One of the most dominant drivers of the first half of the 1930s, Cummings started on a prodigious pace as he was offered an Indianapolis 500 ride in 1929 at age 22 but was eventually forced to turn it down because AAA refused to allow him to enter due to his lack of any professional Championship Car starts. Instead, he made his debut at Langhorne, a brand new track that would go on to be even more dangerous, for the likewise first-time car owner Karl Kizer. Cummings won from the pole and led every lap of the race. He added another win in the season finale at Syracuse and earned top fives in his other three starts en route to third in points. However, he really took off in 1932-34 when he drove for Mike Boyle's Boyle Valve powerhouse (although in quite a few races including his 1934 Indy 500 win, H.C. Henning was the listed car owner.) In a five-race span, Cummings would win four more times including his first Indianapolis 500 and three wins on dirt tracks (Oakland, Detroit, and Syracuse), with the only blemish a DNF at Indianapolis after winning the pole. He was an especially dominant qualifier winning eight of ten poles in this period, although oddly not in the case of his Indy 500 win. Considering he was still only 27 years old at the time of his Indianapolis win, it seemed like he would continue to dominate for years to come, but strangely, despite remaining with the Boyle team (which would go on to Indy 500 wins with Wilbur Shaw in 1939-40) he faded after that. He still had some very good runs, including a 3rd the following year at Indianapolis, two more second place finishes, and good runs at the Vanderbilt Cup races finishing 7th both times (and he was the top American finisher in the 1936 event, although nowhere near as fast as Billy Winn when Winn was running), but is believed to have never led a lap after that, even after winning the pole for the 1937 Indianapolis 500 (some lap leader data are missing.) While his 1930-34 period was particularly explosive, his 1935-38 period was rather mediocre, and although he was dominant on dirt tracks and did have several good runs at Indianapolis besides his win, he was not really a significant contender in his few board track and road course starts. Ultimately, I rated Billy Arnold higher from this period, as he had even more explosive dominance albeit over even fewer starts. Cummings was noteworthy as one of the first major stars from Indianapolis, where he would also perish in a road accident on State Road 29 when he crashed through a guardrail on a bridge over Lick Creek in early 1939 and fell into the creek. While he initially survived, he died in the hospital two days later. I don't see this so much as a 'what could have been' case. Much like Dan Wheldon, Cummings was looking like he had lost his edge and probably did not have many wins left even though he was a mere 32. While they both likely would have still won a race or two afterward, they had clearly peaked several years earlier, especially considering what Shaw did in the Boyle car after replacing Cummings.
Possibly this era's best example of a driver overachieving in weak equipment to propel himself to an enduring major-team ride (as Justin Wilson arguably never got a major-team ride and Will Power and Simon Pagenaud started with stronger cars before making it to Penske), Hunter-Reay did get something of a break in 2003 landing a ride for Stefan Johansson's new American Spirit team (not sponsored by the cigarette company, but designed to support US talent in CART.) The two American drivers, the 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser and Hunter-Reay, were the only American full-time drivers that season, but they were burdened by the out-of-date Reynard chassis, which had been dominant very recently until the chassis-maker went out of business in early 2002, not to mention a lack of sponsorship (leading the team to just put the names Jimmy and Ryan on the cars instead.) Although Hunter-Reay would only beat two full-time drivers and would be beaten by his teammate, he did shockingly go on to win the season finale at Surfer's Paradise (the last race sanctioned by CART), by choosing to pit on dry tires on a drying track and benefiting from a later caution. The Johansson team went out of business, but Hunter-Reay moved on to the Herdez Competition team where he won from the pole at Milwaukee and led flag-to-flag, becoming the last driver to do so on an oval race in any IndyCar series, and once again the only driver to ever win a race for this team (although he