The Frontstretch: Indianapolis: Back Home Again... by Mark Howell -- Thursday July 28, 2011

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Indianapolis: Back Home Again...

Mark Howell · Thursday July 28, 2011

 

As NASCAR pays yet another visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week, we see an organization poised on the brink of what might be regarded by history as a watershed season. It’s been a very long time since race teams, race fans and the media (both racing and “mainstream”) have been so seemingly energized by the events of any given year. Thus far in 2011, we’ve seen new rules, new winners, new technological advances and new events. The year (so far) has also given us departing sponsors, shuffled team rosters, and frustrated fans – especially after the traffic debacle at Kentucky a few weeks ago. As the smoke surrounding this year’s lineup for this year’s Chase begins to clear a bit, it’s becoming even more obvious that running well into the month of August is wildly important, especially for those teams seeking to grab a wild card spot for the post-season. Those wildly important runs take center stage at IMS this week in the Brickyard 400.

As a Northeasterner who moved to the Midwest better than twenty years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway went from fantasy to reality. After reading about and hearing about the races there, and after years of watching events there via both tape-delayed and live coverage, the hallowed grounds of IMS suddenly became a tangible aspect of my life’s motorsports experience. And not only could I attend races at the famous oval, but I could marvel at the thought that my steps covered the same ground as that trod by so many legends – larger-than-life figures such as Harroun, Oldfield, DePalma, Milton, Rickenbacker, Lockhart, Shaw, Vukovich and Ruttman, but also more recent champions as Sneva, Johncock, Unser, Andretti, Mears and Foyt.

When NASCAR made the move to IMS in 1994, the famed facility hosted another cadre of greats, many of whom are on the entry list for this weekend’s running of the Brickyard 400. With next year’s “triple-header” schedule of Cup, Nationwide, and GRAND-AM races, even more history will be made as the Speedway hosts what could be considered a more “traditional” weekend of racing action, with supporting events added to the Sprint Cup mix at IMS. The change knocks Clermont from the NNS schedule, but NASCAR (and IMS?) officials hope that the change in location will result in more fans, more sponsors and more of the needed dollars each group might bring to the party. Such is the nature of racing – even more so in a troubled global economy, where every dollar must be fought for and earned.

Since moving to the Midwest in early-July of 1990, I’ve been able to make several trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A friend of mine from graduate school was an IMS regular; to this day, he’s attended the Indy 500 over forty consecutive times. My trips pale in comparison to his, but I can say that three visits to IMS are forever part of memory bank: the 1996 running of the Indianapolis 500, the 2000 running of the Brickyard 400, and the inaugural running of the United States Grand Prix in 2000. These events do not stand out because of their historic significance (okay…. maybe two of them do), but more so because of the impressions they left on me over the many months and years that followed, after the engines fell silent and the grandstands emptied.

Indianapolis may not be best suited for stock cars, but the track is still a prestigious one for NASCAR competitors.

The 1996 Indianapolis 500 was significant because it was the first 500 following the infamous IRL/CART split. Buddy Lazier won at Indy that afternoon, but not after some raucous behavior from the fans present. As the CART event, the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, got underway (at about the same time as the Indy race, mind you), there was a ten-car wreck that knocked many favored (as in recognizable) teams out of the race. Even though the Indianapolis 500 was only a handful of laps old, fans all around the track roared in vindication, as if the crowd was sending a collective “I told you so!” in the direction of the Irish Hills. The Indy 500 won the battle that day as CART teams at MIS scrambled to pull backup cars out of haulers so as to make some semblance of a rival race. My memory of that afternoon at IMS, as I stood near the opening of pit road, was just as much about tested loyalties and raw emotions as it was about the race unfolding before me. It marked the beginning of a contentious era in open-wheel racing that played directly into NASCAR’s favor.

My trip to the Brickyard 400 in 2000 was more about affiliations in NASCAR being at IMS than about anything else. My buddy and I arrived at his brother’s house in Richmond, Indiana on the night before the race. My friend’s brother was, back in those days, a yellow shirt at IMS. We had no sooner arrived and unloaded our gear when our host – who had just returned from the track – told us that the Indianapolis record for stock cars had been broken that day. It turned out that Brett Bodine (currently the cost-containment specialist and pace car driver for NASCAR) had turned a second-day qualifying lap of 181.072 – good for a 26th-place spot on the starting grid. Had he made that lap on opening day, he would have earned the pole. This may not seem like much to most people, but if you were from Northeastern Pennsylvania or Upstate New York, it was nothing short of huge.

