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Franchitti, Castroneves, others talk Indy 500 significance, legacy

INDIANAPOLIS -- With race day for the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 just around the corner, some of the sport's most notable figures discussed with SI.com the significance of the World's Greatest Race.

The roundtable includes two-time winner and defending Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti, three-time champion Helio Castroneves, as well as A.J. Foyt (the first four-time winner and a current team owner), Mario Andretti (1969 Indy 500 winner), Bobby Unser (three-time champion) and Al Unser Jr. (two-time Indy 500 winner).

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SI.com: How has this race stood the test of time for the last 100 years?

Dario Franchitti -- "I don't know about the early days but the years that I'm familiar with, starting from the 1960s to today, it has to do with what guys like Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt did to build it up. Look at qualifying this year -- the emotion and the drama. It's one of those things that are successful. It was successful when it was built and it has built upon that success."

Helio Castroneves -- "I don't know anything else that has lasted for so many years. When you talk to people in America and you say something about Indianapolis and they say, 'My father took me' or 'My grandfather took me.' That, for me, says it all. It's a tradition that will never die, and as long as people manage it this way I'm honored just to be part of it."

Mario Andretti -- "I think it's such a powerful event and when it was created it took such a big bite -- 500 miles. I'm sure back then 500 miles was like three days. The idea was ambitious from the start.

"It started out as a big event and it grew from there. When you look at the history of certain individuals -- Eddie Rickenbacker, Wilbur Shaw all contributed to keep it going and Tony Hulman saw its ultimate power and brought it into its glory days."

Al Unser Jr. -- "The one who set the standard was Tony Hulman [who bought the track in 1945 after it had been shut down for four years because of World War II]. He made it what it is today. He had a vision and the vision came true for him. If it weren't for Tony Hulman and his vision of what the Speedway should be and all of that, it wouldn't have become what it is today. The race would have ended in 1941."

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SI.com: What is it about this race that cannot be duplicated?

Franchitti -- "People have tried but you cannot duplicate it. Why is the Kentucky Derby the Kentucky Derby? It's an organic thing. You can't manufacture it. It either works or it doesn't. You see that with the Indy 500. It is clearly something unbelievably special."

Castroneves -- "The crowd, the tradition, the history cannot be duplicated. You can't duplicate those three qualities anywhere."

A.J. Foyt -- "I've won 500 mile races all over, but [fans] only know me for winning this race. At the Kentucky Derby you can have a bad field of horses but regardless of what horse wins, he's the Kentucky Derby winner. That's the same thing with this race -- it makes your name."

Andretti -- "You will never duplicate this anywhere because it takes a lifetime-plus to build the history and the richness and the tradition. Anything after this would be somewhat anti-climatic. Look how many lives this place has touched over the years, careers that have been made and careers that have been destroyed. It's been a roller coaster for a lot of people, but all-in-all, from a driver's standpoint, I don't know any other race that I've competed in all over the world that can change your life like this one can."

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SI.com: What is your favorite Indy 500 memory?

Franchitti-- "The two wins. The first was very, very special because it was the first. Trust me, I felt when I won it once that was it. So when I got back and got to win it again that was a great feeling. There were times for me where the most special times were running up front and leading the pack. The feeling of doing that is amazing. I came back here in 2009 and was running around the front and that was a great feeling."

Castroneves -- "Apart from the wins, it was winning the pole position in 2003. I remember looking at Tim Cindric [Team Penske president] and we were not very confident we could put it on the pole because of the weather and conditions and he was very confident and said, 'let's work for it.' That day I won the pole and that was awesome."

Foyt -- "One of my favorite memories is being good enough to qualify for the race in 1958 and then being lucky enough to win it for the first time in 1961. Sure, I had three more wins, but you'll never forget how happy I was when I was the fastest rookie to qualify in 1958. It fulfilled my lifelong dream."

Andretti -- "Obviously I would have liked to have won more but when I look back at the amount of laps that I have led, at least I can say I was competitive throughout. I dominated this race and while it did not pay me back ultimately, I look at the records sometimes and I think I've been pretty fortunate. I started in the first and second row 20 times here.

"Tom Carnegie came up with the Andretti Curse, but I never looked at it that way. I look at all the things that we've gone through. Yes, Jeff paid a price, but that is the way it is. It makes you appreciate what we've got. As a family, to have four members in this race in 1992 is something that had never happened before, and now to have three generations in this race, as a family we have been fortunate here in many ways. For me, there is a lot more good than negative."

Bobby Unser -- "Racing here 19 years in a row, it is hard to find just one memorable moment, but it would have to be winning the 1968 500. But backing up, I couldn't have won the race in 1968 unless I made the race the first time in 1963 and kept getting better every year. Without 1963, the other accomplishments wouldn't have happened."

SI.com: How important was this race in terms of innovation for the automotive industry?

Franchitti-- "It's been massive. I would like to see it return to that and I think with these new regulations we will see that with the turbochargers again and engine competition. Nothing speeds up advances in technology more than racing, so I would love to see it get back to that as well. Engine, tire technology, aerodynamics, safety -- it's all been because of the Indianapolis 500."

