Mike Kerchner

Our Heroes Are Still Around

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — We’re lucky.

When I started working as a motorsports journalist in 1991, my racing heroes — the racers I’d grown up rooting for and against — were winding down their careers behind the wheel.

Yes, I got to cover the final years of their careers and their retirements, but at the time I’d have never dreamed I’d be covering their Golden Years. Most of them never thought they’d have Golden Years, and in some ways it’s amazing so many survived the dangerous era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. But here they are.

Mario Andretti said it simply, “There’s a lot left on the table.”

The 82-year-old racing legend wasn’t talking about his dinner, but about his first drive in a modern-day Formula 1 race car.

Thanks to McLaren CEO Zak Brown, Andretti had the opportunity to drive a 2013 McLaren MP4-28a Formula 1 machine Oct. 15 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. While Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula 1 world championship for Lotus and is the last American to win the Formula 1 title, has remained active driving IndyCar’s two-seat demonstration race cars, his last Indy car race came in 1994 at Laguna Seca.

It was an opportunity that came after several years of back and forth joking with Brown.

Saying his “bucket list is pretty much satisfied,” Andretti told Racer about his drive in the McLaren.

“It’s all about getting the proper gearing and some of the problem for me was the way my helmet was vis-á-vis my steering wheel. I couldn’t see the numbers on my downshift. In some corners I got it right and in others I didn’t.

“In general, though, it is what I expected. It’s a sweet feeling as a driver, so satisfying. The car just does what it should do.”

Having turned his first racing laps as a teenager, Andretti never lost his love for driving race cars.

“No-one will ever understand how much I love driving a racing car,” Andretti told Motor Sport. “At this stage of my life, to have this chance is huge. It gives me more life, probably again another 10 years.”

Andretti went straight from Laguna to Circuit of The Americas where he hoped to do some more laps in the McLaren but also had another honor bestowed upon him. Turn 20, the last turn at the 3.41-mile road course, was rechristened as “The Andretti.”

— Meanwhile, “The King,” Richard Petty turned 85 in July but seems to be full of energy. He’s been a frequent attendee at NASCAR Cup Series events this year, continuing as a true ambassador of the sport 30 years after he drove his last race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in November 1992.

He remains as co-owner of the Petty GMS Racing and his famed No. 43 returned to victory lane in September when Erik Jones won the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

— A.J. Foyt is 87 years old. Think about that for a minute. The first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner continues to attend Indy car races, particularly month of May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, under the direction of his son, Larry, A.J. Foyt Racing runs multiple cars in the NTT IndyCar Series.

— “Big Daddy” Don Garlits turned 90 this year, but he’s still plugged into the straight-line sport and has even made some runs in an electric-powered dragster.

— At age 81, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme still enjoys the thrill of speed. While he’s not strapping into a Funny Car any longer, he still likes to roar through the desert behind the wheel of a dune buggy and occasionally competes in off-road events such as the Baja 1,000.

— Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner, is 89 and he doesn’t get out as much as he once did, but his grandson, Jagger Jones, is making his way up the Indy car development ladder and will compete in the Indy Lights Series next year.

Jagger’s dad, P.J., has also competed in the Indianapolis 500.

We’re lucky, not only that these legends are still around, but that they’ve become well known to the next generation of race fans.

Still my heroes.