Commentary

Indy 500 Field of the Century: Row 1

Updated: May 27, 2011, 12:21 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

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Our Front Row of the Century, which leads the field into all-time greatness for the past 100 years at Indy, includes two towering, tragic examples of vast potential lost. But on the pole sits the man who fulfilled his potential, who in many ways is the Indy 500, and who is still tough enough to rule the Brickyard to this day.


A.J. Foyt

1. A.J. Foyt

Indy 500 starts: 35
Best finish (years): First (1961, '64, '67, '77)
Laps led: 555

So this young race driver gets killed about halfway through the Indy 500, see, and he goes straight to heaven.

St. Peter greets the kid and says, "C'mon. I'll take you to our racetrack."

"You got a racetrack here?" says the kid. "Man, this place is great!"

They get out there and right away, wheeeeeYOW! This red car flashes by, leading the race. Next lap the red car comes by again and the kid can see its number, 14, and the guy in the cockpit is wearing a red helmet with a Valvoline logo above the visor.

"Geeez," says the kid. "I didn't know HE was here. It must have just happened. When I left Indy a few minutes ago, he was leading the race down there."

"No, no, you don't understand," says St. Peter. "That's God. He just THINKS he's A.J. Foyt."

It is said that all great humor is based somewhat in the truth.

Thus that old Gasoline Alley joke is in the spirit of the truth about A.J. Foyt at Indy.

For fully half of the 500's hundred-year history, Foyt has been the embodiment of the event. And not just with the flawless driving -- "Foyt never made a mistake," legendary broadcaster Chris Economaki once said of his prime -- that made him the 500's first four-time winner.

Even more, Foyt has been the walking, talking, snorting, cussing, raging, hammer-slinging story of what this race has always been about: guts, fury, danger, survival, tragedy, triumph.

When that old joke -- which jabs at Foyt's ego as much as it recognizes his status -- first surfaced at the Brickyard in the 1970s, just about everybody around Gasoline Alley was scared to go tell it to his face. So they put Parnelli Jones up to it, figuring he had the only jaw tough enough to withstand a punch from that picnic ham of a right fist, mounted on that jackhammer right arm.

It took Foyt a decade from his third win in 1967 to get his fourth in '77, but in between he won the 24 Hours of LeMans in '67 and the Daytona 500 in '72.

After Foyt maneuvered through a cloud of smoke and wreckage on the front stretch toward the checkered flag to win the '67 Indy, he flew off to Le Mans to co-drive with Dan Gurney in a Ford factory effort.

After he and Gurney had dominated and won in their GT40-Mark IV prototype, a French journalist asked Foyt whether winning the world's two greatest races within weeks of each other might make him famous.

Foyt lifted his right foot toward the journalist's face.

"THIS," Foyt said, "made me famous."

Minutes after he finally got his fourth Indy win, Foyt stomped into the then-tiny press room, snatched up a microphone and bellowed, "Gahhddamn, we did it."

Spotting three or four reporters straggling in late, Foyt said, "Some of you boys might not have heard what I said. I said, 'Gahhddamn, we did it.' "

Then he bowed his head like a reverent little boy. "I ought not take the Lord's name in vain like that," he said softly. "He's been awful good to me today."

He referenced his partnership with the almighty again in 1991, in an April test session at Indy, making a comeback from terrible injuries -- splintered and shattered legs and feet -- suffered in a crash at Elkhart Lake, Wis., the previous year.

Foyt thanked the orthopedic surgeons who had pieced his feet and legs back together; thanked the Houston Oilers trainer who had directed his rehabilitation. And then …

"I ought to thank the Good Lord too," Foyt added. "Cause He's been with me every stop of the way." He paused, thought for a few seconds.

"Then again, He couldn't have done this without me, either."

That's pretty much the essence of Foyt's own feelings about his career -- blessed, fortunate, but he damn sure did his share of the work.

For the fourth win, in '77, he became the only man ever to construct his own car, build his own engine and then drive to victory.

"I doubt anyone will ever do that again," he once said.

No one has so far. And more than likely, no one ever will.

In 1981, Foyt's mother had just died and he was in a foul mood. Longtime Indianapolis sportswriter Robin Miller had implied Foyt cheated with his cars -- but that everybody else did too.

Foyt came up to Miller, snatched him by his then-long hair, and dragged him down the pit road, smacking him, in full view of the grandstands.

A year or so later Miller wrote something that infuriated legendary team owner Roger Penske. Penske confronted Miller at Pocono, implying fisticuffs were imminent.

Miller just busted out laughing at the dapper businessman.

"Roger," he said, "I've been beaten up by A.J. Foyt. Do you think I'm scared of YOU?"

Since Foyt retired after the 500 of 1992, his record 35th start at Indy, awestruck media people usually preface their questions to him with litanies of his accomplishments.

Foyt's standard response to all that worship has often been: "Well, this is all quite true."

Outraged when CART began its boycott of Indy in 1996, claiming it was taking the "stars and cars of Indy" away, Foyt growled a rebuttal, his view of the relationship between Indy and the drivers, down through the decades. "The race makes the drivers," he said. "The drivers don't make the race."

And that is all quite true.

Except for A.J. Foyt.



Frank Lockhart

2. Frank Lockhart

Indy 500 starts: 2
Best finish (years): First (1926)
Laps led: 205

Forever young, forever at the brink of greatness, Frank Lockhart peers from the cockpit of his Stutz Black Hawk, in a photo taken in 1928.

