By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
That was a perfect description by a local television station of the mayhem Sunday in the 24th Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The rain-interrupted and crash-filled race took six hours, 18 minutes to complete, had three red flags, 14 cautions and 16 stock cars running at the finish – the result of 11 crashes with five multi-car accidents in the last 18 laps.
Kasey Kahne narrowly missed being taken out late in the race by a sliding Jimmie Johnson as they tried to go three-wide with Brad Keselowski in the third turn. Kahne out-dueled Keselowski on the last restart for his first NASCAR Cup Monster Energy win since August 2014 in Atlanta.
“I had a great restart, enginewise, gearingwise, and was able to clear Brad off Turn 1,” said Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet owned by Rick Hendrick. “It worked out perfect – we got the win.”
Kahne, 37, also survived severe cramps, dehydration and fatigue. After leaping atop his car, one of NASCAR’s more popular drivers later slumped near his car and needed an IV in the infield hospital before going to the winner’s press conference in the media center.
The Washington native has a grassroots USAC midget and sprint car background. He and his father had their shop in Gasoline Alley south of the track. He took his first ride around the Speedway in 1999 in one of the track’s tour buses. Kahne owns a World of Outlaws winged sprint car team, based in Mooresville, N.C.
By beating Keselowski, Kahne foiled team owner Roger Penske’s first Brickyard 400 win.
Hoosier Ryan Newman was third in a Richard Childress-owned Chevrolet. He was not that critical of the crash-fest.
“I think what we saw was some crazy strategy, some crazy restarts,” the 2013 Brickyard winner said. “I’ve seen worse racing here, by far, as far as not being able to pass … I didn’t think it was ideal, but it was definitely crazy.”
Going for a three-peat, Kyle Busch led all but 15 of the first 102 before crashing into front-runner Martin Truex on Lap 111.
• The 250-mile Xfinity Lilly’s Diabetes race was held with experimental rules of a restrictor plate, higher rear spoiler and front air dams that led to a record number of passes and drivers being able to draft and slingshot down the straightaways. The rules could be adapted for next year’s Brickyard 400 but wouldn’t resolve the late-race crashes with a tightly-packed field.
• The silver anniversary Brickyard 400 will be Sept. 9, 2018, the final race to determine playoff spots.
• Drew Skillman of Greenwood became the first NHRA Pro Stock competitor to win two consecutive events this season Sunday in Denver, Colo. Sponsored by Ray Skillman Auto Group, Skillman defeated Bo Butner in the final round with a 6.916-seconds run against Hoosier Bo Butner. Skillman won two weeks ago in Joliet, Ill. He has six career wins.
• Southsider Mark Tunny recovered from a crossover collision and won the 37th annual Sonny Thompson Memorial 100-lap Figure-8 Saturday at the Indianapolis Speedrome. Tunny did a complete 360-degree after being clipped by eventual runner-up Jeff Harmon of Louisville. Whiteland’s Charlie Reed, a retired figure-8 veteran and inaugural General Tire National Figure-8 champion, was inducted into the Speedrome Hall of Fame during on-track ceremonies.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
South Bend’s Ryan Newman doesn’t have to worry about winning a Monster Energy Cup race this season to qualify for the playoffs.
Newman already has one win earlier this season at Phoenix in the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for team owner Richard Childress. It was the Hoosier native’s first win since 2013 in the Brickyard 400 and his first win for Childress. He snapped a 127-race winless skid in Arizona.
Getting into NASCAR’s playoff on wins has always been Newman’s goal, although he made it three of seven times on points.
“I don’t remember the last time I had a win and didn’t have to worry about getting in on points,” Newman said. “It is nice to have that off your mind.”
Before the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Newman explained, “We want to do everything to the best of our ability and try to get those stage bonus points and as many regular season points as we can and have whatever cushion we can have to start the playoffs. And then each round of the playoffs so we have a better opportunity of racing for a championship at Homestead.”
Newman, 39, quickly added, “It still revolves around winning.”
