Driver Of The Year History
Auto racing was in the throes of transition in 1967. A.J. Foyt became the first three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and also the only driver to win the grand race in both a roadster and a rear-engine car. Young drivers like Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock and Al Unser were pushing out the old guard in Indy car racing, NASCAR was searching for direction beyond the confines of “good ol’ boy” country and NHRA was trying to rid itself of a poor public image.
It was into this atmosphere of change a new award –DRIVER OF THE YEAR – that would be presented at the end of the ’67 season. Awards in racing had come and gone faster than drivers through decades since Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield flat-footed primitive cars down horse paths at the turn of the century. This was looked on as just another in the long chain of awards that were here today and gone tomorrow.
Except that DRIVER OF THE YEAR is celebrating a birthday this year – it’s 35th. The award has become one of the most prestigious in the sport.
“I think it means like the Heisman (in football) that you have been singled out among your peers to be considered the best.” Said Mario Andretti, winner of the first award in 1967 and again in 1978 and 1984.
“There is no higher compliment on your driving. Of all the awards, this one is special. The criteria go directly to your performance. It carries an awful lot of prestige.”
The DRIVER OF THE YEAR is selected each year by an elite panel of motorsports journalists. Chris Economaki, the respected and peripatetic columnist for National Speed Sport News, is an original panel member and continues as the “dean” of the selectors today. He remembers how the award got its impetus.
“Martini & Rossi had a very significant presence in European racing,” Economaki explained. “They moved an Italian guy here. He looked around and saw they had no presence in American racing.”
In 1967, American racing received little attention in major American newspapers except when there was a spectacular accident involving injury or death. This was only three years after the fiery second lap crash at Indianapolis that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Papers like the New York Times focused more on road racing than on Indy or stock cars.
Television, in those years, showed little auto racing. Occasionally, bits of races would be mixed in with sumo wrestling and Irish hurling on Wide World of Sports. It wasn’t until cable television came along that auto racing became a prime February to November fare on Sundays.
A panel was selected. All members worked for a major paper and Economaki was the only specialist in the sport. The panel selected winners for four segments of the year and then an overall champion. Andretti was named the first winner and the presentation was made in Las Vegas because of the Can-Am racing involvement there.
The 27 year old Andretti, who immigrated to America with his family when he was 15, had a marvelous season. He won the Daytona 500 and then captured the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. He set one- and four-lap qualifying records at Indianapolis, but a lost wheel knocked him out of the race prematurely. He won eight Indy car races and lost the championship when he ran out of fuel while leading the season finale at Riverside, CA, with three laps to go.
Andretti received a check for $7,500 and a bronze trophy. Runners-up were Bruce McLaren, A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty. They received $1,000 each.
“When an award is created it sort of catches you by surprise,” Andretti said about becoming the first DRIVER OF THE YEAR recipient. “I need to digest it for a while.”
“The first time I was just so happy I won it. When I won it again, it had special meaning. Each time I won it again the odds were it had that much more meaning. It means an awful lot.”
The award didn’t fade away after that initial presentation. The next year, Mark Donohue became the only pure road racer to be cited. The Brown University graduate dominated the Trans-Am series, setting records of 10 victories and eight straight that lasted for 27 years. He drove a Roger Penske-owned Camaro and battled Parnelli Jones to the wire for the championship. Penske then brought Donohue into Indy car racing and he won the 1972 Indianapolis 500. He died in 1975 of injuries suffered in a Formula One practice crash in Austria.
A driver from a third form of the sport won the award in 1969. Lee Roy Yarbrough opened the season by winning the Daytona 500 and followed with victories at Darlington, Charlotte, the Daytona Firecracker 400, Atlanta and Rockingham. He also started eighth and finished 23rd in the Indianapolis 500. Yarbrough died December 7, 1984 after a lingering illness.
Al Unser, youngest brother of the Albuquerque, NM racing clan, joined the list of award winners in 1970 after a marvelous season. Driving for George Bignotti, he piloted his Johnny Lightning Special to victory for the first of four times at Indy and won a total of 10 races. He has one string where he jumped back and forth from pavement to dirt for five victories in a row.
“The first four or five years (the presentation ceremony) was held in a different town – Yarbrough in Los Angeles, Unser in Phoenix,” Economaki said “then it went to Gallagher’s in New York City at 62nd and Broadway.”
“They got a piece of ancient Italian sculpture of three prominent birds, representing speed, power and bravery. A miniature was made of gold and given to the driver and his wife.”
