Celebrate Our Legends While We Can
This past Monday was the eightieth birthday for legendary car-owner Roger Penske. He has always been one of my idols. He set the standard for the way racing teams prepare for today’s racing. Like him or not, there is no denying that he is one of the most influential figures in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and open-wheel racing, and he shows no signs of slowing down. His team is always a threat to win the IndyCar championship, just as it did last season. He has amassed sixteen Indianapolis 500 victories as a car-owner and is probably the odds-on favorite to win another this May.
It seems that we are entering an age where many of the people who have the term “legend” or “legendary” affixed to their names are now in their eighties, or will be soon. If the sixties were considered the golden age of racing, the next few years may be when we see the passing of the legends.
Some may see this as a dark or morbid topic that should never be discussed. I say, quite the contrary. Right now is when the topic should be discussed – when they are all still at the race track and continue to have active roles in the sport. How else will we know how to fully appreciate them?
Many times in our daily lives whether at work or in our own families; we tend to take people for granted. Then suddenly, nature runs its course and poof – they are gone and we suddenly realize what we’ve lost and how we wish we could turn back the hands of time and appreciate them more while we still have them.
My own mother will be ninety-three this summer. She lives alone, two hours away and is still completely independent and in seemingly perfect health. She still sings in the church choir, drives everywhere herself, gets on Facebook every day and goes to an exercise class three times a week. I don’t spend as much time with her as I should, but I still see her on average about once every two months. When the time inevitably comes that she is no longer with us, I’ll be kicking myself for not going to see her on those weekends that I really had nothing to do. But I suppose that is natural.
It’s the same thing with our racing idols. We don’t realize how lucky we are to have such racing legends still around and in our midst at many race tracks, or at least at Indianapolis every May. There’s an old saying that you don’t appreciate someone until they’re gone. Well, that’s stupid. We know how legendary these people are. Let’s start appreciating them now!
I’ve already noted that Roger Penske turned eighty on Monday. That same day, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser turned eighty-three. We live in a time when ten men have won the Indianapolis 500 at least three times. I remember when AJ Foyt won his third in 1967, my father pointed out in amazement that there were only three other three-time winners at that time; Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose.
Since Foyt became the fourth member of that club, he has been joined by Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti. All but the aforementioned Meyer, Shaw and Rose are still with us today and they are all considered legends. But many are getting very long in the tooth. Foyt turned eighty-two last month. Uncle Bobby is now eighty-three. Big Al will turn seventy-eight in May and Rutherford will be seventy-nine next month.
There are other legends that we probably take their presence at the track for granted. We see Mario Andretti at practically every IndyCar race either driving the two-seater or cheering on his grandson Marco. Next Tuesday will be Mario’s seventy-seventh birthday. While we don’t see him as much as Mario, Parnelli Jones has still become a fixture at Indianapolis in May. While they don’t make men much tougher than Parnelli Jones, the last time I saw him at Indianapolis he was starting to look a little frail – even though he still had that twinkle in his eye and his trademark smirk on his face. Parnelli will be eighty-four this year and is currently the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner.
Gordon Johncock was a rookie driving a roadster when I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965. He was one of three in that famous rookie class that won the “500” at least once and also drove in the “500” in three different decades; Mario Andretti and Al Unser. While we don’t see Johncock at the track much these days, he is still very active and heavily involved in his lumber business. Johncock will be eighty-one this summer.
Another member of that famous class of ’65 was Joe Leonard. Although he never won the Indianapolis 500, he came very close in 1968. That was the year he put the Lotus 56 turbine on the pole at a then-record speed of 171.559 mph. I remember that qualifying effort vividly. It was the most beautiful car I had seen in my less than ten years on this planet. I wanted that car to win. It almost did, flaming out on a restart while leading on Lap 191. I was crushed and pouted the whole way home. Although that was as close as Leonard ever came to winning at Indianapolis, the former motorcycle champion also won the USAC championship in 1971 and 1972. Joe Leonard is no longer in the best of health, but is holding his own at the age of eighty-four.
One of the less heralded Indianapolis 500 veterans that is still active is Paul Goldsmith. Like his friend Joe Leonard, Goldsmith raced motorcycles before going to four wheels. Goldsmith won nine NASCAR races and won the 1961 USAC Stock Car championship. He drove in eight USAC Champ Car races, with six of them being the Indianapolis 500. In his six “500” starts, Goldsmith finished in the Top-Five twice, with his best being a third in 1960 behind Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward. Paul Goldsmith turned ninety-one last fall. The last I heard, he was still an active private pilot as well. While he may not quite be a legend, his place in open-wheel history is noted.
Dan Gurney is certainly a legend. He made his mark as a driver and a car-owner, designer and builder. While he never won at Indianapolis as a driver, he drove in nine “500’s” between 1962 and 1970 – finishing second, second and third in his final three appearances in a car that he designed and built; the famous Eagle chassis. After he retired as a driver, his Eagle chassis experienced huge success in the seventies. His 1972 creation, driven by Bobby Unser, broke all speed records in qualifying throughout the month and was the fastest on the course before an engine problem sidelined Unser after thirty-one laps. Gurney then had similar success in IMSA in the early nineties.
I think Dan Gurney is the main person responsible for bringing the rear-engine car to Indianapolis, to the chagrin of some. He was the man that convinced Colin Chapman of Lotus to come here and run Indianapolis in the early sixties. Dan Gurney will turn eighty-six this April.
I would be negligent to not mention Mel Kenyon as one of the legends we are still lucky to have in our midst. Some may not recognize the name, but followers of midget racing will certainly know the name. The “King of the Midgets” also ran in eight Indianapolis 500’s from 1966 to 1973. Many only know him for the novelty of continuing to drive long after losing the fingers on his left hand in a USAC champ car race at Langhorne in 1965. He had a special glove made with a grommet that fit into place on the steering wheel.
But Kenyon should have been known for much more than that. Aside from a brilliant and unprecedented midget career; he had four Top-Fives in the Indianapolis 500, with a best being third in 1968. Kenyon continued to drive midgets well into his seventies. Mel Kenyon will turn eighty-four this April.
I am sure there are plenty of legendary drivers that are aging faster than we want that I failed to list here. Again, I don’t write this to cast a dark cloud over the start of the season or to remind anyone of their own mortality. But let’s face it – it’s going to happen to you, me and every one of these drivers at some point. OK, I may concede that it might not happen to AJ Foyt. If multiple crashes, an overturned bulldozer and a swarm of killer bees can’t kill him; I’m not sure that an aging body can. But reality tells us it will.
So instead of never mentioning or discussing the inevitable demise of these legendary drivers until it happens, let’s acknowledge their age, appreciate them and realize how lucky we are to still have them among us for now. That way when their time does eventually come, we’ll know that we showed them the appreciation they deserved in their later years on this earth.
Please Note: One of our loyal readers and commenters, Ron Ford, sent me an e-mail over the weekend letting me know that he has been hospitalized with a very serious condition. I have never met Ron, but I feel like I know him. We were supposed to get together at Road America last summer, but he had last-minute travel issues. Although we’ve never met, we have developed a friendship over the years through this website and via e-mail. Please keep Ron in your thoughts and prayers and speed him on to a quick recovery. – GP