The Racing Capital
of the World
May 25, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
To win the Indianapolis 500 one time in a race driver’s career is the pinnacle of auto racing excellence. It is an historical accomplishment that stands the test of time. To win the Indianapolis 500 more than once sets a driver apart from his successful peers and elevates his status to greater glory.
There have been 18 drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500 more than once, and 10 of those drivers have won it three times.
When A.J. Foyt won his third Indianapolis 500 in 1967, it was anticipated that the Indianapolis 500 would soon have its first four-time winner. Foyt had plenty of years left as a competitive race driver and was the biggest star in worldwide auto racing. Foyt’s “Race for Four” took 10 years to achieve when he became the first driver to win the Indy 500 for a fourth time with his victory in 1977.
“To be the first four-time winner really stood out,” Foyt said. “It was like Louis Meyer becoming the first three-time winner (1928, ’33 and ’36). When I won the fourth, the biggest thing is we were working so hard trying to do it that it took me 10 years to do it. Indianapolis has its own character, and by the time you think you have it figured it out shows that you don’t have it figured out.
“If it is your day, it’s your day. Come Race Day everything has to fall your way.”
Foyt’s time as the only four-time winner lasted for 10 years. Al Unser made it a two-man club with his fourth Indy 500 win in 1987, and Rick Mears made it a trio of four-time winners with win No. 4 in 1991. But that club has remained exclusive for more than two decades.
Of all the four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, Mears was the most efficient. His first Indianapolis 500 start was in 1978, and his first win came in 1979. He achieved all four of his Indy 500 wins in a 13-year period. Foyt’s first Indianapolis 500 start was in 1958, and his first victory came in 1961. He scored his four Indy 500 wins over a 17-year span.
Al Unser’s first Indy 500 start was in 1965, and his first Indianapolis 500 checkered flag came in 1970. He became a back-to-back winner in 1971. His four wins spanned 18 years from his first to his fourth.
If Helio Castroneves wins this year it, would be 13 years since his first Indy win, in 2001. Dario Franchitti can shatter the efficiency mark if he wins this year because his first Indianapolis 500 victory was in 2007. If he scores win No. 4 in 2013, that would make it four wins in just 10 attempts.
Of the three four-time winners, they believe either driver would be outstanding additions to the “Four-Time Winners Club.”
“They are both very similar at Indy,” Mears said. “They are both very smooth and very calculated. They are both what I always called ‘run smart.’ They know when to run to and when not to put themselves in positions they don’t need to raise their odds early in the day. They wait and do things when it is necessary. They are both a lot alike in that respect the way they run at Indy, and I believe that is what has helped them win those races – that same mentality.
“They are racers, first and foremost. Anyone who has had the success they have had, you had to look at it as you are only as good as your last race. I always went into the next event not knowing whether I had won it once or twice. I didn’t approach it any differently. I’m going in to win that race. It’s a new day. That is the way I looked at it. That way you didn’t have the pressure of this could be the second, the third or the fourth. I used that way of looking at it to eliminate that pressure.
“But that is naturally the way I ran anyway because all of my focus was on winning this race today. I tend to think that is the way they approach it, too, which is what has helped them get the wins they have had.”
Mears never thought he would ever race in the Indianapolis 500, so a victory was “on another planet.” But that may have been the type of attitude it took to become a four-time winner.
“The first win almost took a week to soak in,” Mears said. “Two or three days later I’m driving down the road, and I got goose bumps, and it was like, ‘I won, Indy!’ It dawned on me like that, all of a sudden. That fourth win it was already dawning on me on the cool-off lap. It had already hit home. As a matter of fact, the fourth win it was starting to hit home on me on the last lap running around there realizing if I didn’t drive it straight into the fence I would have that fourth win. The later wins dawn on you much sooner; much quicker.
“To have that great shootout with Michael Andretti at the end, that is what made it the most gratifying of the fourth. That is what you always gear up for every time, but that is what rarely happens. To me that is what is fun. That is what you do it for. I’m going to take the win no matter how I get it. But if I have a choice to how I can win this, by having a lap on the field or making a pass on the last corner of the last lap, which one will you take? I’ll take the last corner of the last lap because they are the ones you feel like you have earned more even though you have earned it either way. As a driver, it is much more gratifying that way.”
Unser was a smooth and consistent driver in a glorious racing career. Although he scored his first two victories for car owner Parnelli Jones, his last Indy 500 win came with Roger Penske in 1987 when he drove a year-old car to victory, taking over after Danny Ongais was injured in a crash earlier that month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Things happen in different ways in racing, and being at the right place at the right time that is what happened to Al Unser in 1987 with his fourth win,” Penske said of Unser’s win in 1987. “Danny Ongais had been in an accident with our car, and we brought a car back from Reading, Pennsylvania, which had been a show car. The strategy during the race and Al’s consistency gave him his fourth Indy 500 win.”
Unser was able to join Foyt that day as a four-time winner but realizes there are two capable drivers that could increase that list in 2013.
“Dario and Helio are both good drivers,” Unser said. “They are very strong and try to think things out. They are both strong, and the cars are all so equal now it’s going to be hard to come up with that secret advantage that everybody tries to find.
“The teams they are with they are going to be strong. They can do it just as well as we did. Gosh, all I can say is good luck to them. I hope they do. Records are made to be broken. I thought Rick Mears would be the first five-time winner, but he retired. Chip Ganassi has a heck of a team but so does Roger. It can happen very easy with those two guys. They are good, and they have the team.”
Penske holds the distinction of being the winning team owner for two of the three drivers that have won the race for a fourth time – Unser in 1987 and all four of Mears’ wins.
“I think that Rick was an outstanding driver,” Penske said. “His career was with our team from start to finish. I think if he had stayed, he would have won another Indy 500. He was so passionate about the Speedway. I never saw anyone who could get up and make it happen like he did. He could dig down deep on qualifying day and to make those passes that he had to make on Michael Andretti to win the race. These are things that you will never forget.”
And then there is Foyt, who believes this is an equally matched competition between two top drivers who would deserve to give the Indianapolis 500 its first foreign-born four-time winner.
“Castroneves is awfully hard, and so is Franchitti, so I would give it a toss-up,” Foyt said. “The one thing about the 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis, you can have everybody covered so good, but it has to fall your way. And if it doesn’t fall your way, I don’t care who you are, you aren’t going to win it.”
Castroneves and Franchitti are simply hoping to become the “next.” But Foyt will always have the distinction of being the first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
“A.J. was and is the man, period,” Mears said. “He always will be. I didn’t think about it as much back then in the early years because I didn’t realize what Indy meant until after a while. As I spent more time there and realized how difficult that place is to win, and then you get a little older and a little wiser, then you realize the history of the place. Then you realize moreso who A.J. is and what he has accomplished in his lifetime and the man that he is.
“A.J. is and always will be in a class of his own.”
Foyt, Unser and Mears are legendary names of the glorious past of the Indianapolis 500 – Franchitti and Castroneves are stars of the current generation.
“I think it’s cool that in the modern era we still have two current guys fighting for win No. 4 at the Indianapolis 500,” said 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon, Franchitti’s teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.