Wednesday, August 5, 2015

August 5, 1995 - A long day at the Brickyard

When Tony George, Jr. announced on April 14, 1993, that Indianapolis Motor Speedway would host the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race in 1994, I was "all in". Sorta.

Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly and I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee at the time. We were determined to be in the stands for that first Cup race at Indy - though we did have some self-imposed cost constraints. Frankly, we wanted to land a pair of comps.

We worked every angle we knew possible back in that pre-internet / email age but without success. Even by compromising our position to pay for tickets, we couldn't land any at a reasonable price. In the end, we missed the show. Simply couldn't make it happen.

But the second year!

As we shot fireworks at my parents' house on the 4th of July, my brother-in-law asked if I'd be interested in going to Indy. Done! I'm in! Got a second one? Yes!

In the pre-dawn hours of race day morning, four of us departed Nashville for Indianapolis: Philly, my brother-in-law Chuckles, a business associate of his, and me. We put a biscuit and a cup of coffee on our bellies, and then we were on our way. In the rain. The whole way.

Along the way as we headed north on I-65, we ran upon this glorious Kentucky Kadillac.

When rain shows up on race weekend, we try to be patient and optimistic. A long-time adage of Philly's is "there's magic in believing." Yet, as we approached the track, optimism turned to pragmatism. We had little hope of the race starting on time - and maybe not at all on that Saturday.

We were committed to racing - we just weren't sure if we were committed to sleeping in a van in wet clothes. In perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of all my racing trips, Chuckle's business associate became the financier of the weekend. As we neared the speedway, he pulled into a hotel whose brand I can't recall and asked about the possibility of getting a reservation for the night in case we needed it.

As race fans have grown to know, hotel operators are easy to hate on race weekends. Inflated rates, multi-night minimums, bait and switch bed preference availability, etc. The front desk guy - without batting an eye - said he wanted three bills per room. $300 per! Non-refundable!

Philly and I had camped enough nights or made other sacrifices to return on a next-clear-day to say walk away. Instead, the dude parted with his money knowing he was out $600 regardless of what happened. Philly and I looked at each other and smirked like Ferris Bueller.

After getting fleeced by the Hospitality Inn, we parked in someone's yard. I had no idea at the time this was an Indy tradition dating back decades, but what a neat (and likely profitable) tradition. Lift gates were raised on vans, coolers were moved to the ground, sandwich fixin's were made available, and folks did what they could to stay as dry as possible.

The rain finally slowed to a series of sprinkles and mist, and Philly and I did a walk-about to see the legendary speedway - if nothing else just to metabolize some of our brew intake.

Meanwhile, Chuckles wasn't walking anywhere. He stayed close to the vans and continued pounding brew after brew after brew.

As Philly and I moseyed near the front gate, we heard the announcement track drying efforts were underway with the race beginning soon! We hustled back to the van, grabbed our scanners, packed our coolers, checked in with Chuckles to make sure we knew where to meet, and headed back for the gates. By that time, however, I'm not exactly sure Chuckles realized he was back home in Indiana.

Very few tracks have caused my pulse to quicken as I passed through the gates. My first time at Daytona in 1980 - yes. The inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 - perhaps. Indy - definitely. 

After getting settled, however, reality set in. Indy may be a racing facility - but it isn't a spectator's destination. With the trees, pagoda, a museum, etc. in the infield - plus the flat banking - we quickly discerned we'd see little of the race. Yet we were there!

The King - Richard Petty - took a lap or two in 1992 as part of a NASCAR tire test and public relations stunt, but he retired before having the opportunity to race in a Brickyard 400. But the driver of the 43 in 1995, Bobby Hamilton Sr., gave the Petty faithful something to cheer for with his second place qualifying run in the STP Pontiac.

Because of the rain, the cars remained in the garage area. When the call came to start the race, pole sitter Jeff Gordon and Hamilton did something no other driver in an Indy race had ever done.
They led the field into the first pace lap by driving out of the garage.

Loy Allen, Jr. started the 1995 season as a teammate to Brett Bodine on Junior Johnson's team. After lousy runs in the first six races - including two DNQs - Allen was dumped and replaced with Elton Sawyer.

Sawyer apparently, like Allen, didn't embrace his sponsor's theme of it's what up front that matters. The finishes for the 27 Hooters Ford didn't improve, and Sawyer was the first car out of the Brickyard. And you thought Roush Fenway Racing had problems in 2015. Yeesh.

Junior had seen enough. At the end of the season, he sold the 11 team to Bodine, shut down the 27 team, and left NASCAR as a team owner. Junior Johnson's exit was a tough closure to about four decades of racing as a driver, crew chief and owner.

Hamilton did more than give hope to the Petty faithful with his front-row qualifying run. The 43 was competitive all day, and Hamilton led just past the halfway mark. Near the end, however, Hamilton faded to an eventual 11th place finish.

With about 30 laps to go, a name synonymous with Indy - Andretti - took the lead. John Andretti in the Kmart / Little Caesar's Pizza Ford led for 3 laps. Like Hamilton, however, Andretti didn't have staying power and finished 12th.

After Andretti's brief time out front, Dale Earnhardt took command. Rusty Wallace pursued the Goodwrench Chevy, but he couldn't get close enough to mount a legitimate challenge. The Ironhead Army lost their collective minds as the black #3 took the win.

Remarkably, IMS and NASCAR were successful in completing the full race without more rain and without losing daylight. After the checkers, we humped it back to the van for the 5+ hour trip back to Nashville. 

Because the race ran as scheduled, the dude's hotel $600 deposit went POOF - but no skin off our nose. We cautioned him not to pay it. Let's roll. It was four hours later getting started back because of the rain delay - but hey, we had just seen the friggin' BRICKYARD.

I'm not sure we'd made it back to I-65 headed south to Nashville before Chuckle's snores resonated throughout the van. It was an otherwise fairly quiet ride as the other three of us stayed awake. 

When we got near Louisville, Chuckles suddenly awoke and screamed like a banshee WAFFLE HOUSE!!

After calming our bladders, we agreed to pull over and eat at the next Waffle House we could find. I don't remember our exit, where we sat, what time we arrived, or what I ordered. But I do remember two things:
  • Our waitress' name was Turtle. Seriously. I'll swear on a stack of Bibles before the Almighty himself. A nickname perhaps - sure. Whether legit or labeled, the name was befitting. She was shaped liked a turtle. But she was nice, Gomer. Real nice.
  • I also remember what Chuckles ordered. Hash browns. All the way. Turtle suggested that for only something like 49 cents more he could double his order. He managed to pull his head slightly off the table and mumbled something we all presumed was a "yes".
Now I love me some Waffle House. Regular breakfast time, mid-day or late night - it really doesn't matter. But when Turtle returned with our meals, she possessed a platter of something not of this world.

Turtle plopped down an oval platter in front of Chuckles - pitched at about a 30 degree angle. A double-order jambalaya of scattered, smothered, chunked, diced, topped, capped, country'd, and peppered taters sloshed to one end of the plate. Chuckles slowly raised his head from where it had been resting on the table and defiantly asked "who ordered that shit?" Philly and I replied in unison "YOU DID." Philly then followed with "...and you're into Turtle for an extra 50 cents man."

Chuckles managed to eat one bite of his cruel gruel. One. He then resumed his period of beauty rest at the table. The rest of us enjoyed ours, paid and tipped Turtle, got Chuckles loaded back into the van, and headed for Nashville.

The remaining three hours to get home was tough. We'd been awake right at 24 hours, but another set of race experiences had been lived.


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