Bill Vukovich: The Greatest Indianapolis 500 Driver That Wasn’t

May 17, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A close up of a cross section of the Borg Warner Trophy on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
May 17, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A close up of a cross section of the Borg Warner Trophy on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

While the likes of AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears will go down as legends for their four Indianapolis 500 victories, Bill Vukovich is the true greatest driver in Indianapolis 500 history.

When you think of Indianapolis 500 greatness, you think of drivers like AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, and for good reason. They are the only three drivers who have won the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on four separate occasions. One driver who you may not consider is one of the 19 drivers who has won multiple Indy 500 races and one of the five drivers who has won back-to-back Indy 500 races. That driver is Bill Vukovich.

Without a doubt, Bill Vukovich was the greatest driver to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Indy 500. While he doesn’t have the four wins to show for it like the legends Foyt, Unser and Mears do, all of the evidence points towards Vukovich as the greatest. And it really isn’t close.

Sure, there are plenty of drivers out there that you could argue are better than their history shows at the Indy 500 with a “what-if” theory. But this article is much more than a “what-if” theory. This article is a “what was before it wasn’t” kind of article based on facts and not purely speculation.

In his first Indy 500 attempt, Vukovich was not that impressive, as he did not even qualify for the race. In his rookie Indy 500 race, he was not that impressive either. He started 20th and finished 29th after an oil tank issue.

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In 1952, the real Bill Vukovich began to shine through. He led 150 laps of the race after starting in 8th place. However, with just nine laps remaining, he had a steering linkage failure that ended his day. The 150 laps Vukovich led that day was good for 75% of the race, which is the 6th highest total among non-winners in Indy 500 history.

In 1953, Vukovich would not be denied his first Indy 500 victory. After leading 195 laps from pole, the third-highest total ever and second-highest total among winning drivers in Indy 500 history, Vukovich took the checkered flag in front of everybody else.

He did not stop there. While not as dominant as he was in 1953, Vukovich claimed his second Indy 500 victory in 1954. He led 90 laps of the race after starting in 19th to do so.

In 1955, Vukovich was dominant again. In fact, by lap 57, he had a 17-second lead after leading 50 of the first 56 laps of the race despite starting in 5th. But his Indy 500 career, racing career and life ended tragically right there in that moment when he was involved in a chain-reaction crash that took his life instantly. He was just 36 years old.

So how is a driver who completed two Indy 500 races the greatest Indy 500 driver of all-time? On paper, a driver who finished just two of his five Indy 500 races would not appear to be the greatest Indy 500 driver of all-time. But when you delve into the facts and figures, Bill Vukovich truly was the greatest.

Here is quote from two-time Indy 500 champion Rodger Ward via ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series that tells you just how great Vukovich was.

"“Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known in terms of his skill and his determination.”"

Let’s get all the “what-if” theories out of the way awhile just for the sake of putting them out there. Had Vukovich not had a mechanical issue in 1952, he’d be the only driver to win three consecutive Indy 500 races (1952,1953 and 1954). Had he not crashed and been tragically killed during his dominant race in 1955, he’d be one of only four four-time Indy 500 champions, and he’d have done it in a span of four straight races.

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To put that in perspective, AJ Foyt won his four Indy 500 races in 35 attempts, Al Unser won his four in 27 attempts, and Rick Mears won his four in 15 attempts. Vukovich would have won four in five tries. Now let’s put all the “what-if” theories aside and still prove that Vukovich is the greatest Indy 500 driver of all-time.

Vukovich completed only 676 laps in Indy 500 competition, which is a rather small sample size. However, of those 676 laps, he led 71.75% of them for a total of 485 laps led. While the percentage being so high may be attributed to the fact that his total laps completed is so low, the number, not percentage, of laps led is unbelievable for a driver who drove for such a short amount of time. The 485 laps that Vukovich led at the Indy 500 is good for the 8th highest total of all-time. And remember, he only completed two Indy 500 races, which shows just how dominant of a driver he was.

Vukovich, who ranks 8th on the all-time Indy 500 laps led list as mentioned above, has completed the lowest number of laps at the track among any driver who ranks in the top 29 in Indy 500 laps led. And he’s all the way up in 8th with two victories to show for it. So while the total laps completed number isn’t a large sample size and the percentage may seem inflated, it’s really not given the fact that even in such a short amount of time, he is just 159 laps shy of the all-time Indy 500 laps led record.

Given the statistics that Vukovich recorded in his Indy 500 career, it’s hard to argue with Rodger Ward. While we can speculate for pretty much any driver that has had misfortune at Indy and say that they are actually better than the numbers say, for Vukovich, it’s much more than speculation. It’s about what was before it wasn’t. But what still holds true and always will is the fact that no driver has ever done it better at Indy than Bill Vukovich.

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