It’s July 4th, not Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how fortunate I am to be able to call A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney any time to talk about sprinters at Ascot Park, sanctioning bodies with no clue, the courage of their conviction and Indianapolis when it was the center of the universe.
So I dialed up four of my favorite Americans on Independence Day to thank them for being originals, free thinkers and badasses whose personalities and exploits helped hook me on auto racing so many, many years ago.
A.J. had just finished a 12-hour stint on his tractor and was climbing down from a ladder at his ranch.
“Damn, I had to take those steps one at a time, I must be getting old,” the 81-year-old legend said.
Unser, whose back issues make walking 20 feet a marathon nowadays, was also suffering after trying to stop a water leak.
“I got a couple of shovels because I like to work outside, but that was a mistake; I’m really hurting today,” said 82-year-old, three-time Indy winner.
Jones, who could barely shuffle along in May because of his back and leg pain, sounded like a new man.
“I had another surgery and I can walk again, so I’ve got my life back and I’m so thankful,” said Jones, the oldest living Indy 500 winner at age 83.
Gurney, on the mend from some heart issues a couple of months ago, was entertaining son Alex and the grandkids with wife Evi when he answered the phone.
“Medium well,” replied the 85-year-old racing pioneer when asked how he was feeling. “Had a little problem with my oxygen this morning but Allie got it working, he’s a good mechanic.”
Aches and pains and challenges aside, this foursome still possesses their mental faculties, great memories and senses of humor as they head into the twilight of their lives.
“I can’t walk very far but I can still talk,” understated Unser.
And I can always listen when he recalls what it was like to jump into the Novi and pass his audition in three laps at Indy. Or when A.J. explains how you had to run “Puke Hollow” at Langhorne in order to avoid the morgue. Or when Gurney talks about running Spa in a downpour with zero visibility or when Parnelli describes discovering side bite in a roadster at Indy in the summer before his rookie year.
They tested the boundaries, lived on the edge and survived the deadliest days in motorsports history because they were smart, versatile, confident, skilled and a little lucky.
“I never spent a night in the hospital and I don’t think Dan did either, which is pretty amazing,” Parnelli exclaimed when I mentioned their good health.
Gurney chuckled. “I probably had a concussion or two, but didn’t we all back then?”
Unser dodged death twice at Phoenix and did his share of sheet time, but nobody got beat up worse than Super Tex at Riverside, Milwaukee, DuQuoin, Michigan and Road America. And between bulldozers falling into ponds, killer bees and infections, we reckon he’s had at least 29 lives.
“Hell, I didn’t think I’d live this long,” he said. “But I know one thing, I ain’t going back to the hospital ever again.”
The fact this version of Mount Rushmore is still alive and kicking is reason to celebrate, and I just wanted to let them – and you – know how much they mean to me while they’re still on the right side of the grass. It was their spirit, their presence and their talents that wowed me as a kid, but it’s their friendships that I most cherish now.
And I’m just thankful they all answered the phone on Monday.