Each day this week, Robin Miller will be highlighting the stars of the Indianapolis 500 who never made it to racing's most famous Victory Lane. He starts with four drivers who proved their immense talent at The Brickyard and across America in the pre-1950 era, but for whom the stars never aligned at the right time for Indy glory.
Indianapolis can be as cruel as it can be glorious and, throughout the years, it's made instant stars and sympathetic heroes in equal numbers. But there are a handful of accomplished racers who have excelled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yet never made it to the checkered flag first. Their faces aren't on the Borg-Warner Trophy but their hearts have been stomped on repeatedly in May. And one of the longest, on-going debates is which driver is the best to have never pulled into Victory Lane.
“Whether it's fair or not, you are judged by your performance at Indianapolis,” says Mario Andretti, who led 556 laps but only made it to Victory Lane once in his unparalleled career. “And that means having your mug on that Borg-Warner Trophy.”
Obviously, it's a subjective argument and lot depends on eras, equipment and competition because most race fans have a leading candidate. It's impossible to know if Harry Hartz was better than Mike Mosley or whether Jack McGrath was as unlucky as Jimmy Snyder or Gary Bettenhausen. While this is just my opinion, keep in mind I'm rating their performance at Indy, not their overall résumé. There's no denying Tony Bettenhausen was a badass and a champion but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn't his cup of tea (he only led 24 laps in 14 starts) so he's not in the conversation.
THE FIRST 50 YEARS
It's nearly impossible to judge drivers you never saw, except in old 16-millimeter newsreels, so one must trust the record books and local knowledge when we're talking about Harry Hartz, Ted Horn, Rex Mays and Jimmy Snyder.
Hartz's claim to fame is being the only three-time runner-up to never win in IMS history but that doesn't begin to tell what a wild, wonderful ride he had for much of his 78 years. Born in Pomona, Calif., he was racing cars at 18 and then signed on with the Duesenberg brothers after World War I where he was riding mechanic with Eddie Hearne in the 1921 Indianapolis 500. Bored with that role, Hartz was behind the wheel of the same car in 1922 and amazingly started and finished second – leading 42 laps and losing by three minutes to Jimmy Murphy.
On returning in 1923 with Clint Durant's car, HH again started second, was out in front for six laps and after five hours and 29 minutes found himself second to Tommy Milton by the same margin as in '22 – three minutes. His final drive at Indy and final bridesmaid finish came in 1926 where he drove his Miller to second – two laps behind teammate Frank Lockhart in a race ended at the 400-mile mark by rain.
After six tries at Indianapolis, where he never qualified worse than fourth, Harry was badly burned in a crash and spent two years recovering in a hospital. He lost most of his money in the Great Depression and but resurfaced at Indianapolis in 1930 as a car owner/chief mechanic, where he finally made it to Victory Lane with Billy Arnold and again in 1932 with Fred Frame.
As fate would have it, Hartz would also play a major role in Horn's career. After making his initial Indy start in 1935, Ted caught Hartz's eye and was hired to drive his Miller – where he started 11th and finished second (a familiar spot for HH) to Louis Meyer (a three-time Indy winner). Horn finished third and fourth in 1937 (RIGHT) and 1938 respectively, for Hartz, before back-to-back fourth places in the Boyle Special. Ted charged from 28th to third in 1941 before WWII suspended Indianapolis for four years.
So Horn, who volunteered for service in the Army but was rejected due to his various racing injuries, was still looking for that elusive W at Indianapolis when racing resumed in 1946. But, despite starting from the pole in '47, and despite capturing the Triple A championship (the Indy car title) all three seasons 1946-'48, success at the Brickyard would elude him those years, too, driving a Maserati to two thirds and a fourth.
“Horn had an amazing record, finishing no worse than fourth for nine straight years!” says IMS historian Donald Davidson. “But he always seemed to be playing catch-up in the race, with long pit stops or some kind of problem.”
That is best illustrated in '47 when Horn's engine sprang an oil leak and he made two early pit stops and fell back to 26th place on lap 20 – six minutes behind the leader. He rallied to finish third and, at the victory banquet, according to his biography by Russ Catlin, the emcee gave plaudits to Mauri Rose and Bill Holland for finishing 1-2 before saying: “‘But everyone here knows who drove the greatest race yesterday,' and all eyes turned towards the driver sitting with the bowed head [Horn].”
Tragically, after clinching his third straight championship, Horn was killed in the 1948 season finale at DuQuoin.
Just looking at Rex Mays' statistics leaves you shaking your head in amazement that victory eluded him at 16th & Georgetown. In 12 Indy 500s, he won the pole position four times, started on the front row three other times and led 266 laps.
“He was the first driver to ever win three poles and he led nine of the 12 races he ran, but not a single lap past lap 99,” observes Davidson ruefully.
Mays' first pole in his second start in 1935 looked to be his day as he paced 89 of the first 99 laps before being victim of a “spring shackle” failure. He also led 59 laps in 1940 but finished second, a position he repeated the following May, this time after leading 38 laps. World War II deprived the two-time Triple A champion of four shots at Indy in his prime but in 1949 (ABOVE) one of the most popular drivers ever qualified one of the most popular yet star-struck cars ever (the Novi) in the middle of Row 1.
“Rex Mays is the man who will tame that racecar,” predicted Shaw, who was by now IMS president. Of course, it didn't happen and the Novi was out after 50 laps with a mechanical malady. That would be Mays' last shot as he was killed in November that year at Del Mar, Calif., after being thrown from his car and struck by a following car. He was only 36.
A member of the “Chicago Gang,” midget racers that included Tony Bettenhausen and Paul Russo, Snyder made his name in the small open wheel cars before tackling Indy in 1935. Only a five-time starter, Snyder managed to capture a pole, finished runner-up in 1939 and led 181 laps between 1937 and '39 before being killed in a midget at age 29. But the Indy 500 for which Snyder will be best remembered wasn't the one where he started first and finished second, nor the one where he led 92 laps ('38) but the remarkable opening stages of the '37 event. That year, Snyder took the green flag at Indianapolis from the inside of Row 7 – that's 19th on the grid – yet was leading the race by lap 3!
His death makes him yet another of the Brickyard's what-might-have-been stories and, unfortunately, another tragic one.
• Tomorrow: three of the best from the 1960-'90 period who never got to drink the milk.