The Greatest Season Ever?

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Many don’t like it when I compare racing to other sports – football in particular. Aside from the fact that most sports involve a stick and/or a ball and usually two goals (except baseball), and in racing you are controlling a vehicle at a very high rate of speed – there are actually many similarities. All sports demand an excessive amount of concentration and mental toughness. Physical endurance is also a must, along with bravery. But the two most important components are talent and heart, and in no particular order.

So in my opinion, football compares very favorably to racing.

That leads me into my topic for today. If you do follow football, you know that Titans running back Derrick Henry surpassed the magical 2,000 yard mark for the season on Sunday, as he captured the NFL rushing title for the second year in a row. That started a discussion on Nashville talk radio this past Monday.

They posed an interesting question to their listeners as to whether or not he had the greatest season by a Titan since they relocated to Nashville in the late nineties. The other choices were Chris Johnson’s 2,000 yard season in 2009, Steve McNair’s co-MVP season in 2003 (split with Peyton Manning) or Vince Young’s rookie season in 2006 that saw him win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

I won’t even consider the Vince Young choice, but the others deserved some pondering. It was brought out that other things had to be considered, like the competition, and other conditions that should be factored in. Just for the record – I consider it a tie between McNair and Henry.

Of course, that’s where I started comparing football to racing. If I was to look back in my lifetime, what IndyCar driver would I say had the greatest season? Like the radio discussion above, there are other factors to consider. Length of season, the depth of the competition and the different types of tracks are just some of the things that need to be considered, along with other intangible circumstances.

Some may point to the season just concluded a few months ago. Scott Dixon jumped out to what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, and ultimately led wire to wire. If you were to look at the box score of each race, it looks impressive. But if you followed the season, like most readers of this site did, you know that after Dixon jumped out to a huge lead by winning the first three races of the truncated season, things got interesting. In the middle portion of the season, Dixon scored second place finishes at Iowa and the Indianapolis 500, with another win at Gateway. It was the last five races that made Dixon sweat a bit. He suddenly hit a bout of mediocrity as he finished tenth, tenth, ninth, eighth and third to close out the 2020 season. Josef Newgarden gave it a good run and made it interesting before Dixon wrapped up the title at St. Petersburg.

Before calling Dixon’s season a great season, you need to look at other factors. The competition struggled with figuring out the differences that the aero screen posed. Some figured it out by the last part of the season, while others are still scratching their heads going into 2021.

Do you have to take the odd scheduling of the season into account? I think you do, but I’m not sure how it helped or hurt Dixon. Perhaps his level-headedness served him well, while others struggled with cancelled races and a constant reshuffling of the schedule.

Other than Newgarden, Dixon didn’t really face much opposition during the season. Newgarden finished only sixteen points behind Dixon, but third-place Colton Herta was 116 points from the lead. Other drivers normally found near the top of the point standings had difficult seasons, probably none more disappointing than the season Alexander Rossi had. Rossi finished 220 points behind Dixon and a late-season flurry brought him up to a ninth-place finish in points. Other usual contenders like Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay had disappointing seasons as well.

So as dominant as Scott Dixon was in leading wire-to-wire throughout the season, I don’t think it is even in the conversation for greatest season ever.

What about Josef Newgarden’s 2019 championship season? Newgarden won the season-opener at St. Petersburg and led the points after every single race, except one – the Indianapolis 500. But he bounced back with a win at Belle Isle and never relinquished the points lead again. He won the championship over teammate Simon Pagenaud by twenty-five points. Was that an accomplishment? Absolutely! Was that a great season? Not even close.

One of the greatest seasons in my mind was the 2004 championship season by Tony Kanaan. I’ve been challenged on this fact, but I believe he was the last driver to clinch the championship prior to the season finale. What is so remarkable about Kanaan’s championship is that he completed all 3,305 possible laps. I also think few had ever accomplished that feat, and I don’t believe anyone has done it since.

