FOR NASCAR DRIVERS . . . : Brickyard 400 Is the Big Test : Saturday’s Race Starts New Era for Foyt, Earnhardt and Friends
The Brickyard 400, which will usher in a new era in motor racing Saturday when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway showcases Winston Cup stock cars on a track heretofore used exclusively for Indy cars, might present an unusual challenge to the drivers.
Indianapolis, with its shallow nine-degree banking, is almost flat compared with the 31-degree, high-banked superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, where stock cars careen through the turns sometimes three abreast.
Many stock car racing analysts look at Indianapolis as “a road course where all the turns are left.”
Most of the leading Winston Cup drivers have tested at Indianapolis since the race was announced, but they don’t know what it will be like when 44 cars are on the 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval at the same time.
The best measure of what to expect might come from a look at the nine stock car races held at now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway.
Ontario, which rose like a $30-million mushroom out of the vineyards of Cucamonga to become the Taj Mahal of racing in 1970 only to be leveled 10 years later by the wrecking ball, had the same nine-degree banking and dimensions for its 2 1/2-mile track as Indianapolis.
As might be expected, the nine races produced a variety of results, from the 1974 victory of Bobby Allison in a Matador, described as “the most exciting race ever run at Ontario Motor Speedway,” to the 1975 victory of Buddy Baker, whose Ford led 140 (of 200) laps of what was probably the most boring race at the track.
Allison’s victory was later protested and car owner Roger Penske was fined $9,100 by NASCAR officials for using an illegal engine. At the time, it was the largest fine ever levied against a winning car owner. The winner’s purse was only $15,125.
A.J. Foyt won the inaugural race in 1971 before 78,810 spectators in such perfect conditions that even Foyt, the irascible Texan, was moved to say: “The weather today was really beautiful . . . for California.”
Foyt won the first two races, and Benny Parsons, now a TV commentator, took the last two. In between, Bobby Allison won in 1974 and 1978, David Pearson in 1976, the late Neil Bonnett in 1977 and Baker in 1975. There was no race in 1973.
Dale Earnhardt, defending Winston Cup champion and a favorite here this week, has fond memories of Ontario. He drove there as a rookie in 1979 and clinched the first of his six championships there in 1980 with a fifth-place behind Parsons that enabled him to edge Cale Yarborough.
“Indy is basically the same track we drove at Ontario,” Earnhardt said Wednesday as the Speedway infield filled with NASCAR transporters. “I liked that race track and I think what I learned back then will help me Saturday. There will be a lot of drafting down the straightaways, the way we did at Ontario, and there will be some slingshot passing coming out of the corners.
“We’re going to see a lot of cars on the lead lap, like Ontario. That’s because it’s so far around these tracks that it takes more doing to lose a lap than it does at some of the high-banked places we drive.
“The biggest difference (with) Ontario won’t be the track, but the cars. They’re so much more sophisticated, the air around the car moves better and the tires are so much improved. I can’t wait to get out there (on the Indy track).”
Foyt, one of three drivers in the first Ontario race who will try to qualify for the Brickyard 400 today, believes that the changes made recently to the Indianapolis track may have made it more difficult than what he remembers at Ontario.
“One reason I got so excited about getting in the Brickyard is because I won those first two races at Ontario and I thought it would be nice to say I was in the first race at both tracks,” Foyt said. “I went out there (in 1971 and ’72) and set track records both times and sat on the pole and won both of the races.”
Foyt tested his new car, a Ford powered by an engine built by Rusty Wallace’s team, during a recent NASCAR test at Indianapolis. It was his first time in a race car since he retired from Indy car driving more than a year ago.
“My wife was awful dang mad at me when I told her I was going to drive in the Brickyard,” Foyt, 59, said. “She said I was too damned old to be out there trying to race with a bunch of 20-year-olds.”
Foyt doesn’t think the Ontario experience will carry much weight in Saturday’s 160-lap race.
“The Brickyard will be different,” he said. "(IMS President) Tony George tightened up the track when he put those corners on the warm-up lanes; that’ll keep the guys from cutting across like we used to do. Getting through that first turn now is like threading a needle.
