Commentary

NASCAR still finding its niche at Indy

Updated: July 23, 2012, 12:17 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Dozier Mobley/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, is a four-time winner at Indy.

"Twenty years? Are you sure?"

Bobby Labonte said it only half-joking. He was one of the drivers who participated in NASCAR's first-ever test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a shakedown for Goodyear that had drivers racing out of the garage to "lead" the first lap and slowing on the backstretch to take photos with cameras they'd stowed under their seats.

And yes, it was 20 years ago, on June 22-23, 1992.

In the two decades since, the idea of driving a stock car around the rectangular speedway has become an accepted, routine part of racing life. But at the time of that test, and even during the first Brickyard 400 two years later, to dare to even speak of such an act was to commit motorsports malediction.

Since 1909, the place had been the exclusive home of open-wheel race cars (and one balloon race). To purists, the idea of "taxi cabs" sullying the workplace of Ray Harroun, Wilbur Shaw and A.J. Foyt was like break-dancing on holy ground. The Indianapolis 500 was the big leagues. NASCAR was viewed as the annoying baby brother trying to beg his way onto the playground.

"There were some people that were really sore about it," recalls Labonte, the 2000 Brickyard 400 champion and one of only four drivers to start all 18 Sprint Cup races at The Speedway. "I remember a lot of the older guys telling us how lucky we were to be able to go in there and race without being run off. What NASCAR people got run off?"

At least two. Two big ones.

Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave

In May 1954, Gasoline Alley was buzzing with preparations for the 38th running of the world's most famous race. Amid the scorching hot temperatures, in what must have looked like a mirage, a rather large man was doing a rather large amount of snooping around the Indy infield.

It was NASCAR's founder and chairman, Big Bill France. And he wasn't alone.

"I swear, we were just there visiting some friends who were in the race," says fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, laughing. "We weren't bothering nobody, neither. But it turns out the only couple of guys who had a problem with us being there just happened to be the guys who ran the place."

France and Johnson were told that their credentials had been pulled, and they were escorted off the premises. Johnson doesn't remember France being angry as much as he was inspired. As the two flew over Speedway, Ind., Big Bill looked down on the 2.5-mile racetrack below, resigned to the fact that his league would never race there, and said to Johnson, "We've got to build a track better and faster than that one."

He'd already drawn plans for such a speedway one year earlier. In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway opened for business.

The closest anyone ever received to an explanation for the ouster of France and Johnson came from chief steward Harry McQuinn of then-Indy 500 sanctioning body AAA. He reportedly explained the incident by saying, "We have a long-standing disagreement with NASCAR on what constitutes good racing."

It couldn't have been that long. NASCAR wasn't even 7 years old.

Red and Red

It was Dec. 14, 1947, in Daytona Beach's smoky Streamline Hotel that France presided over the meeting during which NASCAR was founded. Mechanic Red Vogt, leading a contingent of Georgia racers at the meeting, had suggested the title National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Vogt was the sport's most revered wrench turner, having built the cars that won the past two races on Daytona's fabled beach and road course. Over the next two years he would win the race twice more and also win NASCAR's first two championships. His driver was another Red, Robert "Red" Byron. The May before their new series was founded, Byron had attempted to make the Indy 500 but was one of the 19 entrants who missed the 30-car field.

"Red could drive anything," car owner Raymond Parks recalled shortly before his death in 2010. "He'd won a bunch of Midget car races and run a lot of AAA Big Car races. In 1948, me and Red Vogt took Red Byron up there and tried to make the Indianapolis 500."

Vogt built a flathead Ford, numbered 43 and listed as the Parks/Vogt-Ford V-8. Rex Mays won the pole and Mauri Rose won his third Indy 500. But Byron never got up to speed, one of a massive 48 entries that didn't make the cut.

"Red Vogt and I were disappointed," said Parks. "But Byron was just real, real upset. I think he knew that might be his last chance at Indianapolis."

He was right.

Crossover moves

As NASCAR strengthened its roots through the 1950s and '60s, it became commonplace for Indy 500 vets to "come down" and race stock cars when called upon. Mark Donohue, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones and Foyt all won in stock cars, typically running in very good equipment as one-off "hired guns." Andretti and Foyt each won the Daytona 500. Even Indy winners Al and Bobby Unser made a handful of Cup starts.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clark
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesTwo-time Formula One champ Jimmy Clark won the 1965 Indianapolis 500, thanks in part to NASCAR's Wood brothers.

