(Header image courtesy of hemmings.com)
Ask anyone who considers themselves a historian of the Indianapolis 500 their opinion on the greatest rookie class in the history of the event and 90% of them will likely respond with the same answer. Almost universally, the rookie Class of 1965 is considered the greatest rookie class in the race’s history. And rightfully so. With names like Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Al Unser, Maston Gregory, Bobby Johns, Jerry Grant, Joe Leonard, and several others, it would be impossible to not put the 1965 at the top of the rankings, or at least within consideration.
However, the rookie Class of 1963 is another class that I think certainly ranks amongst the greatest ever and could make a strong consideration for best ever. While it might not have someone named Andretti, a young Scottish fella by the name of Jim Clark was certainly no sloush. While there are no four-time winners among the Class of ’63, a pair of three-time champions named Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford certainly need no introduction around 16th & Georgetown!
The full crop of rookie drivers who qualified to run in the 1963 Indianapolis 500 included the aforementioned Jim Clark, Bobby Unser, and Johnny Rutherford, along with fellow rookies Al Miller (actually named Al Krulac and nick-named Mr. Clean) and Art Malone. However, several other world-renowned drivers showed up as rookies that same year and did not find a spot in the starting lineup. Among those drivers were Graham Hill, Maston Gregory, Ronnie Duman, Bob Harkey, Ralph Lagouri, and a host of others.
While the 1963 Indianapolis rookie class would eventually go on to attain great accolades at IMS and abroad, their freshman outing wasn’t quite so kind. Though Clark would finish second to Parnelli Jones amongst great controversy and Al Miller managed a respectable ninth place finish, the three remaining newbies finished within the last five positions. Johnny Rutherford finished 29th completed only 43 laps. Art Malone lasted only 18 laps, good for 31st. And Bobby Unser would find his day ended along the Turn 1 wall having completed only a single lap before crashing out, finishing last among the Field of 33.
Nonetheless, the quintet of drivers would go on to amass a stellar resume in Indy car racing and beyond, including 54 Indianapolis 500 starts, seven wins, four USAC/CART national championships, a drag racing national championship, and a pair of Formula One World Driving Championships. While Clark is considered by many to be among the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, Unser and Rutherford are two of America’s most iconic legends from the post-World War II era.
By contrast, the highly touted Class of 1965 also won seven Indianapolis 500s to go with 10 USAC/CART national championships, an AMA Grand National motorcycle national championship, and a single World Driving Champion. (…and the AP/Racer Magazine Driver of the Century, if you’re into those sorts of accolades.)
I am not trying to downplay the significance of the Class of 1965 by any stretch of the imagination. There is no doubt that class is the most accomplished in terms of overall career prestige when looking at the collective careers on a global scale. However, if someone were to ask me the most impressive class of rookies solely in terms of their Indianapolis 500 careers, I would be hard pressed to put any other class above the sometimes-overlooked Class of 1963.