As anyone with even the remotest interest in sports will know, a great athlete, sportsperson, or driver needs the right setup. An NBA star achieves greatness as part of a franchise and a team, a boxer attains success with the right coach and sparring partners, and the outstanding driver usually has a great car and pit crew. Individual brilliance, however, is what keeps the spotlight on our sporting greats.
Stars like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Schumacher have shown the world, time and time again, how legacies are crafted. The span of their talents know no bounds and this makes for frequently higher goals. Challenges are frequently accepted and convincingly beaten, regardless of how steep they might be. While their talent is unquestionable, there is often more at play when it comes to establishing themselves.
Legends are achievers and champions, yes. However, they are also humans of great character, mental strength, and a tendency to work harder than their peers. In the DNA of a legend lies honor, commitment, and vision. There is no responsibility that is ignored and no battle that cannot be won. In the end, most legends only succumb to the uncompromising, natural force that is Father Time.
IndyCar racing has produced stars of the highest caliber. Some of the greatest stars to have ever raced have earned their stripes in America’s greatest open-wheel racing series. These all-time greats have built legacies that will always be remembered on their individual paths to legendary status. For racing enthusiasts, it is only natural to want to know what stands these great drivers apart from their peers.
In this piece, we will examine the careers of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history. We will explain what we believe are the characteristics and attributes of a legend and how a rookie driver can go on to become global icons of their sport. By understanding the mindset of a legend, we can then highlight what made them so special, both on the track and off it.
While some may believe that certain people are born to be great – and particular talents are God-given – legendary status is earned. It is through the perfect execution of those talents, with hard work and dedication, that a driver can achieve. It takes sacrifices to excel in your field, in most walks of life. On the highest stage of competitive racing, sacrifice is simply par for the course (or should we say track?).
For many teenagers and young adults around the world, youth is spent exploring. A high number of these attend nightclubs and parties, making new friends and falling in love. Many athletes and drivers will instead spend their free time on the track, perfecting their driving skills. They will be in the gym, working on their cardiovascular capabilities, or watching hours and hours of races.
Being a driver is not for everyone. It takes hard work, dedication, sacrifice and lots of practice. IndyCar encourages the drivers of tomorrow to get involved in racing through a number of different avenues, making the road to IndyCar success a little less rocky for future legends.
A high percentage of drivers who race competitively in IndyCar will have started off karting. As such, it has long been established that young drivers with aspirations of making it in IndyCar will first try their hand at karting. Today, there are a number of karting organizations in the United States and around the world that provide access to competitive racing.
We cannot forget about the All-American Soapbox Derby, either. This American institution has been running since 1934, making it one of the oldest racing competitions in the world. Many drivers will have first tried their hand at soapbox racing first.
IndyCar has long had an interest in securing the best drivers out there, which means developing talent As such, there are scholarships available to drivers who want to establish themselves in IndyCar. The Road to Indy paves the way for the future stars of the sport to make it to the IZOD IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500. Featuring development programs and courses, this makes for crucial steps in the right directions.
Just like in any other sport, be it football, baseball, basketball, boxing etc., every participant will start off at the bottom. It is through the early stages where many of the developmental skills will be learned. Many drivers will also start their careers with little to separate them, in terms of promise. From here, however, the greats will flourish and leave their peers behind them.
If you want to achieve in IndyCar racing, you are going to need skills. This is competitive driving so there will be many attributes that are mandatory. Only the cream of the crop, in terms of driving skill, will make it this far. This is the elite level of open-wheel racing in America, so even making it this far as a driver is an achievement in itself. For a legend, making up the numbers is not an option.
From this elite group of drivers, legends have emerged. They have attained this status off the back of a number of key attributes that they exude, rather than display. If you can imagine the demands at the highest level, it becomes almost intimidating to think of how a driver can still succeed in such conditions. It takes a very special person to not only handle the pressures of high-level racing but to make it look so easy. Legends often do just that.
From studying the greatest drivers in IndyCar racing over the years, we believe that, among a few other things, there are five key attributes that they share. Let’s take a look at what these are, below:
Talent is required in abundance as a driver. Obvious, right? Yes, maybe, but what is often overlooked by many fans of the sport is the bravery required to go that extra mile. Racing is a game of levels. Drivers must be willing to do things that the competition won’t. Taking risks, for example, can make the difference when it comes to winning and finishing in second place (or lower down).
Brave drivers will not always find their risks pay off. Sometimes, taking a chance can have dire consequences. If bravery always paid off when hitting a corner at a certain speed, everyone would do it. It doesn’t. This is what makes the decision to take that corner faster than you had, or to maneuver your car in front in challenging circumstances something that can be admirable.
