Plenty Of Star Power At Centennial Era Gala

Monday, March 02, 2009

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Nineteen of the 27 living Indianapolis 500 winners attended the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Centennial Era Gala on Friday, Feb. 27 at the Indiana Convention Center: Mario Andretti, Kenny Brack, Eddie Cheever Jr., Gil de Ferran, Scott Dixon, A.J. Foyt, Dario Franchitti, Gordon Johncock, Parnelli Jones, Buddy Lazier, Arie Luyendyk, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Jim Rathmann, Johnny Rutherford, Tom Sneva, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser.

Those champions combined during their careers at Indianapolis to write major portions of the "500" record book, including 35 victories, 29 poles, 312 starts and 5,050 laps led.

1997 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard winner Ricky Rudd also attended, while multiple Allstate 400 at the Brickyard winners Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart participated in Gala festivities via satellite from Las Vegas, where they were racing in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.

Other Indianapolis 500 veterans attending the Gala included Janet Guthrie, Sarah Fisher, Lyn St. James, Bill Puterbaugh, A.J. Foyt IV, Ed Carpenter, Ryan Briscoe and Will Power.

A variety of team and racing officials also joined the festivities, including Pat Patrick, Jim McGee, Tim Cindric of Penske Racing, Scott Roembke of Rahal Letterman Racing, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree of Andretti Green Racing, and Al Speyer of Firestone Racing.

The IMS Radio Network community also was well represented, with all living "Voices of the 500" in attendance - Paul Page, Bob Jenkins and Mike King. But Jenkins, who served as Gala master of ceremonies, noted after introducing legendary IMS Public Address Announcer Tom Carnegie that Carnegie "always will be the real Voice of the '500.'"

Other VIP's at the Gala included artist Thomas Kinkade, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and famed racing beauty queen Linda Vaughn.

All Gala attendees had the opportunity for a picture taken with the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy, presented to the winners of the main auto races in 1909 and 1910 at IMS, which preceded the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.


Mears impressed: Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, who had the reputation as one of the most laid-back drivers in the history of motorsports, was in awe of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Centennial Era Gala Feb. 27 in downtown Indianapolis.

"It's hard to imagine, and you've got to go back and look at some of the videos and photos of the real early years of the Speedway and the cars," Mears said. "Those guys were crazy back then, driving some of the things they were driving. That's history that can never be repeated, so it's great to keep it going."


Mario is a good sport: Mario Andretti is widely recognized as one of the best drivers in the history of auto racing. He's also a very good sport, given his 29 starts at the Indianapolis 500 and only one victory, in 1969.

Andretti was asked if ever thinks, "What if?" about the "500."

"Yeah, probably that 10-20 dollars would have got me another couple of races," he said with a laugh. "Small pieces and small parts. There's a luck factor involved, and luck is an abstract. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't. God knows I tried hard and I dominated some races here, more so than some guys who won multiples here, but couldn't quite see that last 100 miles.

"Even though I only have one trophy to show for it, I think I'm one of the all-time (lap) leaders, and while you're leading this race, you're having a great time. So I had a great time here."


Arie helping out: Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk will coach rookie Robert Doornbos and Milka Duno of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing during the month of May this year at Indianapolis.

"Robert is a rookie on the ovals," Luyendyk said. "He won a couple of races in Champ Car a few years ago, so he doesn't need much coaching there, and Milka started running last year, I believe maybe the year before at Indy. Rick Mears still coaches very experienced drivers at Penske Racing, and I think it's a good idea for her to have me as a coach."


Guthrie happy to break tradition: Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, in 1977. She was happy to pave the way for subsequent female starters Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick and Milka Duno.

"I'm very glad of it, of course," Guthrie said. "You know, it's funny, even though I was breaking an Indianapolis tradition, I really enjoy the tradition associated with the Speedway, and this (Centennial Era Gala) is a wonderful celebration of it."


De Ferran could return to Indy - as owner: 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran returned to the cockpit of an Acura prototype in the American Le Mans Series last season for De Ferran Motorsports, which he owns. De Ferran will continue in that role this season and also is eyeing a possible return to the IndyCar Series, where he drove for Penske Racing in 2002 and 2003.

"I don't see me driving an IndyCar again, but this is all about the team, really," de Ferran said. "It's really not about me reliving the dream as a racing driver. That's not to say that I'm not enjoying driving the car, but the most important thing or my priority is making the team a success with me behind the cockpit or not.

"I would certainly like to grow the team and given my, to say the least, emotional ties with IndyCar racing, I would love to run an IndyCar at some point in the future."


Common ground: 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann is the oldest living Indy winner and one of only three living drivers to capture "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" in a front-engine roadster, along with A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones.

While Rathmann acknowledged the challenge of driving the roadsters around IMS with their narrow tires and lack of aerodynamics, he said the task of driving today's low-slung aerodynamic cars is just as daunting at IMS.

"I think you still have to fight for it," Rathmann said. "You just have to work your (rear) off until there's nothing left."


Friday night fights: Rivalries in racing never die, although they might mellow just a bit. That was Bobby Unser's sentiment Feb. 27 at the IMS Centennial Era Gala.

A reporter asked three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Unser whether old rivalries between the Unsers, A.J. Foyt and others might heat up. Unser joked that he was skeptical the Gala would stay peaceful.

"I can't promise you that," he said with a laugh. "There could be some problems. But I noticed Foyt's down in Houston with airplane troubles, so that takes care of half the fights right there. Parnelli (Jones) is here, though, to take care of Foyt."

Foyt arrived from Houston in time for the Gala.


Nice rides: Six rarely seen cars from the IMS Hall of Fame Museum were placed on display during the cocktail reception at the Gala. Among those priceless vehicles were:

•The 1949 Jaguar XK120 that Speedway owner Tony Hulman purchased for Clark Gable to use when the actor came to Indianapolis.

•A 1909 Buick driven by Louis Chev