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.
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