The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is this Sunday (May 29) and altogether, 761 drivers have competed at some point in this legendary, world-renowned race.
To narrow 761 down to the top 10 is tough. Many big names were kept off this list. Helio Castroneves, Mario Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi are some of the best competitors in racing history who have also tasted success at Indianapolis. But they are not on this list of top 10 greatest drivers.
10) Dan Wheldon – 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner, raced from 2003-2011
Out of anyone in this top 10, Dan Wheldon likely had the worst start of all these legends. Wheldon came on the scene in 2003 and looked great, starting fifth. But it was all for naught when in mid-pack, Wheldon flipped late in the race and finished 19th.
In just his third attempt, Wheldon won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 for Michael Andretti, giving Andretti his first Indy win as an owner. After a three-year stint with Chip Ganassi, where he posted a best finish of fourth, Wheldon went to Panther Racing. Panther was successful in the beginning of the 2000s. But as a single-car team, it fell behind the better teams at this time. With the underfunded team, Wheldon finished second in both 2009 and 2010.
Then in 2011, in a one-race deal with former teammate and then-owner Bryan Herta, Wheldon was in second and looked to finish there for the third consecutive year. Then J.R. Hildebrand crashed in the last turn of the last lap and Wheldon sneaked by for his second win. He only led by a few hundred yards, but Wheldon was able to get into position and a bit of luck prompted a second win.
Wheldon was was killed in a racing crash later that year, so his Indy career was abruptly cut short. In the short time Wheldon raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he amassed a top-four finish in six of his nine races, including two wins.
9) Juan Pablo Montoya – 2000 and 2015 Indianapolis 500 winner, raced from 2000, 2014-present
The only active driver on this list, Juan Pablo Montoya hasn’t raced too often in the Indianapolis 500, but his record in the race is unprecedented. Montoya raced as a rookie in 2000 and dominated, leading 167 laps. From there, Montoya went to compete in Formula 1 and won the Monaco Grand Prix. If Montoya someday wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he will join Graham Hill as the only people to win the Motorsports Triple Crown.
After 14 years away from the race, competing in Formula 1 and NASCAR during that time, Montoya came back to the Indianapolis 500 and finished fifth in 2014. Last year, Montoya had to overcome early contact from Simona de Silvestro and come back from last to first to win his second Indianapolis 500 in just his third attempt. At just 40 years old, Montoya still has a chance for a couple more wins and cement himself as an all-time great at the speedway.
8) Bill Vukovich – 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1953 pole winner, raced from 1951-1955
Bill Vukovich was one of five people to have ever won the Indianapolis 500 in consecutive years. No one has ever been able to win three in a row, but Vukovich probably had the best chance of anyone. After dominating in 1953 and 1954, Vukovich was leading in 1955 and well on his way to a third Indianapolis 500 victory in a row and his third in five attempts.
But on lap 56, Vukovich was involved in a four-car crash down the backstretch. Encountering a flipping car, Vukovich got hit on the left side of his car as people tried to avoid the crash and headed straight to the wall. Going over the wall, Vukovich’s car pinwheeled outside the track and caught on fire, killing him instantly.
In just five starts, Vukovich won twice and dominated in two other races that he didn’t win. Vukovich’s time at the speedway was short, but memorable.
7) Wilbur Shaw – 1937, 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500 winner, raced from 1927-1928, 1930, 1932-1941
The first driver to win back-to-back Indianapolis 500s, Wilbur Shaw’s most exciting win was his first. With his car breaking down, Shaw backed off and tried to nurse his car to victory. Ralph Hepburn was closing fast, but could not get past Shaw. Shaw won by just 2.16 seconds, the closest margin of victory at that time until 1982. With wins in 1939 and 1940, Shaw became the second driver to win three Indianapolis 500s.
On top of being one of the best Indianapolis 500 drivers in history, Shaw was instrumental in saving the speedway after World War II. With WWII causing a bit of an early retirement, Shaw convinced Tony George to purchase the speedway and keep it open for racing. 70 years later, we are celebrating the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
In 13 Indianapolis 500 starts, Shaw also earned three runner-up finishes in addition to his three wins.
6) Mauri Rose – 1941, 1947 and 1948 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1941 pole winner, raced from 1933-1941, 1946-1951
The only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 before and after World War II, Mauri Rose started his reign at the Brickyard in a somewhat peculiar fashion compared to the norm today. In the first half of the 1900s, relief drivers were a bit more common than today. After falling out early with mechanical problems, Rose became a relief driver for his teammate Floyd Davis. Taking over on lap 73, Rose drove to victory and was credited along with Davis as co-winners. With a four-year hiatus due to WWII, Rose came back and after crashing in 1946, came back to win back-to-back races in 1947 and 1948.
In the 15 starts Mauri Rose had, he would finish no worse than eighth in the eight times he was running at the finish.
5) Bobby Unser – 1968, 1975 and 1981 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1972 and 1981 pole winner, raced from 1963-1981
Bobby Unser won three Indianapolis 500s in three different car design eras. When Unser won his first in 1968, it was the beginning of rear-engine cars and wings weren’t really a part of the cars at that point. In 1975, wings were very much the trend when it came to car design. And when Unser won in 1981, ground effects were the revolutionary new concept at the time as teams were looking at how the shape on the bottom of the car affected its performance.
