Image: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

TORRES: An Agonizing History of the No. 1 Plate in IndyCar

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Let’s face the music. As much as I prefer seeing the NTT IndyCar Series champion represent the No. 1 in their car, history has been against them due to various shortcomings.

Over the past two seasons, the reigning INDYCAR champion have carried the No. 1 banner, but weren’t able to retain it. Heading into 2019, five-time champion Scott Dixon did a photo shoot standing next to his PNC Bank Honda. What stood out was the No. 1 appearing on his car instead of the iconic No. 9 on the rear wing.

 

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Reunited with this beauty 🏎, little preseason shoot. That orange pops! 👨🏼‍🦰

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Fans speculated with shock as Dixon never used the No. 1 on his car since 2004 where he finished 10th in the championship standings, an abysmal season by Dixon standards. Like everyone, I was thinking they’re willing to give the No. 1 another go, but it was too good to be true.

It turned to be a ruse as Dixon said they’ll be heading to Circuit of the Americas and all throughout 2019 with his traditional number, citing that it’s car owner Chip Ganassi’s decision.

Drivers from multiple sanctioning bodies are more willing to keep their main number instead of representing the top number in the motorsports industry these days.

Since the allowance of Formula One drivers having the option of running their own numbers, only Sebastian Vettel in 2014 carried the No. 1 and it hasn’t been used since with a minor exception from Lewis Hamilton, who didn’t ran his No. 44 Mercedes during Free Practice No. 1 at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

This had me thinking as how bad the curse truly is in the world of IndyCar?

I’m only focusing on the current incarnation dating back to the Indy Racing League days. No surprising, neither driver retained the No. 1 and at one point, it made a one-off appearance from a former champion.

Without further ado, let’s take a look back at the nine guys who carried a prestigious but burden number in American open wheel racing.

Scott Sharp: 22nd in the 1996-97 standings (Paul Durant and Billy Boat subbed for a total of five races)

The inaugural IRL season consisted of just three races, taking place at Walt Disney World, Phoenix and Indianapolis. After the first Indy 500 during “The Split,” Buzz Calkins and Scott Sharp were crowned co-champions. Sharp, driving for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, took the No. 1 plate for the 1996-97 season.

Right away, it seemed things were heading off to a fantastic start as Sharp won the season opener at Loudon. However, that was the only memorable highlight as the rest of the season was an absolute disaster.

During the controversial month of May in 1997, Sharp had a heavy shunt at the exit of Turn 3 during practice, and sustained head injuries. That accident forced Paul Durant to replace the reigning co-champion, and finished 21st.

Sharp missed five races as a result, but injuries would come back to haunt him at Pikes Peak, where a minor incident proved to be more as he had a brain injury, sidelining him for the rest of the season and ended up 22nd in points, the lowest on this list.

Fortunately, Billy Boat filled in for four races and got two runner-up finishes out of it. Boat’s only non-top 10 result took place at the finale in Las Vegas, when an electrical failure forced him out of the race and finished 23rd out of 31 cars after starting on the pole.

For the next six seasons, Sharp would win at least one race and finished in the top-10 points standings with third in 2001 being his best in that span.

Tony Stewart: 3rd in 1998

Sometimes, having the No. 1 on your car may not be as bad but it’s one thing to represent it, but retaining the championship is another challenge. Tony Stewart backed up his 1997 title with another strong campaign, scoring wins at the season opener at Walt Disney World and Loudon. Unlike Sharp, Stewart did have tremendous runs, but four car failures hurt his title defense.

Most notably, his early exit in the 1998 Indy 500, when Stewart’s greatest shot of accomplishing his lifelong goal was dashed after 22 laps. His No. 1 Team Menard entry stopped in Turn 1 and left dejected, feeling that the hallow grounds of Indianapolis had a vendetta on the legendary driver.

This would be Stewart’s last full-season in open wheel competition as he made the jump to NASCAR full-time in 1999, where he went on to win three championships.

Greg Ray: 13th in 2000

Greg Ray was one IRL original that excelled, scoring three wins for John Menard in his first full-season in 1999, but at the turn of the New Millennium, success was gone. After 1998 champion Kenny Brack kept the No. 14 in 1999, Ray brought back the No. 1 plate and while he was fast during qualifying, scoring five poles, his races were ones to forget.

