INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As the Indianapolis 500 celebrates its centennial race May 29, The Associated Press has come up with a completely subjective all-star, 33-driver starting field. The list includes multiple winners, innovators, fan favorites and trend-setters. They may not be the best drivers in race history, but all of them have helped shaped the event. The field is listed in the traditional three-car, 11-row starting grid with a synopsis of each row.
Synopsis: Picking a pole winner from such a talented field isn’t easy. Mears gets it as one of three four-time race winners and the one who did it quicker than anyone else. Plus, Mears owns a record six Indy poles. Foyt takes the No. 2 spot as the first four-time race winner. He’s tied for second all-time with four poles and nobody else is as identifiable with Indy as Foyt, who has competed in every race since 1957 as either a driver or car owner. Despite winning only one time, in 1969, Andretti gets the No. 3 spot because he started in the front two rows in 20 of 24 Indy starts and his name is synonymous with the race. Besides, could the two big rivals start in separate rows? Not in this lineup.
Al Unser Jr.
Synopsis: The second row honors Indy’s most successful family. Big Al is the other four-time winner, one of five drivers with back-to-back wins and the oldest winner of the race. A runner-up finish in 1972 thwarted Al’s quest for an unprecedented third straight victory. In 1987, five days before his 48th birthday, Unser reached victory lane for the final time after Roger Penske hired him to replace the injured Danny Ongais. Al’s older brother, Bobby, celebrated three Indy wins, the last coming in 1981 when Mario Andretti was declared the winner a day after the race. A months-long legal battle gave the title back to Bobby. The sour taste prompted Bobby to retire after the season. Al Unser Jr. won twice at Indy including 1992, the closest finish in race history (0.043 seconds). The family also had a tragic loss at Indy: Jerry Unser was killed in a May 1959 crash on the track.
Synopsis: Shaw and Vukovich are not household names today. They should be. Shaw won three times in four years and nearly made it four in a row in what is arguably the greatest streak in track history. He won the 500 in 1937, 1939 and 1940, and was second three times, including 1938. Castroneves became the first foreign-born, three-time winner in 2009 and is one of eight rookie winners. The Brazilian opened his Indy career with back-to-back wins in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003. Amazingly, Castroneves’ two runner-up finishes are by a combined 0.359 seconds. Vukovich won in 1953 and 1954 and might have gone on to become the best driver of his era if not for a fiery, fatal crash in the 1955 race as he was chasing his third straight win. Vukovich only started five times on the 2.5-mile oval.
Synopsis: Some would argue Meyer deserves to be higher on the grid. Meyer was the first three-time winner of the race, taking titles in 1928, 1933 and 1936. Meyer also started one of the most unique traditions in sports: drinking milk in victory lane. The combination certainly makes him worthy of being in the top half of this star-studded field. Rutherford is one of seven three-time winners (1974, 1976, 1980) and he also claimed three poles. As for Milton, it’s hard to argue with a resume that includes driving the iconic Duesenberg, winning the race in 1921 with a car built by Louis Chevrolet, becoming the first two-time race winner in 1923 and four top-five finishes in eight starts.
Synopsis: The eloquent and engaging Franchitti might have joined the four-timers club if he hadn’t been forced into retirement following a serious crash in the 2013 season finale at Houston. Or if he hadn’t lost additional chances because of the open-wheel split. When he was driving, though, the Scotsman was a model of consistency. He won in 2007, 2010 and 2012, and finished seventh or better six times in a seven-start sequence from 2005-12. Rose was a star before World War II, finishing in the top 10 five times in 10 starts, a span that included a win from the pole in 1941. He was even better after the track reopened in 1946, winning the first two races. The five canceled races during the prime of his career may have cost him more Indy wins. Ward won in 1959 and 1962 and finished no worse than fourth between ‘59 and ‘64 — an incredible feat.
Synopsis: Johncock’s two wins will never be forgotten. The first came in 1973, a race marred by the deaths of two drivers, a crew member and injuries to fans. In 1982, Johncock won for the second time, barely holding off Rick Mears in what was then the closest finish (0.16 seconds) in race history. Afterward, Johncock learned his mother had died just before the race. The Michigan native never won at Indy again. Wheldon took the first of his two Indy titles in 2005 with the second coming in 2011, after J.R. Hildebrand crashed on the last turn of the final lap. Five months later, Wheldon was killed in a race-day crash at Las Vegas. Luyendyk, a two-time winner (1990 and 1997), heads into the centennial race still holding track records for the fastest single-lap in qualifying (237.498 mph) and the fastest four-lap average (236.986). Both were set in 1996.