Unser’s three wins were probably three of the more memorable wins in Indianapolis 500 history. Unser won in 1968 with just nine laps to go when a turbine powered race car broke down and lost the lead for a second straight year. In 1975, rain caused the race to end at lap 174, but first had to drive in a torrential downpour to cross the line and win. Trying to drive on standing water with slick tires with no tread causes cars to be incredibly difficult to drive, even at city traffic speeds. Somehow, Unser was able to keep from hydroplaning and won.
Unser’s 1981 victory was memorable for the wrong reasons as he and Mario Andretti took their race to the courtroom after taking it to the racetrack. Andretti appealed the result of the race, claiming that Unser passed multiple cars under caution as he left pit road. Unser claimed that because the “blend line” which combined cars leaving the pits and cars on the track was in turn 2, he was simply doing that. Andretti won the appeal and for about five months, Andretti was the winner. After appeals, the result was overturned again, giving the win to Unser after USAC acknowledged the blend rule was vague. Unser retired from racing after the 1981 season.
4) Johnny Rutherford – 1974, 1976 and 1980 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1973, 1976 and 1980 pole winner, raced from 1963-1965, 1967-1982, 1984-1988
When someone names the greatest Indianapolis 500 winners, somehow Johnny Rutherford isn’t mentioned as often as others. Maybe it was because Rutherford’s wins weren’t the most memorable in history. Rutherford’s 1974 victory was achieved in dominant fashion. Rutherford’s 1976 win was regarded as the shortest Indianapolis 500 ever because it was stopped due to rain at 255 miles. Rutherford’s 1980 win was a dominating race in the new Chaparral that was one of the first cars to utilize ground effects.
Regardless, Rutherford went out and got results. He may have gotten those wins quietly but everyone knew where Johnny Rutherford was on the track because they usually had to compete with him for the win.
3) Al Unser Sr. – 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1970 pole winner, raced from 1965-1968, 1970-1990, 1992-1993
The top three consist of those who have won four times. Al Unser, similar to Johnny Rutherford, quietly won his Indianapolis 500. After having to sit out in 1969 because of a broken leg suffered while goofing off on his motorcycle, Unser won back-to-back titles in 1970 and 1971 with the “Johnny Lightning” special, leading 293 of a total 400 laps.
Unser then won in 1978, becoming the only driver to win the USAC “Triple Crown” of 500 mile races of Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario. 1987 may have been Unser’s biggest triumph. At 46 years old and expecting to sit out, Roger Penske asked him to come back when Danny Ongais suffered a concussion in a practice crash. Getting a backup car from a hotel room in Reading, Pennsylvania, Unser drove up to second place late in the race. Then on their last pit stop, Roberto Guerrero stalled the car and Unser drove by, sealing his fourth win. The win would put Unser back in demand among the top teams and kept racing until 1993. Even pushing 50, Unser remained competitive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, finishing third in 1988 and in 1992 as a 51-year-old.
2) Rick Mears – 1979, 1984, 1988, 1991 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1991 pole winner, raced from 1978-1992
There isn’t anyone who has adapted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway like Rick Mears. In just his second year, Mears sat on the pole and won. Throughout the 1980s, Mears was the driver to beat. In his 15 starts, Mears finished no worse than fifth in the nine races he was running at the finish.
After finishing second in one of the greatest finishes in Indianapolis 500 history in 1982 to Gordon Johncock, Mears would win in 1984 and 1988. He dominated in his first three wins. Then in 1991, Mears and Michael Andretti would be locked in a duel to decide the 75th race. Mears was going for his fourth title while Andretti was trying to win his first.
With 14 laps to go, Andretti went around Mears on the outside on the restart. Mears passed Andretti on the outside in the same corner a lap later. The year after, Mears crashed and while he wasn’t seriously hurt, it caused him to think about his future and called it a career.
1) A.J. Foyt – 1961, 1964, 1967, 1977 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1965, 1969, 1974, 1975 pole winner, raced from 1958-1992
The 1960s were a time of change in regards to car design at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Colin Chapman and Team Lotus came over from Formula 1 with a rear-engine race car and after winning in 1965, the front-engine roadster was obsolete and every winner since has won in a rear-engine car.
For A.J. Foyt, not only has he won four times, he is the only person to have ever won the Indianapolis 500 in both a front- and rear-engine car. That kind of versatility from one car to the other and remain at the top of his game, cements Foyt’s legacy as the greatest Indianapolis 500 driver.
One thing that not many people realize is the amount of times Foyt benefited from the bad luck of others to win. This isn’t to take anything away from Foyt because if you have noticed, most drivers on this list capitalized on somebody else’s misfortune to grab a win. Also, it still takes skill to get yourself in a position to benefit from others’ bad luck. For the Indianapolis 500, creating your own luck is a common phrase.
In 1961, 1967 and 1977, Foyt took the lead with just 3, 4 and 16 laps to go after Eddie Sachs had to pit for tires in ’61, Parnelli Jones had mechanical problems in ’67 and Gordon Johncock had mechanical issues in ’77. The only time where Foyt handedly had the lead and won was in 1964 where he led the final three-quarters of the race. Foyt’s 1967 win was especially entertaining as he had to maneuver through a crash on the frontstretch to win.
Regardless, Foyt remained popular and successful at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past 50 years. Toward the end of his career, Foyt formed A.J. Foyt Enterprises and started running his own team. Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 as an owner/driver and in 1999, became a five-time winner as a driver/owner when Kenny Brack passed Robby Gordon as he took the white flag to win. Foyt is going for a sixth win this Sunday as a driver or owner, owning three cars (Takuma Sato, Alex Tagliani and Jack Hawksworth).