CONCORD, N.C. — Once in a while, you find a gem where it is least expected.
We found such a jewel on Twitter in the form of the photo that accompanies this column.
Snapped during the NTT IndyCar Series weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the image was posted by A.J. Foyt Racing with simple dialogue — Living Legends.
“Those are my guys,” I said upon seeing the photo of Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.
A simple photo generated a wide range of emotions. First, there was the joy of simply seeing them all together. Then, we realized how fortunate the motorsports world, and Indy car racing in particular, is that they are all still here.
Not only did they make it through racing’s most dangerous era, they’ve survived to live long and fulfilling lives.
But as Chris Economaki would have said, “They’re not spring chickens anymore.”
Foyt is 84. Rutherford (81) and Andretti (79) are close behind. At 67, Mears is the kid of this bunch.
When I first became interested in racing, they were the stars of the sport. I cheered for some of them louder than others.
When writing skills paved the way for me to work in motorsports, I was fortunate to meet all of them at one point or another. Through the years, the cheers were replaced by admiration for “my guys.”
But without a doubt, it was their contributions on the race track that first captured my attention.
One of the very first races I attended was a USAC championship dirt car event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, which was won by Foyt. And, as the Kerchner family attended the Indianapolis 500 and Indy car races at Michigan Int’l Speedway for most of my youth, Foyt was the family favorite.
It seems we gravitated to the four-time Indy 500 winner as much for his passionate personality as his success on the track.
Rutherford won the first Indianapolis 500 I attended in 1980 aboard Jim Hall’s beautiful “Yellow Submarine.” It was Rutherford’s third Indy win and our favorite memory from the race came after the checkered flag when Rutherford picked up Tim Richmond, whose ride was disabled on the final lap, and “chauffeured” him back to the pit lane.
Rutherford’s “Lone Star J.R.” nickname and laidback personality were as appealing as the class he showed off the track.
Mears knew how to win and he did it in such an unassuming way that few were ever upset when the longtime Team Penske driver visited victory lane. With a combination of speed, skill and patience, Mears won four Indianapolis 500s. I was there for three of them.
The irony of Foyt and Andretti sitting together in this photograph was not lost. Bitter rivals during their racing days, their competitive fire often spilled over to the fans. If you were an A.J. guy, you weren’t a Mario man; and vice versa.
Thus, growing up I rarely cheered for Andretti. But age brought appreciation for what he accomplished and numerous meetings, including a day he spent at the SPEED SPORT office in New Jersey during the early 1990s, won me over. Through the years, the 1969 Indy winner and 1978 Formula One world champion has become racing’s greatest spokesperson.
Together the racing accomplishments of these four men are incredible, unfathomable in many ways. They won 12 Indianapolis 500s, two Daytona 500s, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a world driving title and 15 Indy car championships.
But despite all of the success racing around the globe, none of the four lost the down-to-earth nature with which they approach life. While they often seemed larger to life to fans — me included — they always remained simply Johnny, A.J., Rick and Mario.
These are “my guys!”