One thing we love to do is create a list of great athletes, ranking them to determine who is the greatest of all-time. Racing is no different, and when it comes to open wheel drivers the list is long, and oozing with talent. Of these 50 drivers, 31 are already in the Motorsports Hall of Fame, and many of the current ones are likely to join them when their racing days are done.
We have used a lot of monikers when talking about open-wheel racing. We’ve had the American Automobile Association (AAA), the United States Auto Club (USAC), Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the Champ Car World Series, Formula 1, and the Indy Racing League/IndyCar. When you talk about this kind of racing, you think Indianapolis, Monaco, and Championships.
Creating this list was not easy, nor should it have been. Obviously this is opinion-based and it will likely be different from your own. Without further adieu, here is my list of the 50 greatest open wheel drivers to ever get behind the wheel. Share your list in the comments section below.
#50: Tom Sneva
Sneva won the 1983 Indianapolis 500, and sat on the pole three times for the prestigious race. Before he won the 500, Sneva finished runner-up on three occasions. Before his success in Indy, he won two consecutive USAC National Championships in 1977 and 1978. Just months before his Indy 500 win, he ran in the Daytona 500, where he finished seventh. Sneva retired in 1992 with 13 wins and 14 poles.
#49: Will Power
Since he became a full-time driver in IndyCar, Power has arguably been the best driver in the series. He was only able to run six races in his first season with Penske, but still managed to win a race. He had three podium finishes, a top five at Indy, and never finished worse than ninth. Power won three of his first eight races with Penske. Still early in his career, Power already has 18 wins and 29 poles (eighth all-time). In each of his three full seasons in the series, he has finished as the runner-up in the Championship.
#48: Tony Kanaan
Tony has one IndyCar Championship, and his body of work is impressive. He has 14 wins, 11 poles, and holds numerous racing records. Kanaan has never finished worse than sixth in the Championship standings in his career. The giant monkey on his back is that elusive Indy 500 win. In 11 tries, he has one pole and a best finish of second with five top-five finishes. Only Michael Andretti and Rex Mays have led more laps without winning. He is arguably the best driver never to win the race.
#47: Wilbur Shaw
Though his career was cut short due to WWII, Shaw managed to win the Indianapolis 500 three times. In addition to those major wins, he also finished in second place three times at the famous speedway. In all, he had seven top-five finishes in the 500. Shaw led seven different Indy 500 races for a total of 508 laps. While many people remember him for saving the speedway after the war, Wilbur Shaw was one of the most talented drivers in his era.
#46: Arie Luyendyk
Arie won the Indy 500 twice, and had a knack for qualifying well at IMS. He won the pole three times, and holds the qualifying lap record there with a speed of 237.498 mph. That wasn’t a pole run though, since he qualified on the second day. He ran in the IROC series three years and also won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
#45: Mauri Rose
Rose won the Indy 500 three times, but also had three other finishes in the top five. He started on the front row in Indianapolis in five of his 15 total starts there. Rose also won the AAA National Championship in 1936. His resume probably would have grown even more had it not been for WWII, where he proudly served his country.
#44: Alex Zanardi
Before his accident, Zanardi was putting together a nice resume. He won two Cart Championships and had two stints in Formula 1. In his rookie season in CART, he recorded three wins and five poles, earning second place in the Championship. Driving for Chip Ganassi in 1997 and 1998, he won 12 races, winning the Championship both years. Zanardi continues to race, and just this past summer won two gold medals in the Paralympics.
#43: Dan Wheldon
Though his career was cut short, Wheldon still put together an impressive resume. He won the Indy 500 and the series Championship in 2005, then won again at Indy in 2011. He had four other seasons where he finished in the top five in the points standings. He had 16 wins and 5 poles in IndyCar, and was part of the winning team in the 2006 24 Hours of Daytona race. In nine Indy 500 races, he finished in the top-four an impressive six times.
#42: Gil de Ferran
During the turn of the century, de Ferran was on top of the world. He won the Champ Car Championship in 2000 and 2001, then won the Indy 500 in 2003. In 2009, he guided de Ferran Motorsports to five wins in the American Le Mans Series. They finished in second in the Championship that year. In his ten-year open wheel career he had 12 wins, 20 poles, and 50 podium finishes.
