Commentary

Indy 500 Field of the Century: Row 7

Updated: May 27, 2011, 12:26 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

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Today we really start to rock and roll. Our seventh row includes a Scottish legend many Europeans and a lot of Americans swear was the best racing driver who ever lived, on the inside. The most aggressive lap leader never to win the 500 starts in the middle, and outside sits a little French Canadian who finished second, then first, then left Indy for keeps at age 24 and never looked back.


Jim Clark

19. Jim Clark

Indy 500 starts: Five
Best finish (year): First (1965)
Laps led: 298

It took the Flying Scot three tries to establish a beachhead for the British Invasion, but when he did win, in 1965, he and his rear-engine Lotus Ford were simply overwhelming. He led 190 laps.

That first Indy win by a rear-engine car turned out to be the death knell for traditional front-engine roadsters, which would never win the 500 again.

Just how important was the presence of Clark to the image of Indy as the Olympus of world motor racing? He is widely considered the greatest Formula One driver of all time. In recent years he was recognized by The Times of London as the best ever in F1, beating out even Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.

Clark returned to Indy in '66 and finished second to a fellow Briton and F1 star Englishman Graham Hill, who drove home the point for the Lotus Fords. Clark's fifth and final start at Indy, in 1967, was the only one in which he led no laps. Piston failure knocked him out of the race and he wound up 31st.

He never made it back. On April 7, 1968, a month before practice was to open at Indy, Clark was killed at Hockenheim, Germany, in -- of all things -- a Formula Two race. Reportedly he was fulfilling contractual obligations to Firestone.



Michael Andretti

20. Michael Andretti

Indy 500 starts: 16
Best finish (year): Second (1991)
Laps led: 431

Led the most laps of any non-500 winner in history and displaced his father, Mario, as the living epitome of heartbreak at Indy. At least Mario won it once.

Just when it seemed it couldn't get any gloomier for Michael than 1991 -- he led with 12 laps to go, then lost one of Indy's classic duels ever, with Rick Mears -- came the awful day in '92.

That was by far the most tragic Indy 500 for the Andretti family. First his younger brother, Jeff, and then his father suffered severe foot and leg injuries in crashes. But as the race went on, Michael dominated, bound -- it surely seemed -- to make the day bittersweet.

As Mario and Jeff were transported to a hospital downtown, nobody could catch Michael on the track, or even come close.

"Only God can stop Michael now," a Sports Illustrated writer reported to the managing editor in New York.

Then with 11 laps to go, "silence," Michael has recalled since. "Nothing." That was what he heard in the cockpit after a little belt on the fuel pump had broken, bringing his car to a stop in the infield grass.



Jacques Villeneuve

21. Jacques Villeneuve

Indy 500 starts: Two
Best finish (year): First (1995)
Laps led: 22

Many purists believe Villeneuve won the last truly great Indy 500, the year before the split. If that's so, he had the greatest final flourish in the history of the race.

He finished second his rookie year, 1994, won in his second year, and then he was gone -- off to Formula One, where he would win the world championship of 1997 in a showdown with the supposedly invincible Michael Schumacher.

The son of late F1 star Gilles Villeneuve came virtually out of nowhere to become rookie of the year at Indy in '94. To win in '95, he had to come back from nowhere -- from a two-lap penalty, the stiffest penalty any driver had ever overcome in the 500.

But after being nailed for not properly falling in behind the pace car early in the race, Villeneuve unlapped twice as his team owner, Barry Green, kept repeating on the radio, "Soldier on, Jacques. Soldier on, mate."

Villeneuve has declined to return to Indy in recent years, even though he's been out of F1 since 2006. His reasoning is that IndyCar racing has fallen woefully behind NASCAR in prestige in the U.S.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.