What Defines A Class Act?
When I was driving to work Monday morning, I was listening to my usual local sports talk radio show. They were talking about Roger Federer winning the Australian Open at the age of thirty-five. One of the hosts said “…you will never find a better class act in all of sports from any era than Roger Federer”. My immediate thought when I first heard that was Rick Mears.
I don’t follow tennis. I know that Roger Federer is a big name in tennis, but that is the extent of my knowledge. If he were to walk up to me, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea who he was. Is he a class act? I don’t know. The guy that said it knows a lot about sports, so he probably knows.
That show is a very good show when it comes to mainstream sports. They are my go-to source for anything involving the Tennessee Vols or Titans. But when it comes to racing their expertise drops off considerably. They know enough about NASCAR to be dangerous; even less about IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. It’s painful to listen to them on the Tuesday (re-runs on Memorial Day) following the Indianapolis 500. They are so out of their element, I don’t know why they even try. They would have much more credibility if they just admitted they knew nothing about it than trying to fake their way through it.
I remember one year they were making the point of how many foreign-born drivers were in IndyCar vs NASCAR. That would have been fine, except for the example they used. They referred to the Hispanic driver, Bryan Huerta as an example of the diversity in the IndyCar paddock. Hmmm…
My point is, you should never make a point regarding absolutes like saying Roger Federer is the class act of all time. Probably everyone will offer up someone different. Even in racing, you’ll get a variety of opinions depending on the era they grew up in.
I’m not even sure what defines a class act. Does that mean they are fan friendly? Are they considered good sports among their fellow competitors? Must they win a championship of some kind before they can even be considered a class act? Is it all of the above?
There are many current drivers that I consider class acts. Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon come to mind. They meet all of the above criteria, but there are probably enough examples of unsportsmanlike conduct for both to at least sully their reputations. Helio Castroneves may be considered too much of a blocker on the track and too emotional off the track to warrant class act consideration.
Conor Daly and Pippa Mann are fan favorites due to how accessible and fan-friendly they are. But their on-track results are still lacking for them to reach class act status. Ryan Hunter-Reay is certainly a proven commodity on the track. When things are going well for him, he can be fan-friendly, but when they are not – he’s not the most pleasant person to be around. Josef Newgarden? He’s getting there. He’s certainly got the personality out of the car, but he needs to win more than three races for full-consideration.
The same goes for James Hinchcliffe. He’s already a great guy with a dry sense of humor. He hasn’t won many times, but he garnered a ton of respect from coming back to his near-fatal injuries a couple of years ago – yet he never seemed to seek pity. Most athletes get in front of the camera and start crying. Not once have I seen Hinch shed a tear when talking about his crash. That carries a lot of weight with me.
Don’t rule out Graham Rahal. He’s acquitted himself as a driver in the last couple of years. While some are turned off by his brash tweets, don’t forget his efforts to help the family of Justin Wilson after he was fatally injured at Pocono in 2015.
In all honesty, Dixon and Kanaan stand out more than anyone in today’s group – with Dixon getting the nod by how much he and his wife Emma have done for the Wheldon family.
Going back in time, there are many great drivers that may or may not have been called class acts. While I consider him the greatest driver of all time, and he helped a lot of people out anonymously – AJ Foyt had too many meltdowns to earn the class act label.
While I grew up not being a fan, Mario Andretti has proven to be a class act individual. Most long-time readers of this site know that I have a special-needs daughter named Katie. In 2004, the day before the race – we came across Mario in his golf cart behind the garage area. He was ducking away from fans seeking his autograph. When he spotted my daughter, he did a U-Turn in the parking lot and sped over to give her a hug. This was in the days before selfies, so I took the picture of Mario Andretti, Katie, Susan and Susan’s son Eric. From that day on, Mario Andretti has always been a class act in my book.
What about earlier eras? Unfortunately, history is more likely to let us know who was not a class act, instead of who was. For example, we know that 1931 Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Schneider was not a class act. We also know the same about the 1935 winner, Kelly Petillo. By all accounts, Ed Elisian was a pretty bad guy and had few friends or fans. Right or wrong, many accused him as being the cause of the opening crash in the 1958 Indianapolis 500 that took the life of popular driver Pat O’Connor.
But if you start overthinking any situation, most will tell you to go back to what first popped into your head. That takes us back to Rick Mears.
In my mind, no one carried themselves quite the way that Rick Mears did in the entire time that I’ve been following IndyCar – and I go back to when roadsters were still on the grid at Indianapolis. I think part of that was his upbringing, but Roger Penske may have had something to do with that as well. But as we all know, not all Penske drivers are gentlemen – so I’m thinking that it was in the general makeup of Mears himself that he was such a good guy.
Mears managed to walk the fine line of being aggressive on the track without putting anyone around him at risk. Everything I have read indicates that Mears was always praised by his on-track competitors for racing hard, but racing cleanly. I think that sounds easier than it is. But Mears was not just a good driver to race against – he was the consummate professional at all times. Not once do I remember Mears complaining about something another driver did to him, race conditions or a bad judgment call. He smiled, chuckled and went about his business.
I’ve always said that in this age of me-first prima donnas and divas, IndyCar drivers are a throw-back. For the most part; they are polite, good-natured and carry themselves well. They rarely get into any trouble off the track and all seem to have a good sense of humor. Compared to any other sport, they are all class acts. But compared amongst each other across different eras – Rick Mears has set the bar very high.