Today’s Veteran Drivers Lack Bitterness

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There is no doubt about it – I’m old. I don’t sugarcoat it or disguise it by saying I’m seasoned or mature. That’s especially difficult to say, when so many that know me consider me to be immature. When you’re a little closer to sixty than you are to fifty – that’s old.

I’m not sure, but I’m probably the only IndyCar blogger that was actually present to witness roadsters race in the Indianapolis 500. My first race there was in 1965 and there were six roadsters in the field, including two Novi’s. There’s not much I can hold over my fellow bloggers, but that is one claim they can’t top.

Over a lifetime of closely following this sport, I’ve seen many drivers come and go. I’ve witnessed young rookies come into this sport and subsequently watched them die of old age – most recently, Gary Bettenhausen – whose debut at Indianapolis I witnessed in 1968. Almost two-thirds of the field I saw start in 1965 has passed away by now.

Not only have I seen a lot of drivers lose their lives in a racecar, I’ve witnessed many, many more retire from racing. Some hung around too long, some were forced into early retirements due to injury and some just knew when it was the right time to hang up the helmet. As with any walk of life some drivers handled retirement better than others.

To me, Rick Mears is the case study on how a driver should retire. He was still on top of his game. He was just a year and a half removed from winning his fourth Indianapolis 500. No one knows if he silently felt the urge to climb back into the cockpit, but he never even hinted about it publicly. He stayed active in the sport and is regularly seen at every track in some capacity with Team Penske. He is a solid ambassador for the sport and interacts well with today’s young drivers.

Unlike many, Mears never turned bitter towards the sport that gave him fame and wealth. At my ripe old age of fifty-five, it’s easy to be the grumpy old man and reflect how much better things were “back in my day”. Truth be told, some things were actually better and some things weren’t. As they approach the end of their careers, athletes are especially guilty of this attitude. No matter what era in sports, most veteran athletes feel that the younger group has not paid their dues to the sport. They forget that those that came before them felt the exact same way about them, a decade or so earlier.

It’s the same with drivers. I remember when Mario Andretti was the hot-shot driver that the veterans complained about. His rookie year at Indianapolis was also my first year there as a spectator. He was considered the brash young punk that had no respect for his elders on the track. In the eighties, he was the elder statesmen in the sport. Oddly enough, he never seemed to have contempt for the younger drivers coming up. Perhaps it was because his own son was in that group and he had a better understanding of their mindset. The same could be said for Michael. As he got closer and closer to his retirement, he never seemed to complain about the young hot-shots.

Other drivers did not approach the end of their careers with such grace. One of my favorite drivers from the sixties comes to mind.

Today, Jim Hurtubise is remembered for a lot of reasons. Unfortunately, being a fast and fearless driver is usually not one of them. Most fans today, if they’ve even heard of Jim Hurtubise, think of the clown that was trying to qualify his old roadster, the Mallard, at Indianapolis in the mid-to-late seventies. They are also reminded of the malcontent who tried to disrupt qualifying by running onto the track during Bob Harkey’s qualifying run, because USAC officials would not allow his Mallard to make an attempt. Or, to quote one of the stories that Donald Davidson hates being asked about – there was the time that he put his Miller High Life Special in the qualifying line. When the hood was raised, the Offy had been removed and replaced with ice and Miller beer.

When Hurtubise showed up as a rookie in 1960, he blew away the track record by two and a half miles an hour, falling just short of the magical 150 mph barrier. Hurtubise was fast and he also knew how to race. Mechanical gremlins always kept him from Victory Lane at Indianapolis, but he was revered nevertheless. Adding to his lore was his recovery from severe burns he suffered at Milwaukee in 1964. At first, he was not expected to live. Then he was told he would never drive again. Then when doctors were surgically repairing his hands, he was told that whatever position the hands were in following their procedure – that would be their permanent position. So Herk told them to shape them so that he could always grip a steering-wheel. Not only did he race again, he won the Atlanta 500 in 1966 – beating NASCAR greats like Richard Petty, Tiny Lund and David Pearson.

But it was about this time that Hurtubise started to change. Whether his injuries had anything to do with it is not clear, but Hurtubise was starting to become extremely bitter towards the direction of the sport. He detested rear-engine cars and strongly felt that the front-engine car still could play a significant role at Indianapolis. He honestly felt that he would qualify his Mallard on the front row in 1968 – the same year the Lotus Turbines took two of the three front-row spots. Hurtubise barely made the race and went out with a burned piston after nine laps. It marked the last appearance for a front-engine car in the race.

The following year, Al Unser had been driving for Herk’s good friend Parnelli Jones. Unser had broken his leg while riding a motorcycle in the infield during the first qualifying weekend. Jones needed a driver for his car, which was considered one of the top rides in the sport. The legendary George Bignotti was the Chief Mechanic and Unser would eventually take that ride to Indianapolis wins in 1970 and 1971; so suffice it to say – it was a top ride.

Parnelli turned to his longtime friend, Jim Hurtubise and offered the ride to him. The result was not pretty. Legend has it that Herk told his friend exactly what he could do with that offer. He chose to remain with his front-engine efforts. The Mallard failed to qualify, while Unser’s ride went to Bud Tingelstad.

