U.S troops serving in Iraq likely won't get time off to attend the 2011 Indianapolis 500, so the famed circuit decided to bring a bit of the race to them.
A 10-day tour will see a trio of Indy 500 champions - Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, and Al Unser Jr. - along with IndyCar Series drivers Sarah Fisher, Davey Hamilton, and Graham Rahal, and Firestone Indy Lights' racer Martin Plowman meet between 10,000 and 15,000 U.S. and British troops at bases and hospitals in Europe, Qatar, Iraq, North Africa and the United Arab Emirates, with a stop on a U.S. aircraft carrier thrown into the mix.
Along the way, some lucky soldiers will get up close and personal with IndyCar competition during rides in the series' two-seater car with Andretti at the wheel. While he knows he'll be offering high-speed diversions to the troops, the trip is so secret that Andretti doesn't even know where he'll be taking them for a spin.
"A lot of it is sketchy for security reasons and we aren't even supposed to even know where we are going. We are going to be briefed on the [Boeing]C-135 [Stratolifter]on the way over - we have a broad brush of what we are going to do, but I have no particulars," said the 1969 Indy 500 champion, who takes fans and VIPs for two-seater at most IndyCar races.
"I don't really know what I am going to see or what I am going to experience but I will come back from this with more knowledge and appreciation for what they are doing."
The majority of the troops Andretti will see are stationed in or around Iraq. In the almost eight years that troops have been stationed in the country, about 4,800 coalition soldiers have died and roughly another 32,000 have been wounded.
The trip is part of the events to mark the Indy 500's centennial, as the historic race celebrates its 100th anniversary in May. Although the first 500 car race was run in 1911, the actual 100th race goes in 2016 due to the event being cancelled during the First and Second World Wars.
The Indy 500 contingent is expected to leave for the Middle East later this week following a media day in New York and return to the U.S. on Jan. 22. Andretti's trip mates have five 500 titles between them, with Rutherford taking the chequered flag three times (1974, 1976, 1980), while Unser Jr. claimed two (1992, 1994). Hamilton is also expected to take some troops for two-seater rides.
70-year-old Andretti, who remains one of the most popular and loved racers in the U.S., jumped at the chance to make the trip. Over the years, he's visited bases and hospitals around the world, spent time on aircraft carriers with the troops, and been up in several jet fighters. Andretti feels it's his duty to give back to the troops through offering his time and taking a lucky few out on track for a couple of minutes of excitement.
"I have the greatest respect and admiration for the military and I have always been so impressed with the quality of the people in the military. In my opinion, it is the noblest profession," he said.
"What they are risking everyday they are out there is incredible and we just want to let them know how much we appreciate what they are doing."
He also finds inspiration in his visits with the troops, especially at hospitals across the U.S. In a recent trip to a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, Andretti met soldiers injured by roadside bombs and left a changed man.
"I have never been so moved than I was in my last visit in Texas to our young men who were blown to bits by roadside bombs," he said.
"Not a single one complained or said 'why me?' or anything like that. I met a young lad, 23 years of age, who had just a torso - his arms or legs had been blown off - and I was talking to him and he was lifting my spirits. Talk about being inspired by the strength of character. I am telling you, it is heart-wrenching."
The four-time IndyCar title winner and 1978 Formula One world champion scored his only Indy 500 in his fifth of 29 starts, something that began a long history of frustration at the famed Brickyard for the Andretti family. Mario, son Michael, and grandson Marco haven't cracked victory lane since that initial triumph, despite leading the famed race for 1,018 laps between them.
The elder Andretti is third overall in laps led laps at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 556, while Michael holds the record for most laps led (431, 10th overall) without a win. Marco Andretti came within 0.0635 seconds of ending the drought in his first Indy 500 in 2006 after he led that year's race into the final turn but lost a dash to the finish to Sam Hornish Jr. The result was the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history.
Four-time winner Al Unser Sr. holds the Indy 500 record with 644 laps at the front of the field. The other four-time champions are A.J. Foyt (555 laps led) and Rick Mears (429 laps led).
"I think if it were 400 miles, I think I would have won it six times," Mario Andretti chuckled.
"I haven't had as many wins, but I led that race for more laps than all but one of the four-time winners, so I had a lot of good times there and I have no regrets."