A Racetrack Like No Other, Part II

Dec 2, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series of articles marking the Centennial Era of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This installment looks at the emotion, prestige and accomplishment that come from competing at, or even simply visiting, what may very well be the world’s most famous racetrack.

Part I | Part III

For the past 100 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has represented the pride of motorsports and fostered what has become a must-see destination for those seeking just a whiff of its history.

The facility at 16th Street and Georgetown is more than a simple oval racecourse it’s a hallowed place fitting its reputation as the most important motorsports facility in the world. It is 1,025 acres of heritage, history, beauty and competition, marked by a range of emotion, earmarked in the souls of those who have heard the sounds of its history whisk around the 2.5 mile racecourse.

As Dave Argabright, noted racing author, says, “In a literal sense, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an inanimate object, a collection of buildings and trees and roads, all placed carefully around two fully functional race courses. But the magic of IMS lies not in what it is, but rather what has taken place here.”

How right he is, as the Speedway is a place that changes lives.

A Place of Dreams

Ask any racecar driver what their goal is and winning the Indy 500 is at the top of their dream list. Just to participate in the 500 brings on a gasp of breath.

Think of climbing into the cockpit of a screaming IndyCar with your eye level looking over the front tires and cranking out 100 yards a second, and then turning left 800 times with 32 other racers in the Indy 500. This place turns ordinary men and women into legends, heroes and household names.

Whether your name is A.J. Foyt Jr. with 35 consecutive career starts and four wins between 1958-1992, or the 500’s youngest winner (1952) Troy Ruttman at 22 years, 80 days old, or Pancho Carter who hailed from Huntington Beach, Calif., as a second-generation driver winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1974 and cranking out a new track record of 212.583 mph in 1985 while posting 17 Indy 500 starts, you’re in a league like no other.

The likes of Foyt and Carter live on as Foyt continues to work the ownership role with his number 14 and Carter currently acts as the spotter for former Indy winner Dan Weldon.

Performance is key, but the driver is the spark. This is likely more evident in the casting of the Indy 500 than any other race or racetrack in our land.

The driver mold is shaped, remade, molded by the likes of other drivers and behind-the-pit-wall mechanics, car owners, the media and spectators; with the sponsors and the interaction of the officials. This is a place of touching the spirit of drivers, their machines, and the scope of tens of millions of spectators for the rest of their lives.

But it is the drivers who are gauged by their performance. In asking racers what this place means, the emotion wells in their eyes and some demonstrate a quiver in their voice.

What other experience is there in motorsports where grown men share such emotion as an Al Unser Jr. or a Helio Castroneves? Where does the demonstrative risk parallel the reward in such a race? History for 100 years, a place where racers blend with the approximately 350,000 spectators who scramble to watch each May, and in their own way, participate.

More Memories

Now the likes of NASCAR giants Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, to name just two, have added their names to IMS lore by winning the Brickyard 400. Stewart also tasted speed with a one-lap record of 233.179 mph and a pole record of 233.100 mph for one of the most consistent IndyCar qualifying records ever posted back in his open-wheel days.

I have experienced the action up-front and personal as a team member for Davey Hamilton and IRL Rookie of the Year (2000) Airton Dare. No time in my 40-plus years of racing have I wrestled with goose-bumps like I did while working a pit assignment with Dare. Just think, fuel and tires in 9 seconds and running from 23rd starting position to third with my heart pounding 140-plus beats a minute, only to lose the engine on lap 123.

That was Dare in the John Lopes (current Andretti-Green VP-general manager)-prepared 2000 TeamXtreme entry. What pride I had when Airton moved on to the A.J. Foyt team the following year.

But perhaps the most unique example of an historic driver is Foyt himself. Showing up at the Speedway at age 23 in 1958, he was determined to make a name for himself. He has done so with vigor over the past 50 years, having participated in every Indy 500 as either a driver or car owner, winning in each capacity.

The Foyt name is recognized as a household name in racing circles around the world. Yet A.J. insists that it is the Speedway that made him and not the other way around. He will further attest that a driving force behind him was his father, Tony, who acted as crew chief and car owner on a number of A.J.’s teams.

What a triumph to be fostered by your dad, and now A.J. has his son Larry adding to the family legacy along with grandson, A.J. Foyt IV.

As A.J. recently said in a Living Legends interview, “I think what makes Indy such a special place is tradition. You cannot beat tradition. You can ask anybody anywhere in the world, ‘Have you heard of the Indianapolis 500?’ They’ll tell you yes. There are other races, but there is only one Indianapolis 500.”

Even Foyt labors to find the words to describe the emotion of race day. He insists it is only fully understood by someone who experiences it for himself. Is it the Brickyard, its history, the sea of color from the spectators packing the house? Is it the roar, the festival, the Back Home Again in Indiana emotion people from around the globe feel in their veins?

The history is as deep as any ocean, and a remembrance like no other. At age 12, I first settled in to watch Foyt as a rookie and Jimmy Bryan take the yellow No. 1 to victory lane. Fifty-one years later, I still feel the same euphoric feelings from the IMS media center high above the track tickling my heart. The same A.J. cruises the pits along with the new blood, taking on the challenges of etching their names onto the list of Indy 500 starters.

Family Feeling

Perhaps it’s really a family thing. Take the Unser family and their deep tradition.

No family has recorded an Indianapolis 500 history like the Unser family, with nine wins among Bobby, Al and Al Jr. “It’s a feeling that you just can’t believe what winning this race is,” says Al, a four-time winner. “It’s an accomplishment, whether it’s your first time or your fourth time.”

Mario Andretti has felt the emotion and suffered through a great deal of misfortune at the 500 over the years. Yet, when you mention the Indianapolis 500, the 1969 winner beams. It is obvious this race, and this place, has a special place in his heart.

“God’s eyes are on you at Indy,” Andretti believes, “you know, it can make a driver’s career, and it can break a driver’s career all in one day. It can make you a hero or it can make you a zero. It’s that powerful. The 500 is just that powerful.”

Those who recall the race when it was just on the radio, or the big-screen live presentations at theaters across America in the 1960s, the live ABC broadcasts and the dream to just be there in person all measure tradition.

As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grew in stature so have its events, recently expanded to include the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard NASCAR race and Red Bull Indianapolis MotoGP.

But 100 years of history, drama and engineering, coupled with the business aspects of making such an event happen, is almost overwhelming. The personalities, folklore and tradition continue to enrich the world of motorsports like no other property on the planet.

After all, it’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Many thanks go to the unsung heroes, the Hulman-George family and the people who keep it going the fans.

This second part of a three-part series is a tribute to the many who have raced to win, lost their lives in glory, and the teams of accomplished people who make up the wisdom and talent for drivers to excel and share the grounds called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Visit often, the IMS doors are open throughout the year.

Read Part I | Part III