What Were They Thinking?

I have to plead guilty to something. Although I had set up my starting grid for the “Greatest 33”, I never submitted it. There were a few near the back end that I wanted to think about and the deadline got away from me. I never submitted it, unless they took it as I left it the last time. If they didn’t, then I really don’t have the right to complain. I have voted in every Presidential election since 1976. Although I doubt that many my age can make that claim, it never really stopped them from complaining about the results. Therefore I will exercise my right to complain, even though there is a good chance my vote wasn’t counted – and I don’t even feel disenfranchised.

I always grow tired of the so-called experts that turn their nose up at fan voting in Major League Baseball’s All-Star game. They always assume that they know better than the average fan, usually just because their guy didn’t make it. No one even cares enough about the NFL’s Pro-Bowl to waste the energy arguing about it.

But now that the final list of “The Greatest 33” has been announced, I feel the need to sound off like one of those baseball purists. I am pretty satisfied with three-fourths of The Greatest 33, but there were a few head-scratchers thrown in. Overall, there weren’t a whole lot of surprises. I mean, it would have been a travesty had any three or four time winner been omitted. They weren’t. Still – what I was afraid might happen, did happen. There was apparently way too much emphasis geared toward the more recent drivers, while the names of the distant past were passed over. What made it worse was the fact that the powers-that-be actually ranked them by rows. It was my understanding that the final thirty-three would be presented in alphabetical order. Ranking them by rows would lead to too much debate. Well, let the debates begin.

I was shocked that drivers like Ted Horn, Rex Mays, Ralph Hepburn, Eddie Sachs and Lloyd Ruby were omitted. I know that none of them won, but there are some great drivers that had phenomenal records at the Indianapolis 500 that never won. They should have been given consideration over several drivers that won only once and never did much else. Had that been the case among the panel of experts, all of the winners would have been listed in the Top-100. They weren’t.

I had no problem with Helio Castroneves making the list. Most know that he’s my favorite current driver and any three-time winner needs to be on the list. What I do have a problem with; is ranking Helio above drivers such as Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Wilbur Shaw and Bill Vukovich. I literally could not believe my eyes when I saw Helio’s ranking.

Graham Hill was a two-time Formula One champion and won the Indianapolis 500, but in my opinion he is not one of the Greatest 33. As a rookie, he led the last nine laps of the 1966 Indianapolis 500 – a race that had only seven cars running at the end. He drove in only two more races; finishing thirty-second and nineteenth respectively. How does that put him on this list, when a driver with Ted Horn’s record (10 starts – 1 second place finish, 4 thirds and 4 fourths) doesn’t make the list?

Juan Montoya has no business being on the list, either. He dominated the one race he ran, when he won in 2000 – but who did he dominate? A field littered with mostly chumps from the early IRL days. Other than Montoya, the only impressive names from that starting grid were an aging Al Unser, Jr., a declining Jimmy Vasser, Buddy Lazier and a rookie named Sam Hornish.

Why is Danny Sullivan on this list in place of some other great winners? Other than his famous "Spin & Win" in 1985, Sullivan had only one other top-five finish in twelve starts. Yet, he was rewarded with a spot on this hall-of-fame grid because most voters have seen that clip replayed over and over; while there is very little footage of Billy Arnold’s dominating run in 1930 when he led the race from Lap 3 to the checkered flag.

I realize that this is blasphemous in this centennial year, but Ray Harroun won his first and only race in 1911 and then retired. Being the first winner of the 500, his name is spoken in reverence. Had he instead been the winner of the fifth 500 as a rookie and then retired, would he still be considered royalty at Indianapolis? It’s a question I asked myself when I filled out my list, but for the record – I included Harroun on my list, but with some reservation.

At first glance, I really didn’t think Scott Dixon deserved to be included. A closer look at his record reveals the one win in 2008, along with six top-ten finishes in eight starts including three top fives. Given some of the others on the list, I’ll say that record warrants inclusion onto this list.

Given the heavy slant towards the recent years, I’m surprised that driver Tommy Milton made it in at all. He was the first two-time winner (1921 & ’23). In eight starts, he had two wins, four top fives and a pole. I would say he earned his spot on the list.