was beaten in points by his teammate Mario Domínguez.) Again forced to move to Rocketsports Racing in 2005, he was again outperformed by his rookie teammate Timo Glock. This doesn't look so bad in retrospect as it did at the time as Glock went on to a GP2 championship, a couple top tens in F1 points, and a couple DTM wins, but being outperformed by a rookie caused Hunter-Reay to be considered damaged goods and he was fired before the end of the season and had no ride for almost two seasons despite his early potential for awful teams. He searched for other opportunities including one with his brother-in-law Robby Gordon's NASCAR team and finally got his big break when Bobby Rahal randomly hired him as a mid-season replacement for his very mediocre driver Jeff Simmons. Despite the long layoff, Hunter-Reay earned three top tens in six races, and winning Rookie of the Year, saving the IRL the embarrassment of having Milka Duno as its ROTY. He claimed his first IRL win at Watkins Glen in 2008, the first merged season, after Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe crashed under caution after dominating the race, but again, due to a loss of sponsorship he was out of a ride, but eventual series sponsor IZOD decided in advance of the 2009 season that they wanted to make him their poster boy by featuring him in ads, but awkwardly did not want to spend the money to sponsor a car, so Tony George hired him for his IMS house team Vision Racing until he shut down the team when he resigned as IRL President after his sisters wanted him to cut his expenditures on the series; for the rest of the year, he was forced to drive for A.J. Foyt's team, which was worse than it is even today and he had minimal success. He finally obtained stability in 2010 when he signed with Michael Andretti and his early-season win at Long Beach eventually propelled him to finally get steady sponsorship. Andretti stuck with him despite a dismal start to 2011 when he failed to qualify for the Indy 500 and had to buy Bruno Junqueira's previously-qualified entry to start and was outside of the top 20 in points nearly halfway through the season; however, a strong finish with eight top tens in his last nine starts including the infamously controversial race at Loudon propelled him to 7th in points, and he continued this momentum into 2012 with a championship, which revived the relatively struggling Andretti team's fortunes with his first multi-win season, as he won at Milwaukee, Iowa, and Toronto consecutively before winning a fourth race at Baltimore to put him in position to come from behind to win the title after Will Power crashed in the season finale, and he did so in a year the rest of the team went winless. Hunter-Reay would follow this up with three consecutive two-win seasons including the 2014 Indianapolis 500 where he won an exciting duel with Hélio Castroneves. He became especially known for his ability on short ovals, which in recent years has been largely unmatched with a win at Loudon, two wins at Milwaukee, and three wins and a second place at Iowa since 2011. Even this year at Phoenix despite his slower Honda powerplant he was almost the only person who was passing anyone at all at Phoenix. However, his career has several flaws as well, as even in his best seasons he is incredibly inconsistent (he has proven he can win anywhere but also have a poor finish just about anywhere as well.) His championship is to this day his only top five points finish so to some degree it is sort of an outlier, but on the other hand, he has greatly performed the rest of the Andretti team since his arrival there in 2010. He has also been fairly lucky with 16 wins and only 10 TNL and 8 cumulative races led, which can be viewed as either lucky (he wins more than he theoretically 'should') or clutch. I am more inclined to say clutch (his clutch score only trails Adrián Fernández and Jacques Villeneuve among major winners since the start of the formation of CART), but his extraordinary hit-or-miss rate where he generally struggles when he does not have a car capable of winning is disconcerting. However, his ability to sometimes randomly get wins amongst the strings of mid-pack finishes and DNFs is not matched by many contemporaries. However, it's clear he hasn't had nearly the equipment of the Penske and Ganassi drivers and still has had a fairly eye-popping career. Ultimately this is a solid balance between his extreme ability to be clutch when he has cars even barely capable of winning and his inconsistency when he does not.