As a driver, you’re going to need eyes in the back of your head. You could probably do with a couple of sets of eyes in the side of your head, too. In fact, 360 vision wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for an IndyCar driver. Considering that there is so much going on – at breakneck speed – only a true great can possess the capability of reading everything that is going on around them.
Awareness is a very important attribute to have as an IndyCar driver. From knowing where your car is among the pack, to possessing a comprehensive understanding of a track, this is a skill that can prove crucial. Factor this in with the abilities to read how a race is going and avert any danger and you could say awareness is one of the most important attributes for any driver. A legend’s sense of awareness will be razor sharp.
As important as awareness is to a legendary driver, it is nothing without the lightning-fast reflexes to act on it. In order to pull off the spectacular and push yourself ahead of the pack, a legend will need to react quickly. When traveling at speeds that can reach well over 200mph, responding to any change in your environment requires immense reflexes. What the legends have demonstrated over the years is this skill, in abundance.
Of course, this is not something that is truly organic. Drivers will undergo rigorous training and exercise to ensure that their ability to react to stimuli is the best it can be. Plenty of work is put in at the gym and in training centers where special machinery is used to enhance a driver’s reaction time. This is great for new drivers, but the legends of yesteryear seemed to find other ways to improve their incredible reflexes.
Another trait of an IndyCar legend that does not get the exposure it deserves is intelligence. Yes, intelligence is a broad term that can apply to many different things, and no, intelligence on the track does not mean that you can recite Shakespeare or speak nine different languages while behind the wheel. Now, while that would be impressive, it is not exactly pertinent when it comes to racing.
A driver’s intelligence is the ability to act at the right time, to see things that other drivers don’t, and to consistently make the right choices. Intelligence is knowing when to move and when to pull back, when to stay composed and when to take risks. The greatest drivers in the history of IndyCar have used their superior intelligence as a weapon while behind the wheel. These smarts can make all the difference…
Vision is another word that can have a number of different connotations when it comes to legendary drivers. Of course, you need ample vision in order to drive a car. You also need to have great vision to establish your goals and aspirations. Both seem to perfectly apply to the greatest drivers in the history of IndyCar. This makes vision an attribute that is crucial to going that extra mile.
With so much going on during a race, having the ability to see clearly gives a driver an advantage over their peers. This can help them to work through the necessary phases with the knowledge of what they might need to do to win a race in the final stages. As for the vision to establish their greatness, every legend with goals and aspirations knew what they had to do to get there.
Now that we understand the attributes that help the greats to distinguish themselves from those who are simply good drivers. Over the course of their stellar careers, the drivers below have done all that (and then some). Their enduring talents and standout skills and attributes helped them to achieve so much. Their character and appealing features endeared them to fans, forever.
Let’s take a look at the ten greatest legends of IndyCar racing. Please be aware that the men on this list are not ranked in any particular order. With so little among the greatest legends of the sport, the debate surrounding who is the greatest legend in IndyCar history is one that we would like to leave open for interpretation.
With that in mind, let’s get down to business, and begin with New Zealand’s own, Scott Dixon.
When Scott Dixon began racing karts at just seven years of age, he would have no idea as to just how far he would come in the world of racing. Although born in Australia to parents from New Zealand, Dixon moved back to the “land of the long white cloud” as a youngster, settling in Auckland. Demonstrating a fantastic aptitude behind the wheel, Dixon was soon racking up wins in Formula Vee and Formula 2.
In 1999, Dixon moved to the United States and everything would change for him. Coming through the ranks of Indy Lights and Champ Car series, he would stand out as a very promising driver. It wouldn’t take long for the Kiwi to establish himself at the highest stage of open wheel racing in the United States, becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – drivers of his generation.
Dixon won five championships within 15 years of his first race (at the Homestead-Miami Speedway), proving his incredible appetite for success. A true winner in all regards, the New Zealander had attributes that any racer would kill for, including incredible vision, a fantastic ability for adapting, and sublime reactive skills. When all is said and done, it would be difficult to exclude Scott Dixon from any list of IndyCar’s all-time greats.
Although Dixon’s style may not be the flashiest of any driver to ever race IndyCar, it is undoubtedly successful and smooth. When we talk about the importance of vision and reflexes when it comes to elite drivers, there are fewer in the history of the sport to match Scott Dixon’s. An incredible driver and all-time great, “The Iceman” epitomizes coolness and calm under pressure.
