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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Entry list for 1994 Brickyard 400 provides a snapshot of racing history

With all the hoopla leading up to this year’s Brickyard 400, which we all hope will be an amazing race that makes us forget the embarrassment that was last year’s tire fiasco, much of the focus this week has been a look a back at 15 years ago, when NASCAR staged its inaugural race at the most famous track in the United States of America.

As this happened just before I started following NASCAR, I was not able to view the hoopla as it unfolded. But if the accounts I’ve been hearing and reading all week from people who were involved with the sport at the time, it was something to remember.

From the time A.J. Foyt and Tony George took a few laps, just for fun, around the Brickyard in Foyt’s Winston Cup car in 1991, to the time the green flag dropped in August 1994, the anticipation built and the entry forms kept on arriving at the Speedway.

Despite all the dumb things Tony George may have done since then, bringing NASCAR to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be viewed as one of his truly brilliant moves in the eyes of history. It has added a crown jewel to NASCAR’s schedule, and made the speedway remain relevant even in times when the fan base for Indycar hasn’t been all that great.

Looking back at the history of this event, I was struck most by one thing: The amazing entry list. More than 80 cars tried out for just 43 spots … and dozens went home.

You had a lot of young up-and-coming drivers on the entry list who would go on to achieve varying degrees of success. This includes Jeff Gordon, who won the the inaugural race and would go on to win four titles. A young Jeremy Mayfield was in the field, on his way to becoming a winner at the Cup level, and many years before his current drug testing woes. Jeff Burton was Rookie of the Year in 1994, many years before his title runs at Roush and his current status as the “mayor” of the garage. His brother Ward was also pretty new to the Cup series.

Also trying out for the race were the Indycar veterans, the ones who wanted one more shot at glory on the track they knew so well. Topping this list, of course, was the man himself: A.J. Foyt, who had just retired from Indycar racing in May. After waiting out so many qualifiers, he made the field and got another chance to race at the track where he had won four times. Other Indycar drivers, including Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, Geoff Brabham, Stan Fox and Gary Bettenhausen, also tried out with varying degrees of success.

There were a few NASCAR old-timers who also wanted a shot at glory. Herschel McGriff, still racing today at 81, was a young 66 when he failed to qualify at Indy. Harry Gant got to drive at Indy during his farewell tour in 1994. Charlie Glotzbach, a part-time fixture in NASCAR since the early 1960s, took a shot at the Brickyard, as did James Hylton, H.B. Bailey and several other drivers whose peak years were in the past.

Then, of course, you had the true contenders of the era, the guys running up front every week in the mid-1990s. The Intimidator himself, Dale Earnhardt, was eager to get a shot at the Brickyard. His chief rivals – Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Bill Elliott and other big names – were equally pumped up about NASCAR’s first trip to Indy.

And even beyond all these groups, it seemed everyone and their mother wanted to be a part of the Brickyard excitement. A dozen or so Winston West Series drivers attempted to qualify (including Ron Hornaday Jr. and Rick Carelli). ARCA drivers like Tim Steele came to try out. All three Bodines attempted to qualify, and did an endless list of part-time or one-off teams looking to be part of history.

The pole was a shocker … as it went to Rick Mast, driver of the unheralded Richard Jackson-owned #1 car, who had traded an Angus cow for his first racecar. History shows he led the first competitive lap ever run at Indy in a NASCAR race, beating Dale Earnhardt to the line. That’s a pretty cool story to tell the grandkids.

Just to put things in perspective, nowadays it’s surprising when an entry list tops 47 cars at a Cup race.

If you need any proof of how significant the 1994 Brickyard 400 is in NASCAR history, just look at the massive entry list. From future champions to fading legends to Indycar stars and everything inbetween, everyone wanted to be a part of this historic debut at the Brickyard.


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