Donohue was the foundation of the Penske Racing operation in almost every series including IndyCar racing (where Penske went on to have its greatest success), so that is worth a lot even where the stats don't seem to match. Donohue was most dominant in the Trans-Am touring series in its early seasons, but also dominated in Can-Am, won the first IROC championship in stock cars, and was the last road course ringer to win a race in NASCAR, and aside from the IROC title, he did all this for Penske who had no success as a car owner prior to him. What is especially odd considering he is one of the greatest American road racers ever is that all his IndyCar wins came on ovals. As Donohue primarily focused on road racing and IndyCar racing was kind of an extracurricular hobby for him, he never came very close to running a complete USAC schedule (running 8/11 races in 1971 and 6/10 in 1972 at his most active, and at this point there were no longer any road courses on the schedule.) In his first three seasons (1968-70) he ran a very small percentage of the races, generally cherry-picking road races and the Indy 500, where he did win ROTY in 1969 and finish 2nd in 1970, and admittedly he did win a pole at Sears Point in 1970 and earn a 2nd place finish at the IRP road course that year, but he was generally no match for Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney on road courses in an IndyCar (again, nothing wrong with that...they are probably the two BEST road racers in American history, after all.) In 1971, Donohue won Penske's first two races as a car owner back-to-back at Pocono in the Schaefer 500 and in a 200-miler at Michigan, also winning the pole for the third 500-miler at Ontario and breaking a gearbox while leading at Indianapolis. Penske's use of the McLaren F1 team's IndyCar chassis greatly improved their fortunes and practically everyone dominated with McLaren chassis at the time, leading to much of Johnny Rutherford's (overrated) success and Roger McCluskey's shock 1973 championship. However, Donohue still gets a sizable proportion of the credit for building Penske into a powerhouse since his Ivy League (Brown) degree in mechanical engineering allowed him to have input in car development in an era when that was starting to even become a thing of the past. Although his Penske teammate Gary Bettenhausen (who was one of my first ten out after being on earlier drafts of the list) dominated the 1972 Indy 500, he failed to finish due to an ignition failure, which handed Jerry Grant the lead until a penalty, which handed Donohue the lead. Perhaps it was not the most impressive Indy 500 win ever, but it was Penske's first and served as the culmination of Donohue's career for Penske. Furthermore, it must be noted that Donohue ran most of his races in 1971-72, which were the 2nd and 3rd deepest years ever in IndyCar history (behind the 2001 CART season) and that is seriously reflected in the difference between Donohue's mediocre win and points per race totals and much stronger adjusted win and adjusted points per race totals. Donohue did all this among some of the greatest drivers of all time, which is enough to slightly overlook his relative lack of dominance, fairly low RVC, and so on. After making only a handful of starts after his Indy win, he and Penske next moved to Formula One, where he would sadly die the day after crashing in the Austrian Grand Prix. His injuries seemed initially minor but a headache rapidly resulted in a coma and a cerebral hemorrhage. Since he was 38 years old at the time, I suspect he probably would never have returned to IndyCar racing after his Formula One career concluded, and at most would have returned to sports car racing, which seemed to be his first love. His IndyCar career is almost a footnote, but what a footnote!
Few drivers EVER dominated at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway like Arnold. In his 3rd appearance at age 24, he set the record for most laps led in an Indy 500 (198) which still stands. After winning the pole by almost 2 mph over eventual three-time winner Louis Meyer, he lost the lead to Meyer on the start but repassed him on lap 3 and led the rest of the race. While several other drivers including 2nd place finisher Shorty Cantlon sought relief, Arnold stayed in the car the entire race and won by over seven minutes (about four laps). In 1931, his initially pole-winning speed was disqualified because his brake cables were disconnected, forcing him to qualify on the second day of qualifying, where he set an even FASTER speed, 3.3 mph faster than the pole winner Russ Snowberger, but was forced to start 18th as a result. No matter. From his 18th starting position, he took the lead in EIGHT LAPS and led all the way until crashing on lap 163 when he lost a wheel while holding a five-lap lead. Sadly the tire bounced over the fence and killed a young boy who was playing in his front lawn. Arnold broke his pelvis and his riding mechanic Spider Matlock broke his shoulder. Arnold however was back in 1932 where he qualified a mere second this time before taking the lead on the 2nd lap until a lap 59 crash, which bizarrely resulted in the opposite injuries, with Arnold breaking his shoulder and Matlock breaking his pelvis. At his wife's urging, Arnold retired from racing on the spot at age 26. Despite only making five starts at Indianapolis, he is STILL 13th in all-time laps led and his three consecutive TNLs at Indianapolis in 1930-32 would only ever be matched by Bill Vukovich, who managed FOUR (1952-55). His Indianapolis