Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Greatest 33 List...On Second Thought

Yesterday I shared my initial thoughts about the Greatest 33 website. I've spent some more time on the site and really like it for a lot of reasons, the biggest being that it brings back some great memories.

As I mentioned, I took a little exception to a few of the drivers on the list. Then as I did some more research to see who I would include on the list I came to a strange conclusion: it looks like they pretty much got it right.

I had originally assumed (which I corrected in my blog post) that every winner was included on the list. However, that is not the case as 10 winners were not included on the list probably didn't deserve to be, as they all had mediocre careers at the Speedway outside of they year that they won.

Some drivers, like long-time starters George Snider and Dick Simon, were popular and a great part of the Speedway while they were there, but their careers just didn't measure up.

And there were a few whose careers just weren't as good as I thought they had been. I tried really hard to find a way to get Scott Brayton on my list. He was always a favorite of mine and was an exciting qualifier, setting the track record on his way to earning the pole twice. But at the same time, he never had a top-5 finish.

Tomas Scheckter was another one I gave some thought to, and while his hard-charging style has been fun to watch, he's led just five laps in the last eight years and has finished in the top-10 only twice. I was really surprised as at first glance I thought Tomas' career at Indy had been better.

Pancho Carter driving his pole-winning car in 1985
About the only other person I could have seen going on the list -- let's call him the last man out -- is Pancho Carter, whose career numbers are almost identical to those of Roger McCluskey, who is on the list. The Rookie of the Year in 1974, Carter posted six finishes in the top-7 in his first 10 races, with a best finish of third in 1982. In 1985 he set the four-lap qalifying record (212.583) but saw his powerful Buick engine last just six laps and he placed 33rd. In his 17-race career he led seven laps.

That's about it. Giving more thought to it I'm not surprised, because fame at the Speedway is hard to come by. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, about one out of every three drivers to have start the race did so only once. Only 78 drivers have made 10 starts, which is a little hard to believe in an event that has been around for a century.

The list of drivers who have competed in the 500 and had a nice, workman-like career that made them a decent living is long. The list of who became great isn't.

Frenetic Friday -- Row 4

Actually this post should be sub-titled "Where the Hell Have You Been?", but with the release this week of the Greatest 33 website I figured I'd better get in gear!

Row 4 includes a couple of three-time winners and another guy who won twice and might have won more if not for personal problems and missing several races in the prime of his career.

Inside Row 4: Helio Castroneves

The popular Brazilian has been the most dominant driver at Indy over the last decade, winning three times (2001-02, 2009) and capturing four poles (2003, 07, 09-10). Castroneves, who has raced for Roger Penske his entire Indy career, started out with a bang, becoming the only driver in history to win the at the Speedway in his first two attempts.

He followed that up by winning his first pole in 2003 and eventually led a race-high 58 laps, but saw his attempt at the first-ever three-peat derailed by teammate Gil De Ferran, who beat Castroneves to the finish by just .2990 seconds, the fourth-closest finish in history.

Castroneves returned from his acquittal on income tax evasion charges to capture both the pole and the race in 2009. He won the pole again last year and held the race lead before pitting for fuel with nine laps to go and yeilding to eventual winner Dario Franchitti.

One of the fastest drivers of his era, Castroneves is also one of the most consistent. He's led the race in seven of his ten starts (231 laps total) and other than when he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 109 in 2006 has completed the race distance on the lead lap every other time, having completed 1,855 of a possible 1,946 laps (95 percent).

Middle row 4: Louis Meyer

Along with Wilbur Shaw, Meyer was one of the Speedway's better drivers in the pre-WWII era. Like Castroneves, Meyer won as a rookie in 1928 (though he had driven 41 laps in relief of Shaw the year before), the followed that up with wins in 1933 and 1936. Driving hard in search of his fourth win in 1939, he was running second to Shaw but crashed on the backstretch with three laps to go, and while he walked away from the wreck announced his retirement from racing.

Meyer's contribution to the 500 goes beyond his stellar performance as a driver. As an engine builder he was part of the Meyer-Drake partnership that for almost two decades built and continued to develop the famous Offenhauser, a motor that won at Indy a total 27 times and between 1950-60 not only powered the winning driver, but captured all three podium positions.

