Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Greatest Second Row Ever

As part of the Speedway's Greatest 33 vote, I'm putting together my own field of legends. Tonight is row two.

Inside Row 2: Bill Vukovich

Vuky's Indy career was a lot like that of  Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax -- very short but utterly dominant. When he was killed while in the lead on Lap 57 of the 1955 race, Vuky had completed just 676 laps in competition, but had led 485 of them, an amazing 72 percent. After leading 150 laps before retiring with steering issues with nine laps to go in 1952, he led all but five laps on a sweltering, 90-degree day in 1953 to win his first 500. After qualifying 19th the next year, he made it to the front on lap 61, then led 89 of the final 108 circuits for his second consecutive win. As a competitor, the quiet Vukovich was tough, relentless and extremely focused, as evidenced in his first victory when he refused to give his car over to a relief driver despite the opressive conditions, despite most of the other drivers doing the same. He is also the patriarch of three generations of his family at the Speedway, with his son Bill II and grandson Billy also competing in the 500. Both were named Rookies of the Year in 1968 and 1988, respectively.

Middle Row 2: Bobby Unser

Hard to believe a three-time winner (1968, 75, 81) is the second-best driver in his own family, but that's how things go when your family has nine wins between them. Unser, who was the first driver to break 190 mph in qualifying when he won the pole in 1972, has two of the most interesting wins in the race's history. His second win ended at 480 miles when a gullywasher of a rain storm hit the area, and while cars were spinning out left and right in the deluge that turned the track into an unlimited hydroplane race, Unser guided his car safely to the checkered flag. Then in 1981, Unser passed more than a dozen cars coming out of the pits during a caution period and was penalized a lap in the official results the next day, seemingly giving Mario Andretti his second win. He was awarded the win again on appeal almost five months later and eventually retired before returning to the Speedway as part of the ABC broadcast team. He was in the booth when his younger brother Al won his fourth 500 in 1987.

Outside Row 2: Wilbur Shaw

Shaw was certainly one of  the best drivers in the pre-WW II history of the Speedway. In a six-year span between 1935-40, Shaw won three times (1937, 39-40) and finished second twice. He completed all 1,200 laps of racing, almost unheard of at the time, leading 374 of them, and finished his career having led 508 laps in 13 starts. Though he never won a pole, Shaw started on the front row five different times, and his Boyle Maserati, which he drove in his final three races, is one of the sharpest-looking cars to grace the Speedway. Shaw's contribution to the Speedway off the track is almost as important, as he convinced Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman to buy the dilapidated facility in 1945, and as president in charge of day-to-day operations, was responsible for much of the massive growth of the Speedway's facilities and the race's popularity before he was killed in a plane crash in October, 1954. Born in Shelbyville, Ind., Shaw is the last native Hoosier to win the race.

Next: Row three, but before that, a former winner that SHOULDN'T be in the field.

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