#41: Dan Gurney
Gurney was the first driver ever to win races in Formula 1, IndyCar, Nascar, and Sports Cars. His marquee wins outside of Formula 1 include the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. In all, Dan competed in 312 events around 20 countries with 51 different type of cars, winning 51 races and scoring 47 podiums. He was arguably the best road racer of his generation. Jim Clark said he was the only driver he truly feared.
#40: Tony Stewart
Tony is one of the best drivers of his generation because of his talent to win in any type of machine. He has won Championships in Indy cars, midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, and USAC Silver Crown cars. He is the only driver that has ever won a Championship in both IndyCar and NASCAR. He was also the 2006 IROC Series Champion. In the five Indianapolis 500 races he ran, he finished in the top-ten three times, and qualified fourth or better in each of his first three races.
#39: Ralph DePalma
Famous for the way he lost the 1912 Indy 500, DePalma didn’t do much losing after that. In all, he won about 2,000 races in his 25 year career. He won the 500 in 1915, 24 American Champ Car races, and four AAA National Dirt Track Championships. Only Al Unser (644) has led more laps in the Indy 500 than DePalma (612) has.
#38: Louis Meyer
Meyer was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 three times. He was also the first driver to drink (butter)milk in victory lane, and receive the pace car after winning the race. Meyer won the United States National Driving Championship in 1928, 1929 and 1933. Not only did he win a lot of races, but he won in two different racing eras known as the sophisticated engines-era (1928) and the Depression-era (1933, 1936).
#37: Gordon Johncock
In a career that spanned nearly 30 years, Johncock won two Indianapolis 500 races, and the 1976 USAC National Championship. Johncock finished with 25 wins and 20 poles in his career. In his 24 starts at Indianapolis, he compiled eight top-five finishes (11 top-tens). His legendary 0.16 second victory over Rick Mears in the 1982 Indy 500 is still the second-closest winning margin in the history of the race.
#36: Rodger Ward
Ward is a two-time winner of the Indy 500, and was a fan favorite. He also earned two USAC Championships during his career. He started on the front row at Indy three times and recorded six top-five finishes in the greatest race in the world. During a six-year stretch starting in 1959, he had the best record of anyone in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. Ward has been inducted into five different types of motor racing Hall of Fame.
#35: Helio Castroneves
Helio was a tricky one. Outside of his success at Indy, what are his big accomplishments? Then again, how do you leave someone off this list that has won the greatest race in the world four times? Next year will be his 17th season, and he has still yet to capture that elusive Championship. He has come close though, finishing in the top-six in the standings an astonishing 11 times over his career.
#34: Bill Vukovich
Bill dominated his era of racing, winning two straight Indy 500 races, and unfortunately lost his life trying to win his third in a row. He won two American Automobile Association National Championship races and one pole in just six starts. Several drivers of his generation have referred to him as the greatest driver in American motorsport. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward said that Bill was “probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known in terms of his skill and his determination.”
#33: Sam Hornish Jr
Before making the move to stock cars, Hornish won three IndyCar Championships. His IndyCar career totaled 19 wins, 10 poles, and 47 podium finishes. In 2006 he won the Indy 500 in dramatic fashion, passing Marco Andretti in the final 450 feet. In his seven full-seasons in IndyCar he only finished outside of the top-five in the Championship once, when he was seventh in 2004.
#32: Parnelli Jones
While his speed record at Indianapolis is well documented, Jones was more versatile than most people realize. Parnelli won six races in IndyCar, 25 races in Sprint Cars, another 25 Midget races, and 13 races in stock cars. Oh yea, he also won the Indianapolis 500. Dario Franchitti said of Parnelli; “I’m glad I didn’t have to race against him because he looks like he could completely kick the ass of anyone I’ve ever met. I know he would have definitely kicked my ass!” Perhaps Mario Andretti summed it up best when he said, “As far as I’m concerned, Parnelli Jones was the greatest driver of his era”.
#31: Lewis Hamilton
After winning the British Formula Renault, Formula Three Euroseries, and GP2 championships, Hamilton made his Formula 1 debut in 2007. He finished in second place in the standings, just one point behind Kimi Raikkonen. The following year, he went on to win the Championship. He is widely considered one of the best talents of modern Formula 1, and is in position to win his second World Championship this season.
