NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

I’m getting a little tired of hearing Joey Logano referred to as “the best thing since sliced bread” as if it was something new. Understand me right, here – I don’t have anything at all against Logano. He seems to be a pretty darned good race driver who was thrust into the top stock car series in the country maybe a year ahead of schedule. He’s dealing with that very well, in my opinion.

The best thing I heard on the TV broadcast from Darlington was Greg Zipadelli telling him in so many words to just drive the car, they’d take care of the fixes. If there’s a beef I have against him, it’s that he might not understand how the cars really work, but that doesn’t make him unique among today’s drivers. A lot of them just climbed out of go-karts and into bigger cars and all they’ve done is drive. Quite a far cry from guys like the Allisons, DW, Rusty Wallace and even Mark Martin, who had to help build their own cars.

Like I said, though, the “sliced bread” quote is nothing new.

We were calling Mario Andretti the best thing since sliced bread back in the middle ’60s. Tom Bowles, the guru of this site, said I should comment on this because there seems to be what he calls a “generational knowledge gap.” He says he can’t remember it, but I ain’t surprised.

Mario came out of Pennsylvania heralded as a really hot young driver, and he lived up to the billing. His first USAC win, according to ultimateracinghistory.com, came in October of 1964 at Salem in Rufus Gray’s No. 83 Gapco Sprinter. I was there that day, and it was apparent that this guy was not afraid of the banks.

Mario was like one of my favorites, AJ Foyt. He could sling dirt with the best of ‘em, and he could (and would) drive just about anything. He won at Sebring in a Ford GT-40, and he won in a Holman-Moody car at Daytona before he ever won at Indianapolis. He broke in at Indy in the old roadsters and adapted well to the rear-engine cars.

A few years back, before Mario retired, somebody asked Foyt if he thought of any of the then-current crop of IndyCar drivers could handle themselves in any kind of car on any kind of surface. His answer was short – “Mario, that’s about all.”

Mario even referred to getting the label now applied to Logano in his autobiography, What’s It Like Out There. He mentioned an IndyCar race on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1968 – he started on the outside of the front row and roared into the sweeping right-hand turn 1 with the pedal down. He said, “The next thing you know, the best thing since sliced bread is sliding out through the grass on the outside of the turn.”

He managed to miss a big tree about 100 feet off the track and came back in around turn 2, and went on to finish second in that race. If I recall correctly, he also said turn 1 at IRP would be a flat-out deal if it wasn’t for that danged tree in the way. We called it “Mario’s Tree” for years until it was cut down sometime in the ’90s. (First SCCA race after they cut it down, we had about 15 cars go off turn 1 during the day’s activities. I asked a driver why, and he said, “That tree ain’t out there to make you lift like it used to be.”)

That 1968 race was the first USAC Championship Car (that’s what they called them then) race on the full, 2.5-mile road course, running clockwise. For three years before that, they ran counter clockwise on what we called the “short course.” It was 1.875 miles and cut out everything west of the dragstrip. They went down the drag strip the “wrong” way, turned left into the staging lanes, went straight to turn 6, which was a left-hander, and then up the backstretch. In this configuration, the only right-hander on the course was turn 4 going the “wrong” way. This allowed teams who had them to use the roadsters.

Mario got his first USAC Champ Car win on that course in the first one, in July of 1965, and repeated in 1966 and 1967. His excursion out past the tree was probably the reason he finished second behind Al Unser Sr. in 1968.

I didn’t go to work at IRP until 1985, but I was there for all those races, and I remember them well.

Joey Logano can only hope that his career turns out to be as star-studded as Mario’s has been.

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