Through 18 races he was among 10 drivers who have won at least once. Seven races remain to decide the 16 drivers in the playoffs, which means a lot of different winners would have to emerge to spoil Newman’s chances. A second would lock him into the playoff.
He reached the final four in 2014 without winning a race but was in contention for the Cup championship. He made the playoffs with a dramatic last-lap pass of Kyle Larson. He finished second in points to champion Kevin Harvick.
The Hoosier native is in his 16th full season in Cup, having raced for Roger Penske, Carl Haas, Tony Stewart and Childress. He is the only driver to have earned Rookie of the Year Honors in USAC’s national Silver Crown, sprint and midget series. He won the 1999 Silver Crown championship.
Newman, who has a vehicle structural engineering degree from Purdue, spoke out against NASCAR’s myriad of rules changes and tweaking races.
“We (teams) need the ability to make an advantage or create an advantage over other teams,” he said. “If we want to have every race car built exactly the same, then we need to have NASCAR start building them for us and just put decals on the doors.”
Newman, wife Crissy, and their two young daughters are right at home in Mooresville, N.C., where they operate Rescue Ranch for forgotten farm animals, reptiles and birds to provide educational experiences for young students who learn about caring for animals.
Newman hasn’t forgotten his roots that began by helping his dad build his first midget car at age 15 years after racing three-quarter midgets for 10 years. He eventually advanced to Silver Crown and to ARCA which led to his NASCAR ride with Penske.
Brickyard 400 notes
• Sunday’s official race name is the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, with Gilbert performing for pre-race ceremonies. Gilbert is among Big Machine Label Group artists.
• Five-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon will drive the Chevrolet Camaro ZL 1 pace car to start the 400.
• Festivities begin Friday evening with the traditional hauler parade from 4-8 p.m. on Main Street in Speedway, with musical entertainment, food and appearances by past Brickyard 400 winners Newman, Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard plus Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. The haulers are expected to arrive at 6 p.m.
• 400 Fest, a new two-night concert at IMS, hopefully will attract fans with Major Lazar, Mac Miller and Cheat Codes performing Friday and The Chainsmokers, Pretty Lights and DNCE Saturday. Performances begin at 7 p.m. each day.
• Cup practice at 9 and 11 a.m. Saturday, qualifying at 6:15 p.m. and the race at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
SOUTHSIDER VOICE PHOTOS BY AL STILLEY Dale Earnhardt Jr. expressed his desire for gifts that can change lives rather than personal gifts from racetracks during his final full-time NASCAR season. Kentucky Speedway track reps presented Earnhardt with a Crosley jukebox for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has raced in the Brickyard 400 16 times. His team owner, Richard Hendrick, has drivers who have won the race nine times. And his father, Dale Earnhardt, won the race in 1995.
Junior announced earlier this year that it would be his final ride as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.
So, Earnhardt, 42, should probably be emotional about the Brickyard 400 Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Well, not exactly.
You see, Earnhardt always thinks about winning or being in contention for the win or what his car is doing on every lap on the track during practice, qualifying and the race. It doesn’t really matter what track.
“It’s business as usual,” he said. “It feels just like any other race … you want the best out of your car, you want to win, you want an opportunity to win and that is all that really matters.”
In other words, his retirement tour is not messing with his mind, although he admits that it’s a bit different when he’s not at a racetrack.
“Things aren’t quite as tense or there is a little more ease of mind knowing there is a definite end (final race),” he explained. “I want to do as well at this track. But, yeah when practice ends, I kind of calm down and say, ‘Man, I’ve got to be cool and try to help my guys and Greg (Ives, crew chief).’ ”
He admits that being at the track and knowing it is his last ride is a tough balance.
Earnhardt sat out most of the 2016 season while recovering from the after effects of a series of concussions suffered in various crashes. He finished 13th in the 18th Cup race last year at Kentucky Speedway before sitting out the rest of the year to rehab.