#30: Jacques Villeneuve
1995 was a great year for Villeneuve, winning the Indy 500 and the Cart Championship. Two years later he won a Championship in Formula 1 after finishing in second his first season. Villeneuve only ran the Indy 500 twice. The first year he started fourth and finished second. The next year he started fifth and won. He has competed in eight different racing series in his career, with most of his success coming in CART and Formula 1.
#29: Sebastien Bourdais
Bourdais won four consecutive Championships in Champ car from 2004 to 2007. He also won Championships in two other open wheel racing series. His career in Formula 1 didn’t produce the same impressive results that he achieved in Champ Car. He recorded 31 wins and 31 poles in just 73 events. In the 2004 season he had seven wins and eight poles, including podium finishes in ten of 14 races, having never qualifying worse than third.
#28: Sebastian Vettel
Vettel’s first Formula 1 season with Red Bull in 2009 resulted in a runner-up spot in the Championship. The next two seasons he would dominate the series, winning the Championship in 2010 and 2011. In 2004 he won 18 of the 20 races in the Formula BMW ADAC series. In his two Championship-winning seasons, Vettel won 16 races, 25 poles, and recorded 27 podium finishes. Though he is just 25 years old, Vettel already holds 18 Formula 1 racing records.
#27: Juan Pablo Montoya
The versatility that Montoya possesses is quite impressive. In 94 career starts in Formula 1, he finished on the podium 30 times. He won a Cart Championship, in addition to the biggest races in the world; the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Daytona. At Indianapolis, he finished first (Indy 500), second (Brickyard 400), and fourth (Formula 1). Montoya is one of just two drivers that have won two legs of the Triple Crown of Motorsport.
#26: Al Unser Jr
He is just one win behind his uncle on the all-time wins list with 34. He also has one less Indy 500 win than Bobby, but he still has two of them. Unser Jr won two Championships in CART, and finished second or third six times. In all, Little Al has seven top-five finishes at Indianapolis. In the 1992 Indy 500, a race-record ten former winners were entered in the field, Unser Jr got the best of them all, beating Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds. It is still the closest finish in 500 history.
#25: Bobby Rahal
Though he won the 2004 Indy 500 as an owner, it wasn’t the first time he celebrated in victory lane at IMS. As a driver, he won 24 races in CART, including the Indianapolis 500 in 1986. Bobby also won three series Championships. In addition to his wins, he recorded 16 poles and 88 podium finishes. Rahal also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the IMSA GT Championship, and the 1978 US Grand Prix.
#24: Kimi Raikkonen
Despite the severe reliability problems that the McLaren team had in 2003 and 2005, Kimi was still able to finish in second in the standings, behind Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso. After joining Ferrari, he finally won the Championship in 2007. His interest outside of Formula 1 included stints in the World Rally Championship, and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He is back in Formula 1 now with Lotus.
#23: Scott Dixon
The Iceman has won two IndyCar Championships in his career. He also won the 2008 Indianapolis 500 from pole position. His ratio of wins to career starts is the best of all-time regular drivers in the series. This past season at Mid-Ohio, he tied Rick Mears for tenth place on the all-time wins list with 29. In his time before IndyCar, Dixon won a Championship in Champ Car and Indy Lights. Dixon has won the Jim Clark Trophy three times, and the Bruce McLaren Trophy twice. He has finished in the top-six in each of his last seven Indy 500 starts.
#22: Paul Tracy
Though he raced in many different series, Tracy’s biggest success came in Champ Car. He won the American Racing Series Championship in 1990 and the Champ Car World Series in 2003. Paul will also tell you that he won the 2002 Indy 500, the most controversial finish the historic race has ever seen. In his Champ Car career, Tracy finished with 31 wins, 25 poles, and sat on the podium 74 times.
#21: Dario Franchitti
Dario has flirted with so many different kinds of racing over the years, but obviously his successful career revolved around IndyCar. He is a four-time series Champion, and has won the Indy 500 three times. Many wonder if those numbers might be higher had he not experimented with NASCAR. The scary thing is Dario still has plenty left in the tank, and has his sights set on another glass of milk, and another IndyCar Championship. He currently has 31 wins and 30 poles to go along with 86 podium finishes.
