greatest mechanical and technical innovators. His series of "Swamp Rat" front-engine Top Fuel dragsters helped establish that class as the biggest, best and baddest of all drag racing series.

    Garlits not only drove his dragster, but he also built it, tuned it and even did routine maintenance like putting air in the tires and packing his own parachute at the back of the car. Being so hands-on was the only way for Garlits to know that the job had been done right the first time.

    The Ocala, Fla., native not only won three NHRA Top Fuel titles in his career, but he also became the first driver to break speed barriers at 200, 250 and 270 mph.

    Garlits, now 80, won 144 national events in his career, including a record eight wins in the sport's biggest race, the Labor Day U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

    Garlits tackled the quarter-mile wars for nearly 40 years, from 1959 through 1986 and even in his later years, could still beat the best, and even drivers that were more than half his age.

    He now runs a successful drag racing museum in Ocala and one of his championship-winning Swamp Rat Top Fuelers is part of the sports collection of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

    One last thing: Garlits was voted No. 1 of the 50 all-time greatest drivers in NHRA history.

Shirley Muldowney, NHRA Drag Racing

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    A trailblazer in every sense of the word, Muldowney not only became one of the first-ever female drivers in the previously male-dominated world of drag racing, but she also became one of its best drivers overall, period, regardless of gender.

    Nicknamed "Cha Cha," the Schenectady, N.Y. native started her career racing locally, but eventually graduated to racing with—and ultimately beating—the big boys.

    Muldowney, now 72, competed for nearly 40 years in both the NHRA and IHRA circuits. She's a three-time NHRA champion in Top Fuel (she also spent part of her career in Funny Car racing).

    Known for her ever-present hot pink race cars, Muldowney wasn't only one of the sport's greatest drivers, she was also one of its greatest ambassadors.

    Even today, nearly 10 years since she retired, she remains one of the biggest fan favorites in the sport.

Tony Schumacher, NHRA Drag Racing

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    Known as "The Sarge" for his close-cropped crew cut and his long-time sponsorship by the U.S. Army, Tony Schumacher has become one of the greatest Top Fuel drivers in drag racing history.

    Schumacher, who celebrates his 43rd birthday on Christmas Day, has achieved incredible success, including seven Top Fuel championships—six of them in a row from 2004 through 2019.

    The son of NHRA legend Don Schumacher, who also owns the multi-car team his son and several other drivers compete for, Tony has achieved a number of highlights in his career.

    Those include being the first Top Fuel driver to exceed 330 mph in a quarter-mile pass. He's also the first driver to reach 330 mph in a 1,000-foot pass after NHRA reduced the length of racetracks from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet after the death of fellow Top Fuel driver Scott Kalitta in 2008), as well as setting the fastest speed ever in competition (337.58 mph).

    His 68 national event wins tops the Top Fuel all-time ranks.

Kenny Bernstein, NHRA Drag Racing

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    Kenny Bernstein was one of the greatest drivers in NHRA history, both in the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks.

    He earned the nickname "The Budweiser King" for both his quarter-mile prowess and having a 30-year relationship with Budweiser, one of the longest sponsorships in professional sports history.

    Bernstein, who officially retired from the sport as a driver in 2008 and as a team owner after the 2011 season, is the only driver in NHRA history to earn multiple championships in both Funny Car (four) and Top Fuel (two).

    He earned a combined 69 national event wins—39 in Top Fuel and 30 in Funny Car—making him No. 2 in the career nitro-powered classes behind only Funny Car driver John Force.

    Bernstein was the first driver in any class to exceed 300 mph in a race. Also a multi-millionaire businessman throughout his adult life, Bernstein is also the only team owner in motorsports history to have recorded victories not only in NHRA competition, but also in his forays into both IndyCar and NASCAR during the 1980s and 1990s.

    His son Brandon followed him into drag racing and continues to compete in the sport.

Warren Johnson, NHRA Drag Racing

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    Warren Johnson is the winningest driver in NHRA Pro Stock history with 97 career wins and six championships from 1992 through 2001.

    He also won two championships in the rival International Hot Rod Association.

    The Minnesota native has long been known as one of the sport's most diligent racers and one of its best mechanical masterminds, especially with both engine development and aerodynamics.

    He was the first NHRA Pro Stock driver to exceed 200 mph in the quarter-mile, and also the first to run a sub-6.9 second pass. In 2010, at the age of 66, Johnson also became the oldest professional winner in an NHRA national pro event.

    The elder Johnson will turn 70 next year, but continues to compete.

    His son, Kurt, followed him into the sport and has 40 wins to date. He was the first Pro Stock driver to exceed 200 mph in competition, and while he has finished runner-up in four different seasons, he continues to seek his first Pro Stock championship.

Bob Glidden, NHRA Drag Racing

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    Bob Glidden hails from suburban Indianapolis, a city known more for the Indianapolis 500, but is also home to the nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park, home of the biggest race every season in the NHRA, namely the U.S. Nationals.

    Glidden set the standard in the Pro Stock class that would spawn other great drivers, including Warren Johnson, Jeg Coughlin and others.

    The long-retired Glidden was a 10-time NHRA Pro Stock champ and won 85 national event victories in his storied career.

    Glidden won at least one NHRA national event for 21 consecutive seasons (1973-1993).

    Known as one of the best technical minds in the business, Glidden was a whiz under the hood. And if he couldn't diagnose a problem, his longtime wife, Etta, could, having served as her husband's crew chief for the majority of his career.

    Bob Glidden's technical expertise with motors, particularly those manufactured by Ford, eventually led him to become an engine builder and consultant for Ford and NASCAR teams after his retirement from the sport in 1998.

Steve Kinser, World of Outlaws

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    When it comes to sprint car racing and the World of Outlaws series, one name stands head and shoulders above all others: Steve Kinser.

    The Bloomington, Ind., native is without question the greatest sprint car driver that ever lived, even carrying the nickname of the "King of the Outlaws."

    Just how much of a king?

    Kinser has 20 sprint car or Outlaws championships to his credit, and an astounding 800-plus career wins in "A" main event or feature races, the most victories by any driver in any form of motorsports in four-wheeled racing history.

    Kinser also dabbled briefly in NASCAR, finished 14th as a "rookie" in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 and won an IROC race at Talladega in 1994.

Dan Gurney, Formula One

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    No list of Greatest American Drivers would be complete without at least one representative that competed in Formula One.

    While Mario Andretti (1978) and Phil Hill (1961) are the only Americans to ever win an F1 championship, arguably the most prolific American ever in F1 was Dan Gurney.

    Even though he never won an F1 title, Gurney competed for 12 seasons on the F1 circuit, won four races and had 19 overall podium finishes in 86 career starts.

    During much of the same span of time that he was flying all over the world to compete in F1, Gurney also recorded 28 starts in USAC, winning seven races and recording 10 other top-five finishes.

    And as if all that didn't keep him busy enough, he won five races (all at the long-shuttered road course at Riverside) and had 10 overall top-10 finishes in just 16 total Sprint Cup races.

    Gurney at times has been referred to as the greatest American driver to never win a championship, but ask any veteran driver, team owner or reporter, and Gurney would more than likely be on their own respective list of greatest American drivers of all time.