The Greatest 33

From all the teases we have gotten from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the last few months, there are many great surprises in store for the fans, as the one-hundredth anniversary celebration gets closer. We’ve already seen the grid of thirty-three winners that was rolled out onto the main straightaway last October. YouTube is filled with many videos capturing that occasion that will give you goose bumps. I’m sure the various gift shops at the Speedway will have many ways that you can buy and preserve that moment.

This past Wednesday, they announced another item that will surely get the attention of many fans like myself – someone getting a little long in the tooth that has an appreciation for the present day as well as the past. They have launched a website that isn’t active yet – it won’t be until March, but you can go to it now and register. It’s called “The Greatest 33”. It gives fans a chance to vote on the all-time starting 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 imagination; I put AJ Foyt on the pole, Rick Mears in the middle and Al Unser on the outside. Some might shuffle that order, but I don’t think there is any arguing those three on the front row. But that’s only my opinion. This gives all the fans a voice.

This can be a great learning experience for fans that want to learn more about the drivers of yesteryear. Out of the 732 drivers that have raced in the Indianapolis 500, one hundred have been pre-selected by “an esteemed panel of motorsports media”. From that list, fans will get to choose the top thirty-three.

At first, I wasn’t sure that one hundred was enough. I was thinking that it should be paired down to two hundred and let the fans go from there, but it does eliminate the possibility of a bunch of idiots stuffing the ballot box with the Dennis Vitolo’s and Dr. Jack Miller’s of the world.

The best part about this is that the top one hundred that are eligible for selection will have an audio biography narrated by none other than IMS Historian Donald Davidson on the website to go along with their statistics in the Indianapolis 500. That way, if you don’t know much about Tommy Milton or you’re not quite sure who Rex Mays or Ted Horn was – who better to educate you than Donald?

I suppose the list of one hundred will not be released until the site goes live in March. Fittingly, the Greatest 33 will be announced in May. I hope there are some surprises on the list. As blasphemous as it sounds, I don’t believe that being an Indianapolis 500 winner automatically qualifies you to be on the list. Nor do I think that being a current or recent driver should give you a nod simply because more people have heard of a Tony Kanaan or Michael Andretti than they have a Cliff Bergere or Russ Snowberger. Is Eddie Cheever really one of the top one hundred drivers to ever turn a wheel at the Speedway? I guess we’ll see what the panel of experts thinks.

As much as I like to throw my opinion around about who is a great driver and who stinks, I’m just one person and one vote. Everyone will decide this. Even though I came up with my own thirty-three last May, I’m not just going to re-create my list from a year ago and make that my vote. I’m going to give this the time and thought that I think this endeavor deserves. Donald Davidson and the panel put a lot of effort into this and I’m going to put more than three minutes into it. I will utilize those two months to go through and listen to Donald’s bio on each one, look at the stats and formulate my opinion from there. It may closely resemble my grid from last May and it may be completely different. Whatever I come up with, I’m sure I’ll post it here in May before the Greatest 33 is announced.

For those of us that have a deep appreciation for the rich history of the Indianapolis 500, the next few months are going to be incredible. The more history-oriented items that the Speedway can come up with, the more I’m going to think I’ve died and gone to heaven. I don’t know a great deal of the history of the race. I know some and I keep trying to learn more. When it comes to this stuff, I try to be a sponge and just soak up as much as I can. Just when I think I know quite a bit, I’ll come across somebody who will rattle off names and statistics that just blow me away. But you know what? Not even the great Donald Davidson knows everything there is to know about this great race. No one does. It’s like putting a giant puzzle together, but no one has all the right pieces. That’s what makes the place so fascinating.

So take advantage of this opportunity to learn about these one hundred drivers. In fact, take advantage of everything the Speedway throws at us this spring. Because in June, our focus will be strictly on the future with the new cars and engines on the horizon for 2012, and talk about the past will be just that. History.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “The Greatest 33”

  1. Mike Silver Says:

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about my grid since the website open. I have my front row pretty set, but it gets really tricky after that. Can’t wait to compare lineups with other people.

