Growing up in Indianapolis planted the seeds of being a racing fan very early in life. While I never attended races at Raceway Park’s oval until I had long moved away from the Circle City I attended all but three Indianapolis 500s and the first three Brickyard 400s. I also went to many a race at the Indianapolis Speedrome on the Southeast side of the city, not far from where my uncle lived. Now that I’m in the Charlotte area I don’t get to frequent the race tracks around Indy more than once a year but I spend as much time as I can when I’m in town for the Brickyard between Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Raceway Park. This year it is going to have extra meaning thanks to the circumstances surrounding the races at Raceway Park.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the ultimate destination for any young race fan in the area. From the first years of my life that I can remember I could not wait for the month of May to roll around so that I could go to the track and see what the cars looked like that year and try and get as many driver autographs as I could. In the 60s and 70s the entrance to Gasoline Alley was not secured like Fort Knox as it is today and parents didn’t worry about their kids being kidnapped whenever they were out of sight. My mom and dad would sit in the stands and watch practice while I stood in the opening in the stands where they rolled the cars from the garages to pit lane. The drivers would walk through that same opening and you had about a 50 yard opportunity to try and get your book in front of them to get their signature. Just as in NASCAR today, some walked faster than others and many were more willing to sign than others. Whether I ultimately got their autograph or not I will never forget the rush of just seeing my heroes walking within feet of me. They were larger than life then and they are still larger than life today.
The only autograph from my youth that I never was able to wrangle no matter how hard I tried was my idol A.J. Foyt. The greatest driver of all time was always surrounded by a throng and being a young kid I never had the chance to position myself directly in the way of Super Tex to get my book in position. I have autographs from every other driver that I’ve ever wanted to get but my all-time favorite has eluded me to this day. I truly hope that before he or I move on to the great speedway in the sky I’m able to meet him in person and have him sign something for me. As a side note I did get to slap his hand after he won his fourth 500 in 1977. I had a general admission ticket after marching around the track before the race and when he won I was one of the many people who jumped over the fence during his victory lap in the back of the pace car and got to hit his hand as they came through turn four. Without a doubt one of the absolutely biggest moments of my racing fan life.
I’ll also never forget going to the Brickyard the inaugural year in 1994. It started with practice the first time stock cars rolled out onto the track as part of an event, although they had done some testing before that. Dale Earnhardt wasn’t the first one on the track but he was the first one to complete a lap. That was important to him and I remember how mad he was that he didn’t lead the first lap of the race that year. The drivers were amazed that there were several thousand people in attendance for practice since it was something they had never seen before, however Indianapolis fans had been doing it for years with the 500. When the time came to qualify there were easily 150,000 people in attendance which, at that time, was the biggest crowd of the year for any event let alone qualifying for a race. That was unheard of for a Winston Cup race but it was standard operating procedure for a pole day at Indianapolis. It didn’t hurt that there were thousands of people who wanted tickets to the race and did not secure them through the lottery process.
Race day was simply unbelievable. The buzz was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced at the Speedway because it was a first. There weren’t a whole lot of people around that day who were in attendance for the first 500 in 1911 so almost everyone there knew they were witnessing something they’d never seen before. Aside from Jeff Gordon winning and Dale Earnhardt leading, the one thing I remember was A.J. Foyt trying to stay out on fuel to lead the race and failing by a lap. He wanted so badly to be the only driver to lead the 500 and the 400 at that time but Ted Musgrave led two laps and Foyt ran out of gas on the same lap that Musgrave came in to pit. By the time Foyt coasted around to the pits he was multiple laps down and never had the chance to lead again. Gordon won the race and the place went bananas because, although he was born in California, he was always considered an Indiana boy.
While the race had a huge amount of buzz around it, the racing was not much to write home about. In fact, the racing at Indianapolis never has been and it never will be. The configuration of the track doesn’t lend itself to exciting racing but the reason for going to Indy isn’t the racing, it is the history and mystique of running at the Brickyard. It is the most famous race track in the world and has 100 years of history behind it with some of the greatest names in all of auto racing among the names who have turned laps in anger on its surface. Putting your name in the record book next to the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell means quite a bit to every single driver who will try to qualify.
On top of getting to see the action at the big track at 16th and Georgetown fans will also get to see racing one last time at Raceway Park just six miles down the road from the Brickyard. The Truck series and the Nationwide series will be making one more appearance at the short track before the Nationwide race moves to the big track in 2012 and the Trucks simply go away. What is almost always the best racing on either series schedule all year will take place Friday and Saturday night and will certainly be emotional for drivers and fans since they all know it won’t be coming back. The folks at Kroger deserve special kudos for sponsoring the Nationwide race for all 30 years that it has taken place at Raceway Park. Saturday will bring to an end the longest running race sponsorship in NASCAR. It will be a night of mixed emotions but as usual will almost certainly provide great racing.
Heading home always holds a special place for people but it is extra special when you get to head back to a place that meant so much during your youth. I have no doubt that, once again, the hair will stand up on the back of my neck as I pass under the track between turns one and two and emerge right in front of the Hall of Fame Museum. The aura of the facility and the excitement it generates for me remains one of the highlights of the year every season.
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