In compiling this list of the greatest race car drivers, our editors considered two factors - a racer's career achievements and his lasting legacy. Winning lots of races and championships is important, but raising the sport's profile is equally significant. The five finalists were Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt and Richard Petty. This page will be updated frequently to reflect current events.
1. Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is a perfect example why statistics alone do not always give a complete picture of a race car driver's legacy. The Brazilian driver only won half as many F1 World Championships as Michael Schumacher (partly due to his career being cut short by his tragic death), and did not win any major races outside of the Formula 1 series (due to non-participation). Yet, he is on every short list for the greatest auto racer of all time and every racing great (except perhaps Alain Prost) has glorious praises for him. Why is this the case? The answer is simple. Anyone who had ever watched him race knows what a terrific driver he was -- most likely the best of all time.
Some of the most thrilling performances in car racing's history were produced by Senna. One particular performance was in the 1989 Suzuka Circuit in Japan. Senna needed to win the race to have a chance at a F1 world title. Unfortunately, the points leader at the time Alain Prost crashed his vehicle into Senna's car early into the race. With the aid of his trusted crew, the Brazilian somehow managed to get his wrecked car back onto the track. He then produced a near-impossible comeback to win the race. A protest from the same person who wrecked his car (Alain Prost) stripped Senna of a deserved victory, but his accomplishment was not lost in the fans who watched the race. Another memorable performance was in the 1991 Brazil Grand Prix. In hazardous conditions (due to rain) and with a mostly broken car, Senna produced another classic, leading from start to finish in front of his home fans en route to a consecutive F1 world title.
2. Michael Schumacher
The German is undoubtedly the most accomplished race car driver of all time. Competing in the most prestigious racing circuit in the world, Schumcher completely dominated his competitors. The German won the Formula 1 world championship series an incredible seven times, including five consecutive titles at one stretch. He also holds the record for most race victories with 91. What is even more impressive about his achievements is the manner in which he achieved them. Schumacher captured many of his world titles in dominant fashion, establishing an aura of invincibility over the rest of his competitors. Take the 2002 season for example. The German finished the season with 144 points -- 67 points ahead of his closest competitor! As one observer has said of Schumacher, he was "a well-oiled machine that never slows down."
3. Mario Andretti
Versatility is highly underrated in the world of professional racing, as most established drivers rarely venture outside of their comfort zones. Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna did not race in the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500. Conversely, NASCAR stars like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt never took on Indy car racing or the F1 series. Mario Andretti was one of very few racers who took on the challenge of racing in various cars and on different circuits and succeeded.
The Italian-born American won the highly regarded F1 World Championship series in 1978. This is an important feat because few American racers have ever won even a F1 race, let alone a world championship. Andretti also won the Indy 500 as well as the Daytona 500 -- the two most significant racing events outside of the F1. Andretti's versatile racing led to victories on all sorts of tracks and cars. He also earned the distinction of being the only driver with wins across five decades. The only major race he did not win was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but that would be asking for too much.
4. A. J. Foyt
Much like Mario Andretti, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. (better known as A. J. Foyt) was a versatile driver who competed in different categories of motor racing. He is the only driver in history to win all four major races of motor racing - Indy 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Daytona 500 and 24 Hours of Daytona. His racing, however, mostly confined to America. Unlike Andretti, he did not take on the challenge of competing in the F1 series, which is considered by many racing fans as the pinnacle of motorsport. However, Foyt was definitely capable of winning a F1 world championship, as demonstrated in his four Indy 500 titles and the 24 Hours at Le Mans win on his only attempt. On the American racing circuits, Foyt was an unrivaled force. The Texas native dominated U.S. open-wheeling racing, winning the national championship seven times. He also had five other championship titles for various types of motor racing.
5. Richard Petty
The NASCAR star did not have the versatility of Andretti or Foyt, but he really excelled in what he was good at which was stock car racing. No stock car driver in history has achieved more than Richard Petty. The North Carolina native won seven NASCAR championships, a record seven Daytona 500 wins and a record 200 NASCAR races. One would be hard-pressed to find a stock racing milestone he did not achieve. The only stock car driver who was close to Petty in term of accomplishments was Dale Earnhardt. (Jimmy Johnson is the one driver who has a chance to surpass both in the next few years.) Some may knock points off his achievements because he raced in a less competitive era, but Andretti and Foyt both competed his era and no one considered them as inferior drivers.