An Indiana Jones

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When it was first discussed, the idea of a NASCAR stock car race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was practically unthinkable.

For open wheel racing fans the Brickyard was sacred ground and traditionally only one race a year, the Indy 500 was run at the hallowed speedway. But Tony George, the track’s owner, was going to need cubic acres of cash to fund the great open wheel racing civil war, and in 1993 Goodyear conducted a Winston Cup tire test at Indy to study the feasibility of racing stock cars at the world’s most historic race track.

For all the history and prestige, honestly Indy isn’t a great place to race stock cars. The banking is too low, the turns too severe considering the speeds achieved on the long straights, and stock cars lack the massive downforce and maximum braking force that the much smaller open wheel cars generate.

The decision to green light the first Brickyard 400 probably had as much to do with the number of fans who showed up to watch a tire test as it did what occurred on the track during that test. Whether the Brickyard 400 was going to be a good race was questionable, but it became clear it would be well attended.

The first Brickyard 400 was run in 1994. In addition to drawing huge amounts of fans, the lucrative purse and the history of the speedway drew a massive amount of media attention for that first Brickyard. Not all those reporters were quite sure what they were there to cover while the regular NASCAR media was also in attendance. Most of the part- time media had probably never even heard of Rick Mast who won the pole for the ’94 Brickyard.

Some NASCAR regular was kind enough to ask the surprise pole winner if it was in fact true he traded a prize-winning cow for his first racecar. (That’s a true story by the way.) The story was widely reported with various levels of bemusement that added to the country carnival atmosphere of the event.

If the part time media needed a slam-dunk story, they certainly got it that year. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in his adopted home state of Indiana. (Gordon was actually born in California.) At that point Gordon winning any race was still considered a bit of an upset. He’d won his first Cup race only months before at Charlotte. And that had some elements of the media; particularly one Indy Star reporter who felt running stock cars at Indy was sacrilege, claiming the race was fixed. The story persists to this day.

Another big story that day was Geoff Bodine’s emotional interview after he claimed his brother Brett wrecked him on purpose. Brett would go on to finish 2nd in that race, arguably the high water mark of his career to date.

While the track was prepared for a huge crowd, apparently some local businesses underestimated how popular the Brickyard 400 was going to be. Later that evening a young man called to have a pizza delivered and was told it would take at least two hours to arrive. Exasperated the customer asked why, and he was told there was a very big race held in town that day, to which Jeff Gordon replied, “Would it speed things up any if I told you I’m the guy that won that race?”


The 1995 Brickyard 400 is probably best recalled as the race that nobody saw. Oh, the race was run all right, and the cars weren’t invisible, but due to a rain delay the network slated to cover the race decided to tape delay the event and show golf instead. And yes, I was among enraged fans that picked up the phone and blasted the network for that call.

I figured I’d be one of a handful of people who called the local affiliate and asked them to pass my irritation on to the mother ship. But that evening at 6 our local news began with a clearly shocked and somewhat frightened looking anchor apologizing to stock car racing fans and assuring them the decision to tape delay the race was made at the national level, not by the locals. That incident drew more enraged phone calls than any incident in the station’s history. Even the on air talent was pressed into service trying to answer the calls before the switchboard melted down.

What people didn’t see was Dale Earnhardt win that long-delayed race after a spirited battle with Bill Elliott for much of the event. That year Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were engaged in a heated battle for the championship and old Dale was never one not to try playing mind games with his opponents. He told a late night TV host he was the first “man” to win the Brickyard 400.

Earnhardt faced a very different challenge during the 1996 Brickyard 400. He’d broken a collarbone in a terrifying tumble at Talladega just prior to Indy and was still on the mend. He started the race, but turned the black 3 car over to Mike Skinner early. As tough as he was Dale was practically in tears as he told the media how difficult it was to get out of that car.

Kyle Petty suffered a savage crash on the 39th lap of the 1996 Brickyard. Adding insult to injury, as the paramedics prepared to lift the stretcher, one of them was standing on Kyle’s ponytail.

The race itself came down to a spirited duel between Robert Yates teammates Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan. Irvan muscled his way by DJ late in the race, but with six laps to go he overdrove a corner and allowed the 88 to slip back by him. Irvan’s chances at retaking the lead ended with a lap to go when Robert Pressley ran out of gas and was rear ended as his car slowed. The race finished under caution with Jarrett the winner.

Fuel mileage decided the outcome of the 1997 Brickyard 400. While his Tide Ford wasn’t as fast as some other cars on the track, Ricky Rudd was able to get 115 miles out of a tank of gas to win arguably the biggest race of his career. At that point Rudd was an owner-driver of a badly under funded team and the $571,000 check that came with the trophy was a windfall. Bobby Labonte also stretched his fuel mileage to finish second that day.

If Jeff Gordon was a surprise winner in the inaugural Brickyard 400, the same cannot be said of his 1998 win. By that point it was more of a surprise when Gordon didn’t win a race. As such some elements of the fans had become booing him loudly, but back home in Indiana Gordon was still a fan favorite.

Gordon got an unlikely assist in that event when Dale Jarrett, one of the few drivers that could hang with the 24, ran out of gas during the event. Those who saw the post-race interview may recall old DJ wasn’t too happy about that. Mark Martin kept Gordon honest in the waning stages of the race, but three cautions flew in the final ten laps, and the race ended under the yellow ruining Martin’s chances of taking the win. Jeff Gordon became the first two-time Brickyard 400 winner that day.

Jarrett was back at the 1999 Brickyard 400 determined to settle the score with the track. He won the race in dominating fashion and set himself up as the favorite to win that year’s championship. The 400 was to be the last of Jarrett’s four wins in his title season as soon thereafter the team appeared to go into the points racing mode.

Bobby Labonte and Rusty Wallace managed to wake the crowd with a stirring side by side battle in the waning laps of the 2000 Brickyard 400 which had been rather boring to that point. Labonte had been hounding Wallace lap after lap and finally managed to get a nose under the 2 car with 14 laps to go. The duo ran side by side almost a full lap and swapped paint coming down the front straight. Once Labonte got by Wallace he drove away easily to beat Rusty to the checkers by over four seconds.

Jeff Gordon turned thirty the day before last year’s Brickyard 400. His old age didn’t slow him down a bit that day. Gordon qualified 27th for the event and struggled early in the race, but as is the case so often the 24 team just kept on improving the car on each subsequent pit stop. Late in the race Gordon’s crew chief, Robbie Loomis, gambled on two tires on the final pit stop. Sterling Marlin’s team also gambled by not pitting at all during that sequence of yellow flag stops. On the restart Gordon gave Marlin a solid nudge and was able to dive underneath the 40 car entering the first corner. For those of you keeping score at home last year was the fourth consecutive time the Brickyard 400 winner went on to claim the Winston Cup championship. The only problem Gordon encountered that day was in his post race celebration. He tried to do a burnout and failed miserably pulling a stunt most of us perfected in high school.

The Brickyard track surface was modified since last year’s race. Something called ‘diamond grinding” has been done to the track surface both to smooth it out and to allow more grips in the corners. The consensus among the drivers is the new track surface will allow for higher speeds but even less side by side racing in an event that’s become more sizzle than steak to be frank. Whatever the case, it’s a sure bet 300,000 + fans will pack Indy to watch the race, which remains one of the crown jewels of the Winston Cup schedule. Why? As any real estate agent will tell you it’s all about location, location and location.

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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