The Best To Never Win The Indianapolis 500
Of all the topics that get bantered about every May, it seems one of the favorites is who was the best driver that never won the Indianapolis 500. There are some obvious drivers, who also made my list – but I may have included a couple that some may not agree with. I’m not sure how scientific these lists really are, but they make for good bench racing if nothing else.
So many people have different criteria in making up such lists. Is there a minimum number of races that they have to have been in? Were they never allowed to crash or have a brain fade? Did they have to be race winners at other tracks to warrant consideration? Was bad luck all that separated them from the Borg-Warner trophy? Not on my list. They just needed to be a good driver and perform well enough in some years to cross the finish line, yet for some reason – they never crossed it first.
So here’s my list, based strictly on my opinion but in no particular order – the best to never win the Indianapolis 500…
Michael Andretti: There’s nothing like starting out with one of the most obvious ones. Michael is not obvious just because he is one of the most recent and is fresh in everyone’s mind. Michael also has the distinction of having led the most laps (431) of any driver that has never won the Indy 500. In fact, his total is 165 laps more than the number two in that dubious category. He also has led more laps than four-time winner Rick Mears, and three-time winners Louis Meyer, Johnny Rutherford and Helio Castroneves.
He inherited the so-called “Andretti curse” that his father made famous by falling out of races while leading. Michael Andretti dropped out while leading the race in 1989, 1992, 1995 and 2003. He came out of retirement to compete against his son, Marco, in 2006. He managed to lead late in that race before finishing third behind winner Sam Hornish and Marco. His last race was in 2007, when he finished a forgettable thirteenth and was never really a factor.
Lloyd Ruby: This one is also pretty obvious, especially if you were around when Ruby was racing at Indianapolis. While Ruby’s stats aren’t as gaudy as Michael Andretti’s or some of the other drivers on this list, he was certainly in the mix of several 500’s. Altogether, Lloyd Ruby led in five races at Indianapolis for a total of 126 laps – which ranks him seventh on the list of non-winners.
Ruby’s best finish was third, in 1964. In his eighteen starts at the Speedway, Ruby had no wins, no poles and no front row starts. Yet, the only time he ever crashed was in his very last 500 start in 1977 – after only thirty-four laps. He ended his career at Indianapolis with two top-fives and seven top-ten finishes
But it was his driving style that endeared him to the fans, along with his slow talking drawl. He was a smart driver that was there at the end when bad luck didn’t bite him, as it often did. Eight of the eighteen starts ended with some form of mechanical woes that were not of his fault. One ended in the crash of 1977.
Then there was the one that is still memorable to me, that occurred in the 1969 race. By the halfway point, the race was mostly a duel between Mario Andretti and Ruby. Mario pitted first which handed the lead to Ruby. When Ruby pitted, the fuel hoses to both tanks were connected to the left side of the car. Before the refueling was complete, the car began to inch forward. As it did, the still connected fuel hoses were pulled as tight as they could go before ripping a small hole in the fuel tank. As small as the hole was, methanol poured into the tall Texan’s pit and Ruby’s day was done. Had he been able to continue, history may have been re-written because Mario Andretti would have had to push his over-heating Brawner Hawk harder. Chances are Mario’s engine would have blown up, and Mario Andretti would have been on this list instead of Lloyd Ruby
Rex Mays: One of the most stellar records at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway belongs to Rex Mays. He was one of the unfortunate drivers who had their careers interrupted by World War II. Still sandwiched around the war years, Mays had twelve starts from 1934 through 1949. In that time, he sat on the pole what was then a record four times. That record was eventually tied by AJ Foyt and then Helio Castroneves this past weekend. Of course, Rick Mears set the all-time record in 1991, with six poles.
Mays is ranked second in laps led (266) by a non-winner. Aside from the four poles, Mays had seven front row starts. He finished second twice and sixth once. Those three races also happened to be the only three that Mays finished. Every other race, he would suffer a mechanical gremlin. One interesting note though, was that of all the laps he led – he never led a lap past the halfway point. Still, had he been able to finish more that a fourth of the races he started – his record when finishing indicated he probably would have won once or twice.