There are three non-winners that made the Greatest 33 – Dan Gurney, Michael Andretti and Tony Bettenhausen. I have no problem with any of them. They all made my personal list. But when so many non-winners failed to make the list, it made me wonder what everyone’s criteria was for “Greatness”. It seems that most voters think you must have your face on the Borg-Warner trophy to be considered great. It should certainly count a lot, but voters should have dug deeper in looking at a driver’s overall record at Indianapolis rather than if they ever won.

It appears to me that the majority of the voters did little or no research and voted simply for drivers they had heard of. That’s the only explanation I can think of for drivers like Frank Lockhart, Billy Arnold, Fred Frame, Bill Holland, Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan being left off the list, entirely.

But the overall purpose of this list was to generate buzz and to hopefully expose fans to more of the rich history of this race. It succeeded in generating a buzz and conversation, otherwise I wouldn’t be so riled up. It’s when people don’t care at all when there is a real problem. Now whether or not it encouraged fans to dig into the storied past of the last century, is still up for debate.

George Phillips


24 Responses to “What Were They Thinking?”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    Like you, George, I was surprised that Graham Hill made the list when he just sort of stepped into his only Indy win, and then did nothing in his next two starts. And I certainly expected Loyd Ruby to make the list, with his numerous starts near the back of the pack that never seemed to keep him from leading the race. This was like American Idol, where the votes from the fan base never seems to tally well with my own choices.

    I also questioned the inclusion of Ray Harroun. The only race he entered he won (under protest), then quit racing. That doesn’t sound like something the Greatest Driver would do.

  2. I left AJ completely off because he’s a jackwagon.

    I put all Team Penske drivers at the front.

    As for JPM, not only did he dominate, it was the first major Domino to fall to start reunification. The next year was a total ass kicking by CART. JPM, deserves some credit for righting the wrong created by Tony George.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      Hmmm… AJ Foyt is indeed a jackwagon but won the 500, 4 times, plus most every other series with 4 wheels during his career. No grand prix title like Mario, but still an icon of the speedway.
      BTW, in an unrelated jackwagon story… Kyle Busch can also be and still is at times a jackwagon, but he can also take a mid pack car and turn it into a winner, and thats the difference between being a no talent jackwagon and simply a jackwagon.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    I, too, was shocked by some of the choices and the positions of some of the drivers- Vukovich and Shaw especially. Graham Hill is definitely the weakest selection. How you leave off Horn, Mays, and Ruby is beyond me.

  4. I really felt Horn and Sachs both deserved to be on that list.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    Like you George, and many others, I am very disappointed in the final IMS list. Horn, Mays, Ruby, Holland, Arnold, Sachs all should be on the list. And why the IMS would rank them by row is beyond me. The only other published list I have seen is by Curt Cavin. Curt’s list as you might expect shows that he put a lot of thought and consideration into it.

    It would appear that “JB” is a bit foggy yet this AM as he apparently thought he was posting on Miller’s Mailbag.

    Lists such as this are always very subjective for any sport and are quickly forgotten.

  6. I understand that I have unique special powers that most other run of the mill humans don’t possess, namely being the ability to see the future, but How in the world did they leave JRHildebrand off the list??? Good Heavens.

  7. George,

    I agree with a lot of what you have to say. However, given the typical lowest comment denominator outcomes of fan voting, (RE: JB’s comment above) I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the list. I thought it would be much worse. I mean, until I started reading up on my racing history I had never even heard of Frank Lockhart or Tommy Milton. I give the casual fans a pass for these kind oversights.

    I mean, I seriously expected Danica would wind up in the top 10. So I was pleasantly surprised by the final list, even if it was slanted towards more recent drivers. Clearly I underestimated the fans.

  8. The Lapper Says:

    I was dissapointed in the grid. No way should Helio be in the first 6 rows and Montoya shouldn’t be there either Vuky gets the inside of row 2 or at least inside. This is something for the fans of today, basically, but when the baseball fans of today left Stan Musial off the all century team the baseball officials in charge remedied that and pronto. Frankly, I’ll go with my list and not think a thing about it. In the end, it is fun and it is May!!!

