Will four-time winner club expand?
INDIANAPOLIS -- "Four-time winner" has long been the highest of accolades when it comes to the Indianapolis 500.
From 1936, when Louis Meyer became the first three-time winner of the great race, up to 1977, when A.J. Foyt became the first driver to actually win four, "four-time winner" was always a top storyline at Indy.
And it has remained that way for the past 35 years. The four-time Indy winner's club is still an exclusive one; only two men -- Al Unser, in 1987, and Rick Mears, in 1991 -- have managed to duplicate Foyt's achievement. No one got to drink the milk five times.
Now, as the action gets underway for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 (May 26, Noon ET, ABC), there will again be two drivers vying for a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
Helio Castroneves, Indy winner in 2001, '02 and '09, will be making his fourth attempt to secure a fourth win. He'll be joined this year by Dario Franchitti, who has won the 500 in three of the last six years (2007, '10 and '12). Only Wilbur Shaw (1937, 1939-40) has strung together three wins in a shorter time span.
Foyt had to endure 10 years between his third and fourth wins (1967, '77). The legendary Texan made a record 35 Indianapolis 500 starts and is the career leader in laps completed and races led.
Mears scored his fourth and final win in dramatic style in 1991, just three years after he became a three-time winner. Mears accomplished his four wins in just 14 starts between 1978 and '91, fewer than Foyt (20) or Unser (22), but any talk of a fifth win for Mears abruptly ended when he retired following the 1992 season.
Castroneves, who has fielded questions about win No. 4 for the past three years, is happy to have some competition in the race to join Indy's most exclusive club.
"We want to win races and we want to win championships -- as cliché as it sounds," Castroneves said. "Obviously, you want to win for the team, especially for Roger Penske. I know we are capable, and we have great equipment and a great group of guys. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"A fourth win is something that I believe a lot of fans would like to see," he added. "Now we have a competitor with Dario, which is great, for who is going to get that win."
All four of Mears' and all three of Castroneves' Indianapolis wins were achieved for Penske Racing. Roger Penske holds the record with 15 victories in the Memorial Day classic, dating back to Mark Donohue's triumph in 1972.
Despite stepping out of the cockpit 20 years ago, Mears remains closely associated with Team Penske, serving as an engineering consultant and spotter for Castroneves.
He says it's no accident that Franchitti and Castroneves have notched three wins apiece.
"Those guys are good," Mears said. "They're both racers. They both run pretty similar in what I call running smart. They use their heads. They know when to and when not to, and that's how you win races like that. You don't win them unless you get to the end, and they both know how to do that. They're a lot alike in that respect.
"They're both talented guys, and at that level, Lady Luck comes into it a lot," he continued. "That's the only way to say it, in terms of getting the numbers. I never dreamed I'd win there once, let alone four times. You've got to do everything right, your team's got to do everything right, and that's where they're at. And that's what they do."
Mears believes both drivers are strong enough to withstand any additional pressure that the pursuit of win No. 4 might bring.
"I think they approach it pretty similar to the way I did," he said. "I know Helio does, and I'm certain Dario does very similar. You just take it as another race, another day. Try to keep it normal in your mind so the pressure is down. I tried not to think about whether it was the first win, second win, fourth win. To me, it was a whole new day, a whole new race, and it had nothing to do with what I had done there in the past.
"You're there to try to win the race every year you're there anyway, so why make it any different?"
As an aficionado of racing history, Franchitti appreciates the magnitude of his success at Indianapolis. He enjoys being part of the race's history but points out that his record is not yet complete.
While the media focuses on what Franchitti accomplished in the past, he's more concerned about what happens in the future.
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"It's kind of a weird feeling in a way because it's a celebration of something that happened a year ago," he said. "And as much as that means to me as a driver, well, that was the 2012 race. I want to know about 2013. If I'm sitting there in my head thinking about last year, I'm not going to be doing the job. I've got to show up there as hungry for that next one as I was for the first. It's great to go back and do all that stuff, but ultimately it's a distraction toward getting ready. Not a problem, but a distraction."
He added: "I've been lucky because every guy I've worked with -- every mechanic, every truck driver, every guy that works on the engines, tire guys -- they all come to Indy and they're like, 'This is it.' They all show up with their A-game, and they have that passion. It's like, 'This is our chance.' Whether it's the chance to qualify well or win the race, everyone brings their A-game and has that passion for it."
Mears developed into one of Indy car racing's top stars during the last third of Foyt's long career, but A.J. has competed against Castroneves and Franchitti as a team owner only. He's had the upper hand recently, with his driver Takuma Sato winning and finishing second in the last two IZOD IndyCar Series races.
Even Mears admits that until someone wins a fifth Indianapolis 500, Foyt will always be king of the four-time winners. But A.J. doesn't seem too bothered about the prospect of Franchitti, Castroneves or anyone else joining the club.
"It would make no difference to me," Foyt said. "I've always said records are meant to be broken, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a six- or eight-time winner with the equipment they have. It takes a lot of the racing away from you and your crew because they [manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet] step in and do a lot of work that normally you would do. I don't say it's any better, but you do have a lot more cars that don't blow up. It takes a lot away from the driver. All he has to do is just push the button and turn the wheel now.
"These kids don't know how easy it is compared to when we started."
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