Sitting out gave him time to evaluate his life and Cup career, which began 18 years ago and netted 26 wins.
Last year’s Brickyard 400 was one of the races he missed.
“It (returning) reminds you about how much we had to overcome and how much rehab went into trying to get healthy,” Earnhardt said. “I’m proud that we worked so hard to come back and worked so hard to get healthy. You start racing this year you kind of forget about last year, and I think we all do. We kind of forget about everything that happened, and little dates like this will bring those memories back and remind you to be thankful and fortunate.”
Earnhardt is winless at the IMS, where his average finish is 18th. His best finish in the 400 was third in 2002 and ’09.
He has won in 19 races this season. Ranking 21st in points, he has only seven more races to break into this year’s 16-driver playoffs.
“A win is going to be great any week, but this is a hero one week and a zero the next sport,” Earnhardt said recently at Kentucky Speedway. “You are going to go one day and feel like you’ve got it figured out and then reality is going to slap you in the face the next Sunday. … We need a win to get in the playoffs. This sport is so competitive and for us as a team it’s been a real challenge this year to sort of find our footing.”
After leaving the Cup series, Earnhardt will continue to be active as co-owner of JR Motorsports, which fields Chevrolets for four drivers in the Xfinity Series and two drivers in the Whelen All-American Series. He also left the door open to race in a few Cup and Xfinity races next year.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
Each season for New Castle’s Dakoda Armstrong has been a learning experience in the Xfinity Series.
This year is no exception for the fourth-year driver who finished third in the recent 300-mile race at Daytona in the No. 28 Winfield Toyota.
“Something always changes,” Armstrong said in an exclusive interview earlier this month at Kentucky Speedway. “This year NASCAR took a lot of downforce (about 600 pounds on the front end) away from us, and that’s been big for our guys to make our cars go faster. So every track we’ve been to it’s been a new setup. It’s been a little bit of a new learning curve, but that’s NASCAR – they want to keep it fresh for everybody so that one team doesn’t dominate.”
Last year the Xfinity Series had a playoff system like the Monster Energy Cup Series, and this season the series has its races in three stages too. Armstrong, ninth in points, is a contender for an Xfinity top-12 playoff spot.
“Our cars have been better and we’ve improved as a team,” Armstrong said. “We’ve finished every race. We still need to find more speed on the mile and one-half tracks. Our short-track program has been great. We’re still improving every single week”
Armstrong is filled with confidence as he heads into the Lilly’s Diabetes 250 Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The race will be a learning experience for Armstrong and the entire Xfinity field. NASCAR has deemed the IMS race as a restrictor-plate race with the same plate used only at Daytona and Talladega superspeedways. He started from the pole last year at Daytona.
As Armstrong says, very little is the same about the upcoming race at the Brickyard, which will award bonus points to the top 10 at 30, 60 and 100 laps.
The racer said he believes the race will be more competitive. Rules also call for a taller rear spoiler and a front splitter package that features aero ducts on the lower front bumper.
Officials are hopeful that the rules will lead to improved competition on the relatively flat Speedway oval.
“Our car is pretty good with the restrictor plate,” Armstrong said. “Indy is so flat so we want to bring an intermediate car. With traffic you’re going to need extra downforce. It cut us about 200 horsepower at Daytona and Talladega. If we are all stuck together, then I think there will be some big wrecks. If anything, it will be exciting for the fans and for all teams to see what happens.”
Armstrong will be able to spend extra time this week with family in New Castle. His father, Craig Armstrong, still fields race cars for USAC sprints for Dakoda’s cousin Caleb and a Super Series Late model for brother Dalton Armstrong.
Dakoda Armstrong and wife Carly, his high school sweetheart, returned to Hoosierland earlier this week. He likes the familiarity of being less than one hour from the Speedway, and he recognizes the importance of the race.
“You can tell this is a premier race for Xfinity. I may be biased because it’s my home track, but this is not just another weekend. It’s a cool track to go to. We always want to do well there.”
