Hoosiers Hysterical About Indy

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an immense facility, sitting on 559 acres of land in central Indiana.

But to hear some drivers, especially those native Hoosiers, the place is larger than life.

John Andretti grew up there, watched his Uncle Mario race there, and then got a chance to drive there himself. Jeff Gordon moved near there when he was little, dreamed of racing there, and then won there three times.

Tony Stewart grew up in the Indiana dirt, followed the open-wheel path to there, and then has raced there so much lately that some said he race there too much. Ryan Newman grew up a few hours away, went to college in Indiana, and then race there before he was a rookie.

They’ll all be back for this weekend’s Brickyard 400, racing against 39 other Winston Cup drivers. Every driver wants to win at Indy, but you can believe the Indiana guys want it a little more.

Perhaps no one wants it more than Andretti, whose last name has become as synonymous with Indy as Foyt, Mears and Unser. Andretti has raced in seven Indianapolis 500s, 22 less than Uncle Mario, five less than cousin Michael and four more than cousin Jeff.

You think Indy is important to Andretti? If you only knew.

“My whole life has been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or at least ever since I can remember,” said Andretti, a guy not usually one to use hyperbole. “Growing up, my whole family has focused on this race track. I went to all the races, watching my Uncle Mario race. I snuck in the garage and, even after they threw me out, snuck back in again. This track has played a significant role in my life.

“That, and my later experience, gave me the basis for two racing beliefs. Winning is wonderful, but it has to be the best at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Losing stinks, but it is the most miserable at that place.”

Andretti has never won there. In fact, between the four Andretti’s who have raced at the Brickyard, only Mario has won. And he only did it once.

Maybe it’s like the girl who flirts with you but will never go out with you. Maybe it’s like the apple Eve should have avoided. Whatever it is, Indy’s importance won’t diminish.

“How important this race is changes with each driver in the garage area,” Andretti said. “To me, Indianapolis is very important. I might take it more personally than other drivers in the garage. I have been focused on this track ever since I was a kid. It was always the Indy 500. Now I race the Brickyard 400, too, and the focus this weekend is that.

“Fans might have a tough time trying to understand the significance of the track. It’s the fact this is The Brickyard that makes this place so special, the mystique that it carries. You will never be able to match the aura that surrounds this place, and there will never be a track like this again. This is simply stated: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the world’s most famous speedway.”

Andretti created a minor controversy earlier this year when he went to car owner Kyle Petty and stated his desire to race both the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Winston Cup race on the same day.

Petty said no, but Andretti kept his desire public. There were whispers that it caused a lot of friction behind the scenes, perhaps to the point that Andretti won’t be back in the No. 43 next season.

That’s how strong the pull of Indianapolis is.

“To race at Indianapolis is always an honor, and it’s something so special to be a part of,” Andretti said. “We have a lot of races in the year, but when we race there it’s an event. The parade lap in the pace car before the race is amazing. Circling the track and seeing the thousands and thousands of people is unmatched. My chest sort of bulges out just a bit riding around the track knowing that I am one of the privileged people to have raced so much there.

“This race is an event and you know that you are a part of something special when you are there. It would be great to win the Brickyard 400 and to cross the yard of bricks first at Indianapolis. I have a feeling I’d be like that chewing gum commercial. A couple of days after winning, I’d still be kissing the bricks.”

Gordon has kissed those bricks, the yard of homage to the track’s heritage and former surface. He’s won three times at Indy – and only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have more victories.

“Quite honestly, that really amazes me” Gordon said. “I grew up in nearby Pittsboro and idolized Rick Mears as a kid, and I’ll never forget the day I met him and got an autograph. To be mentioned in the same sentence with Unser, Mears and Foyt is unbelievable to me.”

Gordon was born in Vallejo, Calif. but his stepfather moved the family to Indiana so Jeff could race at a younger age. He raced open-wheel cars on tracks all over the Midwest and caught the eye of the stock-car contingent. Soon, Gordon was in NASCAR, and soon after that, NASCAR was in Indy.

Perhaps it was fitting that an Indiana guy would win the first time a stock car raced at Indy. That’s what Gordon did in 1994. And then he won again, in 1998 and 2001.

“When I look back, I think winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 is my most cherished victory,” Gordon said. “I never thought that I would have the chance to race here, and it was only my second victory in Winston Cup. All those things added up really made that victory special to me.”

It would be pretty special to Stewart, too. He grew up in Columbus, a 45-minute drive from Indy. He’s another guy who grew up around Indiana race cars, and the Brickyard has always been a lot more than a blip on Stewart’s radar screen.

He’s done the 500/600 double twice, raced in the 500 five times and the 400 three times. Stewart has always been fast there – heck, he’s fast everhwere – but so far, no trophies.

“I’ve been a sentimental favorite and a legitimate favorite to win there before, but I’ve always come up short,” Stewart said. “It really doesn’t mean anything to me until that last lap happens. If The Home Depot Pontiac is leading on that last lap, then it’ll mean a lot. It’s good to know that people have the confidence in you and your team that you’re good enough to win there.

“But there’s just something about Indy. It’s difficult to win there. It’s probably one of the hardest places to win a race. Just because you’re a favorite doesn’t mean it’s an automatically done deal.”

Drivers have been coming to Indy for almost a century, trying to win on the hallowed ground. That’s what makes it so special, Stewart said.

“Just the history of the place and all the stories makes Indy what it is,” Stewart said. “Everybody in the world knows what Indy is. To just win there is a great accomplishment for any race car driver in any type of race car. I think that’s why it means so much to so many people.”

Especially to a Hoosier. And to Stewart, the 500 probably means a little more.

“Those are two totally different things,” Stewart said, comparing the two Brickyard races. “Trust me, I want to win the Brickyard 400 really bad, but it won’t take the place of winning the 500. It probably would if I never ran an Indy car there, but the fact that I’ve had good cars there, and I’ve never won – I don’t think anything’s going to make
up for that, other than one day finally winning that race. But it still would feel awfully good to win the Brickyard 400.”

Even to a youngster like Newman, the South Bend native who followed a similar path as Gordon and Stewart. Newman was fast at the Brickyard last year in his first race there, and he returns for his rookie race.

“Indianapolis would be special to me even if I wasn’t from Indiana,” Newman said. “It’s one of the places I dreamed about racing at as I was growing up.”

Most race drivers dream of winning at Indy. Only a few have.

But if you can win there …

“Winning at Indy is everything,” Andretti said. “You win there and they can’t ever take it away. You become immortal in a way. The Andrettis should have more recognition at this track. My Uncle should have won more than once, Michael should have a win there, and I have been close in both Indy-cars and stock cars. I want to win this weekend so I can get that Andretti name more permanently placed around the track.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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