results weren't even all he did, as he ran the complete 1930 schedule and won the championship, also sweeping the board track races at Altoona that year (in one of those races according to a contemporary newspaper account, he LAPPED THE FIELD IN EIGHT LAPS, although later lost the lead on track before ultimately winning...these races were weird.) Arnold retired from racing anything outside Indianapolis in 1931 and 1932, but if he had, I'm sure he would have continued to dominate. He also had one of the most interestingly diverse post-careers of any IndyCar driver ever, as after his retirement he earned a Ph.D. from MIT, was a one-star general in World War II, owned a car dealership, started a construction business, and helped pioneer the sport of water skiing. Putting him at the very top of a list based on such a short career would certainly be silly (even if no one was close to him in his prime) but as far as being a Renaissance man outside of racing accomplishments, I think he was clearly unmatched in ADDITION to his mindboggling dominance. It does make one wonder how this guy has been snubbed from pretty much every hall of fame. The IMHoF in Talladega has been very bad about rewarding 1910s-30s talents, so that doesn't surprise me, but the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and IMS Hall of Fame both have a lot of drivers inducted who seem to be less important. I guess he's being snubbed because he competed in the early years of the 'junk formula' period with less technological cars that were considered dumbed down and did not compete against many fields deep in talent (even though his 1930 500 win came against a 38-car field which was one of the largest 500s ever). The junk formula period is often compared to the IRL for these reasons, but there's a big difference. Many of the great late '20s drivers like Pete DePaolo, Frank Lockhart, his car owner Harry Hartz, and Ray Keech died or had career-ending injuries, which created a bit of a power vacuum for a while, but that is HARDLY Arnold's fault. He still dominated the best IndyCar drivers left, unlike the IRL drivers when the best drivers were in CART. Besides, there were still four other winners entered in 1930, even if some of them won later (Louis Meyer, DePaolo, Bill Cummings, and Wilbur Shaw.) That isn't THAT bad.
I used to say Castroneves was the most overrated IndyCar driver in history, but that was lacking appropriate historical perspective. I think Barney Oldfield, Louis Meyer, Johnny Rutherford, Alex Zanardi, and Arie Luyendyk would all be better arguments for that for various reasons (for one thing, except for Luyendyk, they're all consistently rated higher), and I think Oldfield would be #1 (sure, all great drivers and all on the list, but that's the point...to be massively overrated you have to be judged as great in the first place! Citing an average or slightly above average driver like Danica or Marco for this because they are overhyped (not the same thing) would be silly...) I think considering his lack of competition Oldfield would be THE correct answer. However, Castroneves IS still clearly overrated and the most overrated driver of his era. The first thing I would point out to you is how VERY un-clutch he is. With 29 wins and 24 terminal natural leads, he has over 36 cumulative natural leads. Only George Amick, Jim Hurtubise, and Jud Larson had 25 or more starts on the list and were LESS clutch than Castroneves, and they were not exactly driving for Penske all that time. Since Castroneves has more wins than terminal natural leads, he has actually been fairly LUCKY as he wins more often than he puts himself in position to win, despite not winning nearly as much as the level of his dominance, so had he been less fortunate this could be even worse. I'd be willing to accept that if he spent most of his career driving for weaker teams, but now as the longest-tenured Penske driver, that is a problem. Indy-centrists will say Castroneves is clutch because of his three Indy 500 wins. However, he only actually took the lead on track in one of those races (2009), winning the others because of pit strategy. However, he was passed for the win twice (2003 by his greatly superior but usually lower-rated teammate Gil de Ferran and in 2014 by Ryan Hunter-Reay, and that's ignoring the fact that Paul Tracy would have had 2002 won if the caution had come out a mere ten seconds later, and some people think he did win.) Like all the drivers who peaked in the split, he tremendously benefited from diluted fields, although to his credit, he is extremely versatile and has a perfect modern versatility score of 10 with multiple wins on short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, street courses, and Indianapolis, which only four other drivers have done. Unlike Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, and Sam Hornish, he didn't seem to NEED the diluted fields to win, as he still won multiple races before and after but I DO think he's a tremendously overrated oval driver considering he seldom contended for oval wins against the full CART fields (although to his credit he was extremely impressive on the short ovals early in 1999 when he actually passed Juan Pablo Montoya's dominant Ganassi entry a couple of times for the lead for the nearly-out-of-business barely-sponsored Hogan Racing, which is probably why he became Penske's heir-apparent after Greg Moore's death.) Castroneves certainly paid his dues for Bettenhausen Racing and Hogan with some amazing performances for them, but despite winning more races