This is the big time

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:29 AM ET

There were a lot of good reasons to change the name of the Edmonton Grand Prix to the Edmonton Indy. But there are 18 more who are en route to the event here in the next 48 hours including A.J. Foyt (4), Rick Mears (4), Johnny Rutherford (3), Al Unser Jr. (2), Helio Castroneves (2), Buddy Rice (1), Dan Weldon (1) and Scott Dixon (1).

Those current and legendary former drivers have won 18 Indianapolis 500s.

And they're all expected to be on the property here Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

ChampCar had a lot of things going for it. But it never had Indy. The big race in May gives the series sizzle everywhere it stops. The Indy 500 comes to you. And so does so much of its history and so many of its famous faces.

SORRY, I'M BUSY

It was a big deal to have Mario Andretti as the Grand Marshal here last year. This year you could have any one of the above. Except they're all busy.

Castroneves, Rice, Weldon and this year's Indy 500 winner Dixon are all behind the wheel driving in the race, of course.

Rutherford drives the pace car.

Unser is the driving coach for IndyCar rookies, a big job this year, and race day spotter for director of competition Brian Barnhart.

Mears, who is the driver coach for the Indy Lights support series which isn't involved here this year, also works for Roger Penske (who has won a record 14 Indy 500s with Team Penske) is in the pits on race day and Foyt heads up A.J Foyt Racing with a car in the race which will be driven by Darren Manning.

Rutherford, Mears and Al Unser Sr. and Jr. are a team together, although Sr. and Jr. alternate races other than the 500.

"Dad has seniority," laughed Al Jr. "He picks the races he wants to do and I get the ones which don't work as well into his schedule. It works out to be 50-50.

"With the exception of Mears with the IndyCar guys, being that he works for Penske, we're all there to help the drivers in a bipartisan way. If Will Power, for example, wants to ask a question about the track or driving, we're there for them. He could come to Johnny Rutherford, me or my father and get all the help we can offer. We're there to help as much as we can."

It was especially evident with the ChampCar transition drivers in the first few races after the merger and, in particular, the Indy 500 itself. A large number of them had never raced ovals before, much less the granddaddy of them all.

"It's been mainly on the ovals, especially the mile-and-a-half ovals," said Unser Jr. "It's a different style of racing."

While the Unsers work race day up in race control, Rutherford spends it down on the track. He drives the pace car.

"I started driving the pace car in CART when I retired in 1994. I've been doing it since the IRL started in 1996. In this job I can still lead a few races.

"It puts me up close and personal. I know what difficulties the drivers are dealing with when the yellow flags come out. And I know just how fast I need to go for the workers to clean up the accident. I think I have a pretty good trust there with the drivers."

Not that nothing has ever happened to him driving the pace car.

"At Texas a few years back I was running faster than I should trying to catch up to the lead cars not realizing the accident was on Turn 2. I had to get slowed down. I ended up with my left rear going over the right front of a race car and put it up on two wheels and put it into the pit wall. The air bags went off and that pace car was out of the race.

GOT THE HOOK

"But we have two pace cars and I was out there in the back-up in no time at all. I swear there were people who didn't know I'd crashed the pace car until the tow truck was taking it away.

"A couple of times I've had to make a pit stop with the pace car to get a new tire."

Rutherford says the exclusive club of Indy 500 winners, at least the ones who aren't still competing, end up together in the same room once in awhile.

"We're all in close contact with each other all season and every now and )again we'll get together and start swapping stories."


Videos

Photos