Not just any track
Drivers reflect on experience racing world’s most famous speedway
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this week’s Brickyard 400, there are rumblings that ticket sales are off compared to recent years. But for the drivers who will be on the track, there’s no drop-off in interest about racing at the track that recently hosted the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
For Tony Stewart, who grew up in Columbus, Ind., just a short drive from the Speedway, there are few places on earth that mean more to him than the world’s most famous race track. In an interview several years ago, he talked about just how much the place means to him.
“The last time I did double duty [driving in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day] I was staying in my motor home in the infield,” Stewart said. “I got back from an event at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’m the only one walking around there.
“You’re standing there and you swear you can hear people and hear race cars going around there. To me, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just like a living, breathing organism.”
Stewart, who has raced in both Indy Car and NASCAR races at the Brickyard, has yet to win an Indy 500, but he has two Brickyard 400 victories, in 2005 and 2007.
Kevin Harvick, who won at the Brickyard in 2003, told reporters at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that while the Brickyard 400 may have lost some of its luster for fans in recent years, a change that many attribute to the tire debacle that turned the 2008 running into a series of short sprints, it’s still shining brightly to the participants.
“When you go to Indy, there can be nobody sitting in the grandstands, and it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” he said. “It’s still been there for 100 years and still is our second biggest race that we go to.
“So for us, it’s where you bring your latest and greatest car, your latest and greatest engine, and it’s just kind of like the Daytona 500.
“It’s all about trying to win the race, and putting it on the line to do that is what it’s all about. It’s a prestigious race to win, and nobody in the garage is going to go there with any intention other than to try to win the race when they unload their cars.”
Many old-time Indy fans think of drivers’ names like Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, Vukovich and Ward when they think of the Speedway. But there also are many fans, especially younger ones, who also think about drivers like Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson when they think about the great drivers who have competed there over the years.
Johnson, who has won three of the past five Brickyard 400s, is like many from his generation in that he knows much more about the recent Indy winners than he does those who competed before he was born.
“My view is shaped in the 30 or 40 years of watching, and there are certainly other names that go further back that mean a lot more,” he said. “I don’t think I remember watching [A.J.] Foyt win there, but I certainly remember him hammering on his car one time on pit road.
“I have to think from a dominant standpoint it would be Rick Mears. Watching Helio [Castroneves] win those three that he has won, I guess that would be the other one that comes in my mind first.”
But Johnson also appreciates the entirety of Indy’s history and has toured the popular museum in the track’s infield, where Indy-winning cars from Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp that won the first 500 to the present are on display, many of them just as they were when they were rolled out of the winner’s celebration.
“I wish I knew more of the history of the speedway and those cars,” he said. “The older I get, the more history becomes interesting to me. I should go back [to the museum]. I think I went through there my sophomore year in the sport and saw a lot of cool cars, but some of the guys I just didn’t know much about.”