The 33 Greatest IndyCar Drivers in History

With the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 coming up in just a couple of days, I thought I’d put together a list of the 33 greatest drivers to ever compete in IndyCar. Note I didn’t say “to compete in the Indy 500.” That would be a different list.

I’ve been thinking recently about the best to ever strap into an IndyCar because I think we are witnessing some of the best drivers in history competing in the series right now. That led me to do some research and come up with this list.

Sadly, I think we tend not to appreciate the greatness of drivers until their time in the sport comes to an end. That’s a shame, because we too often witness greatness without realizing it until some time later. Wouldn’t it be nice to recognize it now, while we’re watching it?

Before we get into the list, let me share my biases and criteria. I’m biased against drivers from long ago who competed in the AAA and USAC days. I’m sure they were great drivers, but the series competed sporadically, at times only having a few races in a season. In addition, the competition was not as stacked as it is today. I did consider drivers who competed in AAA and USAC. I even included a couple. But overall, I gave more credit to drivers from the late USAC, ChampCar, IRL, and IndyCar days.

I’m also biased against drivers who only competed in a handful of races. You could make an argument the Graham Hill and Jim Clark are two of the best drivers to ever compete in IndyCar. After all, they are two of the greatest drivers to ever compete in any racing series. But they only dabbled in IndyCar. They weren’t full-time competitors.

The criteria I used to rank the drivers included number of victories, winning percentage, championships won, and Indy 500s won. Including Indy 500 victories was a little tricky because some of the drivers never had the chance to compete at Indy due to the ChampCar/IRL split. I tried to be as subjective as possible, but I’m sure my own opinions crept in here and there.

Okay, enough prelude. Here are the 33 best IndyCar drivers in history:

33. Tony Kanaan

Race Starts: 389
Race Victories: 17 (4.37)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 22/1

Tony Kanaan has been a fan favorite for years, and routinely got the loudest ovation during driver introductions when he competed at Indianapolis. His career was marked with inconsistent rides, which often didn’t allow him to showcase his talent. But he checked two very important boxes during his career: a championship and an Indy 500 victory.

32. Ryan Hunter Reay

Race Starts:  293
Race Victories: 18 (6.14)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 15/1

Hunter Reay, known by the nickname “Captain America,” has the 22nd most victories in IndyCar history. He is most well-known for his time in the DHL car for Andretti Global. And like Kanaan, Hunter Reay checked both the championship and Indy 500 victory boxes on his career. Unlike Kanaan, Hunter Reay is still competing, albeit on a part-time basis now.

31. Simon Pagenaud

Race Starts: 207
Race Victories: 15 (7.25)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 12/1

I mean no offense when I say this, but I was surprised that Simon Pagenaud earned his way onto this list. But with 15 IndyCar victories, a championship, and a win at the Indy 500, Pagenaud deserves his spot on the list. Sadly, due to a nasty practice accident at Mid-Ohio in 2023, Pagenaud is at least temporarily retired. But even if he doesn’t come back to the series, he is already one of the all-time greats.

30. Kenny Brack

Race Starts: 105
Race Victories: 9 (8.57)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 6/1

I thought Kenny Brack had competed in more races than he actually had. With barely over 100 starts, Brack has 9 race victories, including a victory in the Indianapolis 500. A product of Sweden, Brack inspired a generation of racers, including today’s crop of Swedish drivers such as Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenquist.

29. Cristiano da Matta

Race Starts: 101
Race Victories: 12 (11.88)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 0/0

In my memory, Cristiano da Matta was a field filler. My memory could not be more wrong. The Brazilian driver only competed in 101 IndyCar races, but he won 12 of them and earned a championship. Like a few other drivers on the list, da Matta never had the opportunity to tackle Indy.

28. Danny Sullivan

Race Starts: 172
Race Victories: 17 (9.89)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 12/1

Sullivan will forever be known for his “spin to win” victory in the 1985 Indy 500 (I was there. Other than Sullivan’s spin, it was one of the most uneventful races in Indy 500 history.). In some ways, I think the “spin to win” kind of overshadows Sullivans career. With 17 race victories, Sullivan is 23rd all-time on the IndyCar win list.

27. Gil de Ferran

Race Starts: 158
Race Victories: 12 (7.59)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 4/1

The late, great Gil de Ferran was a racer through and through. In fact, he died of a heart attack while in a race car, long after his driving career had ended. Despite a rather small number of race starts (158), de Ferran earned two championships and a coveted Indy 500 victory.