than de Ferran in 2000-2001 both years his relative inconsistency which would never really leave him kept him from posing that serious a championship threat either year (although he did have the highest average percent led in 2001, the deepest field in history, one of his main strengths). In the IRL, he seemed to be second-best on all track types as despite his Indy 500 wins, there is no doubt in my mind that Kanaan, Wheldon, and Hornish were better oval drivers than him (but Castroneves was a much better road racer to frequently compensate), and no question that Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were better road racers (with Dixon also being a better oval driver and Franchitti about the same on ovals.) Although he was almost always an outside championship factor in the IRL years, it's hard to say there was any year he should have won (2008 is actually the best argument because Dixon was extremely lucky that year and Castroneves actually beat him in TNL 4-2, implying he put himself into position to win more and it just didn't happen.) However, while he was very unlucky in that period, it was extremely rare outside 2007-2008 for him to be the TNL and not win, as he more frequently won races for which he was not the TNL, winning in the pits and so on, which is also pretty strange for somebody with significantly more poles than wins. Perhaps he was too conservative and a bit of a career compiler, but it does not say a lot that he was beaten to championships by three teammates (de Ferran, Hornish, Will Power) and likely four (Simon Pagenaud...I've changed my mind since I did my write-up on Pagenaud before the IMS road course race), and even the other two teammates (Ryan Briscoe in 2009 and Montoya last year) had championships they arguably 'should have won' and choked. While I take Castroneves over Briscoe, and over Hornish who seems to have showier stats but couldn't drive road courses, and over Pagenaud, whose career peak is merely beginning, it's hard to see him in the same league as the others. He was the third best driver in a late IRL period that really was not all that deep for talent and I can't rate that very highly, but due to his versatility, I ended up rating him higher than I thought I would. However, I've got to think plenty of other drivers over the years would have gotten titles in that 15-year era and Castroneves is very lucky that Penske doesn't fire people as quickly as he used to (say when Tom Sneva was fired after winning a championship.) Given his versatility which other drivers lacked, calling him the most overrated is wrong. The LUCKIEST however might be right. Penske is putting up with the least clutch major driver of the entire post-USAC period solely because of two off-track Indy wins, and in a world where Sébastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson were driving mediocre at best cars I don't know what I think about that.
Here's a weird one: a vintage IndyCar driver who had fantastic results who is now underrated solely because he became more famous for co-founding the car company that now bears his name. Although the car company will no doubt be Chevrolet's principal legacy, his IndyCar career where he was easily one of the most dominant drivers of his era should not be overlooked. Chevrolet won the first points-paying IndyCar race of all time in 1905 and won all three races he started (all on dirt tracks), but that season was kind of an oddball outlier as all the races lasted less than 10 minutes and had 3 or fewer cars. However, in the only race where he and eventual champion Barney Oldfield both started, Chevrolet won, probably indicating that if both had run the entire schedule, he would have won the inaugural championship. Unlike Oldfield, who was merely very good, not great against the deeper fields in succeeding years, Chevrolet however continued to dominate. In 1909, he won three more races (this time all on road courses, one of which lasted EIGHT HOURS). From 1910-15, he sat out most of the races (making only 6 starts) as he and General Motors founder William Durant launched the Chevrolet car company until he sold his share to Durant in 1915, who would eventually trade this new Chevrolet stock for GM stock to once more take over control of the company he founded but was briefly wrested from him. Chevrolet returned to racing in a big way in 1916, winning a non-championship board race at Uniontown to end the season, then seven wins on board tracks and another on a dirt track from 1917-19. He would only qualify for Indianapolis four times and only had one particularly good run (finishing 7th after leading 9 laps) in 1919, which caused his career as a driver to be overshadowed, but considering how often he won on three very different types of tracks (board tracks, dirt tracks, and road courses) with 14 years between his first and last wins (pretty rare in any era), it's still pretty amazing. My hesitation on ranking him even higher than this is that his level of competition wasn't great. He tended to skip a lot of the major races with deeper fields (Indy 500s, Vanderbilt Cups, the 500-mile race at Minneapolis in 1915, and so on) and got his best finishes largely against very small fields, and his younger brother Gaston got the Indy 500 win that eluded Louis, but for his versatility, longevity, and general dominance, he still has to be top 50, even though his significantly lower adjusted wins and adjusted points per race compared to his actual win and points per race totals limit me from putting too much higher within the top 50.