    The Lapper
    I’m a fleabit peanut monkey

  9. The list is just meant to stir up debate, I suppose, so it’s done that.

    I’m not a history guy, but some of the recent guys (Montoya) could have been omitted. Personally, I’d favor some of the drivers–and you’d know way more about this than me, George–who were legends at the Speedway, but not necessarily winners. Like Sachs and Lloyd Ruby.

    • way off-topic, but why do the one-off teams get access to fewer tires and are allowed less milage on engines than the full-season teams? Is it to punish some team that can only afford to run the one race? Don’t they like having a lot of entries into the 500?

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Panther Racing’s John Barnes raised this issue yesterday. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t believe Firestone is behind the decision.

      • It’s not targeted specifically indy only/full season teams. There is a “full month” program and a “second week” program. The former costs more than the latter and the majority of the one off’s basically chose to purchase the latter. Made more sense back when quals spanned both weekends. Nothing but $ is preventing the one offs from purchasing the higher mileage program. Back before the contraction of the month, second week programs could not run until after the first weekend of quals. Now, Rationing the tires is the only way to insure that the second week programs don’t run more on their engine than they paid for.

  10. Steve K Says:

    It’s just a list. I haven’t heard of most of the older drivers you mentioned. Name the second best hitter during the Ty Cobb era? Tough when you didn’t see it with your own eyes. Is that guy I don’t know better than Ichiro? Who know, but I’m going with Ichiro because I’ve seen him. Fan votes are not meant to be taken as fact. Ever notice Dale Jr wins every NASCAR fan vote? Will anyone give me odds that he will be voted into the All Star race Saturday night?

    The list makes for some fun debate but most fans, with the exception of the top of the mountain, only believe what they saw. I would be included in this. I’m 29 and never once saw Foyt win a race but I take it as fact he was one of the best. Lloyd Ruby? I’m just glad I wouldn’t confuse him with Jack Ruby.

    • That’s why fans were given two months and a website filled with audio profiles and stats, so that they could actually do some research and learn something. You took the easy way out and voted for people you’ve heard of. Like someone said earlier – you give it to the lowest common denominator and you end up with an American Idol popularity contest. If you are not familiar with Lloyd Ruby that’s your fault. Like American politics, stupid lazy people shoudn’t vote.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Good points Steve. There is no right or wrong way of looking at this. If you have any further interest in learning about some of the drivers you have not seen, the short videos that accompany each driver on the list are interesting to watch. Thanks for not confusing Lloyd with Jack!

  11. billytheskink Says:

    I have my contentions with the ranking and inclusion of a few of the drivers, but overall I was pleased with the results because I expected it to be worse. I had a lingering fear that Mark Donohue would be the only guy I considered a no-brainer to not make the list and that I’d have to come out guns-blazing against it. As with most things, the list could have been better, even much better, but it isn’t close to bad.

    In defense of Ray Harroun, I considered his career at the speedway prior to the 500 when voting for him as one of the 33. He won twice at the speedway in 1910, and was a contender in most of his other races there. He’s worth voting for more for his historical significance than his career, but he wasn’t chopped liver outside of a single race in 1911.

    The Greatest 33 website, by the way, was tremendous. It provided more than enough information to make informed selections. Importantly, it also made selecting 33 drivers relatively time-consuming, ensuring that only those who care enough and know enough would take the time to vote and would think about their selections.
    If it was done without a login and with a 100 radio buttons, like so many internet polls, it would have look a lot different and a lot worse.

  12. No Name Says:

    What a shocker, only 18 of the guys I choose ended up on the list. Love both of them but Hill and Sullivan shouldnt be on the list, neither should Harroun, Montoya, Dixon or that chump I wont even name who won last year.

    By the way does anyone know how you can look at the choice other people made on the greatest 33 website?

    I would love to see what other real Indy fans thought were the greatest 33.

  13. I’ll just agree that the chosen 33 shouldn’t have been ranked (improperly) and that some great racers from pre-television days got the shaft. And Ray Harroun didn’t finish first in his race; his car’s owner bought the win after the race.

  14. james t suel Says:


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