He also started one of the most well-known traditions of drinking milk in Victory Lane. After winning the race in 1933, he asked for and was given a bottle of buttermilk to quench his thirst after over 4 1/2 hours in the car. When he won again three years later and was photographed with the bottle of milk in his hand, a local dairy producer jumped on board as a sponsor and the tradition was born. With the exception of 1947-55 and again in 1993 when Emerson Fittipaldi eschewed the milk for orange juice in a shameless promotion of his own orange plantation, the Indy 500 winner has drank milk (or poured it over his head!) ever since.

Outside row 4: Al Unser Jr.

Unser Jr. has the odd distinction of winning twice (1992, 94) but is still just the third-winningest driver in his own family, with his father Al Sr. posting four wins and his uncle Bobby bringing home three.
Little Al came to the Speedway in 1983 and was in the mix from the beginning, running a screen on Tom Sneva for his father late in the race until Sneva passed both of them to motor on to his only 500 win. He earned Rookie of the Year honors after finishing 10th, but it would take nine more years and a couple of near-misses before he found his way to Victory Lane.

In 1989 his epic duel with Fittipaldi ended when the two touched and Unser careened into the wall as the pair battled into Turn 3 on the second to last lap. He finished fourth the next two years before finally breaking through and winning after another late-race fight -- this time with Scott Goodyear -- and winning by .043 seconds, still the closest finish in 500 history. His emotions flowed in Victory Lane and his tearful comment "you just don't know what Indy means" is certainly one for the ages.

He moved on to Penske Racing in 1994 and won his only pole that year. Nearly a lap down to now-teammate Fittipaldi, he took over the lead after Emmo's Turn 4 crash with 17 laps to go to win his second 500.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of Little Al's career. After shockingly failing to make the race in 1995, Unser Jr. didn't compete from 1996-99 due to the IRL-CART split, and after returning to the race in 2000, competed eight more times and never finished better than ninth, and only led a single lap in that span in 2002.

The split, combined with a number of Little Al's personal issues, likely robbed Unser Jr. of the opportunity to tie, or even surpass, his uncle and father. At the height of his career many considered Little Al to be one of the best drivers in the world, but along with Michael Andretti was probably one of the people most affected by the split.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Greatest 33 Website Is Unveiled

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway officially unveiled its Greatest 33 website this week. The site is very slick, and I think it is a great place to learn more about the Speedway and the drivers themselves. I also like the place where fans can share stories and memories of their favorites.

Still, the starting list of 100 drivers is sure to cause some discussion.

Debate the rest of the list all you want, but here is my No. 1!
That's probably the point, of course, and what people think about the final 33 will probably be even more hotly debated. It will be interesting to see the results of the fan vote when they are released in May.

I know that the list is what it is to appeal to a broad list of fans of all ages, and to cover the entire length of the 500 era. So I'm not going least that much.

There are 57 winners is on the list, as they all well should be. But that left choosing 33 drivers among the other 660-plus starters, and that's where a few of my questions come from.

There are seven drivers on that list who never even led a lap in the race. Outside of Janet Guthrie, who should be on any list given the significance of her achievement and the impact it had on racing, I don't see how you can be on a list of "greatest" without leading a lap.

I understand why Danica Patrick is on the list, but I'm on the fence as to whether she should be. Marco Andretti probably shouldn't be, and while Nigel Mansell is one of the greatest drivers in racing history, and his 1993 drive was amazing, he doesn't belong on the list either. Mike Moseley and Robby Gordon are two other drivers that I question their inclusion as well.

But those are just a few little things, because on the other hand, most of the list is awesome, and a representative of the greatest drivers who ever lived. The lifespan of the 500, not to mention the Speedway, which opened two years before the first race, covers almost the entire history of racing in this country.

For the last century, drivers have come from all over the world seeking fame at the Speedway. Some found that fame, others fortune, while a few gave their lives in search of their dreams. All of them help give life to a living, breathing place that is so special to so many people.

