No. 5 - Aug. 2, 1994: NASCAR hits the bricks

When hell freezes over. That's when most self-styled experts figured the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would allow stock cars on its hallow grounds. In other words... no way, no time, no how.

Why would the world's most famous speedway allow "taxi cabs" on its 21/2-mile surface? Granted, its garage area had been called "Gasoline Alley" for years, but gasoline-powered cars hadn't raced there in decades.

Stock cars across the yards of bricks? Preposterous!

But it happened, mostly because IMS president Tony George and NASCAR president Bill France buried years of animosity and saw the millions of dollars waiting to be picked. The inaugural Brickyard 400 doesn't rank with the first races at Darlington and Daytona Beach, but it's certainly one of NASCAR's top-10 moments.

"It was like the LPGA playing a tournament at Augusta National," said Al Robinson, a veteran race-chaser who works for NASCAR's media department.

"I grew up thinking Indy was a holy place with one race a year. NASCAR to Indy was like a musician getting to play Carnegie Hall. There's no other place it could have gone that would have meant as much as Indy."

The first race was on Saturday, Aug. 2, 1994.

Qualifying on Thursday and Friday whittled the 74 entries down to 43. Virginia native Rick Mast won the pole and local favorite Jeff Gordon won the race. Ernie Irvan seemed home free until a late-race flat tire left him a lap down. Brett Bodine, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt rounded out the top five.

"It's not just another race," Earnhardt said after the inaugural race. "I get chill bumps and butterflies just looking at the place."

Not surprisingly, the race was a sellout.

The 300,000-plus tickets were gobbled up within a few days of going on sale in the summer of 1993.

The nine subsequent Brickyard 400s also have been sellouts.

Some background is in order:

Tony George is the grandson of the late Tony Hulman, the Indiana businessman who bought the track in 1945.

He spent millions on construction and facility upgrades, which helped made the annual Indy 500 the world's largest single-day sports event. After years of watching his grandfather and mother run the track, George became its president in 1989.

France is the son of the late Bill France, who created NASCAR in 1948.

The elder France built his Daytona Beach-based organization around Detroit's street-legal, family sedans.

He had little use for the open-wheel, open-cockpit, purpose-built "championship cars" favored by Hulman.

Even though they didn't pursue the same drivers, fans or sponsors, it's well known that the men weren't the best of friends.

That's not the case with George and France. Neither will say who made the first contact regarding a Cup race at Indy, but it's clear both wanted it.

"My guess is there had been a long-standing approach from NASCAR to the Hulman family," Robinson said.

"It probably lay dead on the table for decades, until Tony came along. I think he probably used the profits from those first few races as seed money for the IRL."

Robinson said going to Indy has been a huge boost for NASCAR.

"The speedway probably made more money, but the races helped legitimize NASCAR," he said.

"There's no more prestigious racing address than Indy and NASCAR was finally there. To some people, that defiled everything about the place. To others, it was great."

Al Pearce can be reached at 247-4641 or by e-mail at apearce@dailypress.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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