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The Way It Is/ America's all-time top ten race drivers

by Gordon Kirby
My Christmas column about why Dan Gurney is America's greatest all-round racing man generated plenty of interesting conversation. Everyone has their opinions of course, but few people disputed my reasoning. Some got to talking about who they believe are qualified to rank among the country's ten greatest drivers of all-time, which is always an amusing rumination. I find it's pretty easy to pick America's top eight or nine greatest racers but rounding out the top ten is another matter. Still, it's fun to take a stab at who's who in the sport's hundred-plus years history so as racing's second century continues to unfold here's my personal choice of the USA's top ten race drivers of all-time.

1) Mario Andretti: Almost everyone agrees that Andretti is number one. Fans and media alike voted Mario as America's greatest driver of the twentieth century and nobody has done anything in the past seven years to suggest that anyone will challenge him for many years to come, if ever. Andretti is motor racing's Mr. Diversity--F1 world champion, four-time USAC/CART champion, Indy 500 winner, Daytona 500 winner, three-time Sebring 12 hours winner, IROC champion, USAC dirt car champion and Pike's Peak winner. He also who enjoyed the longest, competitive career in the sport's history, spanning thirty-six years.

2) Dan Gurney: As documented in my Christmas column, Gurney is America's greatest overall racing man and is second only to Andretti as a driver. Dan, too, was Mr. Diversity. He was an F1 race winner as well as a car builder and team owner, an Indy car race winner, Le Mans 24 hours winner, Nurburgring 1000Ks winner, Sebring winner, five-time Riverside NASCAR winner and one of Jim Clark's greatest rivals. The only flaw in Dan's amazing record is that he never won a major championship, unless you count his 1958 USAC road racing title!

3) A.J. Foyt: The most successful Indy car driver of all-time with a record 67 wins and seven championships, Foyt was also the first man to win the Indy 500 four times. Three of those wins came with his own cars and team and his father Tony Sr. working as chief mechanic. He also won the Daytona 500, the Daytona 24 hours (twice), the Le Mans 24 hours (with Gurney), and the Sebring 12 hours. Foyt also won six other NASCAR races and raced longer than almost any other racing legend, finally retiring in 1994 when he was 59 years old. He was also a superb dirt driver and a tough but eminently fair competitor in contrast to the irascible character he became in retirement. And although he was successful in a wide range of cars, Foyt's level of diversity was no match for Andretti or Gurney.

4) Phil Hill: The 1961 F1 world champion is often underestimated, but that's only by people who don't know the sport. Hilll earned his way into F1 after a long apprenticeship in Ferrari sports cars. Before Gurney, Hill established himself as America's top Ferrari sports car driver and was recruited to drive factory sports cars for the Italian team before being promoted to the F1 team in 1958. Hill won his world championship in tragic circumstances following the death of his primary rival and teammate Wolfgang von Trips at Monza, but he also won no fewer than fourteen world championship sports car races between 1953-'67, twelve with Ferrari (including three Le Mans 24 hour wins) and two with Jim Hall's Chaparral team. Hill also scored Chaparral's only CanAm win at Laguna Seca in 1966.

5) Jimmy Murphy: He was known as the 'King of the board tracks' and was also the first American to win a Grand Prix race. Driving for the Duesenberg team, Murphy won the 1921 French GP and was the only American driver to win a Grand Prix race aboard an American car until Dan Gurney turned the trick in Belgium forty-six years later. Murphy started his career as a riding mechanic and as a driver he won fifteen AAA championship races between 1920 and '24, switching from driving Duesenbergs to Millers in 1922. Murphy won the 1922 Indy 500 in a Miller-engined Duesey and was AAA champion in 1922 and '24. He was killed in a dirt car race at Syracuse, N.Y. near the end of the 1924 season.

6) Frank Lockhart: Murphy's death robbed the world of a head-to-head duel for supremacy with the next young superstar of the great board track era. Lockhart was a California dirt track driver who won the Indy 500 in 1926 in his rookie start aboard one of Harry Miller's factory cars. Over the folllowing eighteen months Lockhart cut a glorious swath across the sport, winning nine AAA board track races between June, 1926 and October, 1927, and finishing second in the 1926 and '27 AAA championships. In May of 1927 on the 1.5-mile Atlantic City board track, Lockhart set an American closed course qualifying record of 147.729 mph which stood unchallenged until 1960! He also designed and built the incredible Stutz Black Hawk, aiming to set a new land speed record. Powered by twin, supercharged Miller straight-eights, the car set new standards for aerodynamic sleekness and Lockhart appeared capable of achieving his goal only to be kllled while driving his creation on Daytona Beach in April of 1928 when a tire blew at more than 200 mph.

7) Bobby & Al Unser: I'm going to cheat a little with the Unser brothers from Albuquerque who were the sons and nephews of a trio of racing Unser brothers from Colorado Springs. Uncle Louis won the Pike's Peak hllclimb nine times between 1934-'53 while Jerry's son Bobby and Al also dominated at the Peak. Bobby won the mountain climb ten ten times between 1956-'86 and younger brother Al won it twice in 1965 and '66. The brothers went on to win seven Indy 500s (four for Al and three for Bobby), plus five USAC/CART championships. Al is ranked fourth on the all-time Indy/Champ car winners list with 39 wins and Bobby is ranked fifth with 35 wins ahead of Al Jr. who won 31 races, including two more Indy 500s and two more CART titles for an unparalleled family record.