Ray’s season started off on a horrible start, finishing just barely in the top-20 at Walt Disney World and Phoenix. Momentum against him, Ray bounced back with a ninth-place result at Las Vegas. Then in May, Ray out qualified the Ganassi entries of Jimmy Vasser and 1999 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya, and won the pole.

It seemed that he would be one of the favorites to stop them, right?

That didn’t happened and like Stewart, Ray finished last at Indy as the defending champion after crashing his Team Menard Oldsmobile in Turn 2 on lap 66. This was when starting on the pole was bad mojo as it was the second time in three years that the pole sitter finished 33rd, extended to three-out-of-four by Sharp the following year.

Indy marked Ray’s third retirement in four starts as the remainder of the season was bleak except Atlanta, where he eviscerated the competition, leading 182 of 208 laps en route to his only win. An electrical failure in the finale at Texas marked Ray’s fifth retirement in a slim nine-race calendar, and to prove how disastrous 2000 was, he never cracked the top-10 in points.

Ray would only win one more time in IndyCar at Atlanta, and once again owned the competition as he led 184 of 200 laps. However, that race is only remembered for the horrific big one that involved 11 cars, including Robbie Buhl, Casey Mears, and Al Unser, Jr.

He ran an additional three seasons, but failed to crack the top-15 in points and by many people, he’s viewed as a footnote instead of just a series champion.

Scott Dixon: 10th in 2004

IndyCar fans would have to wait until 2004 to see the No. 1 back in the sport as 2000 champion Buddy Lazier and 2001-02 champion Sam Hornish, Jr. kept their original numbers in that time period.

When Dixon won the 2003 title as a rookie, maybe it was going to be the year that the curse was going to be lifted. Like everyone but Stewart, it was a struggle and one of the reasons why Dixon has never used that number since winning an additional four championships.

This was Dixon’s only winless season in IndyCar, and the last of his two (2002 in CART), as he failed to finish four times. Additionally, he scored one podium at Phoenix, where he lost to eventual series champion Tony Kanaan. Worse of all, this was the season that Dixon missed his first of only two races in his entire open wheel career that dates back to 2001 at The Milwaukee Mile.

Dixon crashed not one, but two of his G-Force Toyotas in practice and qualifying, with the latter being the heavy blow. The “Ice Man” sustained a thumb fracture and sprained ankle, forcing him to sit out the race. While Dixon rallied back to barley finish in the top-10 standings at season’s end, it was the last time both he and Ganassi used the No. 1 in IndyCar.

Michael Andretti: 3rd at the 2006 Indianapolis 500

This one was rather odd as Michael Andretti, not Dan Wheldon, who moved from Andretti Green Racing to Ganassi in 2006, represented the No. 1 Honda in a one-off race at the Indianapolis 500, his first IndyCar start since 2003.

Andretti, who has led 427 laps up to that point in 14 tries, came back to assist his then 19-year-old son Marco Andretti, who was running the speedway for the first time. Both father and son had a successful afternoon, but as everyone knows the story, they didn’t win the 500. Michael took the lead from Kanaan on the 194th lap and led for four consecutive laps, appearing that it’ll finally be the day. Marco thought otherwise and snatched the lead convincingly from Michael before Sam Hornish, Jr. slingshots by him with 400 yards remaining to score his only Indy 500 victory.

Michael would have to settle for third and would only run one more Indy 500 the following year. Only that time around, he was in the No. 39 Honda and finished 13th. During the CART days, Michael ended up runner-up to Bobby Rahal in 1992, the season he had the No. 1 in his Newman-Haas Ford Lola.

Ryan Hunter-Reay: 7th in 2013

It wouldn’t be another eight years until IndyCar fans saw the No. 1 on the reigning champion as Ryan Hunter-Reay ended the drought. As a nice touch, he kept his No. 28 by bisecting the number.

For awhile, it seemed that Hunter-Reay was on the cusp of breaking the curse, staying inside the top-three of the majority of the season with triumphant victories at Barber Motorsports Park and The Milwaukee Mile, but his season took a nosedive after Sonoma.

