The Greatest Starting Field Ever?

There is no shortage of lists of superlatives when it comes to the Indianapolis 500. Everyone has their list based strictly on their opinion of best driver ever, best to never win, best to run in a front and rear-engine car, best to…well you get the idea. I am going to add one to the long list of lists, which is also based strictly on my opinion – the best grid ever.

Some will say the best grid ever was in 1992, when there were a record ten former winners of the Indianapolis 500 (which is only one more than this year). While there was a lot of talent in that 1992 starting-field; my pick for the most talented overall grid goes to the 1967 Indianapolis 500.

The group of thirty-three drivers from five countries, three continents and multiple racing series would eventually earn ten Formula One championships, twenty Indianapolis 500 wins, twenty-one IndyCar championships and three NASCAR titles.

The eleven rows of three consisted of iconic names like Foyt, Clark, Hill, Unser, Jones, Stewart, Gurney, Andretti, Hulme, Johncock, Leonard, Rindt and Rutherford. There were several excellent drivers that didn’t have an Indianapolis 500 win or IndyCar championship by their name that were legendary in their own right. Names like Ruby, McCluskey, Dallenbach, Veith, McElreath, Pollard and Kenyon helped make this the most talented Indianapolis 500 field in history (in my opinion, of course).

I have fond memories of that 1967 race. Although the 1965 Indianapolis 500 was my first race and I learn to appreciate what a spectacle the event was – it was the 1967 race when I felt truly immersed in what I was seeing. I was still not yet nine years old, but I had two older brothers that kept me up to date on who many of these drivers were. Both of my brothers grew up to be engineers and were much bigger gearheads than I ever was. They did their best to indoctrinate me on the differences between an Offy, the Ford V-8 and the turbine.

We left my mother behind as the rest of us traveled to Pole Day. It was the first time we had taken in qualifications and it was almost as big a deal as the race. To this kid, there seemed to be almost as many people in attendance as Race Day. I will never forget the sight of the turbine of Parnelli Jones being wheeled out of Gasoline Alley and into the pits. I had never seen day-glo before. Although it was overcast at the time, that car just seemed to glow (hence the name).

Watching each car go one at a time, gave me a whole new perspective and let me learn about each car and driver, rather than the sensory overload I experienced on Race Day in 1965.

At the time, I did not know who Dennis Hulme was; but I knew I liked his car – the traditional gold and black that Smokey Yunick always painted his cars, although I didn’t know who Smokey Yunick was at the time, either. All I knew about Jochen Rindt was that he had a funny name and my brothers and father didn’t like him. I was certainly familiar with Graham Hill and Jim Clark. I knew they came from Formula One and they had won the previous two 500s. I also knew the name of Jackie Stewart. It was the NASCAR guys I had never heard of – Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough. I figured they had to be brothers. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned their last names weren’t even spelled the same.

I felt very fortunate to be in attendance that Month of May. Most of my friends had no idea what the Indianapolis 500 was, but they were jealous that I missed a little bit of school to go. But I knew what it was, and by this time I was getting a pretty good idea just what a big deal it was. Even a nine year-old can figure out that when someone comes halfway around the world to race in an event – it’s a big deal.

Now as an adult several decades later, I feel even more fortunate. I’m not sure that any of us, no matter how young or old we were at the time, had any clue of the talent and greatness placed before our eyes during that Month of May. Some lost their lives at an early age in racing. Others met their demise in other ways – like Graham Hill, when he crashed his Piper Aztec in November of 1975. Many died of natural causes and a few of the legends are still with us; like Foyt, Parnelli, Andretti, Johncock, Kenyon, Rutherford, Yarborough and Stewart. George Snider and Larry Dickson are also still around, but I’m not so sure I would label them as legends.

I’m sure there will be some who strongly feel another year had a stronger grid. Some might point to the 1952 race that had the great Alberto Ascari racing against the likes of Jim Rathmann, Troy Ruttman, Jimmy Bryan, Sam Hanks, Bob Sweikert, Johnnie Parsons, Rodger Ward and Bill Vukovich.

For my money, the 1967 Indianapolis 500 featured the best from USAC Champ Cars, Formula One, Sprints, Midgets, and NASCAR. The starting lineup read like a Who’s Who of current and future stars of motorsports. I’m not sure we will ever see such a collection of racing stars in one race ever again.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “The Greatest Starting Field Ever?”

  1. Jack Phillips Says:

    George do you still have the painting that I gave you of the start of the 1967 500? For years it hang on our bedroom wall, then somehow I acquired it. My first practice wife wanted to throw it away, so I gave it to you. I think Daddy got it from the local Chevy dealer, since the pace car that year was a Camaro.

  2. Leslie Says:

    Very interesting George! Thank you!

  3. billytheskink Says:

    It’s hard to argue with ’67, for sure. Even the living non-legends are pretty legendary for the short track fans. Dickson won over 40 USAC sprint car races and 3 sprint car championships. Snider was a master on the dirt miles, and was contending for the Silver Crown championship as late as 1995 (against the likes of Tony Stewart, Dave Darland, and Jack Hewitt no less). Snider even took the chckered flag at the Hoosier Hundred in 1996 (he did not keep the win because his car was underweight, but hey, he was also 55!).

    Even the least accomplished drivers in the 1967 field (probably Ronnie Duman and Al Miller) all at least managed a top 5 finish in a championship race. Stacked as the 1992 field was, 8 drivers in that field never managed a top 5 finish in their Indycar careers, nor did those 8 have many especially notable accomplishments outside of the series either.

  4. Bruce B Says:

    Interesting topic….hard to argue with the field of 1967. How about the best front row? The 1991 front row of Mears,Foyt and Mario Andretti would be my pick.

  5. Weeks after winning the 1967 Indy 500, A.J. Foyt and the late Dan Gurney won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I wasn’t even born yet.
    Although many racers of their generation have passed away, due to natural causes or vehicle mishaps,
    we’re fortunate to have 1966 racers whom you named still with us — and even involved with our beloved sport.

  6. Talon De Brea Says:

    You were fortunate to be there…4 Daytona 500 winners, 4 Le Mans winners, more than 90 Formula One wins …the turbine, and all that American oval track talent and success. Good choice!

  7. Yannick Says:

    Do you see the weakest grid rather in the controversial 25/8 era when the stars raced but certainly not aligned in Michigan, or maybe rather in the post war eras?

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