The almost-legends of the Indy 500

Published On May 7, 2016 » 3633 Views» By John Schwarb » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

In this space for the last 10 Saturdays, we’ve discussed the greatest legends of the Indianapolis 500. You know them all by first names or a nickname: A.J., Rocket Rick, Al, Helio, Lone Star JR, et al. They won, and won again.

But then there were the drivers who piled up runner-ups and/or top fives or otherwise had sure wins fall through their fingertips. Oh, to imagine what could have been.

Here’s a glance at a few of those almost-legends, in alphabetical order. Because it can be hard to rank heartbreak.

Marco Andretti came off Turn 4 of the final lap in the lead. But he didn't end the race that way.

Marco Andretti came off Turn 4 of the final lap in the lead. But he didn’t end the race that way.

Marco Andretti: You knew the Andretti name would be on this list. Marco is amassing a close-but-no-cigar career similar to his father, starting in 2006 when he led Laps 198 and 199, only to see Sam Hornish Jr. catch him just before the checkered flag. He’s had three thirds and a fourth since, giving him five top-four finishes in 10 starts. But with a clear knack for the oval, there’s still time to get off future incarnations of this list.

Michael Andretti: The Andretti curse is so well-known that it has its own Wikipedia page, and though Mario was the original source of so much oh-so-close agony, Michael claimed plenty of his own. In 1988, he blew an engine late while leading, in 1991 he finished second after failing to reel in Rick Mears, and in 1992 his car let go with 11 laps remaining after he had led 160 of the previous 189. No one has led more laps at Indy over a career – 431 – without winning.

Scott Goodyear: If a few twists of fate went his way, the Canadian could have had at least one and maybe three victories. He lost by .043 of a second to Al Unser Jr. in 1992 (still a record), lost in 1995 after passing the Pace Car in the closing laps, then finished second to teammate Arie Luyendyk in 1997 after a botched restart. Tough to swallow.

Scott Goodyear was that close to Little Al.

Scott Goodyear was that close to Little Al.

Roberto Guerrero: Fifteen years before Juan Pablo Montoya scored his first win, another Colombian was in the hunt multiple times with finishes of second, third, fourth, second in his first four “500” starts. But that runner-up to Al Unser in 1987 would be his last lead-lap finish in a 15-race career at Indy.

Dan Gurney: In the last three starts of his nine-race Indy career, Gurney finished second-second-third. “And the surprise about Gurney is that he only led two laps,” IMS Historian Donald Davidson adds. “That’s really amazing. He was a stand-on-the-gas guy, he wasn’t a cruise-and-collect. But it doesn’t show in those (career) stats.”

Harry Hartz: The mechanic that longed to be a driver got his shot in 1922, qualifying second and finishing second. Then he did it again in 1923. After a pair of fourths in 1924-25, Hartz finished second yet again in 1926. No other driver has finished second three times without a win.

JR Hildebrand: All that was left to immortality for the rookie in 2011 was one final turn. But lapped traffic forced Hildebrand to move just enough that he got loose and into the wall, allowing Dan Wheldon to scoot by. Fans sitting in Turn 4 will never forget it.

Ted Horn: For nine consecutive races from 1936-48 (war years excepted), the Cincinnati-born driver finished second, third, fourth, fourth, fourth, third, third, third, fourth. Tremendously consistent, yet unfortunately unmemorable to everyone but the most ardent “500” historians.

Rex Mays: After Michael Andretti on the list of all-time lap leaders without a win is Mays, with 266 over nine different races. Only Al Unser, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves — all winners — led in a greater number of Indy 500s. He finished second in back-to-back years in 1940 and ’41, and is one of the top qualifiers in Indy history with four poles and seven front row starts in all.

Jack McGrath: The Southern California native once called “King of the Hot Rods” was a force at Indy in the early-to-mid 1950s, with a fifth and two thirds, the last coming in 1954 after starting on the pole. Bill Vukovich won that year, then in 1955 the two had a spirited early battle before McGrath had a failure on his car after 54 laps. Vukovich would perish in a crash just a couple laps later.

Vitor Meira: Fans know that Dan Wheldon won in 2005 and a rookie named Danica Patrick finished fourth, but who was second? Yes, the soft-spoken Brazilian. And then he was second again in 2008, to Scott Dixon.

Lloyd Ruby: The Texan was a fan favorite and fan of many of the drivers, and he led 126 laps over five different races with a top finish of third in 1964 and a handful of “what-could-have-beens.” His biography was titled “Lloyd Ruby: The Greatest Driver Never to Win the Indy 500,” and while that may not be exactly true, he’s for sure in the picture.

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About The Author

John Schwarb

I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway communications team in July 2014 and love sharing stories from the World Capital of Racing, particularly its rich history. Most of my professional career has been in racing or golf, so if I'm not in the IMS media center, the office at 16th and Georgetown or milling around Gasoline Alley, maybe I'll be standing over a birdie putt at Brickyard Crossing. Follow us at @IMS or drop me a line at @JohnSchwarb and come back to the blog often for more stories.
2 comments
JonMickley
JonMickley

I would opine you left of an iconic "never won the 500" name.  Eddie Sachs, the "Clown Prince" of Indy.  May he RIP.

RyanProgin
RyanProgin

JR Hildebrand. 2011 was my first IndyCar race and pre-race the National Guard gave out some sweet posters and hats for JR. Since my dad was a career soldier, I decided that the #4 National Guard car would gain my support.

Sitting in Turn 2, I couldn't believe my choice was going to win... and then I heard a collective noise from the crowd and realized JR hit Turn 4 and lost the victory.

Obviously I was not there to witness other spectacular near victories, but as an IndyCar supporter, because of that 2011 race, I will always remember that one moment.

This year will be my 6th consecutive Indy500 and my 8th overall attended race (2× Pocono500). I could have cared less about IndyCar in 2011 and I wasn't sure I wanted to go to the Indy500... but now I can't wait for May!