Over the coming months in RACER magazine and on racer.com, we're counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” This week, we take a look at the debut races for three Indy 500 legends – four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
A.J. FOYT (1958)
It's an unbelievable statistic, but A.J. Foyt started in 35 consecutive Indianapolis 500-Mile Races between 1958 and '92, winning four (1961, '64, '67 and '77) and leading 13 of them for a mammoth 555 laps.
The bare facts of his rookie start in '58 are that he qualified 12th in the Dean Van Lines Kuzma-Offy, but spun out (ABOVE) with 148 laps in the books and was classified 16th, picking up $2,969 in winnings for his truncated day's work.
During the opening days of practice, Foyt was helped out a little on which lines to take by drivers Pat O'Connor and Tony Bettenhausen. But in the race's opening lap, after a confused sequence of pace laps, O'Connor was caught up in a melee that began when pole winner Dick Rathmann couldn't avoid the spinning car of the fast starting Ed Elisian. O'Connor's car flipped, then landed back on its wheels, before erupting in flames.
O'Connor suffered fatal head injuries in the accident, but the sight of the burning car as the field circulated under a caution profoundly affected Foyt – who, by a mixture of luck and judgment, had narrowly avoided the accident himself.
“I vowed one thing when I left Indianapolis: I would never get close to any racecar driver again. And I've stuck to it,” Foyt recalled in his 1983 book, A.J.
Some believe that O'Connor's accident was the catalyst for roll bars behind the drivers' head becoming mandatory, but USAC had already announced they would be mandatory in 1959.
AL UNSER (1965)
The youngest of four brothers, Al Unser would make his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1965, some seven years after his oldest brother, Jerry's first and only start in 1958 and two after Bobby made his debut in 1963.
Jerry's race would last less than a lap, when he was caught up in the accident that killed Pat O'Connor (see above) and cleared the Speedway's outside retaining wall, suffering only a dislocated shoulder. A year later, after a fiery practice crash, he died of blood poisoning resulting from his burns.
Bobby's '63 rookie start ended in an accident after just two laps, putting him 33rd and last in the classification. A year later, he was caught up in the conflagration that claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.
All in all, it had been a tragic, violent and truncated start to the Unser family's Indy journey, but certainly not one that put Al off his dream of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1965, the talent-loaded, 11-strong rookie class included the likes of Mario Andretti (who qualified fourth and finished third to easily take the Rookie of the Year honors), Jerry Grant, Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, as well as Unser.
Where Bobby was confident and outspoken (a cockiness he could back up with his driving prowess, of course), Al was reserved and shy around strangers, and seemed only truly comfortable when in a racecar.
In '65, talk of New Mexico's Unser clan as an Indy dynasty was still some years in the future, and the ride Al had picked up was hardly likely to be a factor for the win. With his other brother, Louis, as his chief mechanic, 25-year-old Al was tasked with trying to shove and cajole Frank Arciero's unusual, Maserati-powered Arciero Brothers Special into the 33-car starting field. But the speed wasn't there and it looked like Bobby, who'd start eighth in the Granatelli siblings' four-wheel drive STP Ferguson-Offy might be the only Unser in the field.
However, when pole-winner A.J. Foyt offered him his backup Lola-Ford to try and make the field, Al gratefully accepted and put it into the field, in the 32nd and penultimate spot, on the final day of qualifying (RIGHT).
In the race, the rookie was a revelation, driving a series of smooth, mistake-free stints that put him as high as fifth, with an eventual finish of ninth, just four laps down on winner Jim Clark's Lotus-Ford, and $14,416 in winnings as his reward.
Having raced since he turned 18, his formative years in modified roadsters, plus sprint cars and midgets, had honed his sixth sense for staying out of trouble, and the smooth, patient style he demonstrated in '65 would be a defining characteristic throughout his career – one that brought him four Indy 500 wins (1970, '71, '78 and '87).
RICK MEARS (DNQ 1977; first start 1978)
The third and final member of the Indy 500's four-time winners club, Rick Mears has the distinction of being the only one who DNQ'ed on his first attempt to make the race.
Rick Ravon Mears was born in Kansas, but raised in Bakersfield, Calif., where he began his racing career in the rough, tough world of off-road racing.
A switch to Indy cars, saw the mustachioed 25-year-old (LEFT) entered for the 1977 “500” in an Art Sugai-owned Eagle-Offy. Not only was the chassis ancient, its motor was outclassed to the point of embarrassment by the best of the Offy engines and the handful of Cosworth DFX engines in the field.
As the top teams nibbled away at the 200mph barrier, with Tom Sneva taking the pole at 198.844mph, Mears would only attempt two qualifying runs late in the afternoon on Bump Day in his relic of a machine (BELOW). He pulled off on the first, was waved off on the second and would be a spectator for the 61st running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
But despite his failure to get anywhere near to a starting spot, Mears' effort had been noted by a certain Roger Penske, who already had Sneva and Mario Andretti signed for 1978, but offered the presentable, easy-going newcomer a nine-race program in a third Penske Racing entry, including the Indy 500.
The new, Geoff Ferris-designed Penske-Cosworth PC-6 combined the best ideas from Penske's recently ended Formula 1 project with the engineering experience it had accumulated over its years at Indy – and it proved fast right out of the box.
Rain delayed qualifying for a week and meant Andretti couldn't qualify his own car, being otherwise engaged with Lotus at the Belgian Grand Prix. But Sneva and Mears demonstrated the PC-6's potency, with Sneva taking the pole at an average of 202.156mph and Mears lining up third at 200.078mph, just edged by “Flyin' Hawaiian” Danny Ongais' 200.122mph run in his Interscope Racing Parnelli-Cosworth.
Even Mike Hiss, standing in for Andretti, ran a 194.647mph average that would have been good enough for the middle of the third row. But, as per the rules, Andretti would start the car from the back of the field.
In the race, Sneva battled Al Unser's Lola-Cosworth for most of the afternoon, with Unser getting the nod over the Penske driver for the third of his four Indy 500 wins.
Mears didn't feature in the lead battle, falling behind early pacesetters Sneva, Unser and Ongais, but he looked a credible contender for a possible top-six finish until his engine blew with 104 laps completed. That strong showing was enough to earn him joint Rookie of the Year honors with 11th-placed finisher Larry Rice.
Just two weeks later, on the Milwaukee Mile, Mears would take his first Indy car win, and would add two more before the season was complete.
The rest, as they say, is history. He won the Indy 500 from the pole for Penske in 1979 (LEFT) and would remain loyal to “The Captain” for the rest of his career, adding three more “500” wins in '84, '88 and '91, as well as a record six poles at the Brickyard.
He also won CART titles in '79, '81 and '82, but those four Indy 500 wins and his amazing understanding of the subtleties needed to be fast and consistent around the Speedway's 2.5 miles and four right-angled corners will forever define Mears.
NEXT TIME, we look at some of the speed milestones from a century of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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