Richard Petty drove his famed No. 43 blue and red Plymouth to the top honor in 1971. He kicked off the season by winning the third of seven 500’s at Daytona and adding six more victories during the long NASCAR campaign. Petty later received a special award from DRIVER OF THE YEAR for his contributions, including a record 200 victories, to the sport of stock car racing.
Bobby Allison in 1972 and David Pearson in 1973 gave NASCAR three DRIVER OF THE YEAR recipients in a row. Allison, who would win again in 1983, started his winning season in Atlanta in March and capped it with a victory at Rockingham, NC in October.
Pearson, known as the “Silver Fox”, won the Carolina and Atlanta 500s back to back in the spring, driving a Mercury. He did likewise at Darlington and Talladega a month later and maintained his winning ways throughout the season.
“By now the award was significant.” Economaki said. “It was the No. 1 award in motorsports.”
Bobby Unser became the third Indy car driver to be cited in 1974. He opened the season by winning the Ontario, CA 500 and finished second at Indy as highlights of a solid season. A.J. Foyt was next to join the elite group in 1975, oddly in a year when he didn’t win any of his four Indy 500’s. However, he did win seven races, including Ontario and Pocono and added a third at Indianapolis.
Pearson became the first repeat DRIVER OF THE YEAR in 1976. He jump-started his season with victories at Riverside and in the Daytona 500 in the first two races of the season. Cale Yarborough’s name was added the next year for his feat of winning nine times, placing second six time and third four times driving for Junior Johnson.
Andretti added his second trophy in ’78 with a brilliant performance in Formula One. He became the first America (he already was a naturalized citizen) to win the F-1 championship as well as the Indy car title. He won races in Argentina, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Holland to score 64 points. Because of a first-week rainout of Indy 500 time trials, Mike Hiss qualified Mario’s car the next weekend while he raced overseas. Andretti then returned for the 500, started last, recorded the fastest lap of the race and placed twelfth when engine problems slowed him late in the race.
Darrell Waltrip became not only the dominant driver in NASCAR, but in the DRIVER OF THE YEAR balloting as the world moved into the decade of the 1980’s. He won the award in 1979, 1981 and 1982 with only Johnny Rutherford interrupting his string in 1980. The loquacious Waltrip, a native of Owensboro, KY won several races in ‘79 and went 12 and 12 his other two years. Rutherford won his third Indy 500 from the pole in 1980 and the championship while completing 1,452 of 1,542 laps during the season driving Jim Hall’s “Yellow Submarine”.
Allison and Andretti became repeaters in 1983 and 1984. Driving for DiGard Racing, Allison won six times and finished in the top three 17 times. Returned from Formula One racing, Andretti added another Indy car championship by winning six races and a record $931,929 in prize money.
Bill Elliott earned the nickname “Million Dollar” Bill in 1985 when he won the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500 to receive a $1 million bonus and season earnings of $2,433,147. Elliott, whose Georgia drawl rolls off his tongue like honey, carried racing into a new era of money winnings that were unthought of not too many years before. He was the most chosen of all the panel’s ballots.
Bobby Rahal did the same for Indy car racing the next year, becoming the first to top $1 million in prize winnings. He also won the Indy 500 by beating Kevin Cogan on a late re-start and the season championship. He was rewarded with the DRIVER OF THE YEAR award on 1986.
Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Emerson Fittipaldi rounded out the winners for the 1980’s. The hard-charging Earnhardt took the checkered flag 11 times in ’87 and pocketed $2 million. Elliott had six victories and only one DNF the next season and Fittipaldi, two-time Formula One champion from Brazil, added his first Indy 500 crowns in ’89 and was honored by the panel.
With the help of Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 25-year anniversary fete was held honoring the DRIVER OF THE YEAR award. Andretti was given the “Driver of the Quarter Century” award in an Academy Award-type atmosphere. Most of the candidates, including A.J. Foyt, attended the event.
“That was the ultimate time factor,” Andretti said. “The fact Foyt was upset (that he didn’t win) tells a lot about the award. If it didn’t mean that much, he wouldn’t have been that way. All my heroes were right there. To be named was one of the beautiful things in my life. That’s what you work for, what you strive for.”
Al Unser, Jr., son of the 1970 award winner, added his name to the honor roll as the first DRIVER OF THE YEAR of the 1990’s. Appropriately, Michael Andretti, Mario’s son, was cited the next year. Al won six races and Michael, eight on the way to Indy car titles.
