Ask Donald Davidson: The most dominant car at Indy

Published On December 17, 2014 » 3071 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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What was the most dominant car of all time to compete in the “500”? – Sam_Beishuizen, via Twitter

Although there were a couple of cars that led more laps, I would say that over the long haul, the Boyle Maserati, which carried Wilbur Shaw to victory in 1939 and 1940 and appeared well on its way to a third in succession in 1941 when a wire wheel collapsed at lap 152 while Shaw was two laps ahead. Ted Horn drove the car to finishes of third, third and fourth between 1946-48 and Lee Wallard led from laps 36 until 54 when it broke down while leading in 1949. During its career, it led a total of 387 laps: 51 in 1939; 136 in 1940 and 107 in 1941 (each with Shaw), 74 with Horn in 1948, and finally 19 with Wallard in 1949.

The Boyle Maserati powered Wilbur Shaw to two wins (1939 pictured) and Ted Horn to three top-fours (1946 pictured).

The Boyle Maserati powered Wilbur Shaw to two wins (1939 pictured) and Ted Horn to three top-fours (1946 pictured).

In terms of “laps led” as opposed to finishes, there were two others that were even more dominant than that, but over a much shorter period. The first would be the Phil Sommers-built Miller, which Harry Hartz fielded for Billy Arnold between 1930-32. Hartz had planned to drive the car himself, but realized he had not sufficiently recovered from a very serious accident on the board track at Salem, New Hampshire, in 1927. Both Arnold and Ralph Hepburn drove the car during practice as potential relief drivers, but after Hartz waved off a qualifying run because his leg was hurting so badly, he turned the car over to the 24-year-old Arnold.

The Chicago youngster proceeded to win the pole and lead every single circuit from Lap 3 on, staying out in front the rest of the way and being five laps ahead when he took the checkered. He won the pole again in 1931 at 113 mph but the run was disallowed because of a technical infraction; he started 18th. It took him less than eight laps to get to the front and he was five laps ahead of the field when he was involved in an accident after having led continuously from Lap 7 to 161. In 1932, still with the same car, he qualified second, took over the lead on the second lap and was far ahead when he swerved to avoid a spinning car on his 60th Lap, hitting the wall, and actually vaulting completely over the top. Of the 420 laps the amazing Arnold completed during that three-year period, he led for 410, an average of almost 98 percent. As dominant as Bill Vukovich would be 20 years later, not even he could match that percentage, his 1952-54 record with the Howard Keck-owned Kurtis-Kraft “roadster” being 476 laps led out of 591 completed for an average of just over 80 percent. Just for the record, Vukovich led 150 of 191 laps completed in 1952; 195 out of 200 in 1953, and 90 out of 200 in 1954.

Of all the 4-time winners, who has the least number of laps led, i.e. taking the lead late in a race and winning? – Arch Grieve Jr., via Facebook

If you mean somebody taking over the lead for the final time on their fourth win, then that would be Rick Mears, on Lap 188 in 1991. The other two – A.J. Foyt in 1977 and Al Unser in 1987 – went to the front for the final time on Laps 185 and 183 respectively, Al’s final segment being the only time he led that year, those 18 laps being the fewest by any four-time winner in any of their wins. On the other side of the coin, Al also has the most number of laps led by a four-time winner in any of their wins: 190 out of 200 in 1970. The latest in the race at which any of them took the lead for the final time in any of their winning years was when Foyt took over on Lap 198 in 1961. He almost matched that six years later when his final pass for the lead came on Lap 197.

The only laps Al Unser led in winning his fourth "500" in 1987 were the last 18.

The only laps Al Unser led in winning his fourth “500” in 1987 were the last 18.

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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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