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Mark's DREAM
Indy Pole Day, 2009...BPS Photo by BURZY
Indy Pole Day, 2009...BPS Photo by BURZY
April 28th 2011 - MY DREAM 33

By: Mark W. Theisen
WEST BEND, WI April 26, 2011:

In order to encourage more fan involvement with this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500, the 100th anniversary of the first race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway created the fan generated “Dream 33”. Indy 500 race fans and racing fans in general could enter a contest naming their 33 all-time favorite drivers starting with the pole position, their favorite, and so on down the line until the normal field off 33 starters is filled.

With over 730 drivers having raced in the 500 the Speedway and their advisory board came up with 100 names to choose from to make up your 33 favorite rather than having the field open to all the drivers.

When I got wind of the initial contest it was without the “100” stipulation and I thought this was a great idea and had my mind racing. In the days following the announcement I quickly had my initial 33 written down and began to go over them and the entire field to make sure I did not miss any one. When the “100” names came out I found that my 33 were all on that list so I could see that the Speedway was heading in the right direction when they made the voting a bit easier.

The contest officially closes on Friday of this week. I did not enter the contest via the Speedway website because of being a media member but I want to share with the readers of Bronco’s Pit Stop my “Dream 33” before the Speedway publishes their list.

Let me begin with a brief review of my Indy 500 history. I saw my first 500 in 1957, at the age of 10 and won by Sam Hanks. I would miss the 1969 and 1970 races while in the U.S. Army and miss the 1995 500 while my father was recovering from major surgery. I have attended every other one in person. I became a credentialed member of the media covering the race in 1972 and joined in Indianapolis 500 Mile Old Timers Club when my 20 years as a media participant in the race passed.

In developing my “Dream 33” I not only considered on track results but contributions made before and after their active racing days were over to the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself. The Speedway and race hold a deep meaning to me and those that share that meaning and perpetuate it are the nuclei for my “Dream 33”.

Over the years several names became synonymous with the 500 to me. Most notably: Anton “Tony” Hulman, A.J. Foyt, Roger Penske, the Unser Family, Johnny Rutherford, Al Bloemker and Wilbur Shaw.

Hulman, Penske and Bloemker never raced but were and are pivotal figures in my book at Indianapolis and could not be listed in the “33” but should be mentioned and I will elaborate on why as I go along.

Of all the drivers that raced in the 500, and in my opinion, only one driver could start the Dream 500 on the pole and that is Foyt. For 35 years Foyt “lived and breathed” for Indianapolis. He was a rookie in l957 and the group of people that I attended the race pointed out that this was a driver to watch; four years later he won the first of his four Indy 500’s

He began his career driving for others but he and his father Tony would become a force to be reckoned with building their own competitive races car and being in contention race in and race out

Foyt started 35 Indy 500’s, won 4 times, had 4 pole positions, finished in the top 3 nine times, the top 6 12 times and started from the front row on 8 occasions. Foyt led the 500 in 13 different years and had 555 laps as a race leader when he retired.

Foyt’s love affair for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 continues to this day. He has entered cars in each year since he retired and this year is no different. In 1999 Kenny Brack gave Foyt his “fifth” 500 win but this time as an owner and a jubilant Foyt was equally excited as was Brack in victory circle following the race.

Foyt’s gritty demeanor and often rash reactions did not endear him to many of the fans but no one can ever question his desire and determination to excel and win at Indy each and every time out and for that he is the pole position winner in my “Dream” field.

Starting alongside Foyt in my lineup is Shaw. I never got to see him race as his 3 wins came in 1937, 1939 and 1940 long before my time. He raced in 13 500’s never starting from the pole but did finish in the top 3 four times, the top 6 six times with 2 front row starting positions. Shaw led the race 6 different years and totaled 322 laps at the front of the field.

So why give a driver that I never saw race the next best starting spot, it is because I feel that the 500 would never have reached the plateau it has without Shaw. The track was closed for racing during World War II and fell into huge disrepair and its owner Eddie Rickenbacker could not afford to fix the place up when the war ended. Shaw, whose love of the 500 was on par with Foyt – only earlier - went to Indiana businessman, Hulman and convinced him that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a good investment and a future money maker. Hulman paid $750,000 for the track and along with Shaw and a very savvy public relations man, Bloemker, began to put the track, the race and Indianapolis on the tongue tips of every racing fan in the country in the years that followed.

Under their tutelage the track was remodeled, step by step, over the years as could be afforded and the 500 earned the name, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in the years to come. Shaw, like Foyt was a winner on and off the track and he perpetuated the 500 for years to come.

If I could insert Penske, I would do so now. Fueled by a life long love of the 500 his cars and drivers have won the race 15 times. Penske, like Foyt and Shaw lives for Indy. Penske, a highly successful businessman turned his racing successes into success in the rest of his endeavors but his desire to keep winning the 500 burns just as bright today as it did when Mark Donohue won the 500 in 1972 giving Penske his first of the 15 Indy 500 wins.