Rahal became the sixth multiple DRIVER OF THE YEAR winner in 1992 by also winning his second Indy car crown with six race victories.
Nigel Mansell, the English driving sensation who captured the 1992 Formula One title, stunned the racing world by switching to Carl Haas’ Indy car team in ’93 and adding the championship of that circuit. He nearly won the Indy 500 to boot, placing third when his inexperience on ovals allowed Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk to pass him on a late restart.
Earnhardt tied Richard Petty’s NASCAR record of seven championships with a monstrous season in 1994 that showed 17 top three finishes and earnings for the second straight year topping $3 million. He charged toward No. 8 in 1995, but Jeff Gordon, a precocious 24-year-old with tremendous talent, beat him out at season’s end to become the second youngest NASCAR champion ever. Gordon, who cut his racing teeth in USAC open wheel cars as a teenager in Indiana, won seven races and an incredible $4,347,343. He unanimously was acclaimed DRIVER OF THE YEAR by the panel.So through the first years of the award, the count of winners was NASCAR 15, Indy car 13 and road racing 1.
The fallacy that the championship each year would come from the two major American racing circuits was shattered in 1996. Winning was drag racer, John Force. For years, NHRA achievements were little considered, but in the last three seasons it was hard to overlook the determined Force.
The chunky, gregarious driver with a desire to win equal to any exploded to the Funny Car championship, his sixth by winning 13 national events and setting a world elapsed time for the quarter mile with a 4,889 at Topeka, KS in July.
The topper of his season, though, came at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park where he won the $100,000 Big Bud Shootout on Saturday and Nationals title on Monday. He received eight of 12 votes by the panel.
Force was announced as the 1996 DRIVER OF THE YEAR at a special dinner at the Indianapolis Athletic Club on Dec. 9 attended by a number of racing personalities. Force was not told the reason for the function and arrived with his hair in disarray and wearing a racing jacket with checkered sleeves. When he was informed he had won the award, he was actually at a loss for words, probably for the first time in his life.
After searching for something to say, finally he exclaimed, “I’m a little confused and embarrassed. I must have won it or you wouldn’t have done this.”
Following the meal, Force returned to the podium. This time he’d had time to recover from the shock and witticisms rolled off his tongue in machine gun fashion. He also said he was accepting the award for the many drag racers that went before him.
“You’re up against Formula (One), Indy car, NASCAR.” he said. “What I’m proudest of is I’m an NHRA racer and I never figured I’d get a shot at this.”
“Sincerely, I accept this for all the drivers we’ve lost, like Blaine Johnson and Darrell Gwynn. I’ve worked 20 years for this.”
The 30th Anniversary of the DRIVER OF THE YEAR award was greeted with Jeff Gordon as the winner. At the age of 26, he has won thirty Winston Cup races, his second NASCAR/Winston Cup championship in the Hendrick Motorsports/DuPont Chevrolet, he was the 1993 NASCAR Rookie of the Year and, of course he won the Winston Million in 1997. As to his second DRIVER OF THE YEAR award, Gordon sums it up in one of his favorite words, “Awesome!”
The award’s 30th Anniversary celebration will begin with the presentation of the 1997 DRIVER OF THE YEAR award in April at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, AL in conjunction with their 8th Annual Induction Ceremony. It is at this auto racing museum where the image’s of such racing legends as John Force and Jeff Gordon join that of 20 other racing icons cited as DRIVER OF THE YEAR, over the years, as part of the permanent display at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talledega, Alabama.
Gordon then joined the ranks of multiple winners of racing’s most prestigious award as captured, back-toback, the 1998 honor—his third overall—edging out phenomenal CART series rookie Juan Montoya. And at 27, he became the youngest three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion.
In the process, Gordon tied Richard Petty’s modern-era record with 13 wins in a season and became the only driver in the modern era to win 10 or more races in three consecutive seasons. He also had a streak of four consecutive victories, also tying a modern-era record.
Icing on the cake for the Hendrick motorsports/DuPont Monte Carlo team crew chiefed by Ray Evernham, was Gordon’s capturing two No Bull $1 million bonuses with victories at Indianapolis and Darlington.
Second-generation Winston Cup competitor Dale Jarrett interrupted that Chevrolet—and Gordon—domination, as he won his first Cup Championship and DRIVER OF THE YEAR 1999 honor in the Robert Yates/Ford Quality Care Taurus.