The only blemish that keeps that season from being one of the greatest seasons ever is the competition, or lack thereof. Kanaan drove one of ten fulltime Hondas in the field, but the four cars from Kanaan’s Andretti-Green team and the two from Rahal Letterman were the only truly competitive Honda-powered cars on the grid. Team Penske won the first and last races of the season in Toyota powered Dallaras. Honda won every other race. The normally competitive Scott Dixon was also saddled with a Toyota and he and Chip Ganassi both went winless that season. Had there been more competition for Kanaan, it could have been one of the greatest of all time.

Without going through several decades and analyzing which was a great season and which was not, I’ll get right to what I think is the greatest IndyCar season of all time. It was also by the driver that I consider the greatest of all time – AJ Foyt.

There were thirteen USAC Championship races in 1964. Foyt won ten of them, including the Indianapolis 500. That’s an unheard-of winning percentage of 77%. The only races he didn’t win, he got a twenty-sixth place finish at Milwaukee, a twentieth at Trenton and a nineteenth place finish at the season finale at Phoenix. He accomplished this against the likes of Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Bob Harkey and Mario Andretti. The three that Foyt didn’t win? Parnelli Jones won two of them and Lloyd Ruby won one.

What Foyt did that year was remarkable. Fans today know Foyt as a caricature, who is known for throwing temper tantrums and computers. They know him as a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and the all-time IndyCar race winner and championship winner. But when you look at a driver that won 77% of the races in a season against those iconic names, that tells you just how great he was in his prime.

If someone today won 77% of the races, everyone would complain about how boring it was. That would be the equivalent of winning thirteen races in a typical seventeen race IndyCar schedule. I wonder if everyone complained about Foyt winning everything or if they just marveled at what he was doing and knew to appreciate greatness on display.

That’s why I don’t complain about watching Scott Dixon win title after title. I feel like we are watching history being made and I am appreciative of being able to watch every single race. Fans didn’t have that luxury in 1964. Many had to wait and read about it the next day in their morning paper – if they were lucky.

Scott Dixon will be remembered as a great driver, who won a lot of races and championships. But he, nor anyone else, has ever come close to putting up a season like Foyt did in 1964 – not yet, anyway.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “The Greatest Season Ever?”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    The driver has to win the Indy 500 and the championship to be included as the greatest season ever!

  2. Shocked no one mentioned the 1996 IRL championship here lol.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Al Unser’s 1970 season should be considered, and it may well get my vote. Al won 10 of 18 races and 8 pole positions, he won Indy, he swept all of the dirt track races, he did this against a host of legends like Foyt and Rutherford, and his points margin (2,870) over second place brother Bobby at the end of the season was greater than the total number of points Bobby scored on the season (2,260). The only caveat might be that Al was one of only three drivers to compete in all 18 races.

    Jimmy Bryan’s 1954 is another to consider. He entered 11 of 13 races, won 5 of those, and finished on the podium in 4 of the 6 others. His average finish was 2.9! Like Unser in 1970, he won the championship by more points than 2nd place Manny Ayulo scored. Only some fellow named Vukovich kept him out of the winner’s circle at Indy, where Bryan was the only other driver besides Vuky to lead laps in the race’s 2nd half.

    There are some other great seasons that I watched personally. Sebastien Bourdais often looked unbeatable as he rolled through Champcar’s final 4 years. Alex Zanardi in 1998 and Christiano da Matta in 2002 quickly built insurmountable championship leads and never seemed to have a bad day. While overshadowed by Penkse’s overall dominance, Al Unser Jr. handily beat his teammates in addition to all others in 1994. The 2002 IRL season where Penske showed up and Sam Hornish Jr. managed to not only retain the title but find even more success than he did in his excellent 2001 season.

    Completing every lap of a season has been done three times since Kanaan’s 2004 championship, Dixon and Newgarden both did it this last year and Pagenaud did so in 2017. None of these drivers completed nearly as many laps as Kanaan did in 2004, with an all-oval schedule resulting in many more laps turned and making lead lap finish perfection likely a more difficult feat than these more recent accomplishments.

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