Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a true “star maker” in its 100 years of its 500-mile race. Drivers have risen from obscurity to fame by winning the race.
However, many great drivers have fallen short. They never were able to put it all together and visit victory lane. Some of them seemed to be luckless most of the time despite great efforts. Here is a summary of some great stars, seemingly jinxed at the Brickyard.
One of the all-time great drivers, Bettnehausen’s lack of success at Indianapolis is puzzling to many. He raced in 14 500s from 1946 to 1960 (he missed the show in 1949) and his great days were few.
He didn’t get a top ten until 1951, but his two-time winning Blue Crown
Special didn’t finish in this high attrition year. Likewise in 1953 when he was ninth. He was second in 1955 but had relief from his pal, Paul Russo. He was injured in the 1956 500. A Novi teammate to Russo in 1957. Tony had a miserable 15th-place finish while Russo was fourth. In 1958, he finally put it all together. He led 24 laps (the only time he ever was in front) and finished fourth. In 1959, after rolling over for the 29th time in his career during practice, he got a new ride and was fourth again.
While in contention in 1960, his engine blew. In 1961 while test-hopping Russo’s ride, Bettenhausen lost his life in a crash.
As spectacular as he was, “Herk” holds the dubious fact he raced in the most Indy 500s (10) without finishing in the top 10. His rookie qualifying run in 1960 was one of most the spectacular in speedway history. He broke the track record by more than three miles per hour on the second weekend of trials. His engine blew with 15 laps to go while running fifth.
In 1961, he drove the Demler Special, which had finished the previous three races. He started third but blew another engine. After wrecking the Demler car in practice in 1962, he jumped into the car Dick Rathmann had DNFed the last four races. Ironically, Jim gave both himself and the car their only finish but it was a poor 13th.
He seemed like a perfect driver for Andy Granatelli’s Novi in 1963. He put it in the middle of the front row and thrilled the crowd by leading the first lap. But it lasted only until halfway until an oil leak knocked it out. The rest of his career was marked by DNFs. In 1968, he put the last front-engined car in the racer. For many years he entered a series of Mallards, which he built himself, but it was a lark to use garage space for beer parties.
Eddie’s years at the speedway were usually eventful. His rookie test in 1953 was so bad he was told not to come back for three years, and he didn’t. He passed in 1956, but only was first alternate. In 1957, the rookie put Pete Schmidt’s roadster in the middle of the front row. He spun early in the race and eventually dropped out. He failed to finish the next two years.
In 1959, he again spun after starting second. Moving to Dean Van Lines, he won the pole in 1960 but the crew failed to lube the steering gear and he eventually parked it. 1961 was his year. He was on the pole and put on a great battle with A.J. Foyt, but mysteriously pitted for a tire while leading with two laps to go. He wound up second.
In 1962, he came from deep in the pack to get third. In 1963, he spun in oil with the DVS entry. He came back and then lost a wheel. After the race he confronted winner
Parnelli Jones, blaming him for the oil. He got punched out by PJ. In 1964, Eddie was a victim of the second-lap crash, which killed him.
You would think that a driver who led 431 laps would have visited Indy 500s victory lane. But Michael Andretti didn’t. In fact, he led two more tours than four-time winner Rick Mears. In 1991, Mears made a gutsy outside move to beat Michael. The next year Michael dominated, but dropped out with 11 laps to go. Three other times he fell out while leading.
Mays is second behind Michael in laps lead by non-winners at 266. He led in 10 different 500s and was on the front row four times. He finished second in 1940-41. The latter was the most frustrating as he was beaten by Mauri Rose, who took over a car that was two laps down and won.
His misfortune in 1969 is still one of the most talked about in Indy folklore.
Making a pit stop while leading, the fuel hose was still attached when he tried to leave the pits. This ended his day. He made 18 Indy 500 starts, had five top 10s with a best of third in 1964.
The only driver ever to lead the 500 seven straight years, he still hasn’t cashed in at victory lane. Last winter, after signing with Gil de Ferran’s team, it soon lost financial backing. He’ll be out there trying this year to find victory lane.
