The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has just announced the results of voting to determine “The Greatest 33,” that is, the top 33 drivers in Indianapolis 500 history.
Are you kidding me?
Given that any process that involves fan voting is going to have serious flaws and result in some unbelievable oversights, I have to think that a lot of people who voted in this process aren’t aware there even was a race before, say, 1970.
That’s the only way to explain drivers like Danny Sullivan, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Scott Dixon getting in and people like Jimmy Bryan, Sam Hanks, and Pete DePaolo being left out.
Now before I go further, I acknowledge that any list of so-called all-time greats in any sport is going to be subject to criticism and include controversial choices. But really. Couldn’t people have done some research before voting?
I wasn’t aware this was being done, but from what I gather a panel of media and racing experts came up with a list of the Top 100 drivers. Fan voting winnowed the field to 33, matching the number of starters for the race itself. The fan vote totals determining a “starting order.”
The problem begins with the list of 100.
Danica Patrick was among the nominees. Okay, she has three top six finishes in six races, so I guess you could make a case for her, though there are many others with records to match.
But how in the hell does Janet Guthrie (three races, one top 10 finish in the 1970s) make it as one of the Top 100 Indy drivers of all-time? A pioneer, most certainly, as the first woman to make the starting field, but out of the 732 drivers who have turned a lap at Indy she ranks among the top 100?
I don’t think so.
And in case you think I’m being sexist, here’s another big question mark in the Top 100.
Yes, the “expert” panel put Marco Andretti up in among the top 14 percent of all-time Indy 500 drivers.
Mario, yes. Michael, OK. But Marco?
At least the fans didn’t make him one of the Top 33. But they did get in Michael, whose greatest distinction is that he has led the most laps at Indy (431) without actually winning, which, you know, is kind of important.
Now we come to the Top 33.
How did Dan Gurney make the cut?
Gurney was an excellent racer in his day and an innovator in car design. He finished well -- two seconds and a third -- in the last three of the nine Indy 500s he drove in, but he never won. I have a feeling those who voted for him were looking at his overall career, not his time at Indy. He led a total of two laps at the Speedway.
As for non-winners who didn’t make the Top 33, how could the voters overlook Ted Horn (10 races, 9 top six finishes) and Rex Mays (12 races, 7 front-row starts, 266 laps led, and three top six finishes)?
Well, the answer to that is that Horn and Mays raced in the 1930s and ’40s, which means that a significant portion of their prime years was eliminated when the Speedway sat idle during World War II.
Fans also passed on former winners Bill Holland and Johnny Parsons but voted in Tony Bettenhausen, a popular and talented driver but a non-winner and contemporary who lost his life doing a favor for a friend in 500 practice in 1961.
Compare Holland (297 laps led in five races with four top six finishes) and Parsons (131 laps led in 10 races with three top six finishes) to Graham Hill, who was 28th in voting.
Hill won one of the three 500s he drove in but led a total of only 10 laps. He won because he managed to avoid a big late crash that took out just about everybody else. He was a great driver worldwide, but not wasn’t an all-time Indy great.
It’s hard to quibble with the “front row” of finalists with four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser Sr. doing the honors, but Wilbur Shaw at No. 8 and Bill Vukovich at No. 9 are rated way too low.
Shaw won three 500s over a four-race span from 1937-1940 and likely would have had a fourth in five years before the war had it not been for a fire in the garage area before the 1941 race.
Water from fire hoses washed away chalk markings from a flawed tire that wasn’t to be used in the race, but as luck would have it, that tire got put on his car and when it inevitably blew, he crashed while leading.
Shaw never raced again but played a vital part in the revival of the Speedway after the war and if you want to read a great book about auto racing back in the day, get a copy of his autobiography, Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.
And Vukovich? Vukovich not only could have been the first four-time 500 winner, he should have won four in a row! In 1952, he dominated the race, leading 150 laps before a cheap part in his steering broke and sent him into the wall with a huge advantage over his closest pursuer.
He won the 1953 and ’54 races and looked to be on his way to the ’55 win as well when he got caught up in a crash in the backstretch. His car flipped and he died in the resulting fire.
Shaw and Vuky definitely belong up there in the “second row” ahead of Bobby Unser, Helio Castroneves, and Johnny
I have some other favorites as well who were in the Top 100 but didn’t make the list of 33, but I can understand how voters might not favor drivers like Jim Hurtubise, Pat Flaherty, and Jack McGrath. Johnny Thompson was another one I rooted for back in the ’50s.
But as for the others like Montoya, Sullivan, Hill, and Gurney? Sorry, but they simply shouldn’t be in that starting field of all-time greats.
On a closing note, you can find more info on “The Greatest 33” at www.thegreatest33.com or www.indycar.com.