I’ve been giving this some thought since it happened, and I think the best thing about Sunday’s win at St. Pete was the historical significance. I’m a race fan at heart, and a fan of racing history, so it was a terrific honor to tie Johnny Rutherford with 27 career victories at tenth on the all-time list.
We’re blessed to have so many stars from the past with us every weekend at IZOD IndyCar Series races. J.R. drives the pace car at our races, so I see him all the time. Mario Andretti is a fixture at our races, and Al Unser Jr. – although he’s more a contemporary than a past driver – is a driver coach and consultant for the series. Michael Andretti, who’s third on the all-time wins list, is a team owner, as is the all-time leader, A.J. Foyt, who’s recovering from heart surgery and doing well at home in Texas. Get well soon, A.J.!
We’re almost always face-to-face with our heroes. It’s a unique part of our sport. A few days before the St. Pete race, I had dinner in Indianapolis with Bobby Unser, Arie Luyendyk and Gil de Ferran – all Indy 500 winners. Talk about a special treat. I heard stories from the past and sat in wonder. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m having dinner with these guys.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the history of racing. My office is filled with books and photographs and models of race cars. Most of my interest is in my boyhood hero, Jim Clark, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and two Formula One world championships, but I love all of it. I have an appreciation for the accomplishments of the racers who came before me.
If you get a chance to come to the Indy 500 in May, you have to see the museum. They’ve got the winning cars from Indy filling the museum now, and the sight is amazing. I saw it recently when I was back in Indianapolis to receive the Indy 500 ring from last year (another incredible experience; Celtics legend Larry Bird presented it). I hadn’t seen the museum’s collection since they switched to the Indy winners. Al Unser Jr. and I were in mid-sentence when we walked in and saw it. We just stopped talking and took it all in. I was awestruck. I could spend hours looking at old race cars. I’m fascinated by them.
While we were checking it out and taking photos, I sat in the Marmon Wasp, the very first Indy 500 winner from 1911. I can’t imagine how Ray Harroun held on to that thing for 500 miles. No seat belt, massive steering wheel, skinny tires. It must have been a tremendous challenge.
Last fall, I had another amazing experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I got to drive Clark’s Lotus 38 from 1965 at the Speedway for a photo shoot and story for Road & Track. I can’t put into words what that meant to drive my hero’s car at Indianapolis. It was a thrill and an honor. I remember every detail of that day, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life.
I guess I became more aware of my own place in history in the past couple of years, and part of that has to do with the remarkable work done by the IndyCar Series in collecting and combining all of the records from the different sanctioning bodies over the years – USAC, CART, IndyCar, etc. – and putting them under one statistical umbrella.
That’s when I discovered where we were in comparison to the past. My teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon, has 25 wins, as does Helio Castroneves. Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy both have 31. So there are several drivers of this era who will have historical significance.
Sunday’s win was a great way to start the season, and a great effort by an entire team. I was especially proud of the pass on Will Power around the outside on the first turn, but it got lost in the shuffle of the crash that took place behind us. Our pit stops and race strategy worked to perfection, and Team Target put together another important victory.
I couldn’t be more proud of what we accomplished. Or what it means in the grand scheme of things.