Catching Up with the Greatest 33 – 2021 Edition

Now with the glory of the 2021 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race firmly in the rear-view mirror, I’ve carved time to revisit my Greatest 33 and review the largest shake-up in the standings since the inception of this 10-years-old bit of bench-racing started back in 2011.

To briefly review, IMS took great pains to create a special interactive website for the 2011 100th Anniversary race, for which fans could log in and vote for their “Greatest 33” to race at Indy from the 100 or so nominees provided. The site survived for a few years, but has since been taken down. I had participated in the original, but in need of some rudimentary starting point, my desire was to devise a method to the madness, trying to maintain some framework of relative fairness. I devised a set of objective criteria based on a few statistics that I deemed important for a driver to be in the conversation of the Greatest 33. At least I’d have some basis to sift and sort through the many drivers who’ve participated in this great race. With some consternation and trial-and-error, I settled on the weighted scoring method you see here. As you may have correctly guessed, ‘just for fun’ I saved and updated a spreadsheet every year following the results of each subsequent Indy 500. In the words of John Bender from The Breakfast Club, “…so, it’s sorta social, demented and sad, but social.” Prior posts of mine on this subject can be found by searching this blog’s tags for “Greatest 33”.

Without further ado, here is the top portion of that updated spreadsheet in all of its astoundingly dispassionate and boring rows and columns.

Helio Joins Racing Royalty – With his momentous and thrilling 4th victory, Helio Castroneves graduates to the uppermost eschelon of this list, joining the three other 4-time winners atop my Greatest 33. As noted back in the 2018 recap, a significant change at the top occurs if HE-LI-O got his 4th. He vaults above the other 3-time winners, Wilbur Shaw and Bobby Unser to 4th place overall, behind Rick Mears, AJ Foyt, and Al Unser. Dare we even contemplate the possibility of the first 5-time winner? That’s too much to even consider this close to Helio’s 4th win. Even another 4-time winner is difficult to imagine in my lifetime. As unlikely as it would appear that Rutherford or Franchitti would come out of retirement to attempt to join the 4-timers club, it’s seems nearly as unlikely that we’ll see another 4-time winner from the currently active 2-time (Montoya, Sato), or 1-time winners (Dixon, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Power, and Pagenaud).

Errors Corrected – Only the most eagle-eyed/unicorn follower of my blog might notice this, but not only did Helio move up in the first three rows, but so too did Mauri Rose, from Row 4. In working this original batch of statistics, I recall originally being some what thrown off by the fact that Mauri Rose was shown by the official Indianapolismotorspeedway.com statistical drivers pages as being a two-time winner, (plus historically also one time as a co-driver with Floyd Davis in 1941). Until now I ignored/forgotten about it but with the confirmation of established 500 history buff/authority, Mike Thomsen (@thomsen419), I took the time this year to correct that error in my sheet, giving both pairs of winning drivers (Rose/Davis, Boyer/Corum) the full points accorded winners, and transferring Rose up the standings into the outside of the 3rd Row. Overall it did nothing to change the drivers named in the 33, just shuffled the order to be more accurate with the base statistics.

What about 2020? – In looking back to the foggy, labored, and generally abysmal year that was 2020, I realized I hadn’t posted about the results of the previous Indy 500, a second win for Takuma Sato. Sato-san’s second, moved him from below the cut line into the Greatest 33. All drivers with more than one win are included in my Greatest 33 currently. As with the second Montoya win in 2015, Sato moved into the Greatest 33 and in doing so, they each displaced a driver previously on my list. Montoya bumped Bobby Rahal and Sato bumped Jimmy Murphy, both one-time winners.

Intangibles, Part One – Readers of the past will recall that there are a few differences between my staid statistical listing and the graphical listing shown here. These are the subjective movements in rank that I assign based on a few variable details not accounted for in my spreadsheet. Also, for those not familiar with my particular listing, this is basically a Top 30 plus a ‘Last Row Club’ (as a nod to the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation’s ‘Last Row Party’) comprised of the best 3 to never win. I intend to maintain this format unless sufficiently cajoled otherwise. If you want a very limited edition souvenir, follow the IPCF link above and get yourself one of the most fun-spirited Indy 500 shirts available.

Intangibles, Part Two – With the weight of a 4th pole position and statistically now ranked 10th, Scott Dixon is located in 12th place behind Gordy and Mario as I feel their legend status still holds just the slightest bit more weight than Dixon. In terms of points, the three are separated by 1%, effectively now ‘three wide’ across the 4th row, I fully expect Dixon will fully overhaul them before his days are over at Indy. By the narrowest of margins, Tony Kanaan charts just one point ahead of Bill Vukovich. Much as the reasoning above though, I’ll hold the two-time legend of Vuky ahead of Kanaan, until TK ‘clears’ Vuky and ‘makes the pass’ into 16th place. As in years past, Arie Luyendyk holds one place higher than scored due to his current one- and four-lap qualifying records which are always notable and celebrated in the annals of the 500. I also expect these records will fall in the not-too-distant future and I will return him to his place between Al Unser Jr., and Dan Wheldon.

Outside Chances – Who is close to breaking into the Top 30+3? Second wins for Hunter-Reay, Power, Pagenaud, or Rossi would see them jump to the strata populated largely with two-timers in Rows 7, 8 or 9 and bump Jim Clark out. Marco is approximately 2-3 non-winning races of overtaking Rex Mays and bookending the 11th row with his father. A win for the evergreen Ed Carpenter, coupled with his long career, 3 poles, nearly 150 laps lead, and 3 top 5 finishes would bring him into the low 800-point range, surpassing Bill Holland/Billy Arnold/Jim Rathmann/Jim Clark.

Other Bits – Interestingly, perhaps, Mark Donohue ranks 66th on my list and he won with Car #66. Gil deFerran is 67th and won with car #68. Perhaps somewhere down the line a driver that wins in car #67 will settle in that 9-point gap between Donohue and deFerran, making the lore of Indy 500 numerology that much deeper for me.

For me, I enjoy the time and thought required to update and review this every year. It always seems to force me to re-evaluate drivers of the past as well as consider the currently active drivers place in the pantheon of Indy 500’s Greatest. I’d love to hear from anyone else that did this back in 2011 (or beyond) and their experience in selecting their Greatest 33.

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