Commentary

Indy 500 Field of the Century: Row 2

Updated: May 27, 2011, 12:23 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

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Well, we told you statistics didn't mean everything in our selections. So in our second row, the most charismatic crowd-pleaser ever at Indy gets the nod to start inside two four-time winners. Now you may really be scratching your head about our front row.


Mario Andretti

4. Mario Andretti

Indy 500 starts: 29
Best finish (year): First (1969)
Laps led: 556

It was the most black-humored riddle to circulate down through the decades at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"You know what the most famous, most repeated words here are?"

"Why, 'Gentlemen, start your engines,' of course."

"No. They are" -- and here the jokester would try to imitate the thundering bass voice of legendary track announcer Tom Carnegie -- "And Mario is slowing D-O-W-W-W-N."

It was damn near true. Mario Andretti's bad luck is part of the fabric of Indy lore. He had only his 1969 win to show for leading more laps, 556, than four-time winner A.J. Foyt, 555.

And yet no one embodied the mystique, the charisma, the color of Indy more than the Italian immigrant who sailed with his family past the Statue of Liberty in 1955 and went on to thoroughly embody the American dream.

Where fans and media alike flat-out feared Foyt, they gravitated freely toward Andretti, in droves, and were always treated wonderfully by him. Day in, day out in the month of May, he commanded more attention and affection than Al Unser or Rick Mears, though both of them would go on to be four-time winners.

Spanning Indy and Formula One, Andretti was always a singular voice for returning the 500 to its one-time status as the Olympus of world motor racing by working with F1 and the Grand Prix of Monaco to stop the two great races from conflicting in May. He never got it to happen, but he did his best.

Meanwhile, he became the only driver every to win Indy, the Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One world championship (1978). Many consider him the most versatile driver of all time.

Here is an indelible snapshot of a quintessential Mario Moment at Indy. In 1975, he had to miss the first weekend of qualifying to race in Monaco, but returned for the second weekend to make the field.

At one point, as he walked through Gasoline Alley, a swarm of camera crews fell in behind him, and print media reporters joined the frantic pursuit. As he walked, he kept looking over his shoulder, seeming somewhat bewildered.

He kept walking, we kept following, figuring he was heading someplace important, and he kept looking over his shoulder. Finally he made his turn, and walked through a door marked "men."

We all came to a screeching halt, and half the mechanics in the garage area busted out laughing. But such was the mystique of Mario Andretti.



Rick Mears

5. Rick Mears

Indy 500 starts: 15
Best finish (years): First (1979, '84, '88, '91)
Laps led: 429

Above all other Indy drivers, Rick Mears knew when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em -- in every 500 he ran, and in his career.

He got his fourth win quicker, in only his 14th start, than A.J. Foyt (17th start) or Al Unser (18th). Mears' last one came in 1991, and a year later he read the warning signs just right and retired at age 40.

Mears was a cool, calculating scientist at 230 mph. He broke the 500 into distinct segments. He wasn't interested in leading early, just feeling out the car thoroughly, sensing everything it needed. In the middle portions he worked via radio with his team and owner Roger Penske to get the car just right. Only then was it time to go all-out.

In '92, after one of the most horrific-looking non-fatal crashes ever at Indy -- his car skidded upside down on its roll bar, disintegrating along the backstretch -- he was standing in the infield hospital finishing up his exam. He turned and saw wife, Chris, crying. For some reason, "I just started laughing," he said that weekend. That had been his fearless approach to racing, but he understood his wife's horror.

Mears wrecked out of the crash-filled 500 of '92, but walked away. Mario Andretti and his younger son Jeff had suffered terrible foot and leg injuries that day. Mears knew when to quit, and at the end of that season astounded the open-wheel world by announcing his retirement.



Al Unser

6. Al Unser

Indy 500 starts: 27
Best finish (years): First (1970, '71, '78, '87)
Laps led: 644

The Unser family had the perfect nickname for Big Al. "Dry Ice," they called him. "So cool he burns."

With his stony, almost stoic countenance and his trademark reticence, he became Indy's second four-time winner in a far lower key than the first one, the fiery A.J. Foyt.

Not until fully five years after his fourth win in 1987, on the occasion of the first 500 win by his son, "Little Al," in 1992, did Al Sr. spill out all his passion for the race, the place and his family's role there.

"To love something as much as I love racing," Big Al said, beginning to choke up, "and to win at this place and then to have your son come along and win here" -- and now he really broke down -- "is the greatest feeling there is."

Never has a man's sheer tone contained more passion, more joy, more sheer reverence for the Indy 500, more family tradition, in so few words, than Big Al's "greatest feeling there is."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.