Commentary

Indy 500 Field of the Century: Row 3

Updated: May 27, 2011, 12:23 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Wilbur ShawAP PhotoWilbur Shaw may be best known as a driver who won the Indianapolis 500 three times. He should be even better known as the man who saved the race and Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.

All-Time Rows: Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Social Pioneers

Our third row includes a three-time winner who wound up saving the Indy 500, the most renowned hard-luck front-runner of the 1960s, and a pioneer who was there from Day One and became Indy's first long-term star.


Wilbur Shaw

7. Wilbur Shaw

Indy 500 starts: 13
Best finish (years): First (1937, '39, '40 )
Laps led: 508

Far and away the hottest four-year driving streak in 500 history -- three wins and a second-place in four years -- was Shaw's most visible, but second-greatest, contribution to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Clearly and certainly, there would be no Indy 500 today, and no Indianapolis Motor Speedway, if Shaw hadn't saved them from the indifference of Eddie Rickenbacker during World War II.

Rickenbacker may have been a World War I flying ace, but he was no hero to the 500 tradition. As track owner, he was letting the place fall apart and intended to have it demolished to make way for a subdivision.

Shaw, whose third win had come in 1940 and who had been injured in 1941, the last race before the war, absolutely refused to let Indy die. He found a buyer, Tony Hulman of Terre Haute, who paid Rickenbacker $750,000 for the track in 1945.

Hulman ever since has been known as the savior of Indy. But although he provided the money, he acknowledged many times that the man who did the work to bring back the Indy 500, bigger and better than ever, was Wilbur Shaw.



Parnelli Jones

8. Parnelli Jones

Indy 500 starts: Seven
Best finish (year): First (1963)
Laps led: 492

Born in Arkansas, Rufus Parnell Jones as a child was part of the great Dust Bowl migration of heartland Americans to California. There, driving as "Parnelli" so his parents wouldn't find out he was racing, he began a career that would leave him as one of the resounding names for the ages at Indy.

He is probably more famous for a 500 he lost, in 1967, than the one he won, in 1963.

Parnelli was an instant star at Indy, and not just because of the name. His rookie year, '61, he led 27 laps. In '62, he won the pole by becoming the first driver to crack the 150 mph barrier (150.374). He led 120 laps before a brake line failure left him seventh.

He followed through on his domination in '63, starting on the pole with a speed of 151.150, leading 167 laps and winning.

But his '67 loss may be the most legendary in Indy history. After he led an astounding 171 laps in Andy Granatelli's turbine car, a small bearing broke with four laps to go. That heartbreak left Granatelli muttering in the pits, "What does it take to win this race?" and Parnelli done with the 500 for keeps -- retired.



Ralph DePalma

9. Ralph DePalma

Indy 500 starts: 10
Best finish (year): First (1915)
Laps led: 612

Indy's first long-term star, first fan favorite and first notoriously hard-luck driver was there from Day One in 1911 and was a mainstay through 1925. His 612 laps led, in only 10 races, remain second on the all-time list to the 644 of Al Unser, who started 27 races.

In 1912, in the second Indy 500, DePalma led for 196 laps before a cracked piston with two laps to go dropped him to a 12th-place finish. To make matters worse, you had to complete all 200 laps to collect any prize money in those days, so he and his riding mechanic had to push their Mercedes across the line.

In the fifth 500 and his fourth Indy start, DePalma dominated again, leading 132 laps, but this time his Mercedes stayed the distance and he won. He led 108 laps in a French Ballot in 1921, but a broken connecting rod ruined his day.

An Italian immigrant who grew up in Southern California, DePalma was typically versatile for the drivers of the time. In 1919 at Daytona Beach, he set a world speed record of 149.875 mph. In 1921 he drove in what was then the French Grand Prix at Le Mans and finished second.

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