An interesting question was brought to my attention prior to Sunday’s 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.
It’s a question I’ve heard before on television, in pubs, at work, during school, online in so many racing forums and even over the phone with my mom. So while my conversation with friend and journalist Erik Deckers was nothing new, it did cause me to think, “That’s right, the question.”
Has there ever been a driver who has deserved to win the Indianapolis 500?
Well, the question is seemingly straight up, but unfortunately the answer isn’t so simple. It’s kind of two-fold. It’s yes and no.
Anyone who survives the rigors of the month of May — practice, more practice, still more practice, qualifying and the sometimes nail-biting, nerve-wracking experience of qualifying and Bubble Day (on every other year) — deserves to win.
And yet, nobody does.
The place doesn’t owe anyone.
The Speedway doesn’t owe a victory to anyone any more than the baseball gods owe the Chicago Cubs a World Series championship, or I owe my brother $5 just for the sheer pleasure of being his brother.
It doesn’t owe any racer.
Not the Andrettis, Bettenhausens, nor even the J.R. Hildebrands or Ed Carpenters of today.
One would think this grand old place would owe the Andretti family.
Actually, the Andretti family has one win, and that was famously by the patriarch, Mario, in 1969. Several times during his career, Andretti would try and get that elusive second win, and come close many times, most notably in 1981, 1985 and 1987, when he dominated the event, but was felled by mechanical woes late in the race.
His son Michael nearly won a few times, as well, before that cursed Andretti luck kicked in.
But none of them ever complained about being owed a win. Not even the other Andrettis who raced here, including current runner Marco, and John nor Jeff, whose career was all but ended at the Speedway in a crash.
One would have thought that if anyone were “owed” a win, it would have been the Bettenhausen family, led by Melvin “Tony,” and later followed by his sons Gary and Tony.
The elder Bettenhausen was killed doing something that would be nearly impossible today. He was killed while testing a car for a friend in 1961.
Eleven years later, Gary, driving for Roger Penske, looked like he was heading to victory as he was running circles around everybody, leading for 138 laps.
Fate had other ideas, and his ignition failed with 25 laps left, and Gary B was left to ponder what might have been.
It was his best chance, driving for Penske, and unfortunately he spent the rest of his career chasing a dream that was never realized.
Others who led several laps, but were denied victory for whatever reasons included Lloyd Ruby, Eddie Sachs, Ted Horn and Rex Mays.
A favorite of mine, who might have been a case for a deserved win at the 500 was Roberto Guerrero, as friendly a person as there ever has been.
Take a look at his first four runs at Indy.
He finished second, third, fourth and second. Guerrero also took the pole in 1992, but famously crashed out on the warm-up lap.
Guerrero was nearly killed when he crashed at Indy and was hit by a tire off of his car. Guerrero was in a coma for 17 days.
He came back to race, but except for that pole at Indy and a fifth-place finish in 1996, he never had the same kind of luck as before.
The track owes nobody. Not even one of the nicest drivers of all time.
It doesn’t owe owners, either.
Not Andy Granatelli, Pat Patrick nor Greenwood-based Jonathan Byrd II — as nice a guy as Guerrero.
For Byrd, his mother Ginny, and his brother, David, it’s wait until next year.
That became a reality after 61 laps when Byrd driver Bryan Clauson of Noblesville crashed out.
The beauty, though, is the Byrds and Clauson can come back again next year.
Knowing they are owed nothing, but also knowing they are just as deserving to win as a Penske.
It’s a chance they and 33 racecar drivers are deserving of.
And it’s that much they are owed.