Greatest drivers at Indy? Try Foyt and Mears amid debate

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) To win the Indianapolis 500, a driver must weather months of preparation then two stressful weeks of hype leading into ''The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.'' When the race actually begins, every driver is tested on skill, talent, luck, strategy, endurance and perseverance.

It's one of the hardest races in the world to win, and those who have sipped the milk in victory lane treasure the Indy 500 more than any other event.

Three drivers managed to win the race four times. Some drivers deserved to win and never did.

So who is the best driver in the long and storied history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway? There's no easy answer.

''It's probably the most difficult question you can ask about Indy,'' said Eddie Cheever, who won the 500 in 1998. ''You can pick from A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, the only three to have won it four times. It takes speed, strategy, bravery and finally the ability to get in or create the best team-car combinations.''

In the lead-up to the 100th running of the race this Sunday, The Associated Press interviewed the 27 living race winners on topics ranging from the best race to the greatest tradition. Choosing the best driver proved to be the most difficult question on the list.

Although Foyt ultimately received three more votes than Mears, Foyt and Mario Andretti were among those who declined to give an answer.

''I'm just glad to be part of the discussion,'' Foyt said.

Andretti also begged off when asked to name the greatest driver at Indy.

''I've never, ever rated drivers openly in my whole life. I'm not going to do it now,'' Andretti said. ''I'm asked that often and I just don't do it.''

Declaring just one driver to be the best at Indy is a subjective and deep debate. Eight different drivers were named by the living winners, and some were hesitant to select just one.

''The problem is, that's an unfair question,'' said Bobby Unser. ''I'm not going to say some other guy is the best. I always thought I was as good as the best or better than the best.''

There was much praise on this topic for Mears, who won his first 500 in 1979 in just his second attempt. He was in contention to win in 1981 until a pit fire badly burned his face, and the next year he waged one of the closest battles in race history before losing to Gordon Johncock by just 0.160 second.

Mears went on to win in 1984, overcame near-crippling injuries to his feet in a crash later that season, and returned to run Indy the next year. He came back from nearly two laps down to win in 1988, his third victory, and beat Michael Andretti in a final dash to win for a fourth time in 1991.

''He always used his head and wasn't going to wreck you, and he always drove sensible and smart,'' Johncock said.

Gil de Ferran, who like Mears won his Indy 500 for Roger Penske, admired what Mears could do at the speedway.

''As someone who admires precision, self-control, discipline but also at the same time decisiveness, Mr. Mears is probably the pick out of a select group,'' de Ferran said.

Mears deflected the honor and chose Foyt as the best.

''Although there's a lot more history before him and if you pick one, you're going to slight someone,'' Mears said. ''But you've just got to go off the numbers and say A.J.'s one of the best, if not the greatest.''

Some of the former champions chose Al Unser, though he wavered in crowning just one driver.

''In 29 years, I ran against over 500 drivers and know that A.J. was a fierce competitor that I learned a lot from and who gave me my first ride at Indy,'' Al Unser said. ''Parnelli Jones, my boyhood hero who gave me an opportunity to be with a great team when I got my first Indy 500 win. My son (Al Unser Jr.) of course. I thought he was a great driver whose potential was never fully realized. Rick Mears, my teammate at Penske, was truly an all-around great driver. And my brother Bobby, from my childhood, set the standard for determination to win.''

Although Buddy Lazier landed on Mears as his choice, he struggled in not giving the nod to Jones.

''Parnelli Jones is the one I would say doesn't get the credit he deserves,'' Lazier said. ''He could be the greatest. His driving style influenced so many others who had success there. There were techniques and things he did early on that I know many other great drivers learned from him.''

And what does Jones think?

''I thought I was the best,'' Jones quipped. ''There's a lot of good drivers out there. Obviously Foyt has the best track record of anybody. There's not really one. A bunch of them.''

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