Practice is at 1 and 3 p.m. Friday with qualifying at 12:45 Saturday; the race follows at 3:50 p.m.
Armstrong’s racing roots are in Indiana. He is a graduate and youngest champion (13 years old) of the Kenyon Midget Series, and he won an ARCA stock car race at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway. He was a developmental driver for Team Penske and previously drove for Richard Petty in the Xfinity Series.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
IndyCar team owner Dennis Reinbold had just one word Sunday for the outcome of Dreyer & Reinbold driver Sage Karam in the 101st Indianapolis 500.
“Disappointing,” said Reinbold, after the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Dallara/Chevrolet stopped suddenly in the first turn on lap 126.
Karam was steadily moving through the pack for his second top-10 finish for Reinbold. Karam started 21st and was up to 12th just a few laps before his fourth 500 ended abruptly.
Reinbold was the first to believe that a faulty alternator resulted in placing 28th and the end of a problem-filled race.
Shortly after the race started, Reinbold realized that Karam could hear him but that he could not hear his driver due to a malfunction when his driver’s microphone failed. It forced the team to communicate with Karam through code and hand signals during pit stops for car adjustments.
“We had an alternator let go and there was nothing we could do,” Karam said. “ I thought we ran a smart race … I just wanted to finish the whole race.
“We had a top-10 car today. I was driving smart, and I was as calm as I could be. It’s unfortunate when something out of your control happens and you can’t fix it.”
The Indy 500 is the only Verizon IndyCar series race this season for Reinbold, a Greenwood auto dealership owner.
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves missed his fourth win Sunday when he lost to first-time winner Takuma Sato by about one-fifth of a second. Castroneves led with six laps to go before Sato passed him to become the first Japanese driver to win the 500.
Castroneves has three runners-up finishes and has missed being a six-time winner by a combined time of less than six-tenths of a second.
One of five Team Penske drivers in the field, Castroneves had a harrowing day. The 42-year-old driver drove under Scott Dixon’s airborne car on Lap 53 and later barely missed being collected in another accident later.
A rear winglet and front wing were broken on the No. 2 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet when Castroneves drove onto the grass inside the south chute to avoid Dixon’s horrendous crash.
He was later assessed a drive-through penalty for jumping the restart on Lap 75, which ultimately cost him the win.
“I would like to see some reviews,” Castroneves said afterward. “Hopefully they can convince me that I jumped the start. I had a good start. They call green and I went.”
In the final five laps he could not track down Sato, contending that his tires were wearing down.
“Finishing second again sucks,” Castroneves said. “So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up on this dream. I know it will happen.”
His previous Indy 500 wins came in 2001, ’02 and ’09, each with team owner Roger Penske.
• Sato won the Indy 500 in his eighth start, his first with Andretti Autosport. Sato had never finished among the top 10 at Indy, although he crashed into the first turn on the last lap while trying to overtake leader Dario Franchitti in 2012.
• This was the fifth Indy 500 win for team owner Michael Andretti, tying him with Chip Ganassi. Andretti’s drivers have won three of the last four races.
• The race was red-flagged after the Jay Howard-Dixon crash. Dixon’s airborne car punched a hole in the south chute fence. Dixon called it a wild ride.
• Veteran crew chief Johnny O’Gara served as race strategist and son Andy’ O’Gara, each from Beech Grove, was team manager for rookie Zach Veach, who completed 155 laps before being sidelined with a 26th-place finish. Andy O’Gara’s wife, nine-time Indy 500 driver Sarah Fisher, drove the pace car during caution periods.
• Voters for 500 Rookie of the Year were gaga over two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who started fifth, led 27 laps and completed 179 laps before engine failure. Dale Coyne’s rookie driver Ed Jones started 11th and finished third.
I attended two Indianapolis 500-mile races when I was a child.
My dad said he took me as a nearly 5-year-old when Bill Holland won in 1949. Then in 1958 I knew enough about the event that Hoosier Pat O’Connor was my favorite driver and was killed in the second race I attended. That race is etched in my memory because the Indianapolis 500 brings great glory and unforgettable tragedy.
