ABOVE: Eliseo Salazar will be re-united
with his 2014 Charity Pro-Am driving
partner Gary Moore and his Mustang.
Al Unser Jr. summed it up nicely from the top step of the podium at last year’s Brickyard Invitational Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am when he said, “Any day you win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it’s a good day.”
The comment harkened back to his much-quoted response from victory lane at the 1992 Indianapolis 500 when reporter Jack Arute asked him about welling up. “You just don’t know what Indy means,” Al said, his voice trembling.
SportsCar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) CEO Tony Parella was beaming. His vision of creating history with a vintage race at the world’s most historic track had fallen into place.
“That’s one classy podium,” he said immediately following the race.
So it was with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. taking home the win followed by former Formula 1 ace Eliseo Salazar and the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, Willy T. Ribbs (near right, with Unser), scoring an impressive third.
Parella had warned everyone to play nice in the driver’s meeting in the Pagoda the previous day. He called vintage racing “nine-tenths.” Some listened, others not so much. Regardless, out on the track the gloves came off and the competitive fires were evident.
In fact, winner Unser was kind of “busted” at an SVRA organized charity event for Lyn St. James’ foundation the night before. The venue was the Dallara complex on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana – home of a state-of-the-art racing simulator. Al had spent hours earlier in the day practicing on a computer model of the IMS road course.
Striking a balance is a tough deal. Everyone wants to win but also even the pros understand that in many cases the car they are entrusted with represents a healthy chunk of their driving partner’s net worth. For Unser, that driving partner was Canadian TV “car guy” personality Peter Klutt and his 1969 Corvette.
Klutt, who won the Bell Helmet national championship trophy for his class last October at Circuit of the Americas, made a comment that demonstrated the mix of excitement and angst of running with the best of the best. He said, “If you are going to turn your car over to anybody it should be a great champion like Al – a legend and one of the greatest of all time.”
Runner-up Salazar, making his vintage racing debut, echoed Unser in his reverence for IMS – and his desire to compete. “Anytime you come back to Indy it’s great. We improved our lap times a lot since practice yesterday.”
Salazar’s partner, Mustang owner Gary Moore (with Salazar at last year’s podium celebration, LEFT), was in awe. So was Ed Sevadjian who was teamed with Ribbs.
“It was a dream come true,” said Moore. “It was surreal sitting on the straightaway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway listening to the national anthem,” noted Sevadjian. “To be on the podium with champions I watched as a kid was an honor.”
Ribbs’ story was the most amazing of all. A mechanical issue with his original car forced him into a 1972 Corvette he had never even seen before strapping in. Drawing on his Trans-Am powers of old, he muscled the car steadily to the front, all the time marveling at the weak brakes and unresponsive steering.
Typical Ribbs, he over-shared in the post-race press briefing. He announced that he had run out of time getting ready for the race and had to “go commando.” He then unzipped his fire suit to reveal a bare chest. There was a roar of laughter.
The incident was a metaphor for vintage racing in general. It’s not the level of intensity the old pros gut-checked themselves through back in the day. Make no mistake, though, the guys are competitive and always look for an edge. Still, if they don’t have fun it’s not worth doing.
The ever-quotable Ribbs may have summed up this seeming contradiction best upon announcing his 2015 entry by saying, “I’m happy to be back for the second annual Indy Legends Pro Am. Last year was a get to know you round, but this year bring your Geritol, Depends and Viagra.”
Here’s a quick look at the event, especially what is on tap for tomorrow:
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the SVRA are geared up to produce what is already one of American vintage racing’s premier events beginning tomorrow, June 11 and extending through Sunday June 14.
Saturday, June 13, all of the SVRA’s 11 groups of racecars spanning nearly 100 years of vintage machines will practice and qualify in a full day of road racing action from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The exciting array of entries include exquisite examples of select pre-war machines, classic sports cars, Formula 1 and Le Mans prototypes as current as 2009.
While these cars hit amazing speeds and demonstrate exciting displays of car control as they break traction in corners, the real treat for car buffs is the chance to roam the paddock capturing pictures. The drivers and owners who continue to impress with approachability and knowledge. It is Instagram heaven. Race fans can enjoy every minute of the action by taking advantage of overnight camping inside the Speedway.
The 33 Indianapolis 500 veterans will take to the track for practice for the first time at 12:40 Friday.