Minutes later, he lay dead on the sands just north of Daytona Beach. He was 25 years old. Had he lived, he might have easily become Indy's first four-time winner -- or even its only five- or six- or seven-time winner, for that matter.

For consummate embodiment of pure driving talent, engineering genius, fearlessness, innovation, vision for the entire sport of motor racing, independent-mindedness and entrepreneurship, we simply cannot find Lockhart's equal among all Indy drivers, in all these 100 years.

Death stopped him far short of proving it statistically. Still, he towers over both of America's greatest racing places, Indy and Daytona, in the category of tragically unfulfilled potential.

As a youth in Los Angeles he was accepted at Caltech, but couldn't afford to go. He applied his mathematical and technical genius, and his daring, to automobiles, at first building his own race car.

In 192,6 he showed up at Indianapolis out of the blue, looking for a ride. Somehow Lockhart convinced another genius, visionary car constructor Harry Miller, to let him take some laps in Peter Kreis' car. Lockhart had never even driven on a paved track before, let alone one as big and fast as Indy. But he was faster than Kreis.

After qualifying the car in the middle of the seventh row, Kreis came down with the flu. Miller, the mechanical wizard of Indy at the time, put Lockhart in the car for the race.

Starting 20th, Lockhart was fifth after only three laps, second after 16, first after 59. He led the rest of the way, dueling for a while with Dave Lewis before Lewis dropped out, and was running away from the field when rain finally ended the race at 160 laps. Lockhart won as a 23-year-old rookie.

Brilliance understood brilliance, so Miller hired Lockhart for the remainder of that season. Where no one before had dared challenge Miller's engineering, Lockhart did, developing an intercooler for Miller's supercharged engines. Miller didn't want it. Lockhart wouldn't be denied his innovation, so he bought the car from Miller.

In '27, in his own car, intercooler and all, Lockhart beat Miller's own entries for the pole, at 120.10 mph. He continued to humiliate his former boss' drivers for the first 120 laps, or 300 miles, of the race. Then a part that had nothing to do with his intercooler, a connecting rod, broke, dropping him out of the race.

Lockhart had another idea: world speed records. In his revamped Miller, he had run 171.02 mph in the Mojave Desert -- this with a 1.5 liter (92 cubic inches) engine, while Sir Malcolm Campbell held the overall world speed record of only 174.883 mph with a monstrous engine of 22.3 liters, or more than 1,400 cubic inches.

Lockhart went to the world's favorite venue for speed record runs at the time, the straight stretch of hard-packed sand between Ormond Beach, Fla., and Daytona Beach. With financial backing from Stutz Motor Car Co. of Indiana, he designed and built the "Black Hawk Special," with twin Miller engines totaling only about 182 cubic inches and featuring revolutionary wheel covers.

On Feb. 22, 1928, Lockhart had the Black Hawk up to an estimated 225 mph when the car hit a ripple in the sand and cart-wheeled into the ocean. Lockhart wasn't hurt, but he felt a sense of urgency. He was running out of money.

After hastily repairing the car in Indiana, Lockhart returned to Daytona. On April 25, it was windy on the beach, but Lockhart was getting desperate. He needed the world record to keep going financially. He forced the run.

Some believe his unique wheel covers betrayed him in the wind. Some believe a tire blew. The car swerved sideways and ejected him, killing him instantly.

Even after his death, Lockhart's genius returned and triumphed at Indy. His intercooled Miller, with Ray Keech at the wheel, won the 500 of 1929.



Bill Vukovich

3. Bill Vukovich

Indy 500 starts: 5
Best finish (years): First (1953, '54)
Laps led: 485

Fifty-seven competitors have died at Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past century. But no fatality, before or since, has defined the world's perception of the Brickyard quite like the death of Bill Vukovich.

Never, before or since at Indy, has disaster risen so suddenly out of triumph.

Vuky was leading, going for his third straight 500 win -- it would have been his fourth straight, if not for a steering failure with eight laps left in the '52 race -- when Rodger Ward's car spun far in front of him on the backstretch.

With his lightning reflexes, Vuky cleared the first stage of the wreck, but from his left shot the spinning car of rookie Al Keller, knocking Johnny Boyd's car into Vuky's. That sent Vuky's car out of control, tumbling end over end, out of the Speedway, landing as a ball of fire.

Vukovich was dead at the scene. Then, as now, civilization somehow could tolerate the deaths of younger, lesser-known drivers, but not of huge stars. Long before Ayrton Senna, long before Dale Earnhardt, Vukovich's death detonated an international outcry.

He was the biggest star, riding the hottest streak, to die in an automobile race to that point -- and arguably remains so to this day.

That day of high winds at Indy -- some believe that contributed to the crash -- May 30, 1955, began the darkest fortnight in world motor racing history. On June 11, early in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Pierre Levegh's Mercedes shot into the stands along the pit straight, killing him and 83 spectators instantly. In the days and weeks to follow, the death toll would rise to more than 100.

From the Vatican to the U.S. Senate to an upstart preacher named Billy Graham, an outcry arose to ban the barbaric endeavor of automobile racing.

The American Automobile Association (AAA), Indy's sanctioning body since the track opened in 1909 and for every Indy 500 since 1911, withdrew from motor racing altogether.

The "Silent Serb," as someone once dubbed Vukovich due to his ancestry and his demeanor, would go down in history as Indy's most notoriously tragic driver.

Little noted nor long remembered is that many purists deemed him Indy's greatest -- perhaps even the world's greatest -- driver ever.

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