Ask Donald Davidson: From last to first, and former winners in the ‘500’

Published On September 23, 2015 » 1911 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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Has anyone finished last in a “500” one year and won the following year? – DienhartKerry, via Twitter

While there are a number of drivers who have finished both first and last during their “500” career, the only person to go from last to first in consecutive years was Mario Andretti who placed 33rd in 1968 and then won in 1969. This was during the brief period when Mario was a car entrant, with Firestone having stepped in after the death of Al Dean to ensure that all of the equipment and co-chiefs Clint Brawner and Jim McGee would stay together. They landed Overseas National Airways as sponsor and ran two cars in the “500”: Mario in a brand new Eddie Kuzma creation, and a friend of his, sprint car racing standout Larry Dickson, in the Brawner Hawk which Mario had qualified for the pole in 1967. Dickson’s understanding from the beginning was that if Mario ran into car trouble, he (Dickson) would be obliged to come in and hand over, this being the last year in which drivers could split points for shared drives. No sooner had the race started than Mario was out of it, starting fourth but burning a piston after only two laps. Dickson dutifully came in to hand over but Mario only got in another 10 laps before the Hawk burned a piston as well, Mario thus ending up 33rd, plus 28th as a relief driver. Rather than go through all of the trials and tribulations of 1969, suffice to say that Mario ended up as the winner, the only person to date who has gone from last to first in consecutive years.

In the 1968 Indianapolis 500, Mario Andretti's car retired after two laps. The next year's race was considerably better.

In the 1968 Indianapolis 500, Mario Andretti’s car retired after two laps. The next year’s race was considerably better.

A.J. Foyt managed to win the 1967 race after having completed zero laps in 1966, being one of 11 competitors whose cars were eliminated in a huge accident coming down for the start. The final finishing order for the 11 was based on their starting positions, Foyt therefore being awarded 26th in spite of not even reaching Turn 1.

There are also several drivers who won without having even been in the lineup the previous year. The obvious ones are the first-time starters Ray Harroun (1911), Jules Goux (1913), Rene Thomas (1914), Frank Lockhart (1926), George Souders (1927), Louis Meyer (1928), Graham Hill (1966), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000) and Helio Castroneves (2001). The others are Ralph DePalma, who qualified in 1914 but withdrew because of excessive engine vibration and then won the next year, and Al Unser, who suffered a broken leg in a motorcycle accident during May 1969 and then won in 1970.

Aside from the first race and the second, how many “500s” have been run without a former winner in the field? – Mark Faust, via Facebook

In addition to the first two years, there was also 1913, 1915 and 1916.

In 1913, Ray Harroun was retired and Joe Dawson was unable to qualify an experimental car called the Deltal. By 1915, Dawson had joined Harroun in retirement, while Frenchmen Jules Goux and Rene Thomas (winners in 1913 and 1914) were both in military uniform, serving their country during the early stages of WWI by chauffeuring generals around near the front. The situation was the same in 1916, but with a fifth driver, Ralph DePalma, also on the sidelines, the 1915 winner having decided that his participation should be worth an appearance fee to the tune of $5,000, a considerable amount for the time. Track president Carl Fisher refused to pay it, believing that to comply would have set a terrible precedent. The defiant DePalma stood firm and so did Fisher, the closing date passing by with no entry from the defending winner. DePalma then sought a post entry, which Fisher ignored at first but then said he would accept providing DePalma could obtain a waiver from all of the entrants who had beat the deadline. At least one declined – believed to be DePalma’s old nemesis Barney Oldfield – and so DePalma was left on the outside looking in, management’s policy against the payment of appearance money clearly made.

From 1919 to date, there has always been at least one former winner in the field.

Ralph DePalma won the 1915 "500" but failed to defend the title after a failed try for appearance money.

Ralph DePalma won the 1915 “500” but failed to defend the title after a failed try for appearance money.

IUPUI’s ‘500’ history class upcoming at Speedway High

The fall version of IUPUI’s very popular twice-a-year Indianapolis 500 history course with instructor Donald Davidson will be held in the Speedway High School’s cafeteria over four Tuesday nights in October. The dates for the four two-hour sessions (7-9 p.m.) are Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27. The fee is $99. Interested parties may register at http://www.iupui.edu/~solctr/  For further information please call 317-278-9701 or e-mail sbeeson@iupui.edu.

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About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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