Stage a NASCAR race at the home of the Indianapolis 500?
May as well make Indy 500 winners swig orange juice in Victory Lane or have the track install lights for a night race. Heck, make it the Indianapolis 350. None of it could have been worse than big, bad NASCAR storming into their city — an open wheel city.
“I think Indy cars belong at Indy and stock cars belong at Daytona,” 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal said more than 20 years ago.
“I think it’s a big mistake because Indy has all that tradition and romance and I don’t believe it should be tampered with,” said Johnny Rutherford, also a former Indianapolis 500 champion.
Romance? What is this, a love story?
Well, sort of.
It’s time to pucker up and kiss the bricks once again when NASCAR runs its 20th Cup race today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are as much a slice of Indy racing history as A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears.
There’s a generation of drivers coming up who dreamed of racing at Indianapolis for 400 miles, not 500.
The Brickyard may not be the marquee race to win on NASCAR’s schedule. Rahal was on to something, the Daytona 500 is still No. 1.
But Indy is a close runner-up.
“You have the Daytona 500 and then the Brickyard 400,” Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, said. “Some people may rank it different than that, but that’s how I look at it. There was a time, maybe back in 1994, where I would have ranked this No. 1.”
Then the next big thing in NASCAR, a 23-year-old Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994. An estimated crowd of 250,000 fans absolutely jammed the place and Gordon recalled the die-hards lined up 10 deep around the garage just to get a peek at the drivers that would soon usher NASCAR into a boom period.
NASCAR hadn’t just raced at Indy — it took it over.
Dale Earnhardt won in 1995 and then Dale Jarrett started a celebration with his 1996 win that lasts to this day, and even carried over to Indy. Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott knelt down and planted a big ol’ kiss on the bricks, the start-finish line for the race.
Who needs milk?
Tony Stewart, a former open wheel champion, never got to fulfill his boyhood dream of winning an Indianapolis 500. But the Indiana native has twice won the Brickyard, putting an emphatic end to his skepticism that a winning a NASCAR race in Indy would never mean as much had it happened in open wheel.
“The first time they came, I’ll be honest, I was 100 percent against it,” he said. “When you grow up in the state of Indiana, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the Holy Grail to you. I didn’t want to see anything different come to it. To me, it was the Indy 500 and that’s all it was supposed to be.”
That feeling didn’t last for long. Stewart won in 2005 and 2007 and was won over that NASCAR could truly call Indianapolis home.
“It was everything to me,” he said. “My whole life, since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. Not that I had some fascination with kissing bricks as a child. But my fascination to do it here was pretty obsessive.”
NASCAR first kicked the tires of running in Indianapolis in the early 1990s. By 1992, the stock car series was ready to take a dip in the Indy pool with two days of tire testing.
An estimated 30,000 fans at the Speedway chanted “We want a race,” as the cars roared from the pit past a hand-lettered sign, “Indy fans love NASCAR.”
In 1993, former IMS president Tony George extended the official invitation for NASCAR to come aboard.
On Aug. 4, 1994, NASCAR hit the track for its first practice on the 2½-mile track.
Cup veteran Ken Schrader was the first driver to complete a lap. Greg Sacks was the first to bring out a yellow flag as his engine burst just minutes into the opening session.
Tim Steele became the first to crunch his car against the speedway’s concrete walls in an official practice. Steele slid off turn three and slammed into the barrier.
Gordon was the fastest driver in the opening practice.
So it began — and there was no turning back. Gordon, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte have raced in all 20 Brickyards.
IMS later added Formula One, Grand-Am, and motorcycles to the racing schedule. With IMS set for a $100 million makeover, there’s even talk of adding lights.
NASCAR at IMS got off track, though, after the Goodyear tire debacle in the 2008 Cup race that soured fans on attending.
Tickets once hotter than the Memorial Day sun are available at bargain prices, and today’s race is far from sold out. Crowds and interest have waned as the novelty of stock car racing faded, a problem at most tracks on the circuit. There were empty sections all down the frontstretch for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.
IMS president Doug Boles said the track would have around 100,000 fans today.
“It’s still six figures, it’s still a great, big event,” he said. “Daytona’s tearing down their down grandstands and they’re coming up out of the ground with 101,000 seats. Because the Indianapolis 500 has a significant crowd, we don’t have the ability to eliminate seats.”
The Cup was overshadowed this week by the Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway that marked NASCAR’s return to dirt after a four-decade absence. Drivers were still buzzing this weekend about Eldora even with the 20th Indy race on the horizon.
Because the track oozes racing history, winning still means the same to drivers, even if the checkered flag is grabbed in front of 100,000 fans instead of 250,000.
“It’s a pretty big deal and there is a good amount of envy to the guys that have won this race before, more so than I feel at other race tracks that I haven’t won at,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I would say it’s a pretty important race, it ranks right up there.”
Johnson and Gordon have each won four times at Indianapolis. Foyt, Mears and Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s. It's possible they could join Michael Schumacher as a five-time winner at the track. Schumacher won his five F1 races on Indy’s road course configuration.
“Fifth would be incredible. I can’t believe I have four of them right now,” Johnson said.
He could stand alone from the open-wheel greats all because NASCAR and IMS bucked tradition 20 years ago.