3 Justin Wilson – 7 wins
Everybody on the US racing scene loved Justin Wilson, just as they had in Europe where he’d plied his trade successfully enough to achieve his lifelong ambition of reaching Formula 1. And that only deepens the tragedy of his death, aged just 37, after a freak accident during the IndyCar race at Pocono last August.
Wilson made the stateside switch in 2004 as a way of dealing with the disillusionment of the Jaguar F1 debacle, with which he’d been involved for five races in the second half of 2003. A solitary, eighth-placed point in the US GP, ironically at Indianapolis, was not the reward he’d hoped for.
With his heart set on success in America, and without endless bags of gold to take with him, he joined the Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team. He scored points in every race, including a best result of fourth in the Mexican season finale, to finish 11th in the championship.
For 2005 Wilson joined RuSport for what proved to be a superb three seasons. He took four wins and his drivers’ championship positions read: third, second, second.
The 2008 season heralded a move to the crack Newman-Haas-Lanigan squad, with the title very much the ambition. But his move coincided with the merger of Champ Car into the Indy Racing League (IRL), in which Newman-Haas-Lanigan were very much the newcomers. But Wilson would give the team one final Champ Car hurrah by taking pole for the championship’s one-off (and last-ever) race, at Long Beach in April.
That first IRL season yielded just one win, at Detroit, and 11th in the points. For 2009, Wilson moved back into the relative comfort of the privateer Dale Coyne operation, where he again punched above his weight. He won at the legendary Watkins Glen and took ninth in the final reckoning.
Two seasons with Dreyer & Reinbold brought no victories, prompting a return to Coyne for 2012. And it was on the high-speed Texas oval that he would score his seventh and final US single-seater victory.
He remained loyal to Coyne for two more years, notching up four podium finishes, but again fell under the spell of the big time when Andretti Autosport came knocking for 2015.
Wilson’s deal was for a limited number of races, with the promise of a full season for 2016. On the Mid-Ohio road course in what would prove to be his penultimate race start he took a strong second, vindicating team boss Michael Andretti’s decision to hang on to him.
And then came Pocono…
2 Dan Wheldon – 16 wins
Dan made the move onto the US single-seater ladder system back in 2000, having duked it out with Jenson Button in Formula Ford UK in the late-1990s.
The switch proved very successful, with two wins and runner-up spot in the Toyota Atlantic series in the first year, and a similar tally in Indy Lights the following season.
At the end of 2002 came the jump to the big time with Panther Racing. In two races with the team he made an impression, taking a top-10 finish in Chicago.
Thereafter his IndyCar career accelerated quickly, thanks in part to his joining Andretti Green for 2004. In two seasons, he took nine wins which, in year two, included victory in the Indy 500. He won the title later that year and jumped ship to Chip Ganassi Racing for 2006. Three seasons with one of the formula’s most successful team yielded six more wins, but after only finishing fourth in the points in the final year, he found himself looking elsewhere for 2009.
Old friend Panther Racing came to his rescue for two years and he dragged its cars to four podium finishes, but he’d finish no better than ninth in the championship standings.
With no full-time ride in the series for 2011, Wheldon contested just two races. Hired by Bryan Herta Autosport for the Indy 500, he took a fairytale win after JR Hildebrand crashed in front of him at the final corner of the race, ironically for Panther Racing.
Intrigued by the $5million purse on offer from IndyCar bosses to any series irregulars who, from the back of the grid, could win the season-closing Las Vegas race in October, Wheldon made his second appearance of the year.
And then fate intervened. Caught up in a massive mid-field crash while making his way through the pack on lap 11, Wheldon stood no chance as his car flew into the catch-fencing posts.
The 33-year-old, one of IndyCar’s most successful drivers and one of only two Brits to win the Indy 500 more than once, was killed instantly.
1 Dario Franchitti – 31 wins
Scot Dario Franchitti is one of Britain’s greatest racing exports. After plenty of success in junior single-seaters in the UK, he forged a strong relationship with Mercedes-Benz in 1995, racing its C-class machines in the German Touring Car Championship for two seasons. The tie-up led to his joining Carl Hogan’s Merc-affiliated IndyCar operation in 1997.
The 23-year-old proved pretty quickly that a move to America would soon pay dividends by securing pole position in Detroit and scoring two fastest laps in what was a learning year.
A move to Team Green for 1998 signalled the start of Franchitti’s rise to front-running status. In five seasons with the outfit he scored 10 wins and, in ’99, took a best championship finish of second.
The 2003 season marked a switch to the IRL – and it came with the Andretti Autosport squad, albeit for just three races.
Across the next four seasons, however, Franchitti banked eight wins, including the first of three Indy 500 victories, and, in 2007, his first title.
Joining Chip Ganassi Racing for 2008, Franchitti embarked on a brave, high-profile, but unsuccessful assault on the NASCAR stockcar series. Unable to get to grips with the cars, he decided to head back to where he belonged for 2009: IndyCar.
And what followed over the course of the next three years was 12 more wins, including a second Indy 500 victory, and three consecutive drivers’ titles. And the wins continued in 2012, the year in which he added an historic third Indy 500 victory to his CV.
More podium finishes, but no wins, came in 2013, but a nasty shunt on the streets of Houston on the penultimate lap of the weekend’s second race brought a dramatic and untimely end to Franchitti’s career. He recovered from the back injuries he suffered that day, but on doctors’ advice he quit racing to prevent any problems in the future.
Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti images courtesy of Carey Akin licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0