Will Power is beyond flattered to find himself sandwiched between the Unser brothers on IndyCar’s all-time list of winners, but the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner believes his generation of drivers ranks right up there.
Power also thinks people will look back on these past few years as probably “the most competitive era ever”, and when 20 cars are separated by one second on a road course with 14 turns, it’s tough to argue.
In terms of competition, IndyCar has never been closer or had more depth, and with spec cars and very comparable engines, it’s not all that surprising. But that gives the driver, engineer, strategist and pit crews the ability to make a difference, and today’s line-up sports 14 IndyCar winners and a few more on the on-deck circle.
Of course some old-timers were up in arms because they thought the 38-year-old Aussie was saying it was the greatest lineup of talent ever, but that’s not what he meant. His statement: “You’ve got to look at this generation as one of those generations when you had A.J., Mario, the Unsers as with Dixon and I’m sure [Alexander] Rossi and [Josef] Newgarden – these guys are going to be around for a long time.”
But Willy P.’s declaration got me to thinking: what was the greatest group of racers in IndyCar’s modern history?
It’s a tough call, because the modern IndyCar driver only runs pavement, and as diverse as the NTT series is, it still takes a back seat to the days of mile dirt tracks spliced in with ovals, and road courses, and even Pikes Peak.
So as we head to Laguna Seca for the 2019 finale, let’s take a subjective look at the best fields of each decade of the past 60 years. And for argument’s sake I only counted the victory total once for each driver.
In 1955, the last year of Triple A, you had five men destined to pull into Victory Lane at Indy – Bob Sweikert, Pat Flaherty, Jimmy Bryan, Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward – mixing it up with the likes of Pat O’Connor, Jack McGrath, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Thomson, Duane Carter, Jimmy Davies, Jimmy Reece, George Amick, Andy Linden and two-time Indy king Bill Vukovich. Ward was two years away from his initial Champ Car win, but would take Indy twice and roll up 26 victories.
Bettenhausen racked up 22 IndyCar wins and was a two-time national champion, while Thomson scored seven IndyCar victories and a USAC sprint title, Sweikert and McGrath won four IndyCar races apiece, Amick earned a trio of IndyCar triumphs, Davies was a three-time USAC midget king and youngest IndyCar winner at that time (20 years old). Vuky died while comfortably leading what would have been his third Indy win in a row. As a group, they totaled 67 Indy Car wins – including eight Indy 500s – and eight IndyCar titles.
In 1961 it was an onslaught of fresh, fast faces mixed with a few wise old owls. A.J. Foyt won the first of his four Indy 500s and also captured his second straight USAC championship as we were introduced to Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman and Roger McCluskey a year after Jim Hurtubise and Lloyd Ruby stormed onto the scene. Jones won everything on four wheels in USAC midgets, sprints and Champ Car, but had to settle for only one Indy win in what could have easily been three or four.
Marshman was on the fast-track to stardom before losing his life in a test at Phoenix in 1964, while Ward was a year away from his second Indy win and fighting furiously to hold off the brash kid from Houston. It was a lineup loaded with exceptional talent that would adapt quickly from roadsters to rear-engine cars in the coming years, and were just as fierce on the dirt as they were on the pavement. The career victories of Foyt (67), Eddie Sachs (8), Ruby (7), Don Branson (6), Jones (6), McCluskey (5), McElreath (5), Hurtubise (4), Len Sutton (3) and Marshman (1) total 112 plus 10 IndyCar championships and five Indy 500s.
In 1971 the USAC landscape was changing as Roger Penske and Team McLaren became players, while NASCAR stars began looking north and Mario Andretti was mixing Formula 1 with the Hoosier Hundred. Al Unser and George Bignotti made it back-to-back at Indy, and Penske introduced Mark Donohue to the USAC wars. Peter Revson was McLaren’s chosen son and showed he was up to the task, just like fellow sports car grad Donohue. Cale Yarborough quit stock cars to be Rube’s teammate, and Lee Roy Yarbrough had nearly won the California 500 the year before and was back for more – soon to be followed by the Allison brothers.
We saw the grit of Gary Bettenhausen as he impressed The Captain, while pal Bill Vukovich and the underrated Mike Mosley were gaining speed and attention. Art Pollard was still fast at 44, Dan Gurney’s protege Swede Savage looked like a star in the making and Johnny Rutherford was two years away from making it big with McLaren. Bobby Unser was in between Indy wins and a May away from taming 1,000 horsepower with Gurney’s latest Eagle. Gordon Johncock and Wally Dallenbach were set to go to the front with Pat Patrick’s team.
The Class of ’71 had F1 winners, Can-Am and Trans-Am stars, NASCAR biggies, a flat-track motorcycle god and some of USAC’s finest. Their career win total of 204 wins (we already counted A.J.’s 67 in 1961) – Mario (52), Al Unser (39), Uncle Bobby (34), Rutherford (27), Johncock (25) Joe Leonard (6), Dallenbach (5), Gary B. (4), Mosley (4), Donohue (3), Pollard (2), Vukovich (1), Savage (1) and Revson (1) – isn’t likely to ever be touched, and throw in their 20 national championships and it’s hard to comprehend. And when you consider the prowess of A.J., Mario, Big Al, J.R. and Bettenhausen on the dirt, coupled with Cale’s 83 NASCAR wins and Yarborough’s 14, plus Andretti’s dozen F1 victories and 1978 world title, it’s hard not to label this as most decorated and diverse group of all time.