Indianapolis 500 All-Time Starting Grid

Before getting into anything else, I must first try and make amends for the glaring omission of Dan Gurney from my list of the best drivers to have never won the Indianapolis 500. I had compiled a list earlier and he was the second driver on the list. Unfortunately, when I went to the list to put the finishing touches on the post – it was gone. Deleted. I panicked.

Rather than sitting down and calmly re-writing the post, I spent an hour trying to find it. By the time I gave up and realized I had a late night of typing in front of me – I was tired and frazzled. When I started writing, I had this nagging feeling I had forgotten someone. I had. I feel as if I’ve destroyed any credibility I had, by omitting Gurney from the discussion. Please accept my apologies and know that I know that Dan Gurney should be at or near the top of the list.

Like yesterday’s topic – another regular subject that is always worthy of debate is who the best drivers to ever drive in the Indianapolis 500 were. There have been 726 men and women who have competed in the Indianapolis 500 in its ninety-three races; only sixty-six have ever won it. I have taken those 726 drivers and, based strictly on my flawed opinion, created the all-time starting grid – ranking the best thirty-three drivers to ever drive in the Indianapolis 500.

There is really no realistic way to compare the many eras over ninety-three races. It is literally comparing apples to oranges. I looked more at their career at the Speedway, rather than taking their entire racing career into account – which may explain some differences of opinion some may have with this.

Row 1
AJ Foyt
Rick Mears
Al Unser

Row 2
Bill Vukovich
Wilbur Shaw
Bobby Unser

Row 3
Mario Andretti
Louis Meyer
Johnny Rutherford

Row 4
Mauri Rose
Helio Castroneves
Rodger Ward

Row 5
Jim Clark
Al Unser, Jr.
Emerson Fittipaldi

Row 6
Billy Arnold
Gordon Johncock
Tommy Milton

Row 7
Ralph DePalma
Parnelli Jones
Jimmy Bryan

Row 8
Bill Holland
Jim Rathmann
Frank Lockhart

Row 9
Jimmy Murphy
Ted Horn
Bill Cummings

Row 10
Michael Andretti
Dan Gurney
Bobby Rahal

Row 11
Lloyd Ruby
Rex Mays
Arie Luyendyk

Please feel free to point out if I failed to list an obvious driver, or if I’ve put them in the wrong spot on the grid. And remember…it’s all in fun.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Indianapolis 500 All-Time Starting Grid”

  1. I am outraged. OUTRAGED, I tell you, that you left out Dan Gurney on yesterday’s list. You have injured my eyeballs and sullied the good name of bloggers everywhere. I shall not be coming back to this site…

    …uh, until tomorrow, when you hopefully have another post. Good one today. I shall have to ruminate on this starting grid of Valhalla as I sit and stare at my cubicle wall while I count down the minutes until I can get on a plane this evening.

  2. indygrrl Says:

    I was shocked as well, not only was he a great driver, but he has a breed of cows named after him. Doesn’t all the milk they drink at the end come from Gurney steers?

  3. I like the all-time grid, and if they lined all of those guys up in March/Cosworths or something, I’d certainly watch! My one tiny issue with it is that I would have put Rick Mears on the pole position simply because of his ridiculously good qualifying record.

    My goodness…It just dawned on me that the race is three days off! i can’t wait until work is over today so I can roll up to Indianapolis!

  4. Where is JPM? If he had stayed in Indycar for the 2000’s racing for TCGR you don’t think he would have at least 3 wins? (if not 4 or 5)? Other then the omission of Juan, a good list.

  5. I admit…I weighed drivers’ entire career accomplishments somewhat rather than just what they did at the Speedway. I don’t really understand the Indy Is Everything crowd, which inflates drivers like Castroneves and Luyendyk at the expense of drivers who had more successful overall careers but did less at Indy. I’ll list Castroneves, but I don’t think Luyendyk quite makes it, even if he does hold all the speed records. (If I made an Indy-centric list, he’d be on it though.)