Growing up in Speedway, I never imagined writing about 50 Indianapolis 500s. Through the years I have written about the race for The Nashville (Tenn.) Banner, Franklin (Ind.) Daily Journal, “Stock Car Racing” and “Open Wheel” magazines, Carl Hungness’ “Indianapolis 500 Yearbooks” and “Racing Cars” magazine plus several local newspapers, particularly The Southsider Voice.
For the past 19 years I have been part of the Indy 500 News Bureau, which was founded by former Michigan International Speedway news director Jan Shaffer, and most recently with the Speedway’s trackside report team.
In 1967 I was working on my masters at Western Kentucky University, where I had served four years as the college’s first undergraduate assistant to the sports information director. At the final home football game I was informed by Banner sports writer Mike Fleming that he was leaving the paper and they would hold the job for me for two days.
With a 10-month old girl and my wife, Jane, from Greenwood, we made the short drive to Music City. I agreed on a salary and was assigned auto racing (mostly NASCAR and Indy 500 pole weekend and race) and college sports beats.
Brash-speaking Bobby Unser won the first 500 I covered in 1968, still a blur. I wrote a pre-race column on famed Formula One team boss Colin Chapman and then mostly about Graham Hill, Art Pollard and little-known Gordon Johncock, who was a tough interview because he was short with words until he trusted you.
The crowded press room in 1968 was inside a small one-story building south of Gasoline Alley. The wooden garages with open doors made driver access easy. Typewritten stories were filed through Western Union or by calling the sports department and dictating a story – just like in those old movies.
We had the perfect view from a front stretch underhang below the penthouse seats for a breathtaking view of the start.
In 1969 I met 500 rookie team owner Roger Penske and his driver, Mark Donohue. I had met a Nashville (Tenn.) car dealer a few blocks from The Banner and he wanted me to say hello to Penske for him. I wrote a column on Penske and his team’s immaculate image. Many media members picked Donohue to win the race that Mario Andretti captured in a backup STP Hawk.
I have always respected Penske, and here’s why. I had not seen him at all until returning to the Speedway in May 1970. He asked me how things were in Nashville, which absolutely floored me that he had that kind of memory. Last year at a Penske team/media luncheon, he introduced me to two of his Australian team drivers as “having been with me since Day 1” at the 500.
Odd how I wound up writing annually about the 500 for SCR. I had covered a couple of NASCAR and Midwestern stock car races for them and began writing a column, succeeding Southport’s Ray Marquette. I met the publisher of SCR the day after the 1970 race; he was a bit hungover and looking for an editor, a position I turned down due to the cost of living in the East. He then wanted me to do the race story. Luckily the day-after winner’s photos of Al Unser Jr. were still being taken on the front stretch so I interviewed him for a story that was assigned to me the morning after.
The 1973 race proved that Johncock was star-crossed. He was in the middle of a divorce that was made public after he won. The race was the most devastating of any 500 I have covered.
Art Pollard was killed in a crash in practice. Johncock’s STP teammate Swede Savage suffered fatal burns in a horrifying Turn 4 crash and STP crew member Armando Teran was killed in a subsequent pit lane accident.
The race took three days to run and it ended in the rain after 133 laps.
On the first day, Salt Walther was injured in an upside-down crash on the front stretch. A.J. Foyt avoided Walther’s airborne car by jumping the start and going under it. Rain later forced a postponement. The next day USAC fined Foyt $100. I was among six writers who approached Foyt’s garage that morning. Most of us expected to see a hot-tempered driver, but I stuck my head inside the garage door and asked him if he had time to talk to us. Foyt not only obliged but he told us that his move probably saved his life. And then he talked about his horse farm and maybe returning with an enclosed cockpit race car. Rain thankfully ended the race the next day; there was no victory dinner, no joy.
