INDIANAPOLIS – One-by-one, six of Indianapolis’ living legends took the stage at Chevrolet’s display Saturday afternoon. Three of them still have a race to run on Sunday.
Respect flowed in for each. The banter followed.
Between two of the three four-time Indianapolis 500 winners in A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears, the lone active three-time winner in Helio Castroneves, a pair of two-timers in Juan Pablo Montoya and Al Unser Jr. and the 1996 champion Buddy Lazier, a total of 16 wins in the past 100 ‘500s were represented.
There were nearly as many one-liners uttered than that 16, if not more so.
Asked by the event moderator, WRTV-6 Sports Director Dave Furst, what Foyt’s first impression of the Speedway was, the four-timer had a four-word answer.
“Make the damn race!” laughed “Super Tex,” whose wins in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 made him the first four-time winner in race history. “We had 120 or 125 cars going for 33 of them spots.”
A tribute to Foyt, now 82 and just off of stem cell surgery earlier this year, is happening at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. A video where Foyt and NBCSN reporter Robin Miller toured the museum is linked below.
Castroneves, who has Mears as both Penske’s driver coach and his spotter, showed up a bit late to this event after returning from the IMS Festival Parade (airs tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Asked what advice he’d get from Mears, Mears returned his own volley of a deadpan.
“Shut up and drive,” said Indy’s third and most recent four-timer, having won all four of his for Penske in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991.
Mears hailed his 1991 drive where he had his battle with Michael Andretti as his favorite, in part because he didn’t recognize the magnitude of his 1979 win as a race sophomore.
“I didn’t appreciate the first one as much as I probably should have,” Mears said. “I didn’t grow up here (he grew up as part of the ‘Mears gang’ in Bakersfield, Calif.) so I wasn’t quite aware of the spectacle. I never even dreamed I’d be driving here, let alone with Penske, let alone winning.
“In 1991, I had what you dream of as a kid when you’ve been driving here, is that late race shootout. And in ’91, that was my opportunity.”
Mears, always introspective and reflective, then responded to another question about whether he had any regrets for whether he retired too early, when he did after 1992.
“No,” he laughed, to which Unser Jr. responded, “Oh I absolutely agree with that. Rick, you retired just perfect!”
Unser Jr.’s 1992 win has been, understandably, getting a bit of attention this year. It marks the 25-year anniversary of the victory when he beat Scott Goodyear in the closest finish in Indy history. The great finish helped to erase memories of an otherwise dreadful race, dominated by Andretti before retiring just over 10 laps from the finish, and after cold temperatures contributed to a wreck-filled race that left Andretti’s father, Mario, and cousin Jeff, among several drivers taken to the hospital.
It was the 1989 race, though, that Unser Jr. talked about today, as he recalled a funny story about his dice with Emerson Fittipaldi that year that saw him come up short because of their famous – or infamous – coming-together in Turn 3.
“That dude,” Unser Jr., who is Gabby Chaves’ driver coach at Harding Racing this month, joked about Fittipaldi, the Brazilian who would then become his teammate at Team Penske in the mid-1990s.
“It was Turn 3, last lap of the Indy 500 going for the win. Of course only one of us was going to come out unscathed.”
Unser Jr. had planned to deliver Fittipaldi the “one-finger salute” of a middle finger after getting out of his car at the finish. Fittipaldi won his first ‘500 that day while Unser Jr. would have to wait three more years until 1992 for that elusive first victory.
Unser Jr. said the IMS Safety Crew gave him the go-ahead to deliver that message.
“So I’m going out on the track after I’m out of the car,” Unser Jr. recalled.
“And the safety crew asked me, ‘You want to flip him off?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Go right ahead!’
“But then I thought about his day in full. He had led all day. I was essentially standing in the middle of a football stadium, among the 125,000 or so people in that part of the track.
“And I thought, Emerson is a good man. And he’d be the last one to hit anyone intentionally. So instead of flipping him off, I was the first one to congratulate him on his win!”
Montoya, who entered into the CART series in 1999 – winning the championship as a rookie in Unser Jr.’s final year with Team Penske, and in CART, before returning to Rick Galles’ team in the Indy Racing League in 2000 had the counter to that one.
“You showed him the finger, but the wrong one,” he laughed.
Montoya and Castroneves continued their own playful banter, and even that was followed later when Lazier – poking fun at himself and the little, family-run team that could out of Vail, Col. – when he showed up last to the dais.
“You guys have got the police escorts back here from the parade,” said the 49-year-old, the oldest driver in the field by a full seven years and change (Tony Kanaan is next at 42).
“Meanwhile I’m starting back on Row 10, and I’m stuck in traffic!”
Lazier only runs this race each year (this will be his 20th start, one of only eight to do so), and if he completes 153 laps on Sunday, he’ll pass Johnny Rutherford for sixth all-time in laps/mileage completed. He’s also in the Top 10 in career earnings. He has one fewer top-five than Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser, and one more than Rutherford.
Perhaps even more cool is the fact his crew includes four brothers who are firefighters in Irving, Texas and his engineer and car chief, Indy veteran Mitch Davis, is also going to be a tire changer in this race.
As a driver who first attempted to qualify for that 1989 race Fittipaldi won and Unser Jr. crashed out of, who was an early retirement in 1992 when Unser Jr. finally won and Mears and Foyt retired, and who won in 1996 and has raced Montoya and Castroneves as early as 2000 and 2001 in each case (these two drivers won those two races), Lazier is the link between the generations past and present at Indianapolis.
“The reason I stayed here (in IRL in 1996) is that I’d been trying for years to be a part of a program where I had a car that could win. Ron Hemelgarn gave that for me,” Lazier said.
“But now, I’m so looking forward to the next five years – and there’s so much technology here now.”
Foyt had ripped on how relatively easy it seems to drive now compared to back in his day, thanks to that technology.
“Now y’all have got (fuel or engine) map one, or map two. I did it manually. I just used a hammer,” he said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if someone won seven or eight of these deals… if these guys stay on the ball!”
It was a great contrast to earlier in the day, when Chevrolet’s three youngest drivers in this year’s race, Gabby Chaves (23 years old), Zach Veach (22) and Sage Karam (22) all gave event car rides while driving a Chevy SS, thus making the days for people who now got to experience a lap or two of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of Chevrolet’s event car program.
“I’m used to driving paddle shifts. I haven’t driven proper stick shifts in a while!” Karam laughed before doing his own laps.
Indy’s history is what makes it great.
Seeing the three young guns, part of a group eager to prove themselves in a forum, while then also seeing the legends laugh about the history and about what’s still to come proved that point.
All, connected by a Bow Tie.