INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a home for heroes, but unfortunately, many of those heroes are fading.
Nobody could manhandle and muscle a race car like the great Rufus “Parnelli” Jones. He could win in an Indy car, stock car, sports car, off-road truck and virtually everything else he climbed aboard.
He won more USAC midget races after he won the 1963 Indianapolis 500 than he did before his crowning achievement.
Although Jones won only six USAC Indy car races, including Indy, during an eight-year span and four NASCAR Cup Series races in six years, he was a hero to those who knew him and to those who merely saw him race.
Today, Jones is 89 years old and leads a quiet life with his wife, Judy, in Rolling Hills, Calif. He was a successful team owner and an even more successful businessman, investing wisely and reaping the benefits of those rewards.
Time is slowing for the first driver to top the 150 mph barrier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962, but he remains a hero to many.
When it comes to heroes at the Indianapolis 500, there is none bigger than A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Memorial Day weekend classic.
From the moment he arrived as a scrappy Texan in 1958, to his first Indianapolis 500 triumph in 1961, there was something special about the Houston native.
Tony Hulman, the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, took a liking to Foyt and cheered him to victory that day.
Sixteen years later, when Foyt became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Foyt asked Hulman to ride with him in the backseat of the Oldsmobile Delta 88 pace car as he took a victory lap around the 2.5-mile speed palace.
It was Hulman’s final Indianapolis 500 as the Terre Haute, Ind., businessman who is credited for saving the speedway when he bought it in 1945, died on Oct. 27, 1977, at age 76.
Foyt remains larger than life at the Indianapolis 500, but time is catching up with him, too. The 88-year-old moves much slower these days, but still climbs aboard the bulldozer on his Texas ranch from time to time. He’s another hero to which we must pay homage.
Gordon Johncock is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first Indianapolis 500 win in 1973. The two-time Indy winner received a Baby Borg trophy last month and spent four days in Indianapolis with his family and a collection of former crew members. The 86-year-old called them the best days of his life.
Johncock prefers the secluded life with his wife, Sue, in South Branch, Mich., where he operates Johncock Forestry Services.
Another hero is three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who ran his first 500 in 1963. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his first Indy 500 win in 1974.
At age 85, Rutherford remains spry and gets around without much trouble. He is at the speedway this month in his motorhome and is serving as an ambassador for Arrow McLaren.
Rutherford was the star driver for McLaren during the 1970s and prior to Pato O’Ward winning a race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2021, Rutherford was the last driver to win an Indy car race for McLaren in 1979.
Of course, no list of Indianapolis 500 heroes is complete without the great Mario Andretti. The only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (1967), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula 1 championship (1978) is still an active part of the Indy car racing community.
The 83-year-old legend no longer drives the two-seat Indy car, but he is around the Andretti Autosport paddock and hospitality area to help support son Michael’s four-car team.
Still a hero to many, Andretti is always willing to pose for a photo, sign his autograph or visit with the fans who revere him.
Another hero and a legend of the speedway, Rick Mears was the third four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and at age 71, he is still part of Team Penske as a driver coach and consultant.
For some of us, those are the heroes of our youth — the men who helped us fall in love with the Indianapolis 500.
Unfortunately, we don’t know how long these heroes will be around.
That is why it is vital that IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 continue to create new heroes.
Six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon fits that bill. He is the second-winningest driver in IndyCar history with 53 victories.
In today’s world, however, the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a racing hero and true sports star. Hopefully, the 42-year-old Dixon is remembered as the hero that he is because in this generation, there have been none better.
Helio Castroneves is another hero. He became the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times with an emotional triumph in 2021.
It’s vital that the Indianapolis 500 remains a race for heroes for it to continue its rich tradition and heritage. Efforts are being made to try to create more awareness and popularity for this beautiful, sometimes dangerous, form of racing.
Heroes put themselves at risk with no fear. That is what has made these drivers the heroes of the Indianapolis 500.
This story appeared in the May 24, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.