The starting lineup was huge for me, personally, because Brett Bodine had written the foreword for my 1997 book: a cultural history of NASCAR. I had known Brett casually since I was a teenager, when I helped out with a Modified car he drove out of a race shop near my home. Having grown up watching Geoffrey, Brett and Todd each climb the NASCAR ladder, it was exciting to see that the three Bodine brothers had qualified 25th, 26th and 27th for the Brickyard 400 in 2000. Todd, Brett and Geoffrey (respectively) would start together in an event that, during its inaugural running back in 1994, led to aggressive driving, harsh words, and eventually a spot on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” A family dispute between the two older siblings boiled over onto the track during the race that year, resulting in Geoffrey being knocked out of the event, and Brett soldiering on to finish second behind Jeff Gordon. The long-simmering disagreement went public at IMS (and on network television, to boot), but the events of that day led, over time and tears, to resolution – hence the appearance on Oprah’s show, and hence the photograph published on race day of Geoffrey hugging brother Brett after he climbed from his No. 11 Ford as the fastest stock car driver in IMS history. The celebration would be short-lived, however, since Brett would finish a disappointing 39th in the following day’s race, which was won by Bobby Labonte.

Brett’s record stood until 2004, when Casey Mears turned a lap of 186.293 to set the current mark. By the time NASCAR made its return trip to Indianapolis the following season, in 2001, the sport was in a state of upheaval. Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona brought newfound attention to an already popular sport, and not in a good way. I found myself working closely with the three Bodines (including three seasons as a part-time crew member helping with pit support on Brett’s team) on a book about their family’s history and legacy in motorsports, a book which (very sadly) never made it to completion. One focal point that kept appearing during the course of my research was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its important role not only in the evolution of NASCAR, but within the evolving dynamics of the Bodine family.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway evolved during those days, as well. Later in 2000, my buddy and I returned to IMS for the inaugural running of the United States Grand Prix. I had never seen a Formula One race, so watching one at one of the most famous venues in the world seemed somehow appropriate. Again, I found myself standing along pit road, and again I found myself in awe of all that appeared before me. To watch an F1 car in action is nothing short of amazing, and the F1 car to watch that year at IMS was the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. The power and stability of a well-driven F1 car reflects automobile racing at its most sophisticated point, much in the same way that a well-driven Sprint Cup car can be – in its own brutish and physical way – equally a thing of beauty. Schumacher had been battling with Scottish driver David Coulthard (who wound up the third-place finisher in Formula One points that year) and Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen off-and-on all that year, so all eyes were on IMS as the Formula One circuit made its return to America’s shores.

My experience with Formula One had been limited to late-Sunday night television coverage by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so having a chance to watch an event in person seemed too-good-to-be-true, especially since the track was only a little more than 400 miles away. What struck me most about the enormity of the inaugural United States Grand Prix was the incredible crowd; not only was race attendance massive (estimated at 225,000 spectators), but it was international in scope. Entire sections of the grandstands along pit road were occupied by what seemed to be entire villages or towns from various nations. One section near the center of these grandstands was filled from top-to-bottom with fans from Finland (Finnish fans near the finish line!), most with their faces painted in the pattern of their national flag. Many waved large Finnish flags, especially when Hakkinen raced by in pursuit of the dominant Schumacher. One thing I learned about F1 that day was that Formula One fans are as organized as NASCAR fans are loud. Both camps have loyalty covered; of that, there’s no problem….

The inaugural running of the United States Grand Prix was won by (guess who?) Michael Schumacher – the tedium of the event caused him to do his own version of a “spin-and-win” at Indy. After the race, as I was packing to leave, I watched as a group of German fans, all decked out in Ferrari colors, gathered near a payphone under the pit road stands. One of the fans placed a call, spoke briefly with the recipient on the answering end, and then held the receiver high in the air. The assembly of about a dozen obviously-Schumacher loyalists proceeded to break into a loud drinking song; their German lyrics punctuated with an occasional “Michael” and “Ferrari”. When they finished – with a gleeful cheer – the fan-in-charge hung up the telephone, and the group stepped up to a nearby Foster’s stand to continue their celebration. Here is another memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a hallowed place where all kinds of memories have been made, from the glories of seemingly-impossible triumphs, to the horrors of violent and heart-wrenching tragedies. My memories of time spent at IMS have all been positive, and of that I’m happy; I’ve been able to avoid the tire issues of recent years, and I’ve been able to step away from the Speedway with images of full grandstands in my mind. The inaugural United States Grand Prix in 2000 was so successful, for example, that IMS won that year’s Formula One Constructors Association Award. Unfortunately, such success was fleeting. Again…. such is the nature of automobile racing.

Two of my most cherished possessions are two aged bricks that were given to me by my father-in-law. He was working on a project for a client, and he thought the use of older, worn-looking bricks would make for a nice look. Someone told him that you could find older bricks at a place in Indiana, not far from the Speedway, so he made the trek there to see what he might find. What he found were bricks that had been used to pave the Speedway back when it switched over from a dirt surface, back around 1909 or so. He brought me two bricks, thinking that I might like to “own” a little racing history. I sit and look at those bricks all these years later, thinking about the names and the cars that roared over them so many decades ago, and the memories come rushing back. One thing about racing: just when you think a memory has been made, another event is run, and an entirely new batch of memories is created.

That’s what we can expect from IMS this weekend. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson will look to add to the memories they’ve already created there, while a whole new bunch of new names will try and make new memories of their own. Competition in the Brickyard 400 is always fierce, and even more so this year as teams address the pressures of making it into the Chase come the middle of September. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is poised to be a major player in this final outcome, and that’s just the way it should be.

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