So my number three staring spot will go to the driver that won his fourth 500 for Penske, Al Unser Sr. Unser Sr won in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987. His 644 race leading laps are still the benchmark that all other drivers are striving for. He started 27 500’s, one from the pole, had 11 top 3 finishes, 13 top 6 finishes and led at least one lap in 11 500’s. The Unser family at Indianapolis is on the same level as that of Foyt. Al’s brother Bobby won three times and his son Al Jr won twice.

It was not always joy for the Unser family at Indy. Al Sr. and Bobby’s brother Jerry was the first Unser to race at Indy and did so in 1958 being remembered for being involved in a crash that sent him over the third turn wall. He escaped from that crash unhurt but tragically died in 1959 at the Speedway practicing for that year’s race.

My second row has four time winner Rick Mears on the pole. Mears won all four of his races in cars owned by Penske and probably could have won more as he retired while in his “prime”. He still works for Penske to this day and tutors all of Penske’s drivers. His knowledge of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has helped many Penske drivers achieve stardom at Indy.

Mario Andretti is on the middle of the second row. Winning once in 29 starts at Indy Mario never really had “lady luck” on his side at the track. His 556 laps led is one more than Foyt. Mario led in 11 different races won the pole three times but was unable to close the deal as many times as Foyt, Unser Sr., or Mears. Mario’s son, Michael inherited his luck at Indianapolis as well but has become a strong team owner and has won the race as an owner but never as a driver.

Mario’s grandson Marco was leading the 2006 500 just inches from the start finish line when Sam Hornish Jr. came roaring by to post his only 500 win. The Andretti legacy was and continues to be an integral part of the 500.

Rutherford completes my second row. The personable Texan was my first interview as a journalist covering a major auto race and he was as courteous to the “cub” reporter filled with inane questions and nervousness as he could be. I was filled with trepidation but he made my job easy. I will never forget that experience or the fact that he won the 500 three times in 24 starts. Rutherford won the pole position three times, was in the top 3 4 times, the top six f9ve times and led 296 laps in the race. He led the race in five different years.

Rutherford is still a part of the Indy Racing League as its pace car driver and he and his wife Betty are staunch supporters of the Old Timer’s Club and many events associated with the 500 each and every year.

Bobby Unser sits on the inside of row three with his three wins in 19 starts, leading the race in 10 different years for a total of 440 laps. You still him yearly at the track doing his part to keep the legacy of the race intact.

Starting next to Bobby Unser is a driver that did not win the 500 but is one who left his mark on the track and in the memory of so many 500 fans, Tony Bettenhausen. Bettenhausen started 14 500’s with only one top 3 finish and three top sixes. He led once for 24 laps and tragically died at the Speedway in 1961 while setting up a car for a fellow Paul Russo, a life long friend and on-track rival. His legacy includes his three racing sons, Gary, Tony Jr., and Merle. Gary tried to fulfill his father’s dream of winning the 500 but in 21 starts he could do no better than 3rd in 1980. When people talk about 500 history the Bettenhausen name is always at the forefront.

Billy Vukovich occupies the outside of the third row. In his second year at the track, 1952, Vukovich led the 500 for 150 laps before a steering gear failure put him out of the race on the 192nd lap. He came back to win the next two years, 1953 and 1954 and was 17 seconds ahead of the field on the 57th lap of the 1955 race when a multi-car accident, not of his doing happened in front of him. Vukovich or “Vuky” hit one of the errant cars and became airborne and landed on his head killing him instantly. In his entirely too short a career at Indy he led an astounding 71% of the laps he competed and holds the mark of leading the most laps in the 500 for three consecutive years.

One can only “dream” of what “Vuky” would have amassed at Indy had he the career length of a Foyt, Unser or Andretti. His legacy at Indy: His son Bill Jr. would finish second in l973 while great-grandson Bill III was rookie of the year at the track in 1988. Obviously I never saw “Vuky” race but the films his prowess at Indy are what legends are made of.

Row 4 has Louie Meyer a three time winner with yet another three time winner Maurie Rose alongside him and the row is completed with Troy Ruttman on the outside of the row. I never got the chance to see any of these three drivers in action at Indy but each left their footprint on the race and the track most notably that of Meyer, who was the first to win the race three times, and then purchased the engine building business from Fred Offenhauser. Meyer than partnered with Dale Drake and his sons to build engines that won 15 different Indy 500’s in the yeas following.

Row 5 has Roger Ward, Helio Castroneves and Tommy Milton. Ward the 500 twice for Milwaukee businessman Bob Wilke and ha remarkable run in Wilke’s car nearly winning on two other occasions as well. The future is very bright for Castroneves. He is the favorite for this year’s race, a win that would give him 4 in just 10 years. Driving for Penske, Castroneves came to Indianapolis under the tutelage Penske and Mears and quickly adapted to the track. He has 5 top 3’s, 6 top sixes and has won the pole 4 times. When they talk about the first 5 time winner of the 500 it is about this driver. He will undoubtedly move up the list in the years to come but he is talked about in the same terms as “Vuky”. Milton won twice on the early years of the 500, 1921 and 1923 and was the events first two time winner. He would go on to become chief steward of the race in 1949 under the Shaw/Hulman ear and would retire in 1957 due to health issues.