#20: Niki Lauda
Lauda won two Formula 1 Championships, then became bored with the sport and left. He returned and won another Championship and totaled 25 career wins and 24 poles. He helped bring Ferrari back to the top, then had a near-fatal accident at Nurburgring in 1976. He won the Championship the next year but left the team after they didn’t back him as the lead driver after his serious injury. He returned to win his third title in 1984 for McLaren.
#19: Graham Hill
When it came to winning big races, Hill got the job done. He won an Indy 500, Spa 24 Hours, and two Formula 1 Championships. He won the Indy 500 in his first try in 1966. His first title in Formula 1 took BRM to the top of the sport after being mostly irrelevant. His second Formula 1 Championship came with the Lotus team, after Jim Clark’s death.
#18: Fernando Alonso
Alonso is a three-time Formula 1 Champion, and widely regarded as one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen. Alonso won 14 races and 12 poles in his first two Championship seasons. In 2012, he captured his 30th career win and 75th podium finish, something only three other drivers have ever done; Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, and Ayrton Senna. He is in the mix again this year to win his fourth Formula 1 title.
#17: Jack Brabham
Jack is a three-time Formula 1 Champion, and is the only person to ever win the Championship driving one of his own cars. At age 86, he is the oldest living Formula 1 Champion. His 14 wins and 13 poles and three Championships are a result of his engineering expertise and his incredible driving skill. In 1960 he won his second straight Championship, completely dominating the series. He won consecutively in Holland, Belgium, France, Britain, and Portugal.
#16: Emerson Fittipaldi
When it came to winning in open wheel cars, Fittipaldi knew how to get it done. He won the Indianapolis 500 twice, two Formula 1 Championships, and another Championship in CART. Before he won his first Indy 500, Fittipaldi had a runner-up finish in 1988. The year after he won his first, he finished third. His first Formula 1 title came at the age of 26, making him the youngest driver to ever win it.
#15: Nelson Piquet
Piquet won 23 times in Grand Prix racing and won the pole 24 times, earning three World Championships. He did all of this while competing against Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. He tried his hand in the Indy 500 later in his career. Though he didn’t have success in 1992 when he crashed in practice, he qualified 13th the following year. The Brazilian was never shy with his choice of words, but all he wanted to do was race.
#14: Bobby Unser
Bobby is a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and got each one in a different decade. He was the 1975 IROC Champion and won the USAC IndyCar Championship in 1968 and 1974. He is also the undisputed king of Pikes Peak, having won there 13 times. Bobby currently sits in fifth place on the all-time wins list, with 35 victories. He was the runner-up in the CART standings in 1979 and 1980. Though it doesn’t compare to his three Indy 500 wins, Bobby won the 1993 Fastmasters Championship.
#13: Jackie Stewart
Jackie was one of the most intelligent drivers of all-time. He won three World Championships and won 27 races in 99 tries. Because of his accomplishments, he was honored with the Order of the British Empire in 1971. He won at Monaco and had multiple great runs in the Indy 500. He is still one of the most recognizable figures in auto racing.
#12: Michael Andretti
His 42 victories have him sitting in third place on the all-time wins list, behind AJ Foyt and his father Mario. Though he only captured one Championship, he did finish in the top four of the standings in nine seasons. Five times he was the runner-up. His success in CART led him to Formula 1, where he became Ayrton Senna’s teammate after signing his contract in 1992. Despite the Andretti curse, he did manage to record five top-five finishes at Indianapolis and is tenth on the list of all-time Indy 500 lap leaders.
#11: Johnny Rutherford
Lone Star won the Indianapolis 500 three times, and also grabbed three poles at Indy. In his career he recorded 27 race wins and 23 poles. After winning the Michigan 500 in 1986, he became the first driver to win all three 500-mile races (Indy, Daytona, and Michigan). He also competed for five years in the International Race of Champions events. Though he never got his fourth win at Indy, he had plenty of chances. He was a staple of the event, having been entered in 29 Indy 500 races.
#10: Rick Mears
His name is synonymous with the Indy 500. Nobody has more wins (four) or poles (six) at the famous speedway. Some forget that he also has three Championship trophies that are dwarfed when compared to his wins at Indy. In his 17-year IndyCar career, Mears totaled 29 wins and 40 poles. In addition to his amazing success at Indy, Mears finished in the top-five of the Championship standings ten times. In 1990 the Associated Press named him the Driver of the Decade of the 1980′s.
