The fab four celebrate four Indy 500 wins . . . From left to right: AJ Foyt, Al Unser senior, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves. Photo: Chris Owens (IMS).
FAB FOUR OF THE INDY 500
AJ Foyt, Al Unser senior and Rick Mears, the first three drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, have been photographed together many times over the years, including a famous session for the cover of the event’s official program in 2013.
But with each passing year, it seemed those images might stand as a permanent reflection of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s most prestigious club. After all, 29 races were held following Mears’ fourth “500” in 1991, and while a few drivers earned their second win during that time, only Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti notched a third. Franchitti ran his last “500” in 2013, the year after scoring victory number tree.
With so much parity in the NTT Indy Car Series, Castroneves turning 46 prior to this year’s race, and switching teams from Team Penske to Meyer Shank Racing, the odds of him winning a fourth didn’t seem as good as they had been in years past. But when Castroneves held off Alex Palou for the victory in the 105th running on May 30, everyone knew a new gathering of “The Club” needed to take place.
That meeting was held recently in Indianapolis – and, yes, plenty of new photographs were taken. Castroneves has experienced a wide range of emotions in the two months since wildly celebrating on the front straightaway, but spending the day with Foyt, Unser and Mears made it all the more magical.The significance of the gathering of Indy 500 legends can’t be understated.
Even in motorsports, where speed is the ultimate pursuit, time waits for no one. Foyt is 86, Unser 82, Mears 69. All three have attended fewer Indy Car races with each passing year. All three were at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this May, but Unser left the track with about 10 laps to go to beat the traffic as he caught a flight home to New Mexico.’
“He knew I was going to win, no matter what,” Castroneves said with a laugh. While Foyt was on his team’s pit stand at the end of the race, he hadn’t been feeling well, so he didn’t stick around for the celebration. Mears had left his perch in the IMS Pagoda to watch the final dozen or so laps in the quiet of Team Penske’s Gasoline Alley garage, which took him out of the public eye at the finish.
But make no mistake about it: All three were cheering for the popular Castroneves.“(As a driver) you want to continue winning if you’re going to race, but if you’re not going to race then you cheer for someone like Helio to make it happen,” Unser said.
IMS owner Roger Penske, whose Team Penske organisation fielded Indy-winning cars for Mears (four), Castroneves (three) and Unser (one), joined the conversation via video call from his office in Detroit.“What a great day!” said Penske, whose team has won the race a record 18 times. “I can’t wait to get an autographed picture from each one of you. It will be special in my office.
”Track president Doug Boles noted that 784 drivers have started the “500” and only 20 have won it more than once.“Some days the racetrack smiles on you, and some days you have it the other way,” Unser said. “You never think you’re going to win because your chances are very slim. There’s 32 other guys who want to win as bad as you do.
“The other aspect of “The Club” is that for a period of time it seemed less exclusive. While it took 61 years for Foyt to become the event’s first four-time member in 1977, Unser matched him 10 years later and Mears did so only four years after that. Then in quick fashion Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser junior became two-time winners.
Even Castroneves, who made his IMS debut in 2001, seemed to be on the fast track to membership, winning the race in his first two attempts and then achieving a third win in his ninth start, in 2009. But while he came close to a fourth on a couple of occasions – he won the pole for the 2010 race and finished second to Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Takuma Sato in 2017 – victory lane eluded him 11 straight years. He was running out of chances. Hence, the elation after crossing the finish line.“Forget about the person, the (winning) driver,” Castroneves said. “After the pandemic and to have so many people back (at IMS), making history, giving a first-time win for a team that’s never won, and my personal thing getting my fourth victory. When you put all the emotions and scenarios together, it was just a very special event.”
It should be noted that Foyt, Unser and Mears all took shots at a fifth only to come up short. Foyt made 15 attempts after his fourth win, finishing second to Mears in 1979 and scoring five additional top-10 finishes. Unser made five more starts after his fourth, with third-place finishes in 1988 and ’92. Mears took one more shot in 1992, but a mid-race accident spoiled his record-setting bid.
Yes, a fifth “500” win can be achieved, but it won’t be easy. However, if someone scores it, it won’t be difficult to arrange the photograph.“Records are made to be broken, that’s how you’ve got to look at it,” Foyt said.“Just remember,” Mears told Castroneves, “if you get five, you’ll be lonely.”