This new “old” joke just in from the NASCAR humor files:
How old is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
So old that the first vehicles to ever race at the track were balloons.
It’s true. According to the speedway’s website, IMS hosted a balloon race in June of 1909. In a preview of bigger and louder things to come, however, the balloons were powered by gas. On July 31, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will return to the legendary track for the 18th running of the Brickyard 400.
In the world of professional sports, a select few venues have achieved a level of recognition rivaling that of the teams and events featured inside. Over the years, places like Augusta National, Daytona International Speedway, Churchill Downs, Wimbledon and the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field have become every bit as famous and revered as the athletes who have passed through their gates.
The quality that sets these facilities apart from others is something that can’t be built, and can’t be bought -- they have charisma, that intangible blend of charm and mystery that attracts people like a magnet. Of what value is a star, after all, without a unique sky in which to shine?
Many longtime race fans – my hand is up on this one – will tell you that the first names they knew well were Richard Petty and Mario Andretti. See how easily they roll off the tongue together? They even rhyme.
But the relationship between the Daytona 500’s brand of high-speed, fender-banging stock car racing and the open-wheel style of competition showcased in the annual Indianapolis 500, considered more elegant by its fans, wasn’t always so smooth.
That’s odd, because NASCAR and Indy Car have been linked for decades. In the book “Bill France Jr.: The Man Who Made NASCAR,” author H.A. Branham notes that IMS served as a sort of prototype for Daytona. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had worked at Indy during the 1930s, and dreamed of constructing a similar landmark facility for his newly-formed NASCAR. But when France and his wife visited IMS in 1954, they found their welcome less than warm. In short, they were thrown out.
“Legend has it,” Branham writes, “that Bill Sr. told people he and his wife decided they would go back to Florida and build their own damn speedway.”
That plan worked well. The result, Daytona International Speedway, remains the gold standard in stock car racing. The relationship between NASCAR and the American Automobile Association, sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500, didn’t shine quite so brightly.
The competitors didn’t care. No matter what adjectives you use to describe it, a race is a race, and these were the two biggest in their respective arenas. As the years passed, drivers couldn’t resist the urge to hop that retaining wall separating NASCAR and Indy Car. Sometimes the grass proved pretty green on the other side; Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt both managed to win the Daytona 500, and in 1994, John Andretti became the first driver in history to compete in both Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 – 1,100 miles of racing -- on the same day.
April 14, 1993 was a momentous day in racing history, when at last an agreement was reached and the announcement was made that the inaugural Brickyard 400 would take place on Aug. 6, 1994. The race has subsequently become a red-letter day on the NASCAR calendar, perhaps second in prestige only to the Daytona 500.
The last remaining bit of wall between the tracks and the two racing series crumbled on July 6, when NASCAR announced that the NASCAR Nationwide Series and GRAND-AM Road Racing will join the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for four exciting races during the inaugural Super Weekend at the Brickyard. The weekend will mark the first time in IMS’ long history that races will be held on both the 2.5-mile oval and the 2.534-mile road course during the same weekend.
"The Super Weekend at the Brickyard will offer non-stop excitement for every auto racing fan with the addition of the NASCAR Nationwide Series and GRAND-AM Road Racing," said Jeff Belskus, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and chief executive officer. "There will be competitive, fender-rubbing action from many different types of machinery for four days, featuring established stars and rising talents, on both the IMS oval and road course.
"This will be an unforgettable event and the start of a great new racing tradition at the Speedway."
It took a half century or so, but once again, teamwork carried the day.
It is interesting to note that construction on the RMS Titanic began in the same year IMS opened for business. The Titanic, dubbed “unsinkable,” literally went down in history in 1912, but IMS has masterfully navigated its way through seas both calm and choppy, and over a century later, is still riding high.