The 1971 and 1972 USAC Championship Car seasons had the second and third greatest competitive depth to the 2001 CART season. Leonard won both championships and did so on a powerhouse 3-car team with AL UNSER and MARIO ANDRETTI as his teammates. There you go. That is his case. I think that is easily enough for me to look past some of his weaker stats like a relatively low winning percentage, an even lower TNL percentage, and the lowest rank vs. contemporaries of every driver in my top 50 (which is certainly understandable against fields like that.) His main weaknesses are his lack of domination, longevity, and versatility. An average percentage led of 4.06% is admittedly very low especially considering he spent most of his career for elite teams (driving for Dan Gurney in 1965-66, A.J. Foyt as a de facto but unofficial teammate to Foyt in '67, who won that year's championship, and then Vel Miletich's dominant Parnelli team for the rest of his career.) However, not being dominant relative to his teammates when his teammates are Gurney, Foyt, Unser, and Andretti (yes, all higher on the list) is not exactly something worthy of criticism. Foyt, Unser, and Andretti would all be top five locks, and some would probably put Gurney in the top ten (I'm not going to.) Leonard claimed his first win in his 11th start by passing Andretti on track and leading a four-car Gurney ensemble including Gurney, Roger McCluskey, and Lloyd Ruby, a very strong team top-to-bottom. He backed that up with a 5th place in his next start also at Milwaukee where he also led after passing A.J. Foyt. How many drivers could say they passed both Andretti and Foyt on track to lead in this era (when they combined to win 7 of 10 titles in the '60s?) In 1968, he was very unlucky, winning the pole for the Indy 500 in a turbine and leading on the final restart with ten laps remaining until breaking a fuel shaft (as the turbines were dominant but unreliable until they were outlawed the following year.) He also won a pole at Hanford and dominated the race, but could only salvage a 4th place finish, his best of the season. In 1969 and 1970 he made very few starts as the Parnelli team focused primarily on Unser, who won 10 out of 18 races to dominate the 1970 season. Leonard did claim one of the other eight wins again at Milwaukee after a late pass of Roger McCluskey. However, when he was added as a full-time teammate to Unser in 1971, he won the championship due to steady and reliable consistency, while Unser claimed five wins including the Indy 500, but those were his only five top tens of the season, as he failed to finish the other events (so certainly Unser was faster, but Leonard got it done to win the championship in spite of Unser's greater dominance.) Leonard was also the TNL at Indianapolis in 1971 where he battled Unser for the lead before suffering a turbocharger failure; however, the favor was repaid at Ontario, where Unser's gearbox failure handed Leonard the win. While it would be his only win of the season, that combined with his 2nd at Pocono gave him the title since the 500-mile races were worth significantly more in the points than any others at the time. 1972 was another matter as he was more unambiguously the top driver, winning three races (one less than Bobby Unser who won the most with four), while Al Unser and Andretti both went winless and Unser managed to only lead 12 laps all year. However, his consistency was otherworldly as he had seven straight top fives to start the season including three consecutive wins at Michigan, Pocono, and Milwaukee and won the title by over 1000 points despite missing the finale at Phoenix due to a practice crash. His career faded after that as he failed to lead a lap in 1973, as the Parnelli team itself was faltering as even Unser and Leonard both failed to finish in the top ten in points, and a tire failure at Ontario in 1974 led to a crash that badly injured his forehead, feet, and legs, effectively ending his career, although in his mid-80s, he is still alive today. He may have had a brief prime. He may have failed to win the Indy 500 (which causes his legacy to be much less than it should be.) He may have generally struggled in his dirt track and road course starts and been an extreme paved oval specialist. I don't care. To dominate a 3-car team against Unser and Andretti in their prime (even if for only one season) is an extraordinary accomplishment, and for him to win the title in both the 2nd and 3rd deepest championship seasons in history is great as well. This may even be too low, but I'm being somewhat conservative here because outside those two seasons, he wasn't that extraordinary. While he wasn't that versatile in terms of the tracks he won at in IndyCar racing, I have to note that he was VERY versatile in his overall racing career as he won three of the first four championships in AMA motorcycle racing before he switched to car racing, and only John Surtees managed to make that kind of crossover successfully besides Leonard (unless you think Jimmie Johnson's motorcycle record is anything resembling Surtees's or Leonard's, which I don't.)
