The Indianapolis Motor Speedway revels in its traditions. But the door-bangin’, tire-smokin’, bumper-to-bumper world of NASCAR racing hasn’t been one of them--until now.
The Brickyard 400 stock car race, a form of motorsports once considered heresy within Indy’s hallowed concrete walls, makes its debut Saturday. Its own traditions will come later.
“I’m not a big history guy, or tradition, but (winning the first race) would really even to me mean a lot, because I know it will be in the history books,” said NASCAR driver Mark Martin. “That would be really, really special to me.”
Martin lived in North Liberty, Ind., for about two years. He was 150 miles north of the famed Indy oval; he might as well have been on the other side of the world.
“I was just out of high school, and I was pretty young and pretty dumb,” the 35-year-old driver said. “I had a lot to learn about racing and everything else. I never dreamed and never had an interest coming out here because I never expected I’d race here. I sure didn’t think NASCAR would race here.”
So how did the good ol’ boys end up at a track known since the infancy of the sport as a magnet for the top drivers in the world?
It was due to the efforts of Tony George, the president of the Speedway and the grandson of the late Tony Hulman, who rescued the track and, many believe, the sport itself after a decline during World War II.
“I went to my first stock car race in probably July of 1976, and when (John) Cooper was president here I went to Talladega and saw a race there,” George said.
“I watched it develop and grow over the last 10 to 15 years and started to follow it more closely and realized it would be a good show to bring here if we ever had another event,” he said. “Subsequently, I broached it with my family.”
George’s mother, Mari Hulman George, is the Speedway board chairman; his grandmother, Mary Fendrich Hulman, is chairman emeritus; his three sisters are members of the board. Tampering with a one-race-a-year tradition was serious business.
“They weren’t really comfortable with the idea at first,” said George, who raised it a couple of years ago. “After several months, they started becoming more comfortable with it and we got the approval (from the board) to go ahead and try to start to negotiate another event.”
Nine NASCAR drivers tested at Indianapolis in June 1992. But even then, the public heard only rumors of a second race at Indy. It wasn’t until the following year, after new outside walls and safety fences were built and warm-up lanes in the corners were added, that George confirmed the historic marriage between NASCAR and Indy.
Last August, more than 30 NASCAR drivers took part in two days of tests on the 2 1/2-mile oval, a narrower and flatter surface than the high-banked NASCAR tracks. What was once the exclusive domain of such names as Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears and Fittipaldi now belonged also to such drivers as Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott and transplanted Hoosier Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR rookie of the year in 1993.
Even the king of stock car racing, Richard Petty, became a part of Indy history.
Petty, who retired after the 1992 season, took four ceremonial laps during the test session last year and donated his No. 43 Pontiac to the Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
“I wish I had got a chance to run here, but the time didn’t come,” he said. “I always felt Indianapolis was really responsible in one way or another for stock car racing, because they got a lot of people interested in racing.
“It was always THE race. From that standpoint, I would have always liked to come here and run stock cars . . . not the Indy cars.”
Petty said the Brickyard 400 will be a “great event. It’s going to be good for us, good for the Indy-car crowd, good for Indy, good for racing all over the world.”
The Indy 500 draws crowds routinely estimated at more than 400,000, but nobody outside the official Speedway family knows for sure because officials never reveal the attendance. And that’s one tradition that won’t change for the Brickyard.
Nevertheless, the Speedway admits to more than 250,000 reserved seats, and every one will be filled for the Brickyard, which will make it the world’s second-biggest race crowd.
Then there’s the money.
In May, the Indy 500 paid the richest purse in auto racing history, $7.86 million, and the Brickyard already is close to becoming the richest NASCAR race. The posted purse is $2.69 million, and accessory prizes could raise the total payoff above the NASCAR-record $2.76 million set in February for the Daytona 500.
George is more than pleased with his favorite step-child.
“I’m proud of the fact we’re going to have a second event here, and all indications are it’s going to be very successful and well received,” George said. “A second event was never totally discounted here, but it had to be something that was worthwhile and had enough merit to stand on its own.”
The 160-lap Brickyard, which will be televised lived by ABC, will be the first non-Indy car race at the Speedway in more than 80 years. If last year’s testing is any indication, it indeed will stand on its own.
An estimated 85,000 to 100,000 people paid $5 apiece to watch more than 1,100 laps during the two days of testing. While the NASCAR crowd couldn’t match the blurring speeds of Indy cars--the fastest laps were by Elliott at 167.467 m.p.h.; Martin, 165.905; and Gordon, who grew up in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., at 165.868--they pointed to another reason for the increasing popularity of stock car racing in the United States.
“Our cars are conducive to smoking the tires and rubbing the doors and running inches apart,” Martin said. “They’re built to do that.
“They’re not built to run 230 m.p.h. around this place, and won’t do it. And if they would, we couldn’t get near each other,” he said. “For competitiveness’ sake, it doesn’t matter if we’re going 165 or 160, or 230, if they’re all in there smoking and gouging and going for it. It’s going to be really, really exciting. But it won’t be 230 m.p.h., which is a whole different thing.”
But who cares? Certainly not the drivers. About 75 to 80 entries are expected, considerably higher than the 50 to 60 that normally comprise the NASCAR Winston Cup entry list for a given race. A number of drivers from the Winston West series are expected to give it a shot, along with a handful of Indy-car regulars.
A.J. Foyt, a four-time Indy 500 winner who won seven NASCAR races in the 1960s and early ‘70s, is entered and already has tested at the Speedway in anticipation of the Brickyard. It would be Foyt’s first race since he retired more than a year ago.
Indy driver Davy Jones also has entered; former Indy winner Danny Sullivan has practiced here in a stock car, and seven-time Indy veteran John Andretti joined the NASCAR circuit last fall. In May, Andretti became the first driver to compete at Indianapolis and in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 the same day.
Qualifying will begin on Aug. 4. That procedure will be completely different from the Indy 500, which uses a four-lap average to determine the three-abreast, 33-car lineup.
In NASCAR, each driver gets one lap to qualify. They’ll line up at the south end of the pits and go out one-by-one, taking the green flag without even a full warmup lap. As soon as each qualifier pulls off the track, the next will go out. The fastest 20 on the first day will be locked in position and cannot be bumped. The next-fastest 20 who qualify either that day or the next will also get in the lineup.
NASCAR also has the option of adding up to four more. Most likely, they would be the top two drivers in the season point standings who are not among the 40 qualifiers; one driver from the Winston West series; and any past NASCAR champion who raced last year but was not among the fastest 40 qualifiers or this year’s point leaders.
Then at last, on race day, after they’ve been positioned two-abreast on the track, they’ll hear Indy’s most famous command: “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Hey, it’s tradition.