Row 6 has Al Unser Jr., Gordon Johncock and Arie Luyendyk, all two – time winners of the race. Al Jr. continues to be involved in racing today as an official with the Indy Racing League. Johncock competed in 24 500’s, leading 4 of them but is best known for winning the “longest 500” in 1973. That race saw rain and accidents extend the race from Memorial Day, Monday, until Wednesday, and even then it could not go the full distance, being red-flagged at 133 laps with Johncock winning his first. He came back to edge Mears in 1982 buy .16/100ths of a second.

Luyendyk won his first 500 driving for Provimi Veal, a Wisconsin company in 1990 and won again in 1997. He holds the fastest qualifying lap and four lap average at the track.

Row 7 has Emerson Fittapaldi, Tom Sneva and Jim Rathman. Fittapaldi is remembered for touching Al Unser Jr., in 1989 spinning him out and then going on for the unpopular win. He raced 11 times at Indy and led 7 of those races for a total of 505 laps. He was another of Penske’s top drivers. Sneva, known as the “gas man” to fans of the 500 in the 60’s and 70’s when qualifications were as much as a highlight as the race itself. Sneva broke several speed levels at the track and is also remembered for a spectacular accident in 1975 that saw his car touch wheels with another car, become airborne, and hit the catch fence to be torn in two. He walked away from that crash to win the 1983 race after finishing second in three different years in the race. Rathman edged Ward in 1960 for his only 500 win in 14 start6s. He led 6 different 500’s for a total of 153 laps.

Row 8 has Parnelli Jones, Dario Franchitti and Lloyd Ruby. Jones, who won in 1963 for the legendary car owner J.C. Agajanian but is most remembered for his 1968 entry the radical turbine engine car of Andy Granatelli. The “whooshmobile” as it was termed back then was the dominant car in 1968 until a $6.00 engine bearing in the turbine failed giving the race to Bobby Unser. There was no “fence” sitting when it came to the turbine at Indy. Fans either liked it or not. Granatelli returned with turbines again only to face a similar result and then the cars were eventually legislated out of racing by the sanctioning body of the time, the United Stares Auto Club. Franchitti is building his legacy along with Castroneves. Winning twice in a span of three years Franchitti is posed to begin his assent up the ladder in the dream lineup in the years to come. Ruby is one of those Indy stories of try, try and try but never win. He had great cars in his 18 starts but no luck at all and was shut of victory circle but not out of the memory of the fans of his era... He was always at front just never able to win the race.

Row 9 has Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Donohue. All three were champions where ever they raced and in whatever car they drove. Clark’s win was the fist at Indy in a rear engine car that was very painful for the faithful followers of the 500at the time to accept after watching the roadster in action for ever... Coupled with the fact that he was from Britain was not easy to swallow as well but none-the-less his win was historical in that it changed forever the type of car that raced at Indy. Hill followed up Clark’s 1965 win with a win in 1966 to make it two in a row for drivers from Britain. Donohue’s results were noted earlier in the story.

Row 10 has Rex Mays, Danny Sullivan and Juan Pablo Montoya. I never saw Mays race but was very interested in his career after the Indy Car race in Milwaukee bore his name for many years. Mays started four of his 12 500’s from the pole with a best finish of second, twice, in 1940 and 1942. Mays dies in a crash in California in 1949 after winning the AAA National Driving Championship in 1940 and 1941 that included wins at Milwaukee and thus became a favorite track for him and a solid fan base that led to the race being named in his honor for many years. Yet another of Penske’s drivers, Sullivan won the 1985 500 after doing a complete 360 degree spin in the second chute, recovering from the spin after not striking anything and going on to a very memorable win in the 500. Sullivan, to this day, is in Indy for the race and promotes it whenever possible. Montoya gave car owner Chip Ganassi his first 500 win and was a’ “natural” when it came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was smooth and took to the track well. Formula One and NASCAR beckoned and took Montoya away from what could have been several more wins at the track.

Row 11 has Brack, Johnnie Parsons and Hanks to complete my “Dream 33”. I can not forget the determination of Brack to get back to racing after a dreadful accident and injury and then to celebrate with Foyt in victory lane. Parsons, won in 1950 and left a legacy of a son that qualified for 11 500’s in 23 attempts and Hanks has to be the one round out my grid. I not only remember watching him win the 500 in my first visit to the race I remember listeinign to public address system while he was in victory lane where he announced his retirement. Incredibly over half of the field of that 1957 500 field died while racing in the yeas to come and only after learning of that somber statistic did I realize how astute Hanks was at the time. He left on a high note.

This was an incredibly fun project. I know I have left out many of your favorites but this was to be a fun effort and it was. I hope you enjoyed.