Sunday, February 13, 2011

A "Cup of Coffee" at the Indy 500

I am a huge baseball fan, and like most I have a fascination with the numbers and statistics that have made the game's history.

I am finding I have that same curiosity about the 500, and recently I was looking at the number of drivers who had just a "cup of coffee" of a career at Indy. In baseball, the term refers to a player who made it to the big leagues but played just a handful of games before being shipped back down for good.

Juan Pablo Montoya found victory in his only 500 start (
For every established superstar like Albert Pujols there are hundreds of guys who made it to the majors and were there just long enough to get a page on and nothing else. Most people who have had good careers at the highest level of their sport admit that it is just as hard to stay there as it is to get there.

The Indy 500 isn't an exception, as more than 250 drivers -- 34 percent of the men and women who have taken the green flag -- made just one start in their careers.

Some took advantage of that opportunity. Ray Harroun won the inaugural race, of course, although the 500 wasn't the only time he raced at the Brickyard, having won eight races at the Speedway when the track hosted a regular racing schedule. He was actually one of 17 drivers in the first race who never competed in the 500 again.

Also winning in his only try was Juan Pablo Montoya, who showed up in 2000 and led 170 laps to give Chip Ganassi his first 500 victory as a car owner.

At the opposite end is a driver like Dave MacDonald, a promising young driver who along with popular Eddie Sachs was killed in a fiery accident nearing the end of the second lap of the 1964 race, probably the most horrific incident in the Speedway's history.

In between there are some interesting stories:

* John DePalma's only 500 start came in 1915, a race won by his older brother, Ralph.

* Bob Lazier completed 154 laps in the 1981 race and placed 19th. His son Buddy won the 500 15 years later and finished in the top-5 five times, while his other son Jacques has made six starts.

* Roger Rager (1980) was credited for having led two laps under caution in 1980.

* Dale Whittington (1982) didn't even complete a lap in competition as he was wiped out in an accident just as the green flag flew.

Many drivers returned to the Speedway again, but were unable to qualify in subsequent years. Some didn't return because of funding, others went to race elsewhere and a few were unfortunately killed in racing accidents before they got another chance.

It just shows the luck, skill and good fortune it takes to make it into the field, even just once. They made it to the pinnacle of their sport, even if for a brief time, and that makes them part of history. That accomplishment should never be taken lightly in any way, because beyond those 250 drivers lies as many, if not more, talented people who came to the track and were never able to crack the starting lineup.

I've talked to baseball players who have had that "cup of coffee" in the big leagues and they all say that the few days they spent there were some of the best of their lives, and how making it onto the field for a single game was worth everything they had ever done to get there. I'm sure a driver with one Indy 500 start on his resume would say the same thing.

To know you got there, even just one time, has to be a special feeling.


  1. Exactly! This sort of relates to the article I'm running tomorrow about part-timers in the series. Getting your shot, however brief, is a rare and amazing chance.

    (Oh, and nice Roger Rager reference! An awesome name to go with an awesome vehicle--bus engine FTW!)

  2. The bus engine was why I mentioned him! I still remember watching him qualify and how loud that thing was!