The IndyCar Legends night at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles celebrated the five drivers at the top of the win column in Indy car’s record books.
Between them, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Al Unser and Scott Dixon have amassed 239 Indy car wins (including 10 Indy 500 victories) and 19 National/Indy car championships. And each Memorial Day Weekend, it’s possible to find all five in roughly the same location – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But it was having this quintet give their views on racing past and present that made Wednesday evening so special at the newly renovated and expanded Petersen Museum on Wilshire Blvd.
It was unfortunate that the mighty Foyt was unable to attend in person, due to a severe bout of ’flu. But when the audience contains drivers of such merit as Parnelli Jones, Al Unser Jr., Dario Franchitti, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan and Tony Kanaan – a mere 129 wins between them – then it’s safe to say the guys on stage and in the spotlight are special indeed.
Mario Andretti, described by emcee Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports as "a household name all around the world," declared: “The IndyCar champion is the most complete champion in motorsports because of the versatility required. You have to be at the top of your game on the short ovals, speedways, street courses and natural road courses.
“No other discipline demands that. So that’s where the pride is for the individual who achieves it.”
In the shadow of Foyt
Despite his absence, 81-year-old SuperTex, the first four-time winner of the Indy 500 and proud Texan with a total of 67 Indy car victories, cast a large shadow across the room. Mario quipped, “$50,000 appearance money wasn’t enough for A.J.,” but he said it in good humor and with respect. As the 52-time race winner remarked: “When I broke into the Indy car ranks, Foyt had already been there for five years, and he was the yardstick. If you wanted to win, you had to go through him.
“I felt he would raise your game because no matter what type of track you were on, he was at the top. I always said, if you won a race with Foyt second, it was a great day, but even if you came second behind Foyt, it was a pretty good day.
“He had so much passion, which was inspiring for all of us.”
It remains that way, judging by the comments made by drivers from the current generation and the most recent generation. Said Dixon: “There are so many classic AJ stories, but one that stands out for me are him whacking his car with a hammer, then getting in it and trying to drive it again.
“It’s all about the passion. He loved racing, loved IndyCar, loved the diversity of different series – and the common thing is that he won in all of them.
“So two weeks ago when we won in Phoenix, to be presented with the AJ Foyt Trophy by AJ himself was very special. But the extra special part was standing back behind the podium and just chatting to him about racing.”
Michael Andretti, third in the all-time winner list with 42 victories, joked (or half-joked) that growing up as son of Mario, “A.J. was the enemy: I wasn’t allowed to say anything good about AJ!
“But as I got older, I got to know him and I really like him, got a ton of respect for him. He loves the sport, helped get it to where it is today and he’s a unique guy.”
A contemporary of Foyt’s and another four-time Indy winner, Unser remarked: “I guess Mario and I are the only ones up here who raced against him.…”
“I raced against him,” corrected Michael.
“Ever have to run from him?” asked Al.
“Nnnno…” said Michael.
“Then you didn’t really race against him!” retorted Big Al, who went on to describe A.J. as one of three or four guys on the USAC trail who he never wanted to tangle with. “But he’s a great racecar driver and his record speaks for him.”
SuperTex himself was asked what the Indy 500 meant to him, and he remarked: “That’s what made A.J. Foyt – winning at Indy. I won a lot of great races, don’t get me wrong, but Indy is like the Kentucky Derby. If you win, everybody knows it. And that’s where Indy stands out – tradition.”
Unser, whose 39-victory tally including four Indy wins edges the stats of his superquick, wild and loquacious brother Bobby (35 and three), proved their famously fractious fraternal relationship continues even now they’re 76 and 82 respectively. In describing what the “500” means to this legendary dynasty from New Mexico, Al remarked: “For the Unser family, Indianapolis was a gift every time – except when my brother won. We all know that Bobby cheats!”
Once the laughter had died down, Al reflected: “If 50 years ago someone had asked if I would be here for the 100th running of the 500, I’d have laughed and said, ‘I hope so, but I don’t think I’ll make it’. Yet here we are and it’s an honor.”
Bridging the generational gap
Diffey in his opening remarks had observed what a privilege it was for IndyCar – as opposed to many other sports – to be able to pay tribute to its five most successful drivers on one hallowed evening. But what was also striking about IndyCar Legends night, was the respect shown across the generations.
Just as Dixon remains impressed with Foyt, so the 81-year-old praised the reigning and four-time IndyCar champion, who is some 45 years his junior.
“I respect Scott Dixon,” he said. “I’ve been watching him since he started driving for Chip Ganassi. He’s a great race driver.
“You’ll look and see he’s not in the running, and then all of a sudden you’ll look back and he’s in the lead… Very smart. He kinda stands out over the other ones.”
Mario Andretti, arguably the most versatile driver of all-time and therefore one with the greatest sense of perspective, was asked by Diffey how well Dixon might have performed in his era, which stretched across 30 years in Indy cars.
“The same,” Mario answered immediately, and son Michael nodded in agreement. “I’ve said this many times: the champions of yesteryear would have been champions today and vice-versa, no question about it.
“There’s something very special about individuals who can achieve at that level. It’s all about being able to take 100 or 101 percent out of the car you’re driving. The quality required is the same.”
The five men honored (as well as a similar number in the audience) possessed that quality. Which is what made April 13, 2016, on the eve of the 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a very special night at the museum.