INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Four-time Indianapolis 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears grace the cover of the souvenir program for the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ like a trio of senior GQ models.
The race’s only four-time winners form an exclusive but aging club that has not welcomed a new member since Mears claimed his fourth Indy 500 win in 1991.
The fraternity, however, could welcome some young blood on Sunday if 40-year-old defending champion Dario Franchitti of Britain or Brazilian Helio Castroneves, 38, can steer their way to Victory Lane.
Foyt, Unser and Mears are three giants of American sport who survived open-wheel racing’s most dangerous era and bear the scars of their daring profession.
Foyt, 78, is back at the Brickyard as an owner, shuffling slowly along Gasoline Alley having undergone recent back surgery to repair damage accumulated from decades of racing.
Unser, 73, will not be at the speedway for Sunday’s race as he rests at home in New Mexico also recovering from back surgery while 61-year-old Mears, who is here with the Penske team, is the youngster of group.
Foyt fully expects to see his driver, Japan’s Takuma Sato, in Victory Lane but admitted he would not be shocked if there was a fourth four-time winner come Sunday.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see a six, seven, eight-time winner,” said Foyt. “Records are made to be broken. But with the equipment they have today if a guy don’t win it six, seven times it’s because he ain’t trying.”
Held on the three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend in the U.S. heartland, the 500 is a uniquely American event that offers none of the glitz of the Monaco Grand Prix.
While Monaco may be the world’s most glamorous race, the Indy may be the most heart-stopping with 33 cars watched by nearly 300,000 spectators charging at breathtaking speeds around an oval so big it could hold Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and Rome’s Colosseum with room to spare.
The sprawling 2.5 mile speedway holds immense fascination and allure for foreign drivers who have flocked to Indianapolis to test their skill and bravery for over a century.
In the last 14 years only two Americans have managed to put their cars in Victory Lane.
The Indy 500 has attracted some of motor racing’s greatest names, including Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Jacques Villeneuve but only three have been more successful at the Brickyard than Castroneves and Franchitti.
Castroneves notched consecutive victories in 2001 and 2002 then returned to the winner’s circle in 2009, but the reigning King of the Speedway is Franchitti, who has taken the checkered flag in three of the last six years (2007, 2010 and 2012).
But for all their statistical similarities, Castroneves and Franchitti take a very different view of their place in the annals of the Indy 500.
The dashing Brazilian can barely contain his excitement about the opportunity ahead of him while the stoic Scot prefers not to get ahead of himself and consider a place among the greats until he has earned it.
”Going through the ‘60s, ‘70s the ‘80s I have the maximum respect for anybody that drove any of those cars,“ said Franchitti. ”If you crash one of those cars and get it wrong you are going to kill yourself and that was something those guys dealt with.
”They are absolute heroes, they really are. Those guys winning four over the decades that they did they are special people.
“I don’t think about it because it doesn’t help me go any faster. I’ll think about it if we have a good day on Sunday.”
Considered one of the most wide open Indy 500s in recent memory, Sunday’s race is rich in intriguing story lines.
Local boy Ed Carpenter, IndyCar’s only owner/driver, will start from the pole driving a car sponsored by former Masters and U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller and his company Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka.
Starting alongside Carpenter will be Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz, who is the wildcard in the 33-car field starting in his very first career IndyCar race.
Marco Andretti starts on the outside of Row One where he will try to become first member of the Andretti clan to win the race since his grandfather Mario Andretti in 1969.
Four women will also be in the field this year. Swiss Simona De Silvestro, Brazilian Ana Beatriz and Britons Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge will take the command to start their engines while Sarah Fisher will watch from the pits as a team owner.
Editing by Frank Pingue