#9: Nigel Mansell
While he dominated in Formula 1 with 31 career wins, he also won a CART Championship, and nearly the Indy 500 in 1993. In 1977, Mansell won 32 of 42 Formula Ford races. He had an incredible season in 1992 when he won nine of 16 races, and took 14 poles. Mansell is the only driver to ever win the Formula 1 and IndyCar Championships in back-to-back seasons. Though he had a win or bust approach (31 wins and 32 crashes) he ranks third in the world in fastest laps, fourth in wins, and fifth in poles.
#8: Juan Manuel Fangio
In the early days of racing, there was no one that dominated like Fangio did. He started from the front row in 48 of his 51 Grand Prix entries. He won 23 of them and finished on the podium 35 times. In addition to winning the World Championship five times, Fangio finished runner-up twice. He was so popular, that in 1958 he was kidnapped in Cuba by members of Fidel Castro’s group to draw world-wide attention to their cause. His captors were so charmed by him, that he was released unharmed.
#7: Al Unser Sr
Four Indianapolis 500 wins and three series Championships make for one hell of a resume. Al Sr also has 39 career wins and 27 poles to his name. He won the “Triple Crown” in 1978 with wins at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Ontario, then went on to win two IROC Championships. Counting his four wins, he has 13 top-five finishes in the Indianapolis 500. Combining his wins at Indy, Pocono, and Ontario, he has eight 500-mile race wins. He has also led the most laps of any driver in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
#6: Jim Clark
The 1960’s were dominated by Clark. In nine years he participated in 72 race, winning 25 of them. He had 33 career poles and won two F1 World Titles. In five Indianapolis 500 starts, Clark started on the front row three times, including the 1964 pole. He also won the race in 1965, while recording runner-up finishes in 1963 and 1966.Drivers competing against him would tell you that unless his car failed, he would win the race.
#5: Alain Prost
The four-time Formula 1 Champion is known for his intense battles with Ayrton Senna. While they were entertaining, his sublime consistency was something to marvel at. From 1987 until 2001 Prost held the record for most Grand Prix wins. During his impressive career, Prost totaled 51 wins, 33 poles, 106 podium finishes, and four Championships.
#4: Mario Andretti
The man, the legend himself. Even fans that know nothing about auto racing know the name Andretti. Mario could win in anything, and he did. He is the only person in the world that has ever won an Indy 500, a Daytona 500, and a Formula 1 Championship. Andretti is also the only person to be named Drive of the Year in three different decades.
#3: AJ Foyt
If it had four wheels, chances are AJ raced it at some point. He is the only person to ever win the Indy 500, Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Obviously, he was the first person to win the Indy 500 four times. He holds the all-time IndyCar record for most wins (67) and Championships (seven). From midgets, sprint cars, IndyCars, sports cars, and stock cars, Foyt has won in them all.
#2: Michael Schumacher
You don’t win seven Formula 1 Championships by being lucky. Schumacher holds the records for the most Championships, race wins, fastest laps, pole positions, points scored, and most races won in a single season with 13 in 2004. In 2002 he became the only driver in Formula 1 history to finish on the podium in every race of the season. His comeback to the sport hasn’t produced the same results, but Schumacher currently owns 34 different Formula 1 records. There is no doubt he is “statistically” the greatest Formula 1 driver of all-time.
#1: Ayrton Senna
Senna’s three Formula 1 Championships were telling, but not as impressive as the laps he would turn on the track. His talent was magnified even more when the rain began to fall. He had 41 wins, 65 poles, and led 3,024 laps in half of a normal Formula 1 career.
Though his career was cut short, he still finished with a record six Monaco Grand Prix wins, and is the third most successful driver in history in terms of race wins. In 1992 and 1993, Senna racked up eight wins. In comparison, Schumacher had just two in that same time period. Even though statistically he was great, his endless pursuit of success and incredible driving style that redefined what was possible in Formula 1 made him a legend.
In 2009, 217 Formula 1 drivers participated in a poll for Autosport Magazine to name the greatest Formula 1 driver who ever lived. Michael Schumacher was second, behind Ayrton Senna. Bernie Ecclestone called Senna, “The greatest driver I’ve ever seen.” He is not alone.