Leading to the 1990s
In 1976 I wrote a feature on pace car driver Marty Robbins, a popular country and western singer who also raced in Nashville, Tenn., and several NASCAR Grand National races. Johnny Rutherford won as rained poured after 102 laps. After the race I walked into Johncock’s garage, where he smiled and said that “the monkey’s off my back,” no longer the winner of the shortest 500.
The next year became the most historic race I had covered, more so than last year’s 100th running. Foyt became the first four-time winner; Janet Guthrie was first woman to race in the 500; pole winner Tom Sneva officially broke the 200 mph barrier; and it was the last 500 for Tony Hulman, who died Oct. 27.
Personally, three events in the’90s stand out: Emerson Fittipaldi’s passion for racing; Greenwood Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee Jonathan Byrd discovered Rich Vogler in midget racing at Speedrome and backed him with rides in the 500; and the illegal marijuana smuggling activities of 1986 Rookie of the Year Randy Lanier.
Two-time Formula One champ Fittipaldi was a 500 rookie in 1984. By then I was writing about all the rookies and engines for the “500 Yearbooks.”
Fittipaldi came to Indy with an unknown car owner and a non-competitive pink car. After practice one day we sat on the pit wall and, for the first time during an interview, I realized how passionate he was to compete in the 500. He virtually lit up when he talked about the 500; the gleam in his eyes was unmistakable.
Byrd owned and sponsored figure-8 stock cars at the Indianapolis Speedrome, where occasional doubleheaders with USAC Regional Midgets were held. Vogler’s daring deeds on the one-fifth mile paved oval caught Byrd’s attention, who signed him to race midget cars.
Byrd arranged a 500 ride for Vogler by pairing with team owner Alex Morales in 1985. Byrd teamed with different owners for four more races; their best finish together was eighth in 1989. Vogler died a few months later that year in a sprint car accident at Salem Speedway.
Byrd co-sponsored John Andretti in 1984, first time for doing The Double on the same day, racing in the 500 and later in the 600 at Charlotte, N.C. Byrd died in 2009. Two sons, David and Jonathan II, and Byrd’s widow, Ginny, revived the team with USAC driver Bryan Clauson, a Vogler clone, in 2015 and 2016. Clauson briefly led last year’s 500 but was killed in a racing accident later in the year.
Stunned by this second tragedy, the Byrd family did not hook up with another car owner for this year’s race. Our prayers go out to Andretti, a Speedrome graduate who’s fighting colon cancer.
Road racing veteran Lanier burst into the 500 in 1986. Unknown at the time, Lanier also had a darker side. In the late ’70s the Floridian had launched a growing multimillion dollar marijuana smuggling and distribution ring with stash houses in Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. He eventually was arrested after fleeing the United States, found guilty in a jury trial in late 1988 and was the first to be sentenced under a new federal continuing criminal enterprise law. He was released from federal prison recently.
I wrote a two-part series for “Open Wheel” magazine about Lanier’s racing and drug smuggling.
Turbulence and opportunity
A new decade featured the split between Tony George’s novice Indy Racing League and well-established CART. George said he believed that IndyCar racing expenses were out of hand and preventing some USAC car owners from moving into major league racing. CART owners stuck together, boycotted the 500 in 1996 and ran a rival 500 at Michigan International Speedway.
The rift opened a path to be even more active in covering the 500. After the 1996 race, former MIS news director Jan Shaffer realized that the strong CART public relations entourage no longer existed at IMS. He and team publicist Lynda Havens formed the Indy 500 News Bureau with the blessing of the Speedway’s Fred Nation. I was the first motor sports writer asked to join the group.
We occupied a small corner of the old press building and hung a “Rebels” sign above our area. Because of my Speedrome schedule, I was to write about drivers from Western states and eventually New Zealand and appropriately Great Britain (my wife was born in Oxford).
Some special memories with drivers and owners:
• Needed a ghost-writer name to write stories to assist Byrd and Vogler in their first 500 together. Havens, Shaffer and team owner Carl Haas were on hand in Speedway Motel 500 lounge for the “birth” of “B.J. Turner” over drinks.