  2. I wonder who gets voted to the number one spot. Foyt usually gets accepted as the best but 3 of his wins were kind of lucky wins. But seems almost blasphemous to say anyone else who raced at the Speedway was better.

    • No Name, I concur. Even though I am probably as great a fan of A.J. Foyt as George is, I would have to give the nod to Rick Mears. His wins, as a rule, were more dominant and he retired young enough that we can only imagine how many more the Rocket might have won had he stayed around as long as A.J.

      I also can’t remember Mears NOT being competitive: It seemed he was either out of the race or hanging around the front (once he had “chased” the car.) Some of that is attributable to Penske equipment, but who else in the Penske stable had that much success?

      You’re also correct that after the front row or two, it gets pretty tricky. Bill Vukovich is a classic example. Although he “only” had two wins, he pretty much had the field covered in three races in a row before his fatal accident. He’s got to be toward the front of the field for that alone.

      • Mike Silver Says:

        Vuky actually had the field covered in 4 races in a row. He was 8 laps short of winning in 52 and was leading in 55 when the accident happened. Shaw could have won 5 in a row. I agree Vuky and Shaw are front row. I was going for Foyt as the thidr one in front, but some of these comments have me rethinking it.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    Foyt is definitely front row, but I’m not sure about pole. I’m actually leabning toward 3nd or 3rd for him.

  4. The website announcement is unclear —- I hope we get to slot our picks into the 33 positions and they don’t just have us choose 33 drivers and the one with the most votes gets the pole.

  5. For me, my front row would be Mears, Vukovich and Shaw. Mears dosnt need an explanation. Vukie came damn close to winning 3 in a row and led 485 laps in only 5 races. From what I’ve read Shaw almost won 4 times in a row and was the first consecutive winner.

    I god damn love A.J. Foyt and he is arguably the best racing driving ever but I dont quite think he is the best at Indy.

  6. Sorry if any of you get angry, but despite the “Greatest 33 drivers of the race’s first 100 years” official title, I will vote for the greatest 33 IndyCar drivers ever.

    So, for example, I won’t care of Paul Tracy’s second best result at the Indy 500 was 9th – he was champion once (Champ Car 2003) and third three times in the 1990s and will be in.

  7. As Mike Silver reminds us, Vukovich came very close to winning four in a row. I was fortunate enough to be at those races. He just ran away and hid from the rest of the field. I have often wondered if his car was just so much better than the rest that another driver, say Tony Bettenhausen or whoever you might choose, could have had the same results. I suspect it was a combination of good equipment and a damn good driver. But it begs the question “Do we want to choose the best 33 solely on their Indy500 record, or do we look at the driver’s overall racing record combined with their Indy500 results. Some very good drivers just never had good equipment. Other very good drivers were just unlucky, such as Michael Andretti. What do you folks think?

  8. I was thinking exactly the same. Drivers such as Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Nigel Mansell, Tony Stewart etc all had extremely successful careers. Yet they hardly have Indy 500 stats that would warrant them to be on the greatest 33.

    On the other hand Arie Luyendyk never once finished in top 5 in points in his indy car career, he never challenged for a title and won only 7 races in all. But lets face it he was one of the best at the speedway, winner of the fastest indy, track record holder, 3 times pole winner and 2 time winner and he coud have won on several other occassions, 91,92,93,96 and 99 some to mind.

    But Im not sure how people are going to vote, whether they choose drivers who had overall successful careers or base it soley upon a drivers Indy record.

  9. It’s a given that the 4 time winners make the list. What I don’t understand is the iconic greatness attached to Mears and the lack of respect for Al Unser’s record at the speedway. I.E. Most laps led alltime, top 10s, top 5s, top 3, etc. Championships. Multiple disaplines such as dirt and hill climbs like Pikes Peak, etc. After all, Mears only drove for Penske his entire career ( how much is Mears and how much the Captain’s organization?) and was just an oval star. Both drivers were great, but I just think “Big Al” gets short changed………….

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