There is always that one great spectacle in almost every sport that gets the fans excited like no other. Football has the Super Bowl, NASCAR has the Daytona 500. Baseball fans fall around in anticipation for the World Series, while international soccer fans have to bide their time every four years for the FIFA World Cup. When it comes to IndyCar racing, there is no event as celebrated as the Indy 500.
Not every all-time great in sports gets to win the Super Bowl or parade the World Cup around in front of the world’s media. For Michael Andretti, he never got to drink the milk after the Indy 500. As unfortunate as it was for Andretti to have to contend with the “Andretti Curse” – especially as he was arguably the greatest driver never to win the race – he certainly wasn’t allergic to achievement.
Andretti may be known these days as the Andretti Autosport IndyCar team owner (the team has multiple wins in the Indy 500), but in his day, he was an incredible driver worthy of any all-time greats list. With 42 wins in a 19 career, there is little reason to doubt that he is one of the greatest of all time. When you factor in his championship victory, this should be solidified. However, he probably should have had more.
His talent was certainly deserving of multiple championships. He had all the attributes a driver could hope for, in addition to a great team and a super-legend of a father to gain insight and knowledge from. It appeared that fortune sometimes had the last word with Andretti, and he was unlucky not to have achieved more than he did, even if his race wins indicate that he was not a driver that was averse to winning races.
Andretti will always be remembered as a fantastic driver and an incredible talent, in his own right. Yes, it would have been nice for the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-native to have won the Indy 500. It would have also been nice for Dan Marino to win a Super Bowl, Zico a FIFA World Cup, or Barry Bonds to win a World Series. Sport can be cruel, but Andretti is still a legend.
Bobby Unser is another member of the world-famous Unser clan that deserves his place on this list. A smart and savvy driver, there are fewer IndyCar standouts to boast a resume anywhere even close to his level. Throughout a 21-year career, Al Unser’s older brother certainly made his mark on American open-wheel racing at a time when the competition was fair but tight.
All in all, Unser racked up 35 wins in his career. With two championships to his name, it is clear to see why his style was successful, too. There are also fewer drivers in the history of the sport to match him or exceed him for overall wins, or his success at the Indy 500, where he won the race three times. He accomplished this feat in three different decades (the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), too, which is worth mentioning.
Born in Colorado Springs, Bobby Unser would find early success in racing modified stock cars, when his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, it was in IndyCar that his name will forever be immortalized. Of course, Unser was not always known for his squeaky-clean driving style and this led to one of the most controversial episodes of IndyCar history.
Unser had won the pole at the Indy 500 in 1981 and led the most laps. However, during a caution period on the 149th lap, Unser and Mario Andretti completed their pit stops and rejoined the race. However, he would pass eight cars while Andretti would pass two. Consequently, Unser – who had won the race – was stripped of it the next day. Andretti would take the win.
Unser was not standing for the result and successfully had the win reinstated following a lengthy legal battle. He would retire at the end of 1981. Despite intending to come back to the sport full time, he retired for good in 1983. Regardless of how his career ended, Bobby Unser is an all-time great in IndyCar racing and deserves his place on this list.
When it comes to the cerebral side of racing, there are fewer men with a racing brain quite like that of Rick Mears’. The Wichita, Kansas-born driver was renowned for his greater understanding of racing, which saw him craft a legacy that other drivers can only dream of. Four Indianapolis 500 wins, three IndyCar championships, and 29 race wins contribute to a resume that is a testament to just how good Mears was.
Mears competed in American open-wheel racing in a career that spanned three decades, from 1976 to 1992. In his first 13 races, the young Mears managed seven top-10 finishes and this really caught the attention of racing fans everywhere. As time went on, it was clear that the young driver’s accomplishments were no flukes – if anything, just like Dario Franchitti – Mears appeared to get better with age.
Mears was a committed member of his teams and carried himself with a humble aplomb. For “Rocket Rick,” results should speak louder than words and he certainly proved that he had the ability to pull off pretty much anything under pressure. In fact, his ability to perform under the greatest pressure, and deliver, is another reason why he had so much success in his career.
Make no mistake, as brave as Mears was, he was also very astute. He had incredible vision and command, with razor-sharp reflexes that helped him to position himself with ease. When he won his first “500” in 1979, Mears would also go on to win his first championship, following this up with another two championships in 1981 and 1992. Mears also set the record for pole positions in the Indianapolis 500 with six.
For this great driver, it would be tempting to say that racing was just in his blood. Considering he is the brother of Roger Mears, the father to Clint Mears, and the uncle of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Casey Mears, there might be a case to argue this. However, when it comes to IndyCar racing, there is definitely just one Rick Mears, that’s for sure.