After thoroughly dominating the 1992 Formula One season, Mansell, who expected #1 status at the Williams team, was disgusted when the superior Alain Prost (who he'd had a bad relationship with at Ferrari previously) signed with the team in 1993 and made the shock decision to depart F1 and sign with the Newman-Haas CART team, replacing Michael Andretti who coincidentally moved to Formula One that year. He certainly signed with the right team as Andretti had thoroughly dominated the sport in 1991-92 winning 13 races and earning a ridiculous average percent led of 52% in those two seasons, only barely losing the 1992 title to Bobby Rahal due to extreme inconsistency. While Mansell did not come close to Andretti's dominance, he was no less consistent and managed to become the first driver to win the championship in his rookie season since either Bob Carey in 1932 or Mario Andretti in 1965, whichever you think counts (Andretti made his first 500 start in 1965, but started most of the races in 1964 prior to that.) Mansell achieved at the very rare feat of winning on his debut at the Surfer's Paradise street course, where he also won from the pole. He was the first driver to win his debut race since Graham Hill won the Indy 500 in 1966, but what is particularly strange about his championship season is that all four of his other wins came on ovals. There were only six races on ovals that season, and Mansell was injured in a Phoenix practice crash causing him to miss that race, and botched an Indianapolis 500 restart while leading not realizing he could accelerate earlier than he thought he could, dropping to 3rd and being passed by Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk. However, he swept his last four oval races at Milwaukee, Michigan, Loudon, and Nazareth, and perhaps even more impressively only qualified worse than 3rd three times. However, in general it was Paul Tracy who dominated the road/street courses that year, and Tracy managed to be even more dominant than Mansell. While it is amazing he won the championship in his rookie season, he did enter the dominant car and did better on ovals (where horsepower would be more rewarded) than road courses although it's also sort of silly to say that he had a major horsepower advantage considering how much more dominant Tracy was in the races for Penske. 1994 was another matter as Newman-Haas suffered its only winless Champ Car season as Penske dominated the season with 12 wins in 16 races. Mansell still managed three poles and still managed a stellar qualifying record in general everywhere, but he wasn't really a strong contender to win many races and had numerous DNFs, most infamously at Indianapolis when while running 2nd Dennis Vitolo drove on top of his car under caution taking him out of the race. After a crash with soon-to-be-retired teammate Mario Andretti at Loudon late that season, he almost entirely lost his American fan base and got bored of IndyCar racing, returning to Formula One and winning the infamous final race of the season at Adelaide where Michael Schumacher probably intentionally took Damon Hill out to hold on the championship. Despite a dominant 1993, his departure was as fast as his arrival and it was almost as if he had never been in the US at all, although he greatly added interest in CART internationally and inspired more international drivers in the future.
