Is an Indianapolis 500 Win a Requirement?

This past Monday morning, following the NFL Conference Championships – my local sports talk radio station was having the tiresome, but predictable, discussion of which quarterback was the greatest of all time – all due to the fact that Tom Brady had just qualified for his record-extending tenth Super Bowl. Of course, they were continually using the GOAT acronym (you know…Greatest Of All Time) that I detest. Don’t sully a great athlete by referring to them as a goat – I don’t care how hip you sound.

Normally, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to these conversations. They are dependent on the age of those arguing and they are all strictly opinions. It is just as impossible to compare football eras as racing eras. Is it really a fair comparison to compare Tommy Milton to Juan Montoya? The two quarterbacks that I hold in the highest esteem rarely get mentioned anymore – Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana – mostly because you need to be older than forty to have any real recollection of Montana; and if you remember Unitas, you’re older than dirt – like me.

One interesting aspect of the argument between the radio guys was that one maintained that it must be Tom Brady as the greatest QB, because he has already won six Super Bowl rings and that should be the top factor anyone should consider. This notion threw his co-host into a tantrum, saying that is somewhat important but not the case-closed factor. He then went into listing the usual list of great quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl – Archie Manning, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, etc.

As usual, my mind raced to how this argument could be applied to racing. I thought about the two major US based series – IndyCar and NASCAR. Some will disagree with me, but I think that most people view a NASCAR championship to be more important than winning the Daytona 500. I think the opposite is true in IndyCar.

While winning an IndyCar championship is nice, I think every driver in the paddock would much rather win the Indianapolis 500 than the IndyCar championship. After all, the name of the series is INDY-Car, because of the type of cars that race in the Indianapolis 500. They don’t call NASCAR, DaytonaCar. I know, I know…that’s stupid. But you get my point.

But does winning an Indianapolis 500 define a driver’s entire career? Well, it might.

In my lifetime, there weren’t too many drivers that won the Indianapolis 500 that weren’t considered great drivers. There is a fairly valid argument to say that Eddie Cheever was never considered a great driver. Some say the same about Arie Luyendyk. When Luyendyk won his first 500 in 1990, I called it a fluke, because he had not won in IndyCar at all to that point. But he won a few races afterwards, along with another 500 seven years later. Was he great? I’m not sure, but he was certainly very good. Altogether, Luyendyk won seven races in his IndyCar career. Had two of those races been at other tracks besides Indianapolis, I’m not even sure he would be labeled as very good. So the Indianapolis 500 factor counts for something on a driver’s resume.

But are you going to tell me that Arie Luyendyk was a better driver than Mario Andretti, because he won the Indianapolis 500 twice and Mario only won it once? I hope not, because I’m not buying it. That same logic would say that Eddie Cheever was a better driver than Michael Andretti, because Cheever drank milk and Michael never did. Sorry, but I’m not buying that one either.

Eddie Cheever gets the honor of always being introduced as an Indianapolis 500 winner for the rest of his life and beyond, but that’s it. I’m not picking on Cheever, but if you overlook his 1998 Indianapolis 500 victory – it’s just not impressive. Eleven years in Formula One netted him zero wins, but it’s easy to forgive that in a series that is so dependent on being with the right team. But six full-time seasons in CART were also winless. The best he did was three third-place finishes, and a best points finish of ninth. Moving to the IRL, he was finally a big fish in a little pond. In eight IRL seasons, Cheever scored four wins, besides his 500 victory in the Rachel’s Potato Chip car.

At the top end of the spectrum, I don’t think there is any argument regarding the greatness of the three four-time Indianapolis 500 winners. Few dispute that AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears belong on the mythical Mount Rushmore of IndyCar racing. Not many would argue about the legitimacy of the three-time winners. Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose and Bobby Unser are all racing royalty. Johnny Rutherford, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves are each considered great drivers, but some debate just how great they are.

Scott Dixon could tie AJ Foyt this season for seven IndyCar championships, if he goes on to win the title again this season. But he has one Indianapolis 500 win to his credit in eighteen tries. Does only one likeness of Scott Dixon on the Borg-Warner Trophy rank him with the likes of Floyd Davis or George Souders? Hardly.

The point is, winning an Indianapolis 500 doesn’t automatically make you a great driver. It just usually confirms your standing as a great driver.

Derricke Cope drove in NASCAR’s Cup Series from 1982 through 2018. The first race win of his career was the 1990 Daytona 500. Did that guarantee him to go on to racing immortality? No. He won again that same year at Dover, and never won again. In 427 starts, he won twice – both in 1990; but one of those wins was the Daytona 500.

There have been seventy-three men to win the Indianapolis 500 since 1911. Many of them will always be in the conversation of greatest IndyCar driver of all time. Is winning the Indianapolis 500 a prerequisite to be included in that conversation? No, but I cannot think of a single non-winner who is. Can you?

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Is an Indianapolis 500 Win a Requirement?”

  1. I voted yes with Michael Andretti being an exception to the rule. Otherwise, yes, all the greats have won the race. Dixon needs another to really pad his resume but it’s not necessary either.

    I completely detest the GOAT thing, too many talking head reporters debate that, and honestly it’s a ploy to keep their jobs when there is nothing else to talk about and there are too many reporters.

    GOAT is a narcissistic thing in my opinion, because we are living in narcissist times after all. We must be seeing the greatest of everything in the world right now, it’s all on display for us, the best humans every created. I am just over it all.

    Also, nice to come into a team with solid foundation already in place and then all these superstar players come to the team to play with you, yeah, but Brady gets 100% of the credit, as usual.

  2. Jim in Wilmington Says:

    Tony Bettenhausen, Rex Mays & Ralph Hepburn

  3. I always think this is an interesting conversation that I somewhat straddle the fence on. I don’t think a driver HAS to win the Indianapolis 500 to be a legendary driver, nor do I believe that winning an Indianapolis 500 – even against good competition – makes a driver legendary. You mentioned Eddie Cheever… I would throw out Buddy Rice’s name. Seeing him walk around the IMS grounds now, only 17 years after his victory, is a bit sad because he goes almost completely unnoticed.

    On the flip side, I think Dan Gurney’s lack of a win in the Indianapolis 500 keeps him from being thought of among racing’s Mount Rushmore WITHIN THE GENERAL PUBLIC. Everyone knows the name AJ Foyt. Everyone knows the name Mario Andretti. Everyone SHOULD know the name Dan Gurney, but because much of his success was in road racing and European racing rather than in USAC and the Indianapolis 500, I think his name fails to have the reach within the casual IndyCar fans and the general public as a whole

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Not a requirement, but it does A LOT for a driver’s case and it does transform “pretty good” careers into very good/great ones. With few exceptions (Donohue, Clark, and Hill notably), even the Indy 500 winners with the most accomplishments outside of the 500 are not generally introduced for discussion as something other than “Indy 500 winner (name)”.

    On the NASCAR side, the championship is revered over the Daytona 500, but Daytona certainly retains a level of importance. The fact that Mario and AJ both won the Daytona 500 does a lot for their reputation among stock car fans.

    Also, Derrike Cope is going for Daytona 500 win #2 in a couple of weeks. Such exciting times we live in!

  5. Oliver Wells Says:

    This question is similar to “ do the greatest drivers have to be championship winners.”
    Which would imply that Stirling Moss for example was not great because he never won the drivers championship.

    What is more impressive, a Championship or number of race wins. For me it’s the latter.

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