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Fabulous after 40: Super Performances at IMS by the Senior Set

Tom Brady further cemented his status as the GOAT – greatest of all time – at quarterback and probably among all National Football League players after leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV on Feb. 8 at Tampa, Florida.

Brady earned his unprecedented seventh Super Bowl victory – more than any other franchise in NFL history, let alone player – and became the oldest Super Bowl champion as a player at age 43.

While Brady continues to defy time like no other player in football history, there have been many impressive performances by drivers over age 40 in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. Here are a few:

1. Al Unser Wins Indy at 47. Entering May 1987, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser didn’t have a ride for the Indianapolis 500 after spending the previous four seasons with Team Penske. He was in Gasoline Alley looking for rides but insisted only a competitive car that offered him a chance to tie A.J. Foyt as four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

That chance arose when Danny Ongais crashed in a new Team Penske PC-16 chassis during the first week of practice and was ruled out for the month with concussion symptoms. Team owner Roger Penske then made two important decisions: He hired Unser to replace Ongais and also decided to switch from the struggling PC-16 to year-old backup cars for team drivers Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Unser.

Year-old cars were on hand for Mears and Sullivan. Team Penske had to source a year-old Penske chassis for Unser from a display in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel near the team’s headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The rest, as they say, is history. Unser started 20th but gradually moved up in the field, which featured high attrition. Big Al only led once, but when it mattered, as he took the top spot on Lap 183 and never trailed thereafter, beating Roberto Guerrero to the finish by 4.496 seconds.

Unser became just the second four-time winner of the “500,” and at 47 years, 360 days old, remains the oldest winner of the race.

There were 17 years between Unser’s first “500” win, in 1970, and his last. Brady has a 19-year gap between his first Super Bowl win, in 2002, and his seventh.

But unlike Unser, Brady can still win more Super Bowls, as he said he is returning to the Buccaneers next season. Let’s see if Brady can add another Super Bowl ring to his collection four years from now, matching Unser’s feat of winning at 47.

2. A.J. Qualifies on Front Row at 56. The incomparable A.J. Foyt holds numerous Indy 500 records – the first to four victories, most starts and consecutive starts (35), most laps (4,909) and miles (12,272.5) completed, and more.

But one of Super Tex’s most incredible accomplishments at the Speedway wasn’t one of his four victories or four poles.

Entering the 1991 season, questions swirled around Foyt’s career after he suffered severe injuries to his legs and feet in a crash during a CART race in late September 1990 at Road America. The injuries required surgery and arduous rehabilitation and physical therapy for Foyt.

But Foyt enhanced his reputation for incredible toughness and persistence by not only recovering in time to drive in May 1991 at Indy but by also qualifying second in his famous No. 14. It was his best start since winning his fourth and final pole in 1975, and Foyt was in the center of perhaps the most famous front row in “500” history, with pole sitter Rick Mears and Mario Andretti flanking him.

The dream of an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 victory ended early for Foyt, as he couldn’t avoid debris from an early accident between Kevin Cogan and Roberto Guerrero. His suspension was damaged, and he was out of the race after completing just 25 laps, in 28th place.

But Foyt still produced one of the most stirring performances by a 50-something in IMS history earlier that month during qualifications.

3. Uncle Bobby, Emmo, Taku Double Up after 40. Brady has won two of his record seven Super Bowl rings after age 40. Three drivers have repeated that feat at the Indianapolis 500 – Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Takuma Sato.

Uncle Bobby earned his second “500” win in 1975 at age 41 and earned his third and final victory in 1981, at age 47 years, 93 days. That record stood for six years until his younger brother, Al, won in 1987 at 47 years, 360 days.

Fittipaldi came to the Indianapolis 500 after winning two Formula One World Championships, and he earned his first Indy victory in 1989 at age 42 after a stirring, wheel-banging late duel with Al Unser Jr. Then Emmo became the third-oldest winner of the race after leading the final 16 laps in 1993, entering Victory Lane at 44.

Sato could be the best comparison to Brady, as both appear to be improving with age. Sato earned his first Indy 500 victory in 2017, at age 40, with Andretti Autosport. Three years later, he was dousing himself with milk yet again, winning in 2020 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at age 43.

4. Bill Elliott Wins Brickyard at 46. In 2000, the sun appeared to be setting on Bill Elliott’s career as a NASCAR superstar. He remained incredibly popular with the fans but hadn’t won a Cup Series race since 1994.

But then Ray Evernham, crew chief for Jeff Gordon’s victorious run in the 1994 Brickyard 400, hired Elliott to drive a Dodge for his new Cup team in 2001. The move gave Elliott new life, as he broke his seven-year victory drought with a win at the end of that season at Homestead.

Elliott continued to drink from the fountain of youth in 2002, at age 46. He earned his first victory of the season in July at Pocono and then came to Indianapolis the following race for the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 4.

“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” stayed on his Pocono roll at Indy. He qualified second and led 93 of 160 laps for a 1.269-second victory over Rusty Wallace for his only Brickyard victory. At 46, Elliott remains the oldest Brickyard 400 winner.

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