The Indy 500 is one of the most challenging races in the world, but there have been a select few that have truly excelled at the track. With the Centennial Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 in full swing, it’s worthwhile to go back in time and look at the best drivers to ever undertake the challenge of Indianapolis. Here’s a rundown of the best drivers Indy has seen decade-by-decade, looking mainly at their accomplishments within that decade:
1910s: Howdy Wilcox
Wilcox contested each race held in the decade (remember, 1917-18 had no race due to World War I). Aside from his win in 1919, he achieved 5 top 10s, a Top 5, and sat on the pole.
Ralph De Palma, by merit of his 1915 finish and near-miss (pushing the car towards the finish line!) in 1912, would be another fine choice. Due to the wide-open and diverse circumstances of the race's infancy, the 1910s might be the most diverse and fluid decade.
1920s: Tommy Milton
Milton is generally remembered as the 500's first two-time winner (1921 and 1923). However, Milton wasn't idle for the rest of the Roaring Twenties. Five Top 10s and four Top 5 in a span of seven 500s speaks to his dominance at the time. He later would become Chief Steward at Indy, and no less a driver than Wilbur Shaw counted him as one of his heroes.
1930s: Wilbur Shaw
Shaw was Indy's first three-time winner, and finished 2nd three times in the '30s as well. He was also the race's first back-to-back winner. With his role in saving the Speedway after World War II, at times his record as a driver is slightly forgotten. It shouldn't be—Shaw was as dominant at Indy as anyone on this list.
Louis Meyer won two of his three races in the '30s, and should be considered a worthy contender to this title as well.
1940s: Mauri Rose
The '40s are a difficult decade; the interruption of World War II definitely affected the flow of things and could even be perceived as two distinct Speedway eras. However, Rose's excellence did not falter. He won in 1941, and returned after the war to win again in '47 and '48. When you consider the opportunities lost due to the race interruption of 1942-1945, it makes his three wins even more remarkable.
1950s: Bill Vukovich
It’s a tribute to Vuky that despite his unfortunate passing in 1955, he still was the dominant driver of this decade. He had already won in ’53 and ’54, came close in ’52 before suffering steering failure, and was leading after 57 laps in ’55 when perished in that terrible accident. He very well could have become at least a 4-time winner, and is still regarded as nearly peerless behind the wheel. He led 75% of all possible laps driven at the 500 in his career. The rest of the decade would see no one as dominant as Bill Vukovich was when at the top of his game.
1960s: AJ Foyt
There's perhaps very little that can be said of AJ Foyt that hasn't already been said. A veritable force of nature, the great Indy legend won the 500 in '61, '64, and '67, and had two additional poles and two additional Top 10s in the '60s. He also was the last driver to win Indy in a front-engine car, making his reign in this era also a mark of transition for the great race. Before or after, there's no one close to AJ.
1970s: Al Unser
Winning in '70, '71, and '78, Unser had competition in this decade from such amazing drivers as Johnny Rutherford (also a tremendous choice for this decade!). He also picked up a 2nd-place finish in 1972, and a 3rd in 1977. Big Al knew how to run up front; his 644 career laps led still top all Indy 500 drivers.
1980s: Rick Mears
Even though 2 of his 4 victories came in the decade preceding and following the 80s, Mears was a legitimate threat to win every year. He never crashed out of a 500 in the entire decade, with his only poor finishes due largely to mechanical issues. His victories in 1984 and 1988 were absolute masterpieces, and you always felt “Rocket Rick” was a threat to win. Sitting on the pole at Indy four times in the decade only serves to cement the claim.
1990s: Al Unser, Jr.
Little Al was always in the mix at Indy. The '92 and '94 winner, he didn't finish outside the Top 10 in any 500 he contested in the '90's. With the Penske cars failing to qualify in '95 and the IRL/CART split from '96 on, Little Al didn't return to Indy until 2000. You have to think he’d had a couple more runs at a win if things worked out differently. Few drivers have given us as much excitement over their full careers as Al Unser, Jr. did from 1991 to 1994. Arie Luyendyk was also a tremendous part of the 500 tradition during the '90s, and could easily be considered for this spot as well.
2000s: Helio Castroneves
Helio nabbed all three of his Indy 500 wins in this decade: 2001, 2002, and 2009. Only once did he finish worse than 9th in the entire decade, and had a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-place finish as well. There's no denying that Castroneves is on entirely different level when it comes to the Speedway.
What will 2011 and beyond bring? We will soon find out. The master of the Indianapolis 500 in this decade will be in rarefied air, amongst the few that can boast of conquering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—if only for a season.
(All Images Courtesy of IMS)
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-update INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.