Synopsis: Fittipaldi is one of two drivers with two or more Indy wins sliding into the final five rows. He drove for two high-profile owners, Penske and Pat Patrick, and might be best remembered for drinking orange juice after his second Indy win, in 1993. Michael Andretti, Mario’s son and Marco’s father, would be higher on the grid if he had reached victory lane. Instead, one of the best drivers in IndyCar history will go down with the dubious distinction of leading more laps (431) than any other non-winner. Michael Andretti has won the 500 three times as a team owner and nearly helped his son win it as a rookie in 2006. Kanaan is as well-liked as any active driver in the series and is a terrific ambassador for the sport. The Brazilian might have stolen Andretti’s title for most laps among the non-winners if not for a breakthrough win in 2013.
Synopsis: Jones started in the first two rows for all seven of his Indy starts. He had four top-10 finishes, including 1963 when he won from the pole in the innovative rear-powered engine. Jones became the first driver to crack the 150 mph barrier (150.370 in 1962), and he remains as revered by Indy fans today as he was in the ’60s. Brayton was fearless on the track and personable off of it, exactly the kind of guy series officials thought they could build around after he claimed back-to-back poles in 1995 and 1996. But a week after winning the ‘96 pole, Brayton was killed in a crash at Indy. Sneva was a regular during the race’s golden era and though his only win came in 1983, he claimed three poles and was the first driver to turn a qualifying lap at 200 mph (200.535 in 1977).
Juan Pablo Montoya
Synopsis: The 15-year gap between Montoya’s two wins is the longest ever at Indy. Few have been as good as the defending champ. In three career 500 starts, the Colombian has finished first, fifth and first. He’s competed in the 500, the Brickyard and Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix at Indy, and he’s also taken laps on the track’s motorcycle road course, though not as a competitor. Mays might be the best qualifier to never win the 500. Despite capturing poles in 1935, 1936, 1940 and 1948, and leading laps in nine of his 12 starts, he couldn’t finish better than second (1940, 1941). Despite making only 10 starts a t Indy, DePalma is one of 10 back-to-back pole winners and his 612 laps led still rank No. 2 all-time. His only win came in 1915.
Synopsis: Donohue was the first driver Roger Penske ever brought to Indy, and three years later he delivered the first of Penske’s record-setting 16 wins at the 500. In 1975, Donohue was killed in a crash during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix. Guthrie failed to qualify in her first Indy trip in 1976 but broke the gender barrier by making the 33-car field in 1977. Guthrie’s acceptance opened the door to other women racers such as Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick. IndyCar remains one of the most welcoming destinations for female drivers and team owners. While Europeans had a long history of competing at Indy before Clark arrived in 1963, the Scotsman became one of the focal points of open-wheel’s British invasion. After his 1965 win, other top European drivers followed Clark to Indy (see Row 11).
Synopsis: Stewart and Hill came to Indy in 1966 as teammates. When Stewart, the race leader, was forced out with an oil pressure problem late that day, Hill inherited the lead and went on to become the first rookie winner since 1927. Stewart was still named the rookie of the year and returned in ‘67. An engine problem forced him to drop out after 168 laps. While Stewart never raced again at the Brickyard, he became a fixture on ABC’s 500 telecasts from 1971-84. Like Stewart, Mansell only made two Indy starts. The 1992 world champion created plenty of buzz with a third-place finish in 1993, a race he might have won if he hadn’t misjudged a late restart. And even though oval racing wasn’t necessarily their niche, Stewart, Hill and Mansell were among the most talented drivers to ever race here.
Bumped from the field
Eddie Sachs: Won two poles and had four straight top-10 finishes before winning in 1961. He was killed during the 1964 race.
Jim Rathmann: The 1960 race winner was a three-time runner-up.
Jacques Villeneuve: Finished second as a rookie in 1994, won the race in 1995 and jumped to Formula One in 1996. He finished 14th in 2014, his first race at Indy since his win.
Willy T. Ribbs: Only made two Indy starts, never qualified higher than 29th or finished higher than 21st. But he did become the first black driver to start the 500 in 1991.
Troy Ruttman: Became the youngest race winner in 1952 (22 years, 80 days), a title he still holds.
Lloyd Ruby: Made seven starts in the first three rows but never won the race.
Tony Stewart: Three-time Sprint Cup champion won one pole and had three top-10 finishes in five Indy starts. He’s also the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the double, the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.
Danica Patrick: The first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole remains the highest female qualifier at Indy (fourth, 2005), the only woman to lead the race (2005, 2011) and the highest female finisher (third in 2009).
Paul Tracy: Lost precious time during the open-wheel split and then lost the contested finish with Castroneves in 2002, a decision that wasn’t finalized until July.
Ray Harroun: Changed the way racing was conducted at Indianapolis by winning the inaugural 500 in 1911.