Agajanians an Indy Steering Committee
The Agajanian family has been coming to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 50 years, most of the time with a car to race. Twice they had the winning car, in 1952 with Troy Ruttman and 1963 with Parnelli Jones.
Cary Agajanian was 6 when his father, the late J.C., left home in San Pedro to bring his first car to the Speedway.
“I can still see my dad kissing my mother and me goodbye and hopping into a panel truck with Johnny Mantz and Clay Smith with the race car in tow,” Cary said. “That’s how he got to Indy in those days.”
Mantz was Aggie’s first driver and Smith his first mechanic.
The cream-and-red colored No. 98 Grant Piston Ring Special, which Mantz qualified eighth and finished 13th with in 1948, took a couple of laps earlier this week before a cheering crowd when the Agajanian family was honored.
“My dad used to light up, it seemed, when May came around. That was the best time of his life every year. He just had such a good time, he had so many friends back here.
“When I come back, it makes me feel good not only because of the way our family is treated by the Hulman-George family, but to know I’m in a place my dad loved so much. It’s an emotional thing for us.”
With Cary are his brothers, Chris and J.C. Jr., all of whom are involved in motor racing.
Cary is actively involved in this year’s race as attorney for and advisor to defending Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart. Stewart is part of John Menard’s team only because of the insistence of Agajanian when the IRL was being formed three years ago.
“Cary Agajanian is absolutely the most important person in getting me an IRL ride,” Stewart said. “He talked John Menard into giving me a test, but it was like pulling a couple of teeth and tugging on his leg.”
Agajanian agrees that it wasn’t easy, even though Stewart had just completed an amazing feat of winning U.S. Auto Club championships in midget, sprint and Silver Crown cars in 1995, something no one else had done in the same year.
“Tony was visible after his USAC season, but the only offer he got was from Harry Ranier to drive stock cars,” Agajanian said. “When Ranier drew up a contract, Tony wanted me to look it over. I had known Tony when he drove in USAC events, and he knew I had handled contracts with other drivers.
“The terms were so out of line, I told him not to sign, but he said he had given Ranier his word. Before we could do anything, Tony went to Australia for a month to race. When he got back, I had renegotiated the contract and Tony signed it.”
Agajanian was heavily involved with the IRL at the time as its USAC representative.
“I told Tony he ought to run in the IRL as well as with Ranier. He had tested at Phoenix with A.J. Foyt and done very well, but Foyt didn’t show any interest in signing him. I had heard Menard wanted to run a third car to go with Eddie Cheever and Scott Brayton, so I called [team manager] Larry Curry and told him about Stewart.
“Menard sort of balked and said he wanted to run Jim Crawford. He said Stewart was ‘just a midget driver.’ I finally got him to test Tony a week before the IRL’s first race in Orlando and Curry convinced Menard that he ought to try him in the race.
“Menard had a car that Cheever and Brayton had refused to drive. They said it wouldn’t handle. That’s the one they gave Stewart.
“About halfway through the race, Curry got on the radio and told Cheever he was about to be lapped by the race leader. When the leader went by, Cheever radioed back, ‘Who was that guy?’ Curry replied, ‘That was your teammate.’
“What made it all the more significant is that after the race, Cheever and Brayton asked Tony how he had adjusted the car, changed the boost, things like that to make it handle better. Tony looked puzzled and said he hadn’t done a thing, he’d just driven it the way he got it.
“That’s what makes him such a talent. Only a real race driver can do that.”
Although all of the Agajanians have been around racing all their lives, none has ever driven a race car. There is a reason. Cary explained:
“When my dad was 17-18 years old, he bought a race car and put it in the garage. My grandfather [James T. Agajanian] came home and said, ‘What’s that?’
“My dad said, ‘It’s a race car. I’m going to be a race driver.’
“My grandfather said, ‘OK, you have three things you have to do then.’
“ ‘What’s that?’
“ ‘Well, you go inside, pack all your bags, kiss your mom goodbye, change your name, and you can go do anything you want. That’s the only three things you have to do.’ ”
That story was told, and retold, so many times by J.C. that by the time Cary, J.C. Jr. and Chris might have yearned to drive, they knew their fate.
“My dad didn’t have to be as forceful as his dad was, because we all knew he would kick us out of the house and make us change our name. He didn’t have to tell us, we just knew it.”
The Indy 500 may be the biggest race of the year, but the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the longest--600 miles around Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile track on Sunday night. Last year’s race, won by Jeff Gordon, didn’t end until 1 a.m. Monday morning.
Gordon will start on the pole for the fifth straight year, hoping to atone for the embarrassing moment last week when his No. 24 Chevy Monte Carlo ran out of fuel while he was leading the Winston, an all-star race. The Winston Cup crowd has not had a points race since the California 500 at Fontana, when Mark Martin won for the third time this season. In 26 starts at Charlotte, Martin has won the fall race twice, but never the Coca-Cola 600. He also was the recipient of a win in the Winston after the Gordon team’s gaffe.
MESA MARIN DOUBLEHEADER
West Coast stock car fans get a treat this weekend when Winston West and Featherlite Southwest Tour cars take turns on the high banks of Mesa Marin Raceway’s half-mile oval in Bakersfield. The tour cars race Saturday night, with M.K. Kanke of Granada Hills the favorite in a Mike Bonicelli-owned Pontiac. Kanke holds nearly a 100-point lead after four races and has won twice at Mesa Marin.
Winston West cars will run 200 laps Sunday night with $97,289 at stake. The race is wide open, with five different drivers having won the five series races so far this season. Kevin Harvick, a hometown favorite in Bakersfield, is the points leader, but by only 41 points over Sean Woodside of Saugus.
CART CHAMP CARS
After a trip to Brazil, the FedEx championship series returns to the United States for its annual weekend in the shadow of the IRL’s Indianapolis 500. The Motorola 300 is scheduled Saturday at Chris Pook’s Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., an across-the-river suburb of St. Louis.
Five races this year have produced five different winners--Michael Andretti, Adrian Fernandez, Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser and Greg Moore. Will there be a sixth? Paul Tracy is defending champion, but with a different team, and his former Penske teammate, Al Unser Jr., is thirsting for victory after going 39 races without a win.
Roger Penske, with neither his Winston Cup nor his CART cars running last weekend, headed for Italy, where he drove in the historic Mille Miglia rally. He drove a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing with Helmut Werner, former head of Mercedes-Benz, in the 1,000-kilometer event. They finished among the top third of more than 400 entries in the two-day rally.