Try to Avoid This Slippery Slope

I trust that everyone had a nice holiday season. I know I did. I ate a lot and got to see some friends and family. On the sports front, my Vols beat the Hoosiers (sorry IU fans) and my Titans squeaked into the NFL playoffs. Most Colts fans were happy that they beat the Patriots on Saturday night and sent Tom Brady packing – perhaps for good.

Now that Christmas and all of the commotion that comes with it is behind us, I’m ready to get back to the third decade at How can it be three decades, you ask? The same way that Rick Mears and Bobby Unser won the Indianapolis 500 across three decades. I started this site in May of 2009, posted all through the 2010s and we are now in the 2020s, and I’m still here. I realize that’s a bit of a stretch, but it sounds impressive, doesn’t it?

I belong to a few Facebook groups dedicated to either IndyCar racing or the Indianapolis 500. Most of the group members are respectful, intelligent and reasonable – which is more than you can say for Facebook in general.

Over the holidays, someone posted a few pictures from AJ Foyt’s four Indianapolis 500 wins and proclaimed him to be the best driver ever. Since I share that sentiment, I had no real problem with that. It was a fresh post that only had one comment, so I read it. That was my mistake.

This person pointed out what many Foyt detractors like to do – he referred to how Foyt had inherited every win because his main competitor had met with misfortune in each of his four victories. That’s fine. You can probably say that about most Indianapolis 500 winners, but it’s a fair point. It’s a race of attrition.

The problem was that this person went on to point out how Foyt could never live up to comparisons of the other greats, from either before or after Foyt’s era. In this person’s opinion, Foyt shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as Wilbur Shaw or Bill Vukovich. He also went on to say that Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti in their prime, would embarrass Foyt in his prime in head-to-head competition. Seriously?

It’s easy to make statements like this because there is no way to prove or disprove them. It’s sort of like calling someone a coward. It’s easy to throw that word out there, because there is no real need for proof and it’s almost impossible for the person accused of being a coward to disprove.

To me, it’s always a slippery slope when you compare any type of athlete to someone from a different era. Who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Growing up, I always thought it was Johnny Unitas. Thirty years ago, the obvious answer to that question was Joe Montana. Fifteen years ago, I may have said Peyton Manning. Now, the sentiment among many is that it is the aforementioned Tom Brady. Brady and Manning are a fair comparison, because they played each other head-to-head many times. Brady won the majority of those (I think) and has more Super Bowl rings, but Manning had better stats on the whole.

Like racers are judged on Indianapolis 500 wins and IndyCar championships, quarterbacks are judged by Super Bowl wins – and Brady has an astonishing six Super Bowl wins to his credit. Hence, he is considered the greatest ever by many.

But there is no way on earth to realistically compare him to Joe Montana (who still gets my nod as the best-ever). There were different rules in place for all different eras that made passing easier or more difficult, depending on the era. Manning and Brady racked up stats and Super Bowl rings at a time when the league was purposely trying to spice up the game by making life easier on wide-receivers and subsequently harder on defensive backs. Does that mean that Unitas, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach were better than Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers or Troy Aikman? Not necessarily. It’s just impossible to compare different eras. The game was just so different back then.

It’s the same with racing.

Wilbur Shaw came up in the era of riding mechanics and relief drivers. When Shaw was a rookie in 1927, he finished fourth. His relief driver that year was Louis Meyer, who would win his first of three “500s” the following year. Shaw won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1937, with Jigger Johnson as his riding mechanic. Is it really fair to compare Shaw to Foyt, who drove in an era when riding mechanics were ancient history and relief drivers were almost a thing of the past?

Foyt came up in an era of major transition. When he was an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1958, massive front-engine roadsters powered by the four-cylinder Offy were the norm. By the time Foyt won his second “500” in 1964 in a Watson roadster, the roadsters were on their last legs. Even Foyt and Parnelli Jones switched to the smaller and lighter rear-engine cars in 1965. Yet Foyt successfully made the transition and won two more “500s” in rear-engine cars.

Foyt also thrived in an era when he would drive a sprint car at Springfield on a Saturday and then drive a rear-engine car at Milwaukee the next day. Or, as in August of 1965; Foyt put his upright dirt car on the pole up against the sleek Lotus cars of the day, when his own Lotus suffered mechanical issues before the race. Foyt finished second in that race because a dirt car was not configured for pit stops and his stop took much longer than usual. Foyt finished second in that race. I consider his performance that day to be one of the greatest feats of any era.

Today’s racers don’t race on dirt the night before they drive in an IndyCar race. In fact, I’d say that most of the drivers in last year’s Indianapolis 500 had never driven a front-engine race car. Why would they? If you are going to come up through the USAC ranks today, driving front-engine sprints and midgets – you aren’t really getting good training for an Indy car. Most likely, your sights are set on driving in NASCAR. IndyCar drivers today usually have a background focused on driving rear-engine cars from the very beginning.

Is it really fair to compare Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti to any driver from the sixties? Not only do they have completely different backgrounds; the younger drivers came up in an age where it was not only discouraged to race several different types of cars at the same time – it was forbidden in a lot of cases. That’s not the fault of the drivers, but either the owners or the auto manufacturers they represent.

