When I was growing up, the Indianapolis 500 was a big deal - one of those sporting events that was guaranteed to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, year in and year out. Back then, the sport was full of larger-than-life characters - A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, a handful of others - the men who dominated the race for over a decade, while staging some exciting and entertaining duels along the way.
To this day my favorite 500 remains the 1974 race, in the days before they even showed the event live on television. I listened to the whole damn thing on the radio, if you can believe that, but it was still the most exciting race I'd ever "seen." The reasons why escape me, but Johnny Rutherford was forced to start on the back row, even though everyone agreed that he had one of the fastest cars in the race. He proved that quickly, moving his way up through the field until, by mid-race, he was battling the legendary Foyt for the lead. Rutherford prevailed, and in time would become a legend himself, a three-time winner.
The race doesn't hold quite the cache it once did, but it's still the only one that I'll happily watch from start to finish. The reasons for the decline in stature are twofold. The obvious reason was the split in 1994 between CART and IndyCar, for the usual reasons - greed, and arrogance. For a while the best open-car drivers didn't even go to Indy, although the siren song of one of the two most famous races in the land (the other being the Daytona 500) drew most of them back over time, until CART went bankrupt in 2003 and its successor finally merged with IndyCar in 2007.
The other reason is just a theory, but I think NASCAR's overtaking IndyCar in popularity has something - perhaps a lot - to do with the fact that IndyCar has been dominated in recent years by foreign drivers - names like Helio Castroneves, the late Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, and of course, the winner of today's race, Dario Franchitti.
It was a classic race today, with a record number of lead changes. Franchitti became the seventh three-time winner in dramatic fashion, staving off a pass on the final lap from Takuma Soto, who proceeded to spin out and hit the wall. And in a nice gesture in victory lane, Franchitti paid tribute to both Dan Wheldon, who didn't have the chance to defend his title, and Johnny Rutherford - the legend from the past who now will make room for Franchitti in the realm of racing history.