• Interview with Scott Goodyear during 1999 race: After engine problems he returned to his garage, where I met him for driver-written column. We were watching the race on TV and talking when Greg Ray hit the inside wall of the pits, which began a quick shuffle – had to hook up with Ray for yet another driver-written column.
• Our group occupied the back row of the new Media Center, where I would store a box with printed press kits, transcripts of interviews, record books and team reports on a back shelf. Walking back to that location after a practice day in 2005, I noticed a couple of Japanese reporters shuffling through the box. I had known driver Roger Yasukawa for a couple of years, so the next day I had him write “keep out of this box” in Japanese on paper. I taped the paper to the top of the box, which the reporters never opened again.
• Interviews with rookie Danica Patrick in 2005 were set at certain times immediately after each practice day with TV reporters first and then print reporters. A TV reporter from Dayton, Ohio, kept asking her about being a female, modeling and racing, going out of his way to get a verbal rise from her. Patrick, exasperated over his questions, finally said, “Well, you know I am a girl.”
• Dario Franchitti was always a good interview and a teammate of Scott Dixon. When they raced for Chip Ganassi Racing, I often interviewed them in succession after practice. Franchitti was married to actress Ashley Judd, who was trackside to support her husband and not as a celebrity. A true Kentucky girl, she took her shoes off and ran barefoot in the rain to join her husband in Victory Lane after he won the rain-shortened 2007 race.
• I Would usually catch West Coast driver Bryan Herta for a walk-and-talk interview in Gasoline Alley for articles for Los Angeles. This became a habit and he turned to me and said, “My day isn’t over until I talk to you.”
• Driver Justin Wilson, who died while racing at Pocono (Penn.) Speedway in 2015, was special because of his dyslexia. We talked several times about dyslexia, not racing, because my granddaughter Katie Stevens of North Carolina has severe dyslexia. I constantly appraised him of her progress from a child who could not read or write. She graduates from high school in June as an honor roll student.
• Dixon has been phenomenal in his growth as a rookie to a 500 winner and multiple-series champion. I began reporting on him to New Zealand during his early years at the Speedway. I am impressed that he has become the prime driver spokesman for the Verizon IndyCar Series. He still gives me an occasional ride on his golf cart back to Gasoline Alley.
Our news bureau group also carries on in memory of Havens, who died July 2012, and close friend and writer Ron LeMasters Sr., who died in 2015. Our news bureau group includes veteran Todd Glenn of Bedford, Andrew Smith of Greenfield, Bert Bieswanger and veteran announcer Pat Sullivan plus coordinator Annisa Rainey of Brownsburg.
Obviously, I could not have enjoyed covering 49 Indianapolis 500s or all the motor sports events nationally and in Canada without the love and support of my cherished wife.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon and veteran driver Graham Rahal wasted no time looking at the calendar last week.
Rahal, son of 1986 500 winner Bobby Rahal, said, “It’s going to be May soon enough.”
Dixon remarked, “It’s cool to know that the month of May is right around the corner.”
The two drivers were among several high-speed Honda chauffeurs during tests March 24 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The test laps were extremely valuable for the Rahal and Chip Ganassi teams.
Rahal, 28, is the lone driver for a team co-owned by his father and Hoosier legend David Letterman, so they don’t have the benefits of a multiple-car team. Taking small steps, Rahal and Honda hope to close the gap on rival Chevrolet on road courses and hopefully in the 101st Indianapolis 500 on May 28.
“Honda’s done a really good job with the horsepower,” the second-generation racer said. “We’re looking good on the road courses, but the aero kit is still deficient. The aero kit worked pretty good here last year.”
Rahal’s best finishes at Indy were third in 2011 with team owner Chip Ganassi and fifth in 2015 with his current team.
He is one of IndyCar’s high profile drivers and is married to NHRA drag racer Courtney Force, daughter of NHRA legend John Force.