Racers are racers. Tony Kanaan has loved driving on dirt the few times he has done it. Scott Dixon drives sports cars occasionally, but up until this coming season – it has always been for Chip Ganassi, his employer in IndyCar. Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi have crossed IndyCar enemy lines to drive for Team Penske’s sports car program in the past couple of years – but it is not the norm. If it were up to the drivers, they would be driving as many different types of cars as often as they could. However, today’s business environment makes it very difficult for them to do it.

It’s not fair to Dixon, Franchitti or any other driver to compare them to Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones or any other driver from the sixties. Likewise, it’s not fair to compare those drivers from the sixties to Louis Meyer or Wilbur Shaw from the twenties and thirties – just as it’s not fair to either quarterback to compare Tom Brady to Johnny Unitas. Nor can you compare the 2007 New England Patriots that went 18-1 with Tom Brady (but lost in the Super Bowl) to the 1972 Miami Dolphins that went 17-0 and won their Super Bowl against the Washington Redskins. They were two different teams, from two different eras and with totally different circumstances.

It makes for good banter and debate in a sports bar to compare different sports eras among friends. But if you are trying to make a serious point by comparing athletes, teams or drivers separated by at least a generation (or more) – don’t do it. You are going down a very slippery slope. It’s usually one you want to avoid.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Try to Avoid This Slippery Slope”

  1. You must belong to far more civil Facebook IndyCar groups than I do. Haha

  2. Maybe you can luck into one Indy 500 win. Maybe. Not four. A lot goes into winning a race. The fastest car doesn’t always win. Team work. Mechanics. Experience. My guess is the drivers 50 years ago were better because they could drive different types of cars on different types of tracks. And they didn’t shake in fear of ovals……….

    It’s like in baseball arguing who was the best player. Many argue that this player or that player is better than Babe Ruth. Argue all you want. But the only real response needed is “Well, can he pitch? Ruth had world series pitching records that lasted for half a century.”

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t mind comparing drivers between eras for kicks and grins as long as you acknowledge the uncertainty involved in every such comparison.

    To dismiss Foyt’s accomplishments as clearly below others is absurd because it would be to dismiss the accomplishments of so many who raced against him: Mario, Al, Bobby, JR, Johncock, Ward, Clark, Parnelli, Sneva, even Mears. Foyt raced AND beat all of these drivers.

    Even if you buy that Foyt “lucked” into each of his 500 victories, he still won 63 other championship races. He won at least 5 races in four distinct types of Indycars (roadsters, dirt cars, non-winged rear-engine cars, and winged cars) and added a victory in a ground effects car for good measure (though that was the 81 USAC Pocono race). Of his roadster-racing contemporaries, only Ruby, Parnelli, and Ward also won races in rear-engine cars, and none of those 3 won a race in a winged car.

    Even the old, “uncompetitive” Foyt us younger fans may remember still finished 11th in the 1990 CART standings. Yes, he had a distinct advantage running a Chevrolet engine… he was also 55 years old! For reference, that is how old Michael Andretti was in 2018, over a decade removed from his last start. Or, to look forward, how old Scott Dixon will be at the end of the 2035 Indycar season.

  4. Here is all you need to know about that Foyt fella. In August of 1965 at the Milwaukee Mile, Foyt won the pole in his upright Sheraton Thompson Special dirt car against a field of rear engine cars. Foyt’s Lotus had mechanical problems. Foyt came within a splash of fuel of winning the race. I was at that race and it was almost comical to see Foyt sitting upright and wrasslin’ that car around the track ahead of all those Lotus cars. Foyt and Tony Bettenhausen Sr. had some memorable duels at the Milwaukee Mile also. Regarding your Foyt detractor, a fella named Twain once said “it is better to appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
    Regarding your listing of good quarterbacks above, there was a fella named Favre who played a little football up nort der.

    • Sorry George. I did not notice that you mentioned above what Foyt did in a dirt track roadster against the rear engine Lotus cars at Milwaukee in 1965. Certainly worthy of a Robin Miller “tough guys” video.

  5. Have a blessed new year, George and Susan.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    I agree its tuff to compare drivers from different eras. How ever this guy does not who AJFoyt was ! Luck sure he had some luck but that man was a great driver. AJ, MARIO BOBBY AND AL UNSER racers along with Parnelli Jones. Not only did they drive every thing on wheels but they won in all forms of racing. And they did it in a era when the driver had to do it all. Only thing they had was a pit board you could read half the time. I dont belive the guys around today could ever compare to the Foyt, Andretti, the Unsers and so on. One big mistake car owners today make is they dont pay attention to sprint car racers . It’s the best car control training around. Especially non wing. But everyone is entitled to there opinion.

  7. You know, I really hate the whole “GOAT” thing that everyone does, we are so opinionated these days and high on ourselves, it’s like we MUST be seeing the best of everything at all times. I prefer to define great generational talents. Dixon and Kyle Busch and all of the others are in that list for their era, but you can’t compare them. It was nauseating listening to NASCAR morons argue that Kyle Busch winning chump races meant he was the new “King” of NASCAR. The argument was that Petty didn’t have to beat anybody, but he raced against all of the greats, and beat them (including Foyt and Andretti). Can’t compare any of it, including the 4 time Indy winners, I prefer Rick Mears, but that is because I saw most of his wins out of the 3 guys in the club.

  8. Gary Manes Says:

    Hammer meet nail. Can’t realistically compare from different eras. Another great Foyt story is when he jumped in a semi tractor, I think at the fairgrounds, never had driven one and was a fraction of a second off the pole speed

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