26. Helio Castroneves

Race Starts: 379
Race Victories: 31 (8.18)
Championships: 0
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 23/4

Castroneves is deservedly best known for his four Indy 500 wins. He’s going for a fifth this year. But he is a long-time IndyCar competitor, with 379 IndyCar race starts and 31 victories, putting him 12th all-time on the wins list. So, why is he only ranked 26th on the list of the greatest IndyCar drivers of all time? There are two chinks in his armor. First, his win percentage is just average. It’s not bad, but neither is it great. And, despite 31 race wins, Castroneves never won a championship. In fact, he is the only driver on this list without a championship.

25. Paul Tracy

Race Starts: 282
Race Victories: 31 (11.00)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 7/0

Paul Tracy has become a bit of a punchline during his retirement years, both for his on-air commentary and his performance in the made-for-TV SRX racing series. Neither if these things is necessarily bad. I love that Tracy speaks his mind. In fact, I hated to see him get booted from the NBC coverage of IndyCar races. But his more recent reputation somewhat overshadows what a great racer he was. Winning a total of 31 races, tying him for 12th all-time, Tracy was a fierce competitor who earned himself the IndyCar (CART) championship in 2003. Unfortunately, in 7 tries, Tracy never got that all-important Indy 500 victory.

24. Tom Sneva

Race Starts: 215
Race Victories: 13 (6.05)
Championships: 3
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 18/1

Tom Sneva was a thinking man’s driver. I remember many years ago he was interviewed on the Today show in the days leading up to the Indy 500. The interviewer couldn’t understand how someone could be so comfortable driving in excess of 200 mph for 500 miles. Sneva explained how the brain works, and how 200 mph seems fast to someone who hasn’t done it, but once you do it, the brain adjusts and it doesn’t seem so fast. I think there’s an argument to be made that Sneva doesn’t deserve to be ahead of Castroneves and Tracy. However, for me, the thing that put Sneva ahead was the three championships.

23. Alex Palou

Race Starts: 69
Race Victories: 10 (14.49)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 4/0

Palou has only been competing in IndyCar a little over four years. How can he be an all-time great? So far, he has won more than 14% of the races he has run, and he already has two championships. If he were to retire tomorrow, he’d still be in the conversation. But he has many more years to compete, and many more chances to win an Indy 500.

22. Gordon Johncock

Race Starts: 270
Race Victories: 25 (9.26)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 24/2

Johncock is an all-time great in IndyCar. With two Indy 500 victories and a championship to his credit, there’s no doubt that he deserves to be on this list. Before putting the list together, I would have guessed Johncock would have been in the top 20 drivers of all-time. But there are so many good ones, he ended up just outside the top 20.

21. Johnny Rutherford

Race Starts: 323
Race Victories: 27 (8.36)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 24/3

It seems fitting that Johncock and Rutherford should end up next to each other on this list. They were two of Robin Miller’s favorites, and in my mind, I can’t think of one without the other. Rutherford ended his career with 27 race victories (15th all-time), 2 championships and 3 Indy 500 wins.

20. Bobby Rahal

Race Starts: 265
Race Victories: 24 (9.06)
Championships: 3
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 13/1

I struggled with where to put Bobby Rahal in relation to Johncock and Rutherford. Rahal has fewer victories than either man, but he has a higher win percentage than Rutherford, and very close to Johncock. The thing that made me decide to put him ahead of both Johncock and Rutherford was the fact that Rahal has as many championships as the other two combined. You could put the three drivers in almost any order and it would be hard to argue with. For me, Rahal gets the nod.

19. Dan Wheldon

Race Starts: 134
Race Victories: 16 (11.94%)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 9/2

Dan Wheldon was so much better than I remember. With 16 race victories (in just 134 starts), a championship, and two Indy 500 wins, Wheldon deserves to be on the list. But when he died in a race in Las Vegas, Wheldon was just 33 years old and had several good years of racing ahead of him. To be sure, he could have done more.

18. Emerson Fittipaldi

Race Starts: 197
Race Victories: 22 (11.17%)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 11/2

You have to be impressed with Emerson Fittipaldi. IndyCar was his second act. He had already had a successful career in Formula 1, winning two championships, Then he came to IndyCar and competed in 197 races, winning 22, and earning a championship and two Indy 500 victories. Not bad for a second act.