Always considered to have a heavier foot than his more successful brother, Jim. Dick’s 500 career was one disappointment after another. He came back in 1956 after a six-year layoff and had his best finish of fifth. In 1958 he jumped from his original ride and put Lee Elkins car on the pole. His fame lasted three-quarters of a lap when Ed Elisian plunked him from behind causing the infamous 14-car crash. His last seven 500s came in only two different cars.
In 1964, he was the last car to miss the second-lap inferno. He went on to finish seventh and never turned a taped wheel again.
He had a very short but successful career at the Brickyard. The first rookie of the year award winner for finishing fifth in 1952, he finished second in 1953, driving one of the few cars ever owned by a woman. His 1954 ride was cranky, needing three relief drivers but in 1955, he was fighting for the lead late in the race but the car failed. His last race was the Milwaukee 250.
He was leading but ran out of gas. Mysteriously, he never raced again and wasn’t seen at the track again.
Bad luck ran in the family at the speedway. Gary competed in 21 500s and had just three top tens to show for it. In 1972, he was primed to give Roger Penske his first 500 when the car fell out late in the race. His best showing came in 1980 when he finished third in a five-year-old car which had started 32nd.
Horn won hundreds of races in his storied career, but never at Indianapolis where he nonetheless achieved quite a record. In his rookie year, he was part of the 10-car Ford team. Four made the race but all of them had steering failure. In his nine other 500s he was never lower than fourth and was runner-up in 1936. He finished 1,799 out of 1,800 laps. He was pole winner in 1947. The last three years of his life he was AAA National Champion.
Hartz was a prominent Indy participant. In the 20s he was second three times, the only non-winner to do that. He also had two fourths. After retiring, he won twice as a car owner. Later, he was head of tech at the speedway.
He looked more like a commodore than a race driver but Cliff Bergere had a long career at Indianapolis. For many years he led in races and miles driven. In 16 starts, he finished in the top 10 nine times. In 1941 he became the first to run 500 miles non-stop in a gasoline powered car. He became fatigued and fell from the lead to fifth. He led the last three 500s he competed in. His final race was 1947 at age 50. He retired when friend Ralph Hepburn died in a Novi during practice. He was highly critical, calling the big V-8s dangerous.
Very adept in sprint cars, especially on the high banks, Carter never had much success at the Brickyard. He was fourth in 1952. He retired in 1955 and became director of competition for USAC. It was a stormy tenure and he came back in 1959 and finished seventh. His son Pancho drove in 17 500s with a best finish of third.
He seemed to have it all, young, handsome and personable. In 1981, he qualified sixth and became at that time, the second youngest Indy 500 starter at age 19. He led 13 laps but spun into the wall. He never came close to that performance, last racing in 1987.
This leadfoot was called the best qualifier of the roadster era. In his eight starts, he sat on the front row six times. He was the first to run better than 140 mph in 1954. He finished third twice. In 1955, he and Bill Vukovich had one of the most torrid battles for the lead but his magneto failed. He died at the last AAA race at Phoenix, Ariz., in 1955.
If anyone ever was deemed for Brickyard stardom, it was Roberto. In his first three starts, he was second, third and fourth, a beginning very few have achieved. In 1987, victory was in his grasp but a very bad pit stop saw him stall and Al Unser went on to win with Guerrero second. His next 11 starts saw only one top ten, fifth in 1996. In 1992, he earned the pole but spun as he was heating up his tires and his damaged car was out for the day.
Davies had a most baffling career at Indinapolis. After winning his first Indy car race at Del Mar, Cal. in 1949 at age 20 (a record held until a younger Marco Andretti bested it more than 50 years later). He finished 17th in the rain shortened 1950 race, Davies surprised many by leading the 1951 race for 25 laps before falling out. He missed the 1952 race and was an unremarkable 10th in 1953. He DNQd again in 1954, but drove as a relief driver. In 1955, he finished third with his 1953 ride. Despite many attempts, he never made another 500.
While many drivers had Indianapolis bear them success, others such as these had mostly frustration.