    Row 1: Mario Andretti/A.J. Foyt/Rick Mears
    Row 2: Al Unser/Bobby Unser/Bill Vukovich
    Row 3: Johnny Rutherford/Wilbur Shaw/Rodger Ward
    Row 4: Jim Clark/Parnelli Jones/Mauri Rose
    Row 5: Emerson Fittipaldi/Dan Gurney/Juan Pablo Montoya
    Row 6: Ted Horn/Gordon Johncock/Jackie Stewart
    Row 7: Michael Andretti/Ralph DePalma/Al Unser, Jr.
    Row 8: Nigel Mansell/Bobby Rahal/Jim Rathmann
    Row 9: Billy Arnold/Graham Hill/Louis Meyer
    Row 10: Jimmy Bryan/Hélio Castroneves/Rex Mays
    Row 11: Pete DePaolo/Frank Lockhart/Lloyd Ruby

    Here were my general biases in forming this list:

    I admit I rated many of the early drivers at Indianapolis lower than they perhaps should have been (although I definitely did give credit to some I think deserve it). I don’t think the level of competition at the Speedway REALLY took off until the post-World War II period, so I listed many fewer such drivers than most would. I simply think the most competitive fields were generally from 1955-1995, so I had a bias against drivers who did nothing in this period, especially those who dominated against weak fields like Meyer and Castroneves did.

    I did not strictly judge by success at the Speedway alone; I added some influence by what else the drivers did in their career. Should I rank Foyt over Andretti because he has the better Indy record, even though in my opinion Andretti is the better Indy driver? Ditto Montoya vs. Castroneves, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney vs. several multiple race winners? A versatile driver earns points for me greater than their Indy record alone.

    Overall success (not only at Indy) matters to me, so Michael Andretti moves considerably up the list because he is the third winningest driver in American open wheel. Ditto Ted Horn with his three straight championships. See also Rahal, Montoya, etc… Drivers who came up short on the championships I tended to rate lower. Again, I think the 1955-1995 era was most competitive (and I’ll expand that to 2001 for CART) so drivers who won championships in this era I have more respect for.

    I listed several F1 drivers who had very short careers at the Speedway but were still in my opinion far superior to the early race winners. Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell… All of these threatened to win in their rookie seasons (Mansell threatened to win in his FIRST OVAL START.) That’s more notable to me than winning two races out of twelve or something, even if Stewart and Mansell never won the race.

    If I was going to STRICTLY rate on Indy without judging the rest of drivers’ careers, then I would leave most of the F1 drivers off and have a list similar to George’s. But I can’t do that. ‘Cause I can’t rate Al Unser, Jr. above Michael Andretti (they were basically equal), I can’t rate Castroneves above Montoya (Montoya is far superior), I can’t rate Foyt above Mario (Mario is superior). I can’t rate Indy specialists over F1 interlopers who made a bigger splash.

    • By the way, as you can tell, I just listed drivers alphabetically in each row. If I were going to do it in order, it would be more like this:

      1: Andretti/Foyt/Mears
      2: A. Unser/Vukovich/B. Unser
      3: Rutherford/Ward/Shaw
      4: Clark/Jones/Rose
      5: Gurney/Fittipaldi/Montoya
      6: Horn/Stewart/Johncock
      7: Andretti/DePalma/Unser, Jr.
      8: Rahal/Rathmann/Mansell
      9: Hill/Meyer/Arnold
      10: Castroneves/Mays/Bryan
      11: Lockhart/DePaolo/Ruby

      • And now I’m thinking I have to put Jacques Villeneuve in somewhere since gaining two laps against one of the most competitive fields ever is a legendary accomplishment. Okay, dump DePaolo, move Ruby up one position, and put Villeneuve in row 11 on the bubble.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I have no problem with the list, though I’d lobby for Ray Harroun.

    While 10 of his 11 races at the Speedway weren’t 500’s, his record at the track is quite good. 3 wins, only 1 DNF (it was for a mechanical failure), and finished within 10 minutes of the winner in 5 of his 8 non-wins (not a common feat in those days).

    He retired at only 32 years old, after his only 500, so perhaps he could have done more. There are plenty of “what ifs” at Indy, but Harroun is one of the most interesting because he was so good at the track prior to the 500’s existence.

    • Jim in Wilmington Says:

      Not only that, Harroun designed the car and it was full of innovations (the rear view mirror was just the tip of the iceberg). He also did very well at other tracks and was the national driving champion in 1910. Still i think if your looking at overall success in the 500, George’s list is pretty much spot on.


  7. Oddly enough, JPM is the only missing name that stuck out for me as well. In my mind, the domination he displayed that month makes up for the age in which he ran.

    34-66 might make an even more interesting list.

  8. No Pancho Carter??? Pffft. Good day, sir.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    No Tony Bettenhausen??? Double Pffft. And a pox upon your blog.

  10. Indianapolis 500 All-Time Starting Grid « Oilpressure…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  11. […] grid for the Indianapolis 500. Many bloggers, including myself, have already tackled such a project. But these previous undertakings have been one person’s opinion. My front row lacked very little […]

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