Can Davey Hamilton salvage the month of May for the short track open wheel fan? – IMS Photo
By T.J. Buffenbarger
The month of May has started at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I am bitter.
I am bitter that short track stars were only a pawn in getting Indy Car teams under one roof controlled by the Speedway. Now American Short Track Stars have little or new avenues to Indianapolis. I’m bitter the Indy Racing League promised us hope in seeing our stars at Indy