Legends Are Hard To Find

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I enjoy legendary status.

No, I'm not vain enough to think that I'm a legend at anything, even in my own mind. If anything, I probably lean in the opposite direction. I'm pedestrian, a true-blue (but modern-day) Bubba, not much different than the most of the millions that surf the Internet each day.

And that's probably one of the reasons that I like legends. Actually, it is probably the reason that there are legends. We all enjoy greatness, and fans love it when a master can lift us out of our common-day lives. When they excel, we all feel like we are on top of the world.

I thank you, Al Unser Jr. And the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series thanks you. Your win at St. Louis gave us a thrill, sparked our passion. There weren't much heroics - you didn't run out of gas. But that doesn't matter. There's just something comfortable about saying, "Unser won."

Al Jr. isn't the best driver on the IRNLS circuit, nor is he at his prime. But that doesn't matter, either. He's the only legend that his series has, a driver who has won multiple Indy 500s and who comes from a franchise family. Unser's got a great grin, and he's hard not to like.

Almost by definition, a legend transcends his sport. But the whole definition can be tough to complete. Legends can't be mythical; they have to be real. Winning is everything, but it isn't the only thing. True heroes have an abundance of the most-wanted intangibles. Most are likeable, but some are hated. Fans almost always have a strong gut reaction to a legend.

The best measure of a driver's legend? People who aren't racing fans know the name. Foyt, Petty, Earnhardt are such names. Since I was a kid, I've heard people who wouldn't know a transmission from an axle say that a lead-footed motorist on the highway was "driving like Mario Andretti."

Racing enjoys a boost every time a legend wins. Many local television stations across the United States, which normally don't even report on Indy Racing events, mentioned Unser's victory. Little Al's win got better play in newspapers than anything Sam Hornish, the current IRNLS points leader, has ever done in his life.

The IRNLS got a huge boost when Unser left CART before the 2000 season. He gave the circuit a legend, something they were missing. Oh, it was nice that Foyt was involved, but he was an owner. Arie Luyendyk has some name recognition, as does Eddie Cheever, but neither are legends. Scott Sharp and Buddy Lazier are good drivers with winning personalities, but they still have a long way to go before they become a legend.

In fact, racing seems to be a little short of legends right now.

Michael Andretti's win in Toronto in mid-July gave his circuit the same boost as Unser's victory. Andretti is not only the son of Mario, but he's got 41 career victories.

CART has a promising youngster in Scott Dixon, with Kenny Brack and Alex Zanardi have some legendary potential. But right now, most of the world isn't very excited about Brack, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran battling it out for the points lead.

The NHRA is a little short, too.

Don "Big Daddy" Garlits and Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney, both who came out of semi-retirement this weekend, have much more appeal than current champions Gary Scelzi and Angelle Savoie. Thank you Don and Shirley for bringing your legend to the U.S. Nationals.

Kenny Bernstein and Warren Johnson will soon be named as two of the 10 best drivers in NHRA history, but their magic doesn't seem to carry over to mainstream America. They're both more business than bluster. Bernstein, the King of Speed, does better in national appeal with the help of his sponsor, Budweiser.

Of course, drag racing does have Funny Car driver John Force. He's spent much of the past 15 years redefining the term "legend." He's got all the ingredients, plus borders on the mythical. Force might be a legend even if he was just a truck driver. He's perhaps the funniest man alive, without ever trying, yet a universal truth resounds through all of his one-liners.

But wins from drivers like John Force - legends in their prime - don't seem to be a big boost for the fans and the sport. The accomplishments are still jewels, just not as appreciated as they are later in a legend's career.

Just ask Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's legend in his prime. Gordon might be the best stock car driver ever, but often that just makes his wins boring.

NASCAR's currently enjoying a level of popularity and exposure never before reached in racing. Consequently, a victory by waning legends like Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott or Mark Martin would be even better received than Unser's win.

NASCAR's boom has also created a new category of drivers - semi-legends. These drivers aren't all-time greats, but they've won a title or a Daytona 500 and most of the sporting world knows them by site. So when a Ricky Rudd or a Sterling Marlin wins, these victories can be a bigger event for the fans than those gathered in bunches by a methodically great Gordon.

Of course, there has always been other categories of drivers to cheer for other than legends. Almost everybody likes an underdog, but he can't win too many times or he'll become the favorite.

Many fans rally behind the up-and-coming youngsters, the Sam Hornishes and the Kevin Harvicks. This can be exciting, with new faces reaching new heights and creating new loyalties. And a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who carries a legendary lineage but shows enough of his own magic to make one think he'd be a star even if his name was Smith or Jones, can really charge up a fan base.

To me, though, these is just part of "the making of a legend." These fans want to say that they were there from the beginning, that they saw a hero's first win, watched him before he drove the car that made him famous.

Maybe one day we call all enjoy legendary status.

Race Center

Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
TV Start:
NBCSN

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