Ted Horn: At about the same time Rex Mays was driving, Ted horn was putting up similar numbers. Although he was not quite the great qualifier that Mays was, Horn did have one pole. Ted Horn drove from 1935 through 1948. What set him apart was the spectacular record of great finishes. If you overlook his rookie year when he finished sixteenth, Horn never had a worse finish that fourth – in his next nine starts. To this day, Horn has the best ten-year streak of finishes in Indianapolis 500 history.
Tony Kanaan: It’s hard to believe, but current driver and fan-favorite Tony Kanaan ranks third in laps led by a non-winner. In fact, if Kanaan happens to lead forty-nine laps on Sunday, he’ll pass Rex Mays and will trail only his boss on that dubious list. Kanaan crashed while leading his first Indianapolis 500 in 2002. The next four races, Kanaan finished third, second, eighth and fifth respectively. In 2007, he was a victim of the weather. Had the race not been restarted after a rain-delay on lap 113, Kanaan would have been declared the winner. Had that same race gone the distance, Kanaan may have still won the race. Under a yellow, his crew chose to bring him into the pits, while his teammate Dario Franchitti stayed out. On the restart, Kanaan spun to avoid the spinning Jacques Lazier. Kanaan flat-spotted his tire requiring another pit stop. The rains came, Dario won and Kanaan settled for twelfth on a day that he clearly had the fastest car.
The following year, Kanaan was leading when his teammate Marco Andretti dove underneath him in turn three. It’s debatable if Marco was totally at fault, but it was not the move of a patient driver. Kanaan washed up into the gray portion of the track and collected the trailing Sarah Fisher, ending the day for both. Last year was the first year in his eight Indianapolis 500 starts that Kanaan failed to lead a lap. He was running near the front when a toe-link broke, sending him hard into the wall. This year, he starts on the last row after a frustrating qualifying weekend.
Scott Goodyear: Yes, THAT Scott Goodyear. Remember that this is in no particular order. The Canadian has a pretty strong record at Indianapolis. He had eleven starts from 1990 to 2001. In his rookie outing, he finished an impressive tenth in a year-old Lola-Judd. Two years later, he battled all odds while moving up from his thirty-third starting position to miss winning the race by .043 of a second in the closest margin of victory ever.
The 1995 race featured his infamous passing of the pace car in the closing laps. Although the pace car was way too slow coming out of the fourth turn, he obviously should not have passed it. His Honda engine was the class of the remaining field and he more than likely would have pulled away for the win. Instead, he was black-flagged and finished fourteenth.
He finished second again in 1997, behind teammate Arie Luyendyk in another somewhat controversial finish. The field was under yellow and it appeared that the race would finish that way. Suddenly the green flag came out on the last lap while Goodyear was keeping his tires warm. Luyendyk took off and Goodyear never had a chance.
With five top-tens in eleven starts, his record doesn’t look worthy of this list. But when you consider the three races he nearly won, I think he earns a spot.
Eddie Sachs: Like Goodyear, stats don’t tell the whole story with Eddie Sachs. He had eight career starts from 1957 through 1964. In his first four races, his best finish was seventeenth in 1959. His story is another involving mechanical problems, which he endured in each of those first four races.
Sachs won the pole in 1960 and 1961. The ’61 race was the first that he finished, that being a memorable duel between Sachs and eventual winner AJ Foyt. Late in the race, Foyt had a miscue on a pit stop and didn’t take on a full load of fuel, which made him run lighter – and faster. Sachs basically wore out his tires trying to catch him, which he did when Foyt pitted again to take on more fuel. By this time Sachs’s tires were shot, forcing him to stop while leading and handing the race over to Foyt while Sachs settled for second. Sachs followed that with a third place finish the following year. In eight starts, Sachs had two poles and two top five finishes – but he was a much better driver than the final record showed.
There are many more that could be added to the list, some ranking way ahead of who I’ve listed. Ralph Hepburn and Duke Nalon are probably just as deserving. Leon Duray may have been the original hard-luck driver, having led 68 laps and earning two poles in his eight starts, yet only finished one race when he finished sixth in 1925. Every other race he suffered mechanical problems.
Who would you add? Any current drivers? How about some from the recent past or from the way back past? Give me your thoughts. The last week in May is an appropriate time for such discussions.