Make Better Use Of Our Legends

This past Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Parnelli Jones completely salvaged the rather lackluster pre-race festivities in a matter of a few seconds. All he did was shout; “Drivers, Start Your Engines” into a microphone and it immediately sent chills up and down my spine. At seventy-eight, Parnelli is the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner. He has more than a year and a half over AJ Foyt, although Foyt’s first win was two years before Parnelli’s lone win in 1963.

Although the passage of time has recently taken many of the legends that I grew up with – Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby and Jim Rathmann, to name a few – there are many, many more that I would like to see the IZOD IndyCar Series utilize much more than they do.

Of course, some of the drivers of yesteryear would prefer to be left alone. Based on the last interview I heard with Gordon Johncock, I think he is best left on his farm. Although he carries a legendary name, I get the impression that Gary Bettenhausen would be just as happy if he never visited another racetrack again. He lives very close to Indianapolis, but reportedly doesn’t come around much.

AJ Foyt is a fixture. When healthy, he attends every race that he can. His role as a car owner keeps him occupied, although his son Larry makes most of the day-to-day decisions these days. He drove the pace car last year at Indianapolis (as a second choice), but I think he could serve in some capacity to attract fans at various races throughout the year. He’s as cantankerous as ever, but most fans still love him.

With Al Unser, Jr.’s demons resurfacing and Big Al’s worrisome health issues, it’s now a rarity to see an Unser at the track. Uncle Bobby is still going strong, but we hardly see him anymore. Jerry’s son, Johnny, now serves in Race Control. Bobby’s son, Robby, has all but disappeared. Other than Johnny, the Unser’s have little role in the IZOD IndyCar Series these days.

Of course, Mario Andretti, Arie Luyendyk and Johnny Rutherford are still heavily involved. Mario and Luyendyk both drive the Honda two-seater at races, while Johnny Rutherford still drives the pace car at all events. Four-time winner Rick Mears still works for Roger Penske. I saw him a couple of times at Barber zipping by on a scooter. He nods and waves and is very accommodating to fans, but his duties with Team Penske prevent him from any official capacity with the series. I always considered Scott Goodyear to be very underrated as a driver. I’m glad he’s still involved even though his talents as a broadcaster don’t match up to his skills as a driver.

Other former drivers besides Foyt have stayed close to the sport through team ownership. Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, Robbie Buhl, Sarah Fisher, Bobby Rahal, Bryan Herta, Chip Ganassi and even Dale Coyne were former IndyCar drivers that have found varying degrees of success on the other side of the pit wall.

I saw Tom Sneva at Indianapolis a few times last year, but always in the Media Center huddled up with Robin Miller. Someone with his resume could be used in a lot of ways, but nowadays – his name has become insignificant, except to hardcore fans. One of my all-time favorite drivers to have never won at Indianapolis is Dan Gurney. He is eighty-one now and has a bum knee, but he’s still active. Although, his role in writing the White Paper may still irritate a few people at 16th & Georgetown. At eighty-nine, Andy Granatelli may be a little old to still be hanging around the track, but the last I heard, he was still going strong.

Even some of those who were never considered open-wheel royalty could be doing more. What is Roberto Guerrero doing these days? He almost won at Indianapolis in 1987 and was the 1992 pole winner. Kevin Cogan flirted with greatness and disaster more than once at the Speedway. Where is he now? Does he ever come around?

I don’t have any suggestions on how to better use former drivers or what they might even do, but I know the small amount that we saw Parnelli Jones on television had Twitter all abuzz before and after the race. Just hearing his name got my attention. Seeing him belt out the command to start engines suddenly took me back to my childhood when he was one of my heroes. The Speedway did a great job in reaching out to as many former drivers as they could find last year during the Centennial Celebration. So what do they plan to do with all the connections they made last year? Just sit on them and wait to bring then around in another hundred years?

Donald Davidson often talks of conversations he’s had with former drivers from other eras. He cites Rodger Ward as a wealth of information, who would sit and talk for hours. Ward passed away in 2004, Ruby in 2009 and Rathmann in 2011. All of the icons that are still with us possess fascinating stories of years past. Donald Davidson has done a good job digging those stories out of them, but if they were willing to be more involved – the series should capitalize on their legendary status.

There have been some legendary names that won a lot of races at the Milwaukee Mile. Michael Andretti won there five times, and he’s promoting the race. But do you think some fans that are a little long in the tooth might be a little more willing to go this year if they heard that names like Sneva, Johncock, Tracy, Bobby Unser and Joe Leonard might be milling about the place? It would certainly make me sit up and take notice.