Herk’s bitterness grew nastier as it followed him throughout the remainder of his career. The sport was changing and he either could not or would not adapt. His last appearance at The Speedway was in 1981, when he failed to qualify. He died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of fifty-six.

There are many other examples that parallel those of Rick Mears and Jim Hurtubise. Gordon Johncock comes to mind as one that has grown bitter at the sport’s direction. As much kidding as AJ Foyt gets for being the poster child of the term “old school”, give him credit for adapting with the times. He knew when to abandon the old roadster for the more modern rear-engine car. He has made what he thought were the best decisions for his team over the years – whether or not to choose a foreign engine manufacturer (Toyota and Honda) when an American engine was available; or to go with a more experienced foreign driver rather than a less experienced American just for the sake of the Red, White and Blue. At the age of seventy-nine, AJ still wants to win. He may still do things his way, but he has adapted with the times much more than some of his contemporaries did over the years.

Johnny Rutherford and the Unsers have also embraced this new era. They may not necessarily think that things are better today than in their day – but they appreciate today’s sport for what it is.

Right now, we are on the verge of seeing another rash of retirements. Dario Franchitti has already stepped out of the cockpit, but remains heavily involved with his old team. I suspect Helio Castroneves will remain in some capacity with Team Penske, whenever he decides to call it a career. My hope is that Tony Kanaan will stay involved with the series once his day is done. He is much too good of an ambassador for this sport to quietly go back to Brazil.

Actually, I can’t think of any of today’s veterans that are starting to sound bitter as they approach the end of their careers. So as much as I like to reminisce about following this sport as I grew up in the sixties, that’s one thing that today’s crop has over the group of drivers that I grew up with. Let’s hope it stays that way.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “Today’s Veteran Drivers Lack Bitterness”

  1. George, in your 15th paragraph you say “(t)here are many other examples that parallel those of Rick Mears and Jim Hurtubise. Gordon Johncock comes to mind as one that has grown bitter at the sport’s direction.” Then you immediately change the subject and start talking about A. J. Foyt. Would you like to give us some examples about Johncock to prove your accusation or are you just gonna throw it out there like a tabloid? That’s not very fair of you, where’s your proof? And speaking of the Foyt stuff in this article you said “(h)e knew when to abandon the old roadster for the more modern front-engine car. ” Didn’t you mean “more modern rear-engine car”?

    By the way, people are “who” not “that,” as in “Gordon Johncock comes to mind as one WHO has grown bitter at the sport’s direction (not “that has”).”

    Honestly NOT trying to be a critical ass, just trying to help….

  2. A couple of thoughts. One,many of the drivers are today set for life financially. That was not always true. That makes a difference when you call it a day.

    Also, bitterness (or whatever you want to call it) does have a positive side. It shows they cared about the sport and what was happening to it. It also shows how much they wanted to succeed. Not necessarily bad. Passion for a sport by its participants is not what it was and is not limited to Indycar.

  3. The Speedgeek Says:

    I can’t speak for all that Gordon Johncock may or may not have said over the years, but here’s a good example of what George was talking about, from MoreFrontWing.com’s excellent 2011 Centennial Interview Series:

    http://morefrontwing.com/2011/05/13/cis-gordon-johncock/

    I haven’t listened to that interview in almost three years, but I remember Johncock saying some pretty disparaging things about the foreign drivers during his time in IndyCars, and also some stuff about the foreigners that were currently in the Series at the time. I also seem to remember him saying something along the lines of not going back for the race pretty much every year, and maybe even questioning if he’d be back for the Centennial race (again, if my failing memory serves, he did come for the 2011 race weekend, but wasn’t around the track much…and my sincerest apologies if that’s inaccurate).

    Anyway, interesting post, George.

  4. Well, speaking as someone who is a fan of Indycar oval racing, I’m not sure I’d agree. Many of the current drivers may not be bitter, but they sure do complain when things aren’t being done their (the European racing) way. Look at how the drivers stomped their feet when double file restarts happened. Look at how the drivers want to be able to control race control. That may or may not be bitterness but it’s not good, whatever it is.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    George, as I am 20 years your senior trust me when I say that you are not “old”. Old will come to you. Don’t reach for it.

    A.J. put up a good fight to the end with a roadster. One of the most iconic photos in racing is the sight of A.J. on the pole at Milwaukee in his dirt track roadster followed by Jim Clark and all the other rear engine cars. That was in august of 1965. A.J. would have won the race, but he had to stop for fuel and the other cars did not. Never-the-less, he finished second! Everybody in the stands that day knew that they had witnessed something special and also the end of an era.

    I was also in the stands at Milwaukee when Hurtubise crashed and caught on fire. I will never forget that horrible scene. When Simona’s car was on fire I could not help but have flashbacks to the Hurtubise crash. (and by the way, Simona has good reasons to be bitter and at least outwardly is not) Of all the advancements in racing safety, perhaps the most significant has been reducing the threat of fire.

    • Ron, you advice is one that I will also take. I’ll let being old come to me and not reach for it.

  6. Mario has also been a terrific spokesman for the sport.

  7. Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

    Maybe one reason why drivers don’t complain about change the way they used to is because things aren’t changing much these days.

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