Rahal hopes to accomplish what Dixon has already done. Dixon won the 500 in 2008 and has 10 top 10 finishes.
Ganassi was with Toyota (2003-2005), Honda (2006-2012) and Chevrolet (2013-2016). Dixon won the 500 and two of his four Verizon IndyCar championships with Ganassi and Honda.
Team Ganassi also features 2013 500 winner Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and Max Chilton. Dixon finished third recently in the Verizon IndyCar Series opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. The next race is April 9 on the streets of Long Beach, Calif.
“It’s a big change, going from one manufacturer.” Dixon understated. “We’re trying to validate on the track what the engineers have been working on for six months. They have been busy testing, tunnel testing, and trying a lot of different things.”
Dixon continues to be enthusiastic about the Indianapolis 500.
“When you’re a kid, you have dreams and aspirations and places you want to get to,” Dixon, 36, recalled while standing in front of Gasoline Alley. “To actually get here and run for the first time (2003) was definitely eye opening.”
Dixon of New Zealand lives in Indianapolis with wife Emma and their two girls. He is a two-time New Zealand Sportsman of the Year.
He is eager to compete in his 15th Indianapolis 500.
“The fire is still strong,” said Dixon. “To get everything right in that three and one-half hour period I almost impossible. The worst place to finish here is runner-up and we’ve done that.
“It (Race Day) has a funny way about it. It can be your day for 99 percent of it and then it can be taken away from you very quickly. A lot of us think that it’s a she and that she picks the winners. I definitely need to get on the good side of her again.”
Even with only one win in 14 tries at the famed Speedway, Dixon still contends, “This place doesn’t owe me a thing. I love coming here.”
And Indy loves having champions like Dixon.
By Al Stilley
Senior staff writer
Ever wonder about Tony Stewart’s abilities to be a NASCAR team co-owner?
Hoosiers who have followed his career know about his USAC, IndyCar and NASCAR championships as a driver, but only a few are on the inside as his team drivers.
First-year Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer provided a great insight as he recalled that Stewart was Santa Claus at the team Christmas party last year.
“He was jolly ol’ St. Nick,” Bowyer said. “He made all the employees there feel like family.”
Then Bowyer grinned and said, “By the way, Tony fit perfectly in the outfit.”
Bowyer is Stewart’s replacement in the No. 14 Mobil I Ford for the NASCAR Cup Series with teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
Harvick, in his fourth year at SHR, said, “When you’re around Tony you know how he can be (with) the competitive element. He’s good with people, gathering information, processing it and going out and making things happen … he just says something when he has his thoughts gathered.”
Stewart retired from NASCAR driving after 18 years, three championships and 49 wins, including two Brickyard 400 triumphs.
Nevertheless, Stewart’s desire to race finds him looking at 60-plus sprint/midget races, mostly on dirt, including two quarter-midget events at county fairs close to home. The earth-shaking Little 500 at Anderson Speedway on the night before the Indianapolis 500 is on his bucket list too.
“It’s going to be fun trying,” he said to reporters at the recent Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla., where he helped prepare the dirt surface.
His sprint car efforts will be sponsored mainly by Rush Truck Centers, an associate sponsor of his recent seasons. He will stick with longtime Chevy power until Ford develops an engine.
He will have an involvement in the Indianapolis 500 with the Tony Stewart Foundation emphasis on Team One Cure for cancer as car sponsor on the No 77 Schmidt Peterson Dallara-Honda entry.
Earlier this month at his racing headquarters, he explained the team’s historic NASCAR switch from Chevrolet to Ford. SHR is building its chassis and aligned with Roush-Yates engines for the first time.
“When we first started meeting with Ford it was very apparent that there were a lot of things they had to offer that we hadn’t seen before and were huge asset for us,” Stewart said. “That’s why we made a serious look at it and ultimately made the decision to switch over.”
SHR will field an Xfinity Series car for the first time.
Al Stilley is the senior sports writer for the Southsider Voice and has years of experience covering motorsports.