Originally created 08/05/99

Drivers, fans await race



INDIANAPOLIS -- About all it took to make the Brickyard 400 one of the biggest events in NASCAR history was to schedule the first one, in August 1994.

That inaugural stock car show at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was simply a confirmation of what most people already knew -- this was going to become a classic race.

The signs were obvious in June 1992, when a dozen top NASCAR Winston Cup teams rode into Indianapolis with no advance notice and thousands of fans descended on the speedway for the informal "tire testing" session.

In August 1993, 37 cars participated in another test at Indy. This time, there was plenty of advance notice, and the crowd would have delighted many a promoter had it been a raceday audience.

For most of NASCAR's history, dating to 1948, the speedway -- the most historic and storied race track in the world -- had been out of reach for stock cars.

When NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. -- who at the time was building Daytona International Speedway -- came to watch the Indianapolis 500 in 1958, he was unceremoniously removed from the speedway premises, tearing his pants when he landed on the concrete outside the track.

The elder France wasn't around to see NASCAR finally take to the 2 1/2 -mile Indy oval, but it was his son and NASCAR's current president, Bill France Jr., who put the deal together with speedway president Tony George.

"It was the right time," France said. "The speedway was ready to branch out with other events, and we were ready to take advantage of that situation. Obviously, it's been a great match for both of us."

The speedway has approximately 320,000 seats, and all of them have been sold for each Brickyard 400, including the one coming up Saturday. The Brickyard purse, which this year is at least $6.1 million, is second only to Daytona in stock car racing.

Defending champion Jeff Gordon, who spent most of his teen years in nearby Pittsboro, and was awed by the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500, can appreciate the significance of the Brickyard 400 more than most. And money has little to do with it.

"When you grow up racing in and around Indianapolis, you can't help but dream of one day racing at one of the greatest speedways in the world," said Gordon, who has won here twice. "Once I decided my future was in stock car racing, I figured I might never have the chance to race at Indy.

"When NASCAR made the announcement that the Winston Cup Series was going to race at Indy, I couldn't believe it. At that time nobody would have believed that anything but the Indy 500 would be held here."

The three-time series champion said winning that first Brickyard 400 was a very emotional experience. To be able to win it twice was more than he ever dared dream about.

Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, known on the track as "The Intimidator," is a coldly efficient competitor. But winning the Brickyard in 1995 choked him up.

"You can feel the history every time you drive through the tunnels here," Earnhardt said. "The tradition that this track holds is remarkable.

"As a kid you always heard about Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the noise and large crowds. ... It's something that you dreamed about when you started racing, just like hitting that game-winning home run or catching that winning pass."

He says practically all racers think about winning at Daytona and Indianapolis. Like Gordon and Dale Jarrett, he has done both.

Sterling Marlin never has won at Indy, but he understands its magic.

"You always want to do well at Indy," said the two-time Daytona 500 champion. "This is one of those tracks where everybody is watching, everybody is paying attention. It's a bragging-rights track.

"I don't have any plans for the Sterling Marlin Racing Museum but, with an Indy trophy to go along with those Daytona 500 ones, maybe we'd have to start thinking about one."

Actually, just about every driver in NASCAR views Indy as something special.

"When you roll through Gasoline Alley, you know that you're on sacred land," Kenny Wallace explained. "It's like, `Wow, what am I doing here?' It's the place to be."