IndyCars' greatest names team up on military tour
INDIANAPOLIS – Mario Andretti never anticipated dressing in the same tailor-made clothes as a Foyt and an Unser.
He'll gladly make the change now.
Over the next 10 days, American troops in Europe and the Middle East will get to see racing history when Andretti joins Larry Foyt and Al Unser Jr. on the Indianapolis 500's Centennial Tour — the first time the three iconic IndyCar surnames have worked together on the same team.
"There is a camaraderie about it," Andretti said Wednesday, hours before boarding a KC-135 cargo plane bound for New Jersey. "We've fought a lot of battles together, but we're united about this and it's really nice."
No, it wasn't exactly what organizers envisioned — bringing longtime rivals Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt together as part of a legends tour.
But it is the next best thing.
Larry Foyt said his father declined the invitation because racing injuries would make the long flight too difficult to cope with. Instead, the four-time Indy winner made a short video that will be shown to the troops, and his son quickly jumped at the chance to fill in for dad.
In the Foyt household, though, that return ticket comes with an unspoken stipulation.
"I said 'If we go karting, I had better beat Mario or A.J. won't let me come home,'" Larry Foyt joked.
The headliners, of course, are Andretti, the 1969 Indy winner and 1978 world champ; Unser Jr., the two-time Indy winner; three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford; and Foyt, who now works with his father's racing operation.
Andretti, Foyt and Unser said they have never been on an overseas goodwill tour, though each has visited military installations in the United States.
Former IndyCar drivers Davey Hamilton and Sarah Fisher, Indy Lights driver Martin Plowman, longtime television announcer Jack Arute and Cameron Haven, known as Miss Izod, also are making the trip.
The big winners, though, will be the troops, who will get to ride around in a red, white and blue two-seat IndyCar emblazoned with the National Guard logo and Andretti's name just outside the cockpit.
"We took NCAA football coaches on a similar trip and when we landed, we immediately went to the White House and briefed President Bush on what we did," said Thomas Lee, a partner at the Morale Entertainment Foundation, one of the trip's sponsors. "He gave us a 15-minute lecture, telling us how important it was because you can't win a war unless morale is kept at a certain level."
IndyCars' nine-member team is expected to fly from New Jersey to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on Thursday before heading to the Middle East. It is also scheduled to board an aircraft carrier, though military officials are keeping details of all installations other than Ramstein a secret.
The assembled car, minus the nose cone, was loaded onto the plane and locked into place with cables earlier Wednesday.
What does the rest of the contingent think about this trip?
Sarah Fisher, who has decided to focus exclusively on her responsibilities as a team owner this season, can't wait.
She brought along sleeping bags for herself and the others, and reflected on last May's trip around Indianapolis in a Blackhawk helicopter.
"I think it opened my eyes to expectations," she said. "I think that's something we really take for granted. I just feel fortunate that I'm at a point in my life where I can take 10 days off to do this."
And to become part of racing history — for a good cause.
"I know there's been a Foyt and an Unser who were on the same team, but I don't think that (Andretti, Foyt and Unser on the same team) has ever happened," Unser said with a chuckle. "It's going to be a heck of a lot of fun, a lot of excitement and, hopefully, we'll be able to give some thanks to the men and women who stand on that wall 24/7 to give us our freedoms."