Meyer was the first driver to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the season championship three times, inadvertently introduced the now-legendary Indianapolis milk tradition by drinking buttermilk in victory lane at Indianapolis in 1933, and had a very impressive-looking win total of 8 wins in an era that had very few races in most seasons. While in my earlier drafts of this list I thought of him as being a leading contender for a top 20 position, his record is not as impressive as it looks on the surface. What shocked me was when I went into newspaper articles from the '20s and '30s and saw how he actually won his races. Although he won eight races, he was the only driver to win that many races or more and NEVER take the lead on track to win...he either took the lead on pit stop exchanges or when other drivers failed to finish, and that is seriously worthy of criticism. He was the terminal natural leader twice including one Indy 500 (1929, the year Ray Keech won), but he was never the winner and the TNL in the same race, and no other drivers with this many wins can say that. While generally I don't care about qualifying, he never won a pole position either indicating a lot of drivers were faster but less reliable. Billy Arnold, Bill Cummings, and Bob Carey were three contemporaries who were significantly more dominant than Meyer in their races, but didn't have as reliable equipment. The final result obviously DOES matter which is the reason I am putting him as high I am, as I understand the argument that to finish first one must first finish and all that. His consistency stats DO outshine almost all the other drivers of his era, with extremely good points per race and adjusted points per race statistics, which are just enough for me to barely take him over Cummings and Arnold even though they were more dominant and did a lot more on the track through their own domination. However, of the first three 3-time Indy 500 winners, Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose, who were all rough contemporaries, Meyer seems to be clearly the weakest because Shaw and Rose seem to have been more responsible for their own dominance than Meyer. There is also the point about Meyer having most of his dominance during the junk formula period of the early '30s which did not have great fields and had several of the weakest 500 winners (especially Louis Schneider and Fred Frame.) He had a similar number of starts to Nigel Mansell behind him and Jacques Villeneuve ahead of him and had a similar average of his wins and terminal natural leads (reflecting his importance at the time), but his greater longevity and multiple championships are enough to counteract the much more impressive fields those two faced. Meyer was rather balanced among different types of ovals, winning three times on board tracks, three times on brick tracks, and twice on dirt ovals, and having eight years between his first and last wins, but I think the reliability of teams is the main reason for his success, and I personally am more excited by drivers like Arnold and Carey (but note that I still rated them lower.)
Villeneuve was almost Nigel Mansell in reverse! While Mansell followed up his 1992 Formula 1 championship with a 1993 CART title in his rookie season, and a good but not great 1994, Villeneuve had a good but not great (but better) 1994 followed by a CART championship in 1995 and a brief run of dominance in F1 culminating in a 1997 F1 title before a long, slow descent where he eventually became pretty awful (admittedly this is where the analogy breaks down as Mansell had many very good years prior to 1992.) Mansell and Villeneuve both won five races, with Mansell winning once on a road/street course and four times on ovals, and Villeneuve winning four times on road/street courses and once on an oval. Mansell and Villeneuve were both limited in 1994 due to Penske having its most dominant season ever with 12 wins in 16 races, but Mansell was a little more dominant, admittedly also in more dominant cars. Ultimately, I choose Villeneuve because Team Green was generally not as strong as Newman-Haas in this period, his competition was stronger as 1995 was a deeper season than 1993, he won both seasons while Mansell was a one-year wonder, and he got an Indy 500 win and Mansell did not, but it's obviously debatable. Villeneuve may have been a surprising choice on merit for a CART ride in 1994 because he got beaten out both in wins and in the championship by his Forsythe teammate Claude Bourbonnais (now completely forgotten) in the Toyota Atlantic Series in 1993, but Villeneuve was younger and had the obviously more marketable last name due to his father Gilles's F1 legacy. Whether he really deserved the ride over Bourbonnais or not, he certainly did the most with it, as he earned one of the four race wins not won by Penske that year by passing Penske teammates Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy 3-wide on a restart which certainly attracted notice. He also quietly came back to claim a 2nd place lead lap finish at the Indy 500 even though Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser, Jr. had pretty much lapped the field by themselves for most of that race until Fittipaldi's crash. However, he was also rather crash-prone with 4 crash DNFs including a notorious crash at Phoenix where he split Hiro Matsushita's car in two several seconds after the initial crash was already over, which was considered by many to be one of the stupidest wrecks of the decade (at least until the IRL got off the ground.) However, Villeneuve was much cleaner and smoother in 1995 as he went on to four victories, six poles, reliable consistency from race to race, and only three mechanical DNFs. The season was highlighted by a surprise Indy 500 where he came back from a two-lap penalty for passing the pace car on a caution to win, ironically after then-leader Scott Goodyear passed the pace car himself. It would go on to be his only ever oval win, but if you're going to win one oval race that is the one to win. His blinding speed on road courses was noted by Formula One team owners and he would go on to spend most of the rest of his career in F1, even long after he was washed up, but it was still certainly better for him than remaining in CART during the split years would have been. Since his F1 career he has been dabbling by switching from one form of racing to another for a few races and being almost equally uncompetitive in all of them, but his willingness to drive everything is worth something, but I don't know how much it's worth when he is no longer competitive in anything. He returned to Indianapolis in 2014 and was similarly uncompetitive but at least finished on the lead lap.