In the second installment of our Generation of Heroes series, we look back at the careers of the most successful Indy car driver of all time, an American hero who quit in the prime of his career, a five-time Le Mans winner, and a Brit who raced everything from Formula 1 to rally cars.
In his prime, nobody was tougher to beat than the cocky, irascible, and fiercely combative Texan, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. He's the winningest Indy car driver of all time -- by a long straightaway -- and there were entire seasons when he won more races than he lost. Wrenching on his own cars, he was the last man to win Indy in a front-engine roadster, and he claimed his fourth 500 on the cusp of the ground-effects era. A. J. also found time to win the Daytona 500, and even though road racing wasn't his forte, he's one of a handful of drivers who scored a triple crown in endurance racing, with victories at Le Mans, Daytona (twice), and Sebring. Foyt was ornery enough to survive several wrecks that would have killed lesser men, and he was as hard to get along with as he was to race against; witness his two explosive divorces from Hall of Fame crew chief George Bignotti. As a car owner, he's better remembered for slapping Arie Luyendyk than for winning Indy with Kenny Brack. Don't be fooled by the paunch and the avuncular smile he wears these days. In his heyday, A. J. Foyt was the baddest badass of them all.
It's not uncommon for sports heroes to hang on too long. Parnelli Jones was one of the few who quit too soon. In 1967, he was within four laps of his second Indianapolis 500 victory when his STP-sponsored turbine -- the so-called Whooshmobile -- crawled to a stop with a broken gearbox. Although Parnelli (born Rufus Parnell Jones) had been magic at the Speedway, he never raced an Indy car again. Thirty-three years old at the time, he was too young and competitive to retire. So he turned his attention to road racing and claimed a hard-fought Trans-Am title over Mark Donohue. Later, he became the first superstar of off-road racing, scoring back-to-back Baja 1000 wins in "Big Oly" -- the fast and seemingly indestructible Ford Bronco that embodied his take-no-prisoners personality. Meanwhile, he and partner Vel Miletich created a superteam known as Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing, which won Indy twice running with Al Unser in the cockpit, contested everything from drag racing to Formula 5000, and sent Mario Andretti to Europe in a homegrown Formula 1 car. Jones lost a lot of friends in racing, and his own son Page suffered a traumatic brain injury in a sprint-car crash. Looking back, maybe Parnelli got out at just the right time.
Derek Bell is proof positive that nice guys can finish first -- five times at Le Mans, three times at Daytona, and on dozens of other occasions at racetracks all over the globe. Fast, consistent, self-deprecating, and unfailingly affable, Bell was the consummate endurance-racing co-driver. But like Fred Astaire, another class act who spent decades at the top of a brutally competitive profession, Bell worked only with the best -- drivers such as Hans-Joachim Stuck, Jo Siffert, Mike Hailwood, Stefan Bellof, Al Holbert, and, most famously, Jacky Ickx, his partner for three Le Mans victories. Not that Bell needed help behind the wheel. He showed enough pace as a Formula 2 tyro that Enzo Ferrari hired him after he'd been racing for less than four years. Alas, Bell arrived during one of Ferrari's dry spells, and his Formula 1 career was undermined by a chronic case of wrong time, wrong place. But he never looked back after settling into a John Wyer Gulf-sponsored Porsche 917 in 1971, and he continued to race touring cars well into his sixties. Despite all his victories, he says his most rewarding race was a third-place finish at Le Mans in 1995 with Andy Wallace and -- here's the kicker -- his son Justin.
Plenty of drivers have made the transition from two wheels to four, from single-seaters to door- slammers, from ovals to road circuits. But only one driver earned legendary status in both rallying and road racing. Vic Elford's career was remarkable for both its variety and its brevity. The cosmopolitan London native didn't take center stage until he won the European Rally Championship in a Porsche 911 in 1967 at the relatively advanced age of thirty-two. Early the next year, during an implausible two-week stretch that showcased his unparalleled versatility, he claimed the Monte Carlo Rally and the 24 Hours of Daytona. By midsummer, he'd also overcome an eighteen-minute deficit to win the Targa Florio, and then, in pouring rain, on a deadly circuit where Jo Schlesser was killed, he finished fourth in the French Grand Prix in his Formula 1 debut. By 1971, he'd scored an epic win at Sebring in a Porsche 917, an unexpected victory in Trans-Am, and two Can-Am poles in the Chaparral 2J sucker car. His career as a frontline driver was over almost before it started. But Elford will always be remembered as the first person to lap Le Mans at better than 150 mph. Quick Vic, indeed.