FORT WAYNE – Tony Stewart was 23 years old that summer, and, like a lot of bone-deep Hoosiers, he had a message for NASCAR:
Johnny Reb, go home.
The first time they came, I’ll be honest, I was 100 percent against it, he said, thinking back to 1994 and the inaugural Brickyard 400. When you grow up in the state of Indiana, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the Holy Grail to you. To me, it was the Indy 500 and that’s all it was supposed to be.
And then here came NASCAR, and the thick August air was suddenly alive with the throat-clearing rumble of Detroit iron and the crystal shattering of precedent. There would be stock cars at Indianapolis, Hoosiers and their notions of propriety be hanged. Deal with it, y’all.
That went for Stewart, too, who, by the third Brickyard, was an out-and-out fan. By the sixth, he was racing in it; by the 11th, he was blinking away tears as he came to the checkers, having finally won the race that, for him, had become his own personal Holy Grail.
It was everything to me, Stewart says.
But before that?
There was ’94. There was Year One. There was the thrill ride of thrill rides.
This was history at a place where history had laid every stone, and everyone wanted in on it.
Eighty-five drivers showed up to vie for 43 starting spots that first August, and they were some bunch. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt was there, wearing a purple firesuit that made look vaguely like Barney the Dinosaur. Danny Sullivan, the ’85 Indy winner, was there, too. So were Indy veterans Gary Bettenhausen, Stan Fox and Geoff Brabham, and a few NASCAR relics, like 66-year-old Hershel McGriff, 56-year-old Charlie Glotzbach and 59-year-old James Hylton.
Also around, on the other end of the spectrum, were the late Dale Earnhardt and team owner Richard Childress.
Just the amount of people in the grandstands, Childress said last week, casting back through his memories. The enthusiasm, walking out on pit road, thinking about all the history of the people that had walked out there on the starting grid.
It was a huge thrill to think that we were even going there, said Dale Jarrett, who went on to win three Brickyards. To think that we were going to be able to take stock cars there and have the chance to race in such an historic place. Just racing there was going to be a big enough thrill for me.
Jarrett qualified 14th and finished 40th that first year, getting caught up in a crash on lap 99. Childress’ driver, Earnhardt, had better luck, briefly seizing the pole in qualifying before being knocked off by Rick Mast, a 37-year-old veteran from Rockbridge Baths, Va., who had never finished higher than 21st in the Cup points and had won just one pole in six previous seasons.
Mast stuck a 172.414 lap, stunning even himself.
Bang, this here’s Indy, he said. Honestly, I think it has taken about until now to really realize this is Indy.
He wasn’t alone. There were a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws around Gasoline Alley that weekend; the epically named Lake Speed, who finished 15th, told Jan Shaffer on the IMS blog this month that all he remembers is how utterly enormous the place was.
The first time I went down the front straightaway, you look like you’re going down a canyon, he recalled. You know, (the first turn) is there, but you can’t see it.
And so to race day, which started as a free-for-all among five or six drivers and wound up as a duel between Ernie Irvan and 23-year-old Jeff Gordon, who’d grown up in nearby Pittsboro.
He was putting up a heck of a fight, Gordon said this month. That year we didn’t know all the aerodynamics and things about trying to get these cars stuck in the corners. The cars really were loose in clean air, pretty good behind other cars.
So we swapped the lead back and forth many times just because of the way that my car would get too loose when I got in front of Ernie, and he could really get a run on me and draft and pass me down the straightaway. Then he would get out front, get loose and I would get a run off of him. It was really coming down to who was going to position themselves to make that slingshot or maintain the lead on that last lap.
And then it didn’t. With five laps to go, Irvan, who was leading, had a tire go down, and Gordon went on to the serendipitous win. Brett Bodine finished a fast-closing second after creating the day’s most compelling storyline when he booted his older brother, Geoff, into the wall on lap 99 – prompting Geoff to reveal that the brothers were in the midst of a simmering feud, and inspiring the media to label them the Battling Bodines.
Earnhardt finished fifth, but better days were to come.
Later that season, he would win his seventh and last Cup title. And the next year, it would be him in Victory Lane at Indianapolis.
I remember like it was yesterday, Childress said.
Even if it isn’t.
For the 20th time Sunday, they’ll take the green in the Brickyard 400. And what every bone-deep Hoosier thinks about that is, how can that be?
Kind of reminds me of that old song Bob Seger sings, 20 years, where does it go?’ Childress said. It doesn’t seem 20 years ago when Dale Earnhardt pulled up there to run our first test. To be able to see that car go around the racetrack in such a historical place with all the history there to have Dale go around there