The point is, for one reason or another – there are a lot of former stars that are not being used by the series. There is a lot of momentum going on with the IZOD IndyCar Series. Randy Bernard did a great thing when he saw to it that the record books of IRL, Champ Car, CART, USAC and AAA were finally combined. The splits of 1979 and 1996 are finally over. There is a glorious history associated with this series. It would be foolish not to capitalize on it as much as possible. Let’s take advantage of these great names from yesteryear and continue to use them while we still can. That is – if they are willing.

George Phillips

Please Note: With no race this weekend and the approaching Month of May, I will take this opportunity to take a short break. There will be no post this Friday April 20. I will return here on Monday April 23. – GP

18 Responses to “Make Better Use Of Our Legends”

  1. I love the documentery idea. May need NASCAR to start their own network and have SPEED get more involved with IndyCar for that to happen. I would also ask they not be so Indy heavy. There were always other races.

  2. Opening Day at “THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY” should have all the legends there for autograph sessions along with the auto show. The opening day ceremonies should have free tickets to the first 500 at the gate. Children 18 and younger free general admission the whole month, with race day the exception based on tickets for reserved seating. The events should be covered by Bob and Tom live on Q95 for listeners nationwide. These ideas are old methods that need to be used if you want an audience. Just my opinion.

  3. Please, please, please keep the new WordPress theme or one like it so that we can read black on white!

  4. I’d like to see the legends more involved too, although other than Mario and A.J., I’m not sure anyone but the hardcore fanbase would know who they are. To that end, it’s been great seeing Mario in the TV commercials. Sponsor activation with current drivers is also great, when it happens.

    PS – Put me in the black on white crowd. The dark background and white text hurts my eyes.

  5. I would like to see drivers like Danny Sullivan come back. He was a damn good announcer, in my opinion, and many of us would just plain like to see him around just to say hi.

  6. Ryan Dunn Says:

    As for Roberto Guerrero…

    Execelent interview by Todd of

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    When I starting reading this post, the first two people I thought of were The Gasman and “that damned Coogan”. Cogan obviously is known for that wreck at the start in 1982, but also almost won in 1986 (it would have been a great redemption) and had an awful crash against the pit wall in 1989. He had a very full decade. Well, I guess I just explained (to myself) why he doesn’t come around anymore. I wouldn’t either.

  8. It’s sad to think that in 25 years, a lot of the stars today that have rubbed people wrong might not be thought of so highly. We have no Unser or Mears right now. We have Rahal and Andretti, 2 of the cocky stuck up kids out there more worried about their lambos than the fans. Dario and Dixon are very dry, Wheldon was dry (everyone acts like he was the greatest driver but he honestly was just dry and reserved at the track), Power is shy, Briscoe is also, Helio is a crybaby…. shall I go on? I think Hornish was the best chance we had at a legend in our time……

  9. Excellent article and many great points!

    I was in Long Beach and I personally saw a few guys who together are responsible for 22 Indy 500 victories…and they were all WORKING that day! Some, like Helio, Dario, Dixie were actually racing, J.R. was driving the pace car, Arie in the 2-seater, A.J. and Rahal team owners, Mears on the clock for Penske…not sure if Gil de Ferran was there on biz…and Parnelli Jones was Grand Marshall! (there may have been others but that’s all I saw)

    22 out of 95 Indy500 wins is like 23% – one fourth of ALL 500 victories in the 100 year history were present and working in an official capacity…and this was by no means a special “Legends” event or anything – just another race!

    Other than the faithful, do people actually know about this? I think even the casual viewer might recognize some of the names, and for those who don’t watch the series regularly and are over age 35, the names of these Legends are more recognizable than most of the current drivers in the field. And to think, if the 3 Unsers and Johncock had been there, a total of 33 Indianapolis 500 wins would have been represented…

    Yes, IndyCar needs to make better use of our Legends. And a good start would be for the promotors/broadcasters to just simply TELL PEOPLE that these Champions are there at the track, every week, still at it, bringing us the racing we all love so much.

  10. Herman Flowers Says:

    It was the split made in 1970 that most impacted the Indy car series.The removing of the dirt tracks from the national championship the following year was the worst decision ever made in the history of racing.Look what we have today.Drivers we never heard of and up coming drivers from USAC in NASCAR instead of Indy.A complete disconect from most all the tracks in our country that drivers run on weekly making a name for themselfs to go on to bigger things,but no longer Indy Cars. The drivers from the 60s are more rembered than the drivers from ten years ago.

    • How far back do you go? You may as well go back to the rear engine car. That’s what made Sprints and Midgets an obsolete training ground. There is almost nothing that translate from a front engine Sprint car to a rear engine Indy car. Those cars are much more suitable for preparing a driver for a front engine stock car.

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