Scotland’s Dario Franchitti is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and successful drivers in the history of IndyCar racing. Unfortunately for Franchitti, his career was brought to an abrupt halt at the Grand Prix of Texas in 2013 as the result of a shocking crash that caused multiple injuries to the driver. Although happy to be alive as a result, he suffered two fractured vertebrae and a broken ankle, in addition to memory loss.
Just one month later, in November of that year, Franchitti declared that he would retire from racing with immediate effect. It was a sad way to end an electrifying career that had brought the Scotsman a litany of titles and achievements. All in all, Franchetti retired with a total of 31 wins in 265 starts in U.S. open-wheel racing. This earned the driver a place on the all-time wins list at the time.
No one will ever know just how further Franchetti could have gone in the sport, although his four IndyCar Series championships hardly suggest underachievement. His skills behind the wheel were so exceptional that they saw him collect three Indianapolis 500 wins in his career. The man had talent in abundance and even went on to win the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2008 (although his ill-fated move to NASCAR was one to forget).
Franchetti was an outstanding driver from early on his career. He raced in Formula Vauxhall and Formula 3 in the 1990s in the UK, prior to embarking on an IndyCar career. The Scottish-born driver also competed in CART for six seasons, just missing out on a championship as runner-up to Juan Pablo Montoya in a tie-breaker in 1999. Franchetti’s career blossomed in the mid-2000s, with 2007 bringing him his first championship win.
There is little doubt that Franchetti’s accomplishments speak volumes for the type of driver he was. What was most impressive about the Bathgate-born star was his ability to get better with age, as most drivers tend to slow down as they approach their 40’s. No one will ever know what was left to achieve for Franchetti, but what we can say is that he is one of the greatest legends in the history of IndyCar racing.
Al Unser Jr. is a man known to have his fair share of demons off the track. Having retired in 2007, Unser eventually found his way into a job as an IndyCar official, before his public brushes with the law took their toll. However, as an IndyCar driver, fans can still remember his powers on the track (they were certainly in abundance). As the son of a famous IndyCar driver (Al Sr.), it seemed only right to follow his father into racing.
Al Jr. began racing karts at the tender age of 9, Al Jr. had the full support of his father. Unlike the distant relationship of one of NASCAR’s most celebrated father/son dynamics, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr., Unser Sr. acted as his son’s chief mechanic. His uncle, Bobby Unser and his family, lived close by and would be used to race against. You could say that he had the right family around to help him attain a decent level of success.
When we look back at the 19-year career of Al Unser Jr., it is clear to see that his early days helped mold him into the driver he was. A frequent name in the discussion of the greatest drivers of all time, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-native put together 34 victories in that timeframe, winning two championships and amassing a resume that certainly speaks volumes for his abilities.
When it came to the Indianapolis 500, Unser has two wins in his career. A smart and likable character, Al Unser Jr. enjoyed an almost parallel career to Michael Andretti, son of the iconic Mario Andretti. A true star of IndyCar racing throughout his almost two-decade span as a driver, there is little doubt that Al Unser Jr. deserves his spot on this list as one of the greatest legends of IndyCar racing.
Time to go a little old school. Now, some may disagree with adding Ralph DePalma to this list, but there is no doubt that he deserves his place. Yes, he competed in the formative years of what would eventually become IndyCar racing. Yes, he may not have had the same level of competition that drivers in later eras would. However, he also did not have the level of resources or power that those drivers enjoyed.
You can draw parallels between Ralph DePalma and, for example, a boxer like Harry Greb. Historians will find multiple reasons to argue the case for their inclusion among the subsequent greats of their respective sports. The main reason for this is that they possessed attributes and talents that would have seen them compete at the highest levels of any era in those sports. DePalma would have certainly given other drivers headaches.
DePalma was the standout driver in the 1910’s when it came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is something of a tragedy that he was only able to win the race once, as his talents were certainly deserving of more. For example, his Indy 500 lap lead total of 612 – over three races – would not be beaten until 1988 (by Al Unser). This record was set despite him failing to start in three races in 1914, 1916, and 1924.
The son of Italian immigrants was a master of the oval. It mattered little what the surface was, his talents knew no bounds. While DePalma is reported to have won 2000 races in total, it is a certainty that all of these wins would not have been sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA). What we do know is that he was an incredibly gifted driver for his time and a genuine trailblazer for those who came after him.
There is no doubt that Ralph DePalma is one of the greatest drivers in American history. He rightfully deserves more attention and praise for his accomplishments. It is understandable that, through a lack of footage and the fact that he raced at a time when the sport was in its infancy, he is often overlooked by many IndyCar fans and historians.
