Indy’s legends are defined by so much more than just Indy
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - At the Staples Center, 6.6 miles away from the Petersen Automotive Museum in downtown Los Angeles, one legend signed off an iconic NBA career on Wednesday night.
Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points, then dropped the mic.
Those 6 or so miles West of the Staples Center, four IndyCar legends shared a mic in reflecting on their own careers and legacies within their own arena of sport.
Kobe had his mecca, his coliseum. But Kobe’s legend was not confined to solely to his home turf.
These drivers have theirs, the hallowed, fabled grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track more than 100 years old that this year celebrates its 100th running of its iconic race, the Indianapolis 500.
Indy made these legends; yet it does not singularly define them as drivers, or as people.
“It frosts me that I’ve got four national championships, the 1978 World Championship... and yet I’m introduced as the 1969 Indianapolis winner. What the hell?” Mario Andretti asks, laughingly but incredulously.
Andretti did not need Indianapolis to secure or define his legendary status. The fact of the matter is that the 76-year-old still is one of the greatest racing drivers to have ever competed, to have ever walked the face of the planet.
Is his son, Michael, viewed any less because he didn’t win Indy as a driver? The realistic answer is no.
Mario’s 52 wins and Michael’s 42 wins puts them second and third on IndyCar’s all-time win list - and in both cases, their wins spanned decades.
Mario won his races in 16 of 31 seasons from 1964 to 1994, an incredible span of time, machinery and evolution.
Michael, too, won in three different decades - book-ending them nicely with his first (1986) and last (2002) wins coming on these streets of Long Beach. He won in 14 of his 21 seasons; he also won the first races for both the Reynard (1994, Surfers Paradise) and Swift (1997, Homestead-Miami) chassis in their first starts.
“It’s not a fair measuring stick,” Michael admits. “For whatever reason, it never worked out for me, I never won there, but I won seven races at Toronto. Why, I don’t know. I raced better at Indy than Toronto. God was like, ‘Well, you’re not winning at Indy.’ But I have no regrets.”
Michael has three wins as an owner with three different drivers (Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007 and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014).
“It’s great, but it’s not the same,” he says.
But again, if we’re looking solely at Indy only as the measuring stick, then Scott Dixon is same as Mario - an all-time great, but with only one ‘500 win. So far, anyway.
That 2008 win of Dixon’s is arguably the one race he is most well-known from a national standpoint.
Yet when asked during the evening panel discussion the single race that stands out to him, he picks a more recent example: his and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team’s epic comeback to win last year’s season finale at Sonoma.
That speaks to the man Dixon is: a humble hero who prefers to thank those around him for his success rather than coming out and acknowledging how incredibly deep he had to dig to make that comeback on his own from a driving standpoint.
All but one of his 39 career wins have come with Ganassi, the team that along with then-engine partner Toyota gave him a home midway through 2002 when his career stood on the precipice after PacWest Racing (then called PWR Championship Racing) folded after just three races.
Add these three together and you only have a combined two Indianapolis 500 wins: half as many as Al Unser has on his own.
Funnily, the discussion with Unser turns to the one that got away from him in 1992 - when he could have entered a one-man club as a five-time Indy winner - and instead watched as son Al Jr. scored his emotional first Indy triumph in a photo finish over Scott Goodyear.
“In ’92 I run third there, and I was pissed, because I run third,” says ‘Big Al.’
“But him winning the race, it felt like I won the race. That’s a true fact. I was so happy. I couldn’t have been any happier because he won the race.
“If my pit crew would have done the right thing, I would have won the race. I got by him and Goodyear like they were parked!”
An Unser story wouldn’t be complete without an Andretti reference - this time Mario’s nephew and twin brother Aldo’s son John enters the discussion.
“Because of John Andretti, I was quite a ways back,” Unser says. “He wouldn’t let me pass him. He was seven, eight laps down. He wouldn’t let me pass. But it’s probably a good thing.
“If he would have let me by, I could have caught Al and Goodyear. Then what the heck would I’ve done? There might’ve been three of us in the wall.”
Unser’s four wins in Indy pivot nicely to the one man who was meant to be at the Petersen on Wednesday night but wasn’t due to a last minute illness: Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr.
The “Grand Champion,” as called by Paul Page, is the all-time winningest driver in history with 67 wins and was Indy’s first four-time winner. That 1992 race was his last ‘500. And for good measure, he had an Andretti drive for him - Michael’s brother Jeff Andretti - that year.
Foyt, of the five winningest drivers, is the one who will most frequently reference Indy as the track that “made A.J. Foyt.”
Perhaps fittingly, if unfortunately for him, Foyt not being there made it easier to reflect on the whole of the accomplishments of this generation of legends, and not focus solely on Indy.
A.J. won on dirt, on pavement, on short ovals, big ovals and road courses. Mario was his equal, if not his superior, in terms of accomplishments on those same disciplines.
The two were the original “Indy Rivals” - and you’d be damned to name a modern pairing anywhere near as close (and no, while PT and Seabass was a good modern day bout, they simply don’t have the single name or national cachet as these two).
Unser carried the flag for the proud Albuquerque name and family, although “Uncle Bobby” was always the bigger talker of the two, and the man with the lighter wallet. Ask “Big Al” where he learned how to drive on road courses, and he’ll tell you it’s Pikes Peak.
Michael Andretti was the perfect man to span the generations. He raced against all three of the aforementioned career winners; the tail end of his career saw him, then 39, win that 2002 Long Beach race when Dixon was just 21. He’s carried the torch and reinvested in the sport as a team owner, first buying into Andretti Green Racing and then continuing on now with Andretti Autosport.
The driver Michael says he respected and knew what it meant when he beat him? That’d be Al Unser Jr. So someone from that Unser family...
“If you saw him qualify in the top four, you thought, ‘Uh oh, he’ll be so hard to beat,’” he says. “If you beat Al in that position, you did a good job. We had a lot of great races together. Tough but fair.”
And Dixon is that newest of legends, who we may not fully appreciate just how great he is until he hangs up the helmet - which he doesn’t have plans to do anytime soon.
What we saw Wednesday night at the Petersen did not have the national appeal, the awareness, or the hoopla of Kobe’s final game just down the street.
It didn’t need any of that to make it magical.
What we saw inside the Petersen Wednesday night was an intimate, personal tribute to five of the best drivers of their sport’s history, all gathered in one room, all inextricably linked by their success, humility and grace, and with memories made to last a lifetime.