By Rick Minter
This weekend’s Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard marks the 20th running of a race many thought would never happen. For years, the only race run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the world-renowned Indianapolis 500. NASCAR was considered by many Indy fans to be a lesser form of racing, not worthy of competing on the hallowed oval that had been the focus of motorsports since the turn of the 20th century.
Legend has it that NASCAR’s founder, the late Bill France Sr., was denied credentials to the 500 in 1965 and had to buy a grandstand ticket to watch as one of his NASCAR teams, the Wood Brothers, led Jimmy Clark to victory in the race.
But that all changed in 1994. The Sprint Cup Series ran the Brickyard 400 before crowds that rivaled the throngs that had been showing up for the 500.
Rick Mast won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400, and Jeff Gordon, who had lived for a time in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., won the race.
Simply racing on the historic track meant it was a great race for anyone involved that day.
“Everybody relates racing to either Daytona or Indy,” said Bill Elliott, who finished third in the first Brickyard 400 and won it in 2002. “Having NASCAR and Cup being able to go there was very important.
“To pull off a win there, along with Daytona — don’t get me wrong, all of them were big wins — but that was definitely a great place to win a race. And I’ve always enjoyed racing there over the years that I did race there.”
In the beginning, many old-school open-wheel fans resented the presence of NASCAR racers at the Brickyard. Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart, who grew up following events at the Brickyard and initially raced in the Indy Racing League and was a series champion before moving to NASCAR, was among them.
“The first time they came, I’ll be honest, I was 100 percent against it,” Stewart 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.
“But after watching the first race, the second year, I was kind of on the fence, and by the third year I was a fan of it. Luckily, my career path allowed me to come race here every year.”
Stewart, who has raced in the Indianapolis 500 five times and run there in the Cup Series 14 times with wins in 2005 and 2007, now has no problem with other circuits invading his home track.
“Now with Formula One coming in, Moto GP, the Grand-Am Series, Nationwide cars running here, I think the mindset has changed that it’s too historic of a speedway to run one race a year on it,” he said. “To be able to bring so many great different series and divisions here, it’s pretty neat that a lot of people get the honor to race here at Indy now.”
Stewart, who started from the pole in his first Indy 500 in 1996 and had a best finish of fifth the next year, makes no secret of his love for the Speedway or his desire to win there.
“This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule,” he said. “Emotionally, I have a lot invested in it.
“To us, it’s definitely not just another stop on the schedule. You don’t just pull in and say, ‘We’re going to go in and try to win the race,’ then pull out of here.
“When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”
And for Stewart, kissing the bricks in the traditional Indy winner’s ceremony is about as good as it gets.
“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.”