I'm fortunate to have seen 34 drivers on the list drive at the Speedway. How many have you seen?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ralph DePalma -- One Of Indy's Early Heroes

Ralph DePalma has always been a driver that has fascinated me. By all accounts, he was one of the most dominant drivers of his era, and was a front-runner in several of the earliest runnings of the 500, leading 612 laps (second-most all-time) and winning the race in 1915.

According to his bio with the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, DePalma won more than 2000 races in his career, and is credited with winning four consecutive AAA dirt championships between 1908-11, as well as overall national championships in 1912 and 1914.

Of course, the race that made him famous is one that he didn't win. After leading four laps and placing sixth in the inaugural 500 in 1911, DePalma surged to the front on Lap 3 in 1912 and powered his way to a six-lap lead when his Mercedes cracked a cylinder and slowed to a stop at the top of the front stretch as he neared the end of Lap 198.

As the car began dying, DePalma reportedly looked over to Rupert Jeffkins, his riding mechanic that day, and said, "I guess it's time to start walking, and we might as well take the car with us."

They jumped out of the car and began pushing the 3,500-pound machine down the front stretch. Dawson made up the more than 15-mile deficit and finally passed DePalma to win the race, setting a still-standing record for the fewest laps led by a race winner (2). DePalma, on the other hand, has one of the most dubious records in the race's history for having led the most laps for a non-winner (196).

DePalma was credited with 12th place, which back in those times meant he earned no prize money. However, how he lost the race and the headlines it created is credited with helping drive the early popularity of the 500.

Through his disappointment, DePalma still offered Dawson his hand in congratulations after the race was over. From everything that I have read about DePalma, I admire him most for his sportsmanship. Along with his immense driving ability, his integrity and his graciousness, whether in victory or defeat, is something historians believe made him one of the more popular drivers of his time, not only with the fans but his fellow racers, who also respected him for his intense but clean racing.

He later came back and led 132 laps in 1915 to earn his only 500 win, in a race that also featured his younger brother John, who finished 21st in his only 500 appearance. In all he led 90 or more laps in four different races, and led an amazing 38 percent of the 1,594 laps he drove in competition. DePalma also won two poles (1920-21) and placed seventh in his final 500 in 1925 (won by nephew Peter DePaolo), giving him six career top-10 finishes in 10 starts.

His driving career eventually spanned 27 years and he was still competing into his early 50s, something almost unheard of in that era. DePalma also set a world land speed record of 149.875 mph in 1919.

DePalma retired from racing in 1936 and passed away in 1956 at the age of 73. Along with the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, he is a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Agony...Of Victory

I have seen this picture of an exhausted Bill Vukovich collecting himself after winning the 1954 500 a couple of times and it is just amazing. From the Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo archives, it was posted recently on their blog.

This photo just totally captures what racing was like for drivers of that era, and the effort it took to drive one of those cars. Though they were beautiful to look at, they were a beast to drive, and the track, which was a combination of the original bricks on the front straight and asphalt the rest of the way around, was rough and the driver felt every single vibration the surface put on the car.

Battling your own car lap after lap probably took almost as much of a toll as battling your competitors!

All told, Vuky spent three hours, 49 minutes, 17 seconds behind the wheel that day. He only made two pit stops, the last coming on Lap 128, and led a total of 90 laps.

But it's obvious the incredible physical toll that the race took on him, and most of the other drivers probably felt the same way. I was watching some highlights on YouTube and even the drivers who gave way to relief and didn't even complete the race distance were spent when they got out of the car. The sport was so primative compared to today, from the technology to even something as simple as on-board hydration for the driver. The men who wheeled those cars were tough, and the 500 was truly an endurance event.

Vuky might have been tougher than them all. The fact that in his career he never gave way to a relief driver, despite the oppresive conditions he faced in a couple of years, is an indication of his iron will and competitive nature.

But to me the biggest thing the photo represents is that winning the 500 is hard. Barely one out of every 10 drivers who have ever turned a lap in the race have made it to Victory Lane. Bill Vukovich might have been one of the finest drivers in the world at the time he raced, and it still took every ounce of what he had to win.

While much has changed over the years, what it takes to win the 500 hasn't. It might "look" easier, but it isn't, it still takes all of a driver's heart, soul, will and courage. That is what makes winning one so special.