I was driving south near Saginaw, Michigan, when I first noticed. “Holy cow!” I told my buddy Mike Byron as he manned the wheel on the final leg of our road trip, “that tweet has blown up.”
A few hours earlier, I posted on social media my picture with 1973 and 1982 Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock, with the following caption: “My Indy 500 helmet had every living winner’s signature but one. Until today.” The accompanying photo showed Johncock with my helmet, the 30th living winner to adorn it with his autograph.
I didn’t really think much of it, this project I took on just under six years ago. Yet, each time I mentioned my quest to get all living winners on the same helmet, it started conversation. People wanted to know about their favorite driver. Others set out on a similar quest and asked for advice on tracking down that missing script or two.
That led to the epiphany: Perhaps the helmet itself signed by 30 Indy 500 winners wasn’t as interesting as the tales of how each came to be. This is how/when/where some of the signatures were obtained.
Mario Andretti, 1969 winner: It was Mario who started my quest. I was inside the Impact racing commercial garage at IMS in 2013. Staring at the helmets, I wondered if I would ever be able to get one signed by all the living winners of racing’s most elite fraternity. Mario walked in, I signed the credit card slip, he signed the helmet and a new goal was born.
Arie Luyendyk, 1990 and 1997 winner: Still involved in racing while working as an INDYCAR race steward, the “Flying Dutchman” signed immediately after Mario in 2013, the second on my long list to catch.
A.J. Foyt, 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 winner: The biggest challenge of the project, it was at Detroit’s Belle Isle when “Super Tex” informed me, weary of sellers making money off such items, that he no longer signs helmets. Despite my explanation of this being for only me (“I’ll never sell”), Indy’s four-time winner wouldn’t budge. Like the final stretch of his 1967 win, I had to drive through debris to get to my goal. Foyt agreed to sign an IMS decal which now adorns the helmet visor.
Gordon Johncock, 1973 and 1982 winner: The most elusive of the group, Johncock has retired into private business in Michigan and, for the most part, put his race career into the rear-view mirror. He was a gracious and accommodating host when I visited him three weeks ago, the last of the 30 signatures I needed. Johncock explained to me why he has been less visible than his contemporaries. More on that in a later column.
Tom Sneva, 1983 winner: The first to break 200 mph in qualifying, the “Gas Man” was also the first to sign without me present. Sneva visited Indy on a weekend I was away at another race, so I left the helmet with a trusted co-worker who was with Sneva upon his Indy visit.
Danny Sullivan, 1985 winner: The most accommodating of them all, Sullivan took my unsolicited phone call as anything but a man I’ve actually never met. We talked for over an hour, and I made arrangements to ship the helmet to his California home during one of his rare weeks there. The shipping company confused the address, however, and didn’t deliver it. I tracked the helmet to one of their stores, 50 miles from Sullivan’s home. I reluctantly called to inform him of the mishap, convinced my project hit a dead end. Sensing my concern and eager to enjoy a drive in his new convertible, Sullivan informed me he’d go for a spin to retrieve and sign my keepsake. This time, the win was mine.
Bobby Rahal, 1986 winner: When I took the helmet to Detroit’s Belle Isle the week after the 2013 Indy 500 to have winner Tony Kannan add his script, I tracked down Rahal. Still relatively new to the list and fresh off my conversation with Foyt, I had him add “To Jake” to prove to others the helmet was for my possession only.
Johnny Rutherford, 1974, 1976 and 1980 winner: A staple at nearly every NTT IndyCar Series event and one of the sport’s truest gentlemen, J.R. was working with the series in 2013 and was one of the helmet’s earliest signatures. His autograph is the most artistic and aesthetic of the 30.
Rick Mears, 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991 winner: The last four-time winner and one of two men to win the race in three decades (Bobby Unser is the other), I had Mears sign the helmet at Detroit in 2015. He added his customary “Thanks” above his name, informing me fans are what made his career possible.
Emerson Fittipaldi, 1989 and 1993 winner: One of the signatures I figured would be the most difficult to obtain, Emmo, who lives in his native Brazil, made a surprise appearance at Belle Isle a few years ago to visit his son-in-law, Max Papis. He took in the racing and generously signed for me on pit road.
Jacques Villeneuve, 1995 winner: Another that I considered a major longshot, luck fell my way when the Canadian returned to race at Indy and signed for me in 2014. Surprisingly, he took more interest in reviewing the other signatures than any other driver.
Juan Montoya, 2000 and 2015 winner: One of just two men to have his name appear in two ways on the Borg-Warner Trophy (“Juan” and “Juan Pablo,” joining Al Unser who added “Sr.” under his 1987 likeness), Montoya was one of two winners to sign for me at a NASCAR event (Sam Hornish Jr. was the other). Unaware that he’d eventually return to Indy car racing, I secured the Colombian during the 2014 Brickyard 400.
Helio Castroneves, 2001, 2002 and 2009 winner: One of the most likable men in the group, Helio was with Rick Mears (his driving coach and spotter for Team Penske) at Belle Isle the day Mears signed. It was buy one, get one for me!
Dario Franchitti, 2007, 2010 and 2012 winner: Retired at the end of 2013, Dario began working (instead of driving) with Chip Ganassi Racing shortly thereafter. He signed with Dixon in 2015 and was appreciative of the project. “It’s super cool,” he told me. “I wish I had one!”
Kenny Brack, 1999 winner: Native to Sweden and residing in London, I was surprised to see Brack on the big screens at IMS during qualifying a few years ago. I had some down time, so I rushed home, retrieved the helmet and tracked him down later that day. His signature traditionally includes a smiley face. It reflects the mood created by adding him.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2014 winner: I’d told Hunter-Reay of my project a week before his Indy 500 victory. He told me he’d gladly add his name if he were to win. The morning of the first practice session the following week at Belle Isle in 2014, RHR did exactly that.
Alexander Rossi, 2016 winner: The winner of the historic 100th running, Rossi also signed the next week at Belle Isle in 2016. He added “100th” next to his name, per my request.
Takuma Sato, 2017 winner: Also added at Belle Isle a week after tackling Indy, Sato added a unique flavor with his signature. He signed it in the characters of his native Japanese.
Will Power, 2018 winner: You probably sense a theme here: I also got Power to sign at Belle Isle a week after his win.
It’s fitting that his name is the last on the list, as it took just that, willpower, to carry the helmet on airplanes, in my car, in rushed retrievals and in frantic calls to shipping stores to get the 30 signatures on it now. With that said, it’s been a lot of fun. I wish everyone luck if they choose to do the same and offer the encouragement that it’s a great group of gentlemen who each seemed to grasp the elite nature of the collection that includes their name.
Should 2019 provide a new winner, I’ll be ready with my helmet and Sharpie. After all, what am I supposed to do now?
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)