8) Mark Donohue: The man who made Penske Racing happen in its formative days from 1966-'75. Donohue was Penske's original number one driver and team leader. He won three TransAm championships when that series was the USA's leading tin-top series, ahead of NASCAR(!), then won the 1973 CanAm title in Penske's incredible Porsche 917/30K. Donohue also scored Penske's first Indy car victory in the 1972 Indy 500, no less, and was the first IROC champion when that series was a true international test, including top F1, Indy, Le Mans and NASCAR drivers with half the races on road courses. Donohue retired at the end of 1973 but returned a year later to race Penske's new F1 car only to be killed during the raceday morning warm-up for the 1975 Austrian GP.

9) Rick Mears: A four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time CART champion who also won at Pike's Peak, Mears personified both CART Indy car racing and Penske Racing through the eighties and into the early nineties. Mears was the smoothest, most sportsmanlike driver of his era. He was also the fastest, cleanest speedway driver of those times and represents a superb example for the entire sports world of how an athlete should comport themself--fair, good-humored, eminently sportsmanlike and blindingly fast on the quickest of racetracks. That's Rick Mears' legacy.

10) Richard Petty: To me, the first nine are pretty straightforward. But number ten is a whole different matter. There are at least two dozen famous names who deserve consideration, starting with the original superstars of AAA championship racing like Barney Oldfield, Ralph de Palma, Earl Cooper, Gaston Chevrolet and Tommy Milton. There are also mid-century AAA and USAC greats such as Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Tony Bettenhausen, Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan and Parnelli Jones. Vukovich and Bryan justifiably were legends in their own right and Jones was one of the most talented drivers anyone has ever seen. PJ could drive anything, but retired from racing Indy cars too early to win multiple Indy 500s or a championship. Finally among the open-wheel candidates are the CART stars of the eighties and nineties like Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr.

From NASCAR, there's also a strong list of contenders led by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and including David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty and Curtis Turner. For my part, I was extremely impressed with Pearson when he challenged Mark Donohue in the inaugural IROC series. Donohue tested and developed the Porsche Carrera RSRs used in the first IROC series but Pearson was able to threaten Donohue and beat all the F1 and sports car drivers. On the road courses he was smooth as silk in an unfamiliar car that was very difficult to drive on the limit. The other NASCAR star of the past thirty years who really impressed me was Cale Yarborough, a relentless bull of a driver. I will always remember how unbelievably aggressive Yarborough was in making up two lost laps to win the 1977 Daytona 500 in a Junior Johnson Chevrolet.

From 1960s and '70s-style SCCA sports car racing there's Chaparral creator and driver Jim Hall and TransAm and CanAm champion George Follmer, both of whom raced F1 cars for one year. From IMSA GTP racing in its '80s heydays there's five-time IMSA champion and Le Mans and Daytona 24 hours winner Al Holbert who stood-out as the class driver in his category. And from the Gurney/Hill era of the fifties and sixties, there was Richie Ginther an excellent sports car driver and F1 race winner who finished second in the 1963 world championship.

You can make arguments for all these excellent racers, particularly Vukovich, Jones, Pearson and Yabrorough, but none can beat the King, Richard Petty, to the final place in America's pantheon of all-time greats. After all, Petty won 200 NASCAR races, a record in all forms of racing, and his seven championships are equalled only by A.J. Foyt in USAC, Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR and Michael Schumacher in F1. Beyond that, Petty was the first NASCAR driver to make a mark in America's mainstream mass market culture. In the late '60s and throughout the '70s, King Richard defined NASCAR and helped establish modern stock car racing in the wake of the formative, Junior Johnson-style whiskey-running days. Without Richard Petty, the rise of his 1980s and '90s heir Dale Earnhardt would not have been possible. Long before Earnhardt, the King built NASCAR's foundation.

The remarkable thing about this walk down memory lane is the stark realization that we are living today in a Lilliputian world of motor racing where, as King Richard himself says, entertainment and marketing rule rather than racing as we once knew it. All but three of my top ten drivers are alive and kicking today and raced into the modern era. Yet in the first decade of the 21st century real diversity in the manner of Andretti and Gurney has been removed from the sport and there's only one American who has earned the right to be a called a great driver.

Jeff Gordon is a four-time NASCAR champion who stands out from the crowd of modern American racing superstars, but even Gordon has a long way to go to equal the accomplishments of my top ten. Outside testing an F1 Williams-BMW, his record of diversity beyond NASCAR is slim at best. In fact, incredibly, the Rolex 24 at the end of this month will be Gordon's sports car racing debut! The only other contemporary American racer who has the potential to make his way over time into the grand pantheon is two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart whose record of diversity is broader than Gordon's. But Stewart has an even longer road ahead of him if he's ever to break into the legion of true greats.

It will be interesting to see if any contemporary drivers will be able to emerge from the pack over the next ten or twenty years to claim places among the sport's greatest racers. Yet looking at the facts, it seems highly unlikely that any of my current top ten will be dislodged by a driver from the 21st century for generations to come, if ever. Whatever conclusions you may wish to draw, there's no doubt that the greats from the past century established some awfully high standards for today's racers to shoot at.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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