But the reverse jump, from NASCAR to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, proved to be much more difficult. Most were like the Parks/Vogt effort -- underfunded, underpowered and off the pace.

In 1963, Johnson made the first attempt at the Indy-Charlotte Memorial Day double. Back then, the races weren't run on the same day. He failed to qualify at Indianapolis, then dominated the World 600 at Charlotte but lost to Fred Lorenzen because of a flat tire four laps from the finish.

Recalls Johnson: "That whole deal kind of broke your heart from beginning to end."

Over the next decade, a handful of legendary stock car racers, all of whom drove for Johnson at some point, took their cracks at Indy. Lee Roy Yarbrough ran the race in 1967, '69 and '70, retiring early after either an accident or parts failures. Bobby Allison made two starts with McLaren in '73 and '75, both ending with mechanical trouble. Little brother Donnie was the best of the NASCAR bunch, finishing fourth in 1970 to win rookie of the year and sixth one year later, both years driving for Foyt.

"Donnie was so good there, but that deal ended because he committed one of the cardinal sins of racing," Bobby explains. "He whipped his boss. A.J. didn't want him around anymore because how could this boy from Alabama show up in 1970 and beat A.J. in A.J.'s stuff? The next year, A.J. made sure Donnie's car wasn't as good as his, and they never did that deal again."

Cale Yarborough also was in that '71 race, finishing 16th in the third of his four career Indy 500 starts. His final ride came the following year, when he finished 10th, also in a Foyt car (A.J. finished 25th with a broken turbocharger).

"I'm 73 years old now and I remember that first time I raced Indy [1966] like it happened this morning," says the NASCAR Hall of Famer. "As a kid in South Carolina I used to race in the Soap Box Derby. That day at Indianapolis, when they let the balloons go, I remember sitting in that race car with no roof, looking up into the sky, and it gave me chills. I felt like I was back on that hill in Darlington."

'I think we blew their minds'

The year before Yarborough made his debut, two-time NASCAR race winner Bobby Johns was in the field of 33, finishing seventh in a Lotus Ford. But it was another Lotus that stole the show, the ride of soon-to-be two-time Formula One world champion Jimmy Clark. And it was a group of Johns' NASCAR pals that put the Scotsman into Victory Lane.

"Ford was still kind of new to Indy, so they called us for some help with their pit stops," recalls Leonard Wood, he of the famed Wood Brothers Racing team and newly elected NASCAR Hall of Famer. He told the story in May of this year, and as he talked, the 2012 Indy 500 rolled along on TVs all around him in the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center. "We went up a week early and practiced. Clark was great, and we had some friends up there, but we did get some funny looks. You know, who are these Virginia hillbillies talking so funny and all that."

They realized the tire bolts were too tight, so they loosened them up. They also rearranged the fueling hoses to prevent them from being so cumbersome. As usual, the Woods sorted out their assignments based on their groundbreaking dedication to pit stop practice. Leonard fueled the right-side tank.

"I guess you could say we hit a home run our first time at bat."

The Woods pitted Clark's car twice and executed the stops so quickly that the radio broadcast and track PA announcers assumed there had been a problem, that the new -- ahem -- NASCAR crew hadn't been able to get all the fuel into the car.

"We did two stops for a total of less than 50 seconds," Wood adds with a wink. "I think we blew their minds a little bit."

'Back Home Again In Indiana'

Nearly three decades later, Leonard Wood returned to pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time he was there to keep an eye on his own car. The famous No. 21 Ford was being driven by Morgan Shepherd in the first Brickyard 400 (he finished 10th).

Wood said he remembers talking with big brother Glen that weekend about how crazy it was that they were finally getting to race stock cars at Indy. They had always assumed, along with everyone in racing, that this day would never come. But now it was here, and it felt just as special as they'd hoped.

"Then it was the craziest thing," Wood remembers about that day in '94. "We got set up in the pits and all of the sudden I realized that, just by chance, we were on the same spot on pit road that we were in 1965 with Jimmy Clark. After all those years and all that waiting, it felt downright comfortable."

Ryan McGee | email

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