Consistency was one of the keys to success for the son of two-time Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett as he had four wins, 24 top-5’s and 29 top-10’s with only one DNF.
The 43-year-old Jarrett gave credit to crew chief Todd Parrott, Yates and the team, as well as his family when he accepted the DRIVER OF THE YEAR announcement at the fashionable Le Cirque in New York.
The new millennium brought in a new racing family name to the DRIVER OF THE YEAR honor rolls. Bobby Labonte parlayed the 2000 DRIVER OF THE YEAR with his 2000 Winston Cup Championship. Labonte carried the fan vote, which was featured for the first time on ESPN.com. Labonte edged out NHRA Funny Car driver and the 1996 winner of the DRIVER OF THE YEAR John Force and CART’s driving sensation Juan Montoya for the 2000 honors.
In 2001 history was made with Jeff Gordon becoming the first four-time winner of the award.
Gordon surpassed racing legends Mario Andretti and Darrell Waltrip with this honor.
Andretti noted, “You can see that he appreciates the company he’s been keeping. He’s certainly not taking it for granted. It takes a lot of hard work, to win this award, no question. You are judged solely on your performance. If your name goes on that trophy you’ve accomplished big things.” Andretti also stated, “ I have maximum regard for Jeff, his abilities and his worthiness to be honored with this award so many times.”
Gordon received his second custom designed Indian Chief Motorcycle along with the DRIVER OF THE YEAR trophy and diamond ring at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Talladega, Alabama.
The 2002 DRIVER OF THE YEAR was determined by the only tiebreaker in the awards 36-year history. Cristiano da Matta dominated the CART FED-EX Series to edge out the NASCAR Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart.
That’s cool” the 29 year old da Matta exclaimed. “It feels great to be compared to NASCAR drivers, but it shows that every one was paying attention to what we were doing on the track.”
Co-owner and Academy Award winning actor Paul Newman commented, “It is well deserved and makes the season a total success.”
Cristiano received his crystal trophy at the Champ Car banquet in Miami prior to moving to the Formula One Series in 2003.
In 2003 showing the independent nature of the panelists, Ryan Newman easily won DRIVER OF THE YEAR honors as the winningest driver in NASCAR with 8 wins and 11 poles. Due to a poor start at Daytona and some dnf’s the Indiana-born driver finished sixth in the points, far behind Winston Cup Champ, Matt Kenseth.
That was the first time, since 1985, that a series titlist was beaten by a rival in his own series. In 1985 Bill Elliott beat Darrell Waltrip – who won the Championship – based on wins and poles.
It was no wonder that Newman was stunned to learn that he dominated the vote, garnering nine out of the 18 ballots. He said “it’s awesome. Not only the award, but, the honor of all the drivers that have gotten it, to be on that list and to be able to compete against all the drivers this year and beat them.”
If 2003 was an eye opener, then 2004 produced an upset winner on two accounts. Greg Anderson became only the second DRIVER OF THE YEAR to come from the NHRA ranks. More surprising, to drag racing fans, was that Anderson raced in the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock division. Amongst some drag racing aficionados Pro Stock is not considered the most challenging. The 43-year-old, had a year of stunning success winning two out of every three races in 2004, for a record 15 victories, in the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac Grand Am to take his second-straight title. He also qualified first sixteen times.
When first informed of the honor by telephone the veteran driver, who also works on his own cars, couldn’t believe it. “It was a shock and an honor,” Anderson said, adding, “it was beyond anything I could imagine.”
The 39th DRIVER OF THE YEAR award like giving the trophy to the Homecoming King. Tony Stewart, who lost the award in tie breaker to Cristiano da Matta in 2002. He moved back home to Columbus, Indiana and proceeded to turn NASCAR on its’ ear.
Driving the Home Depot Chevrolet he went on a hot streak of five wins all coming in the third quarter of the vote. He also had four poles. The high point in the year was winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard and a second NEXTEL Cup Series championship, NASCAR’s Tony Stewart was voted by a wide margin.
Stewart’s memorable and emotional victory at Indianapolis, helped him receive 12 of 17 votes from a Driver of the Year panel.
“It’s an honor to be named Driver of the Year,” Stewart said. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in, especially since one of the guys I’ve always looked up to in racing, A.J. Foyt, won this award back in 1975.
The 2006 winner of the Driver of the Year was awarded to Jimmie Johnson, who was a repeat winner in 2007.
Tony Schumacher took the honor in 2008.