Without Al Unser Sr., there certainly would never a been a Jr. In fact, without Al Unser Sr., perhaps the most celebrated racing family in the history of American sports would not have been what it is today. Aside from his famous son, Al Jr. is also the younger brother of Bobby Unser. Although his resume will forever be headed by the famous Unser surname, there is little doubt that Al Sr’s accomplishments are his own.
Unser Sr. is part of a small group of drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 four times, which is an incredible record in itself. Additionally, Unser racked up an impressive 39 career victories in his time as an IndyCar driver. Three National Championships wins and a number of other records certainly stand him in good stead when it comes to celebrating his greatness on the track.
Stylistically, Unser was an interesting driver to observe. Meticulous and careful, he was also incredibly motivated and aggressive, just not in the way that would be easily detectable. His intelligence and smarts behind the wheel were certainly integral to his success. Two older brothers who were also drivers (his eldest brother Jerry was the first in the family to compete in the Indy 500) certainly helped him appreciate competition.
Unfortunately for the Unser family, his uncle Joe and brother Jerry lost their lives while racing. Despite the tragedies, Unser pushed himself to achieve in the sport, making his name on the tracks due to his blindingly obvious talent and ambition. Al Unser is, without doubt, one of the greatest drivers in the history of IndyCar driving and is a legend in his own right.
As an important part of the Unser clan, he will also be remembered for being a member of auto racing’s finest dynasty.
While is very tempting to assess Mario Andretti’s unbelievable racing career as a whole, this list will only cover his achievements in IndyCar. A natural at pretty much everything he did – and successful in every series he raced in, to some extent – Andretti will forever be remembered as the most outstanding driver in American racing. Considering his competition, that is an outstanding achievement.
Although born in the Italian-occupied territory of Motovun, in present-day Croatia, Andretti is the pride of many American racing fans. It is not difficult to see why. Andretti was one of only two drivers to have won IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR, and World Sportscar Championship races and even went on to win the 1978 F1 championship. He has three IndyCar titles to his name, including an Indy 500, a Daytona 500 win and is the last American to win a race in F1.
OK, so the temptation won in the end and we had to bring up this racing legend’s achievements. Now, back to IndyCar. Unless you are already aware of Andretti’s IndyCar prowess, his list of achievements is pretty long. He is the only driver to have ever won IndyCar races in four separate decades and the only driver in history to be named United States Driver of the Year in three.
A phenomenal driver, Andretti racked up 52 wins in 31 years in the sport. He has four championships in that time period, even going on to win nine races in the 1969 season. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, drivers in IndyCar history. His name alone is enough to inspire awe among fans and he is quite simply the most famous driver in the history of the series.
With just one win in the Indy 500, the sports Gods have also demonstrated their strange sense of humor when it comes to Mario Andretti. Despite this, it is pretty clear that he has one of the greatest resumes in the history of racing.
When it comes to a true legend of IndyCar racing, there is no one that can compete with the records set by AJ Foyt. Quite simply, he is the most successful driver in the history of IndyCar and enjoys a level of respect and adulation that other drivers can only dream of. Yes, those records may be beaten one day, but to have completely and utterly dominated a sport with so much talent deserves great praise.
Foyt raced for a total of 37 years and attained 67 race wins in that timeframe. He has occupied the top spot in race wins for quite some time and it will take something (or someone) very special to ever put together a resume quite like his. Just like Mario Andretti, Foyt also enjoyed considerable success outside of the realms of IndyCar racing, proving that he had talents that surpassed American open-wheel racing.
For a start, he is the only driver in history to have won the Indy 500 (four times, in total), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, ad the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a driver, his talent was unquestionable. Foyt had great vision, a stable temperament, and the ability to appear unbreakable. He survived a plane crash, multiple crashes on the track, was pinned under a tractor, attacked by killer bees, almost drowned… crazy.
If A.J. Foyt’s mentality and strength could have been bottled, it would have sold for millions at a time. He was the driver that had it all, in terms of attributes, and his record is a reflection of just how great he was. With seven championships in total, the most wins of all time, and a record of achievement that surpasses any other driver in the series, A.J. Foyt has to be regarded as the greatest of all time.
In truth, we will never know what contributes to the DNA of a true great. We can identify particular attributes that the all-time legends of IndyCar share but there are so many other factors required to achieve to the level these guys have. Sometimes, it is just nice to appreciate the true standouts of the sport we love and do our best to highlight their skills and talents to the next generation of legends hoping to emulate their heroes.
That is the theory, at least.