Castroneves -- "It's a shame that we are spec and regulated. So many great innovations have come from this race and so much news came from breaking track records. Hopefully, we can continue that with the new car with fuel efficiency that can be used on passenger cars and that is one thing that can help the manufacturers."

Foyt -- "It's been very important because torsion bars came from here and disc brakes came from here. It's been a good proving ground for the automotive industry. Fuel injection -- so much stuff came from here that is now on passenger cars."

B. Unser -- "As far as innovation for the automotive industry it was turbocharging, it was normally-aspirated engines, individual suspension, rear-engines, ground effects. All of that was giant innovation."

A. Unser -- "It's been critical. It invented the rear-view mirror; it invented the seat belt and all kinds of safety items. Some of the first injectors were used at Indianapolis and that is now all part of the passenger car industry."

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SI.com: How does it change a driver or team owner's career to win the Indy 500?

Franchitti -- "For me one of the things I really wanted to achieve was to win the Indianapolis 500. To get it done was a great feeling of satisfaction. To win it a second time, the connection with the fans is what really changed the most."

Castroneves -- "It changes everything. You become known as an Indy 500 winner and that says it all."

Foyt -- "I won it as a team owner in 1999 with Kenny Brack and it's not the same feeling as when you do it as a driver. There is no other feeling better than driving to victory in the Indianapolis 500. It's hard to put into words what it does for you. It's something you live with for the rest of your life. I told Kenny Brack that race will be with you for the rest of your life."

Andretti -- "In different ways, but in a positive way it really does. I don't care at what point in your career you win it, it opens doors. It is the only race that is more prestigious than winning a championship. It's huge to do that. Many great careers are judged by your results in the Indianapolis 500. There are many great drivers who have never won this and they are looked at as less than great. That's not fair but those are the facts."

A. Unser -- "It opens so many doors and so many opportunities. Mario Andretti said it best when he said 'God's eyes are on you at Indy.' It can either make your career or break your career."

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SI.com: This race has always had its share of controversy. Is that part of its allure?

Franchitti -- "Because it means so much to win this you get controversy. The year that Paul Tracy won it in 2002 and it was taken away from him, that was very tough. But as long as this race has been run there has been controversy because of what is at stake."

Castroneves -- "Absolutely. Everybody wants to win this race and everybody wants to be there at the end, no matter which way, there will always be a controversy. I didn't know it, actually, until I went to the press conference afterwards when Paul Tracy thought he passed me before the yellow flag. It was a unique experience but I'm glad we were able to prove it. Like I always said, if I had been in Paul Tracy's shoes I would have done the same thing."

Andretti -- "Absolutely, because it is never easy. It's always something. This place can drive you crazy like no other. You spend so much time here, so that alone keeps the pressure on for longer. It's not that you are in and out for one weekend. When you are here, you are here. Then you have two distinctive events -- qualifying and the race."

A. Unser. -- "I think the best word is drama, and there is drama at the Indy 500, from practice to qualifying to the race. The reason for the drama that it has is it means the most. It has the most tradition. It either makes your career or breaks it, and it pays the most on race day for you to win. It's the top 33 drivers and crews and teams in the world."

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SI.com: What do you think is the most memorable achievement in the history of the Indy 500?

Franchitti -- "In a big scale, the drivers that have won it four times to me is `Wow.' But I think any person that has made this race, that to me is a big deal. Ashley [Judd, his wife] said don't belittle the people who are struggling to make the race on Bump Day, because it means so much to get in. Just to get into this race is a big deal. All through history guys have climbed into these cars just to get into this race. For every A.J. Foyt who has won four times, there is a guy that just missed the show."

Castroneves -- "Crossing the 200 mile-per-hour barrier. When you went over 200 mph that is something that people remember about this race. Roger Penske told me that when Tom Sneva crossed that barrier in 1977, that on the stopwatch, they didn't have the number that would equate to 200 mph. That was a very impressive lap -- four laps actually."

Foyt -- "So many great things happened here it's so hard to pick just one. Every year it's something different and one that you remember. What stands out to me is I came here and bought tickets and sat in the grandstands. And then to be able to get in a ride here from me running Sprint Cars in Salem, Ind., and Clint Brawner saw me and put me in a car that Jimmy Bryan won the championship with two or three times, and here I was a punk rookie. That really stands out."

Andretti -- "The fact that the track management kept innovating the safety aspect of it is a big one. To make it as safe as possible assures the continuity and popularity of it. All the injuries and worse are a big negative and you want to take that out of the equation as much as possible. I always applauded the idea of the SAFER barrier and the walls because the drivers are still with us. Safety is huge. It also paved the way for other facilities to look at the infrastructure. All of the new tracks are because Indianapolis was the catalyst."

B. Unser -- "There are so many great achievements to this race but the most important thing that has happened is Tony Hulman buying this track in November 1945. If he hadn't done that, this place would be a shopping mall or a housing development right now."

A. Unser -- "I think all of the safety items that have come from this race. The SAFER barrier has now been introduced into any race track that has been built as well as the older tracks. The SAFER barrier has been one that has really evolved all the way around. That and the Firestone tire technology that has evolved over the years, that not only makes racing safer but also the passenger car industry."

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