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Give them a steering wheel and four wheels, then watch them go

Three of the great ones: 1969 Indy 500 front-row qualifiers Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. AP Photo

INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were versatile all-arounders who could win races driving anything with wheels. But they are best known for their success in Indy cars.

Despite a heavy NASCAR presence on the 19-member voting panel, eight drivers on ESPN.com's Top 25 Drivers of All Time have strong ties to Indy car racing, led by longtime sparring partners Foyt and Andretti.

Excluding the seven media members on the panel, eight of the remaining 12 voters are involved in NASCAR in some way, shape or form. Foyt and Andretti both won the Daytona 500 as outsiders, yet that can't be the only reason they earned so much respect from the stock car crowd.

Foyt won 67 USAC-sanctioned Indy car races and seven series championships, and was the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti took 52 victories between USAC and CART. He won four overall titles but won only once at Indy.

Both men won the Daytona 500, Andretti in 1967 and Foyt in 1972. Foyt
co-drove the victorious car in the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans and won several USAC-sanctioned stock car crowns in the '70s. Meanwhile, Andretti countered with 12 Formula One race wins and the 1978 F1 World Championship.

Andretti won the International Race of Champions series in 1979, while Foyt was a two-time IROC champion. Foyt was a winning driver at the 12 Hours of Sebring and twice at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Andretti countered with three Sebring victories and a single win in the Daytona endurance race.

In short, these are two racers who accomplished almost everything possible in motorsports. And they will be forever linked, thanks mainly to their fierce competition in Indy cars from 1965 until 1974, when Andretti decided to focus full time on F1.

By the time Andretti came back to America to resume his Indy car career in 1982, Foyt already had won his last major open-wheel race, although he continued to drive for another decade. By contrast, Andretti kept winning regularly through the late 1980s and scored his final Indy car triumph at Phoenix in 1993.

Foyt's focus shifted to car ownership as early as the mid-'60s, and despite not winning a race in more than six years, his team remains a sentimental favorite in the IRL IndyCar Series. Andretti maintains close ties to the sport as well. He was a strong supporter of CART and Champ Car, and he lends a hand where possible with grandson Marco Andretti's career.

As recently as 1999, Andretti was declared the greatest Indy car driver of all time by Champ Car magazine and "Driver of the Century" by The Associated Press. How, then, did Foyt triumph in this vote?

Maybe it's because Foyt, with his rough-edged personality and reputation as a classic American bully, appealed more to the NASCAR voters on the panel.

As legendary broadcaster and National Speed Sport News editor emeritus Chris Economaki said, "Who's going to weigh winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans against winning the World Championship to determine who is No. 1?

"Foyt's greatness really wasn't going faster than the next guy. It was his precision. He never put a wheel wrong, never overshot the pits, never spun or hit anybody. He never screwed up on the track, which was so unlike him out of the car."

Given the NASCAR-heavy flavor of the voting panel, perhaps it's no surprise that there are four stock car drivers in the top 10 and that two of the four active drivers on the list are modern-day NASCAR icons Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Only Stewart can boast the all-around versatility of Foyt and Andretti, and given his brusque personality (and rotund physique), perhaps it's no surprise that "Smoke" frequently cites Foyt as his inspirational hero.

Yet the most encouraging thing about the ESPN.com list for Indy car racing fans is that so many of the drivers made the list because of what they accomplished on the American open-wheel scene.

At No. 11, Rick Mears just failed to crack the top 10, but it is entirely appropriate that he is the next-highest Indy car star. Mears won his four Indianapolis 500 rings in half the starts it took Foyt and Al Unser (No. 15), and one can only speculate about the records "Rocket Rick" would have set had he not suffered a gruesome accident at Sanair Speedway in 1984 that almost cost him his feet. Mears' comeback from that wreck was every bit as gutsy as anything Foyt, Andretti or even Niki Lauda endured.

The other thing that makes Mears stand out from the crowd: He retired from racing while he still was at the top of his game, unlike Foyt and even Andretti.

The Unser brothers, Al and Bobby, likewise both deserve mention on this list. Relations between the siblings are strained, and that tension no doubt ratcheted up a notch when these rankings became public. Completely opposite as people -- at the track, Al was shy and monosyllabic, while "Uncle Bobby" could and would expound on just about anything -- they compiled similar career statistics, with Al winning 39 Indy car races and Bobby 34.

Ranking No. 19 and No. 24, respectively, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell represented the changing face of Indy car racing in the 1980s and '90s. Both men won the Formula One World Championship (Emmo twice), then went on to claim championships in CART-sanctioned Indy racing.

Fittipaldi is notable as a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, while Mansell's achievement of winning the F1 and Indy car series crowns in successive seasons likely will never be repeated.

Jim Clark, No. 8, obviously is best known for his F1 exploits, but the Scotsman also was the first driver to win an Indy car race with a rear-engine car, at Milwaukee in 1963. In addition, Clark was the first rear-engine winner of the Indianapolis 500, in 1965. From 1963 to '66, Clark was in position to win Indy every year and added a pair of second-place finishes at The Brickyard.

No. 13 Jackie Stewart and No. 25 Steve Kinser also competed in the Indianapolis 500, with Stewart coming close to winning as a rookie in 1966. And No. 4 Ayrton Senna enjoyed testing a Penske Indy car in late
1992. Heaven knows whether the great Brazilian would have ever made the move to the American open-wheel scene.

Then there are the Indy car drivers who did not make the list, and there are some pretty significant names in this group, like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Tom Sneva and Bobby Rahal. Every one of those drivers had a significant effect on Indy car racing, through winning key races and championships, or through championing technical innovation.

The bottom line is that it's impossible to come up with a ranking of great racers that everyone will agree with. At least Indy car fans can feel comfortable knowing that even if the sport's current drivers don't earn their fair share of attention domestically and abroad, the legacy of the formula still holds a ton of respect.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.