Back-to-back retirements at Baltimore and the first day at Houston demoralized his title chase as he went from third down to fifth in the standings with two more races remaining. Another poor run the following day at Houston dropped him down to sixth and despite recovering for a ninth-place run at Fontana, he still lost another spot in the standings, finishing a whopping seventh.

As been the case for most of his career, Hunter-Reay is strong when the races goes his way, such as winning Indy two seasons later, but 2013 had its moments where both good and bad defined his title defense.

Will Power: 3rd in 2015

2014 proved to be the year Will Power finally put on an all-around strong campaign and captured that elusive title, and at the time, had the best title defense of those who carried the No. 1 plate.

His mastery drives such as at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and staying within grasp of Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya proved to some critics that he’s no fluke in the sport. Like everyone else, Power couldn’t escape the bug down the stretch and it was evident after crashing out at Fontana in June.

With a tight points battle, Power dropped from second to fifth in the standings. Worse of all, at the following race in Milwaukee, he was involved in a hard two-car crash with Ryan Briscoe, and didn’t fully recover from those blemishes.

Power made the headlines at the title-deciding race at Sonoma, when he collided with Montoya in Turn 4 on Lap 39. The incident hurt Montoya’s chances of winning the championship and going 16-for-16 at staying first in points as Dixon scored his third win, winning the tiebreaker over Montoya to win his fourth title.

Despite this, Power equaled Stewart as the highest points finisher while driving the No. 1 car, but that’ll be surpassed by another Penske teammate two seasons later.

Simon Pagenaud: 2nd in 2017

Like Power, Simon Pagenaud’s championship season took place after years of not having the right opportunity to flourish his IndyCar career.  He proved his worth with Team Penske in 2016, scoring five victories and eight poles. Heading into 2017, he kept the recent Penske tradition going by having the honorable number.

Pagenaud never had to worried about retirements as he was at the finish in each of the 17 races and completed all 2,331 laps that were contested. Even taking the championship lead early on after scoring at win at Phoenix.

Thanks to a fourth-place result, Pagenaud retained his championship lead after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Going into the Indy 500, Pagenaud had Menard’s as his primary sponsor, hoping it’ll be the year that he’s the one that finally brings the family-owned company a win at “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” That’s when his title defense fell apart.

He failed to bring another Indy 500 win for Roger Penske, finishing a disappointing 16th. Followed by a season-low 16th at the first race in Belle Isle. Those poor runs punted him out of the top spot and was now in fourth. The Frenchman never took the championship lead ever again, but he ended an otherwise strong campaign with a big win at Sonoma.

His victory put him in second in the final standings, the highest finish of a driver that carried the No. 1 to date under the IRL/IndyCar Series banner. Also, that victory marks his latest in the series as he went winless in 2018 and not coming close in the title picture.

The man who won the title in 2017 was his teammate Josef Newgarden, who also took the No. 1 plate.

Josef Newgarden: 5th in 2018

It’s safe to say last season wasn’t Penske’s strongest in recent memory, but Newgarden made the most of it. Out of all the drivers who were trying to retain the No. 1, the Henderson, Tennessee native had the most wins in a season with three. Those took place in a short period of time, with victories at Phoenix, Barber and Road America, and scoring four poles.

Although Newgarden was one of four drivers with a mathematical shot of winning the IndyCar championship at Sonoma, three finishes outside the top-10 in a span of five races at the Indy Road Course, Belle Isle Race No. 2 and Texas, proved to be insurmountable and wasn’t able to catch Dixon and Alexander Rossi.

An eighth-place at Sonoma and a Hunter-Reay victory dropped him from third to fifth in the final standings, as he’ll head into 2019 with an improving season that’ll bring back the IndyCar title to Team Penske.

Conclusion

It’s clear as day that having the option of having the No. 1 in your car can be rewarding and a risk, with only three finishing in the top-three in points. Often by having that number proved to be such a career detriment, that teams won’t even bother taking that risk. History shows that it hasn’t been favorable, especially from the first couple of drivers on this list.

To this day, Sebastien Bourdais is the last driver in American open wheel racing to retain the No. 1, when he won an additional three titles in Champ Car after winning his first in 2003.

For now, Newgarden will be the last guy carry it, but compared to earlier on, it has lifted quite a bit, yet so far from breaking it.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.