17. Juan Pablo Montoya

Race Starts: 97
Race Victories: 15 (15.46%)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 7/2

I have always considered Juan Pablo Montoya to be one of the great drivers of all time; not just in IndyCar, but in any series. I’ve also always thought that his move to NASCAR, where he competed for eight seasons, was a mistake. I like that he challenged himself and tried something new, but he did it for too long and at the expense of what could have been a top ten IndyCar career. He was still great, but I wanted more.

16. Alex Zanardi

Race Starts: 66
Race Victories: 15 (22.73%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 0/0

Let me confess to some bias on my part. Alex Zanardi is my all-time favorite race car driver. I loved his approach and his energy. In just 66 IndyCar races, Zanardi won 15 and earned two championships in just four seasons. The story of his crash at Lausitzring is heartbreaking, and the story of his recovery is inspiring. Zanardi never had the opportunity to race at Indy, but he nonetheless deserves his place as one of IndyCar’s all-time greats.

15. Rodger Ward

Race Starts: 153
Race Victories: 26 (17.00%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 15/2

Rodger Ward competed in the AAA/USAC Championship from 1950 to 1966. His career overlapped with the #13 driver on this list, Jimmy Bryan. During his years of competition, Ward only ran two full seasons (but several partial seasons). Even so, he recorded 26 race victories, 2 championships, and two wins at Indy.

14. Sam Hornish Jr.

Race Starts: 117
Race Victories: 19 (16.24%)
Championships: 3
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 8/1

More bias to report. I’ve never cared much for Sam Hornish. I can’t even tell you why. He just rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve heard some stories in recent years that make me think my intuition was correct. Regardless, Hornish had an impressive IndyCar career. In just 117 races, Hornish compiled 19 wins, 3 championships, and an Indy 500 victory.

13. Jimmy Bryan

Race Starts: 62
Race Victories: 19 (30.65%)
Championships: 3
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 9/1

Jimmy Bryan is probably not a name most IndyCar fans are familiar with. He competed in AAA/USAC (the forerunners to more recent iteration of the series) from 1951 to 1960. During that time, Bryan won more than 30% of the races he competed in. He also won three championships in a four year period, and won the Indy 500 in 1958. That’s impressive for any era of the sport.

12. Al Unser Jr.

Race Starts: 330
Race Victories: 34 (10.30%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 19/2

It’s hard to overstate what a star Al Unser Jr. was during the height of his career. In many ways, he was the face of IndyCar in those days. He is ninth all-time on the IndyCar wins list, won two championships and two Indy 500s. Sadly, his impressive career was somewhat overshadowed by his post-career legal and personal troubles. It always seemed to me that “Little Al” was more comfortable in the cockpit of a race car than he was living life off the track. I felt bad for him. In recent years, with his personal life heading in the right direction, Unser has been around the track more, serving as a driver coach and a consultant.

11. Bobby Unser

Race Starts: 275
Race Victories: 35 (12.72%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 19/3

Bobby Unser was one of IndyCar’s truly great characters. If you’ve never heard the late Robin Miller talk about Bobby, you’ve really missed out. His interview with Dinner with Racers was also great. On the track, Bobby was also one of IndyCar’s all-time greats. With 35 victories, he is 8th on IndyCar’s all-time wins list. He also earned two championships and won the Indy 500 three times. What a career. What a character.

10. Michael Andretti

Race Starts: 310
Race Victories: 42 (13.55)
Championships: 1
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 16/0

If you had asked me before I compiled this list where I thought Michael Andretti would be ranked, I would have said somewhere in the top five. After all, with 42 race victories, Michael is number four on the all-time wins list. But when I started comparing his career to others, he fell a bit down the list. For instance, his win total and percentage are both impressive. But his single championship and lack of an Indy 500 win hurt his case. Michael was a hell of a racer. I loved watching him compete. To be sure, he is an all-time great. But I just couldn’t find a way to sneak him any higher.

9. Sebastien Bourdais

Race Starts: 225
Race Victories: 37 (16.44%)
Championships: 4
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 9/0

I’ve always felt that Sebastien Bourdais’ IndyCar career was underrated. True, he never won the Indy500, a race he seemed to run begrudgingly. But with 37 victories, a 16.44% win percentage, and most of all, four championships, Bourdais is well-deserving of his place on the list.

8. (tie) Josef Newgarden

Race Starts:  203
Race Victories: 29 (14.29%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 12/1

8. (tie) Will Power

Race Starts: 289
Race Victories: 41 (14.19%)
Championships: 2
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 16/1

Who has had the better career: Will Power or Josef Newgarden? They each have two championships and an Indy 500 victory. They both win at about the same rate. So, what separates them? Power has 13 more race wins, but he’s also run 86 more races than Newgarden. To catch Power in the next 86 races, Newgarden would have to increase his win percentage by a couple percent. Can he do it? It’s not out of the question. For now, I’m ranking them both as 8th all-time. It will be interesting to see where they end up when both of their careers are done.

6. Dario Franchitti

Race Starts: 266
Race Victories: 31 (11.65%)
Championships: 4
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 10/3

Dario Franchitti has always been one of my favorite drivers. I loved the way he had this congenial personality outside the car, always with a joke or a ready laugh, but inside the car, he was merciless. His 4 championships is tied for third all time, along with Mario Andretti and Rick Mears. His three victories in the Indy 500 is only surpassed by AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears, and Helio Castroneves, all 4-time winners.

5. Al Unser Sr.

Race Starts: 332
Race Victories: 39 (11.75%)
Championships: 3
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 27/4

What separates Dario Franchitti’s career from Al Unser’s? Franchitti has 4 championship and 3 Indy 500 victories while Unser has 3 championships and 4 Indy 500 victories. Franchitti won 11.65% of his races and Unser won 11.75% of his. I’m giving the nod to Unser because of his 39 race wins versus Franchitti’s 31. I understand that Unser ran 66 more races than Franchitti, but it was Franchitti who left IndyCar for an ill-fated foray into NASCAR. In my mind, that’s only a tiny ding. But a tiny ding is all it takes to separate these two great drivers.

4. Rick Mears

Race Starts: 211
Race Victories: 29 (13.74%)
Championships: 4
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 15/4

Rick Mears is tied for the most Indy 500 victories with four. I attended and predicted two of them. I was a big Mears fan. He was a racer through-and-through. I’m sure I’m wrong about this, but I always had the impression that if Rick Mears couldn’t race, he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do anything else. Because of his four Indy 500 victories, I’m afraid that people forget that he won other places as well. He won a total of 29 IndyCar races and earned a championships. He was much more than just an Indy 500 specialist.

3. Mario Andretti

Race Starts: 408
Race Victories: 52 (12.75%)
Championships: 4
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 29/1

When I started compiling this list, I wanted to find a way to put Mario Andretti first. I’ve always felt that he was one of the most talented drivers in the world, regardless of series or driving era. I have deep respect and admiration for him. Unfortunately, I couldn’t in good conscience find a way to rank him as the best IndyCar driver in history. He is third all-time in victories with 52, trailing only AJ Foyt and Scott Dixon, and his four series championships ties him for third place all time. For me, Mario is the all-time face of IndyCar. But when it comes to driver rankings, he comes home third.

2. Scott Dixon

Race Starts: 390
Race Victories: 57 (14.62%)
Championships: 6
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 21/1

Scott Dixon never fails to impress me. I love the way his competitors have so much respect for him that they shrug off the miracles he seems to pull out constantly as just “Dixon doing Dixon things.” His 57 victories is more than the great Mario Andretti in fewer races, and is second to AJ Foyt. He trails Foyt in championships by one, but he is still competing and is showing no signs of slowing down. I know he desperately wants to win another Indy 500, and I suspect that he views just having one as a bit of a blemish on his otherwise stellar record. Maybe this is the years for his second 500 win.

1..AJ Foyt

Race Starts: 277
Race Victories: 67 (24.19%)
Championships: 7
Indy 500 Starts/Victories: 35/4

I didn’t want Foyt to fill the top spot on the list. I’ve never been a big AJ Foyt fan, and every time I see a list like this, it gnaws at me that people just blindly accept that AJ is the best ever. Even so, I’m ranking AJ as the best ever. How can you not? He has 67 race victories, the most all-time, he won 7 championships (the only man to do that), and he won the Indy 500 4 times, one of only four people to ever do that. Over the course of AJ’s career, he won nearly one out of every four races in which he competed. There’s no way I can dismiss or discount that kind of career.


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