“Ontario was probably a lot easier because it was wider. The first turn was tough both places, but at Ontario you could go just about flat out through (turns) two, three and four. You can’t do that at Indy. It’s going to be so tight, I expect there’ll be a lot of sheet metal flying around.”
The oldest driver trying to qualify is Hershel McGriff, 66, who drove not only in the first Ontario stock car race but also in NASCAR’s first superspeedway race, the 1950 Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C.
McGriff, the 1986 Winston West champion and one of several West Coast drivers entered in the Brickyard 400, drove in all eight Ontario races and also won two late model sportsman races on that track. In the Brickyard, he will drive a 1994 Ford bought from Glen Woods of the Wood Bros. team, and he thinks his Ontario background will prove helpful.
“The cars are a lot faster today than they were 15 years ago, but I’ve been racing all along, so that won’t bother me, and the track is pretty much the same,” McGriff said. “I’ve done some of my best racing on road courses, and that’s how I used to approach Ontario. I probably have more experience getting through flat corners than most of the guys.
“The important thing is making the field. That is going to be very difficult no matter who you are.”
A Winston Cup-record 85 entries will be pared to 44 for the race during one-lap time trials today and Friday.
James Hylton is the only other driver from the 1971 Ontario race entered here.
Nine drivers who competed in the 1980 Times 500--the final race held at Ontario--are among the Brickyard 400 entries: Terry Labonte, Lake Speed, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, Dave Marcis, Earnhardt, McGriff and Hylton.
Waltrip’s memory of Ontario is not good. In 1979, he entered the year’s final event with a two-point lead over Richard Petty in quest of his first Winston Cup championship. When Waltrip ran a poor eighth and Petty was fifth, the title went to King Richard as Parsons won the race.
“I vaguely remember Ontario,” Waltrip said. “It was similar in design, but there is something special about Indianapolis with all those big grandstands and the way the infield is all filled up.
“Ontario was very wide open, almost like driving on a California freeway. Indianapolis is more like driving down a country road. You’ve got trees, the golf course and people sitting in their condos with their feet hanging over the wall. It’s just a totally different atmosphere.”
Richard Petty, who won more stock car races than anyone, never won at Ontario although he drove in all eight races. He finished second in 1974 and third in 1971 and also clinched his seventh and last championship there in 1979. He retired at the end of last season.
The elder Petty took four ceremonial laps here last August, then donated his No. 43 STP Pontiac to the Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
“It’s been a while since we went to Ontario,” Petty said after his brief run. “I forgot how long those straightaways are, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m running awful fast,’ when I see that grandstand down in the corner coming right at me.
“I raced 35 years and I always sort of halfway dreamed of running at Indianapolis, but not in one of those convertibles, but in a car with a roof over my head. They waited until they heard I was retiring before they cut a deal with NASCAR to let us cats on the track.
“It’s a great thing for Winston Cup racing. It puts us into a different echelon. We’ve always been considered good ol’ boys from the South who run around in the woods, but things will change now that we’re here at Indy. We’ll get a whole lot more acceptance from ordinary folks, the ones who don’t necessarily follow racing real close.
“You look back long enough, though, and you’ll see that we’re not the first stock car cats here. In 1911, when the 500 started, they was all running stock cars on the bricks. What they did was take the bodies off those stock cars and call them Indy cars.”
One thing that will be radically different from Ontario will be the attendance. All of the more than 280,000 seats--Speedway officials refuse to give the precise number--were sold within hours of the announcement of the race on April 14, 1993, and close to 1 million ticket requests were processed, according to Bob Walters, IMS public relations director.
Pre-race crowd estimates range between 350,000 and 400,000, which is the figure usually associated with the Indy 500.
The purse will be different, too.
The posted purse for the 1971 Miller High Life 500 was a NASCAR-record $207,675, of which Foyt collected $51,800.
Saturday’s race will be another record, with more than $3.2 million on the line. The winner will receive nearly $500,000. The Winston Cup record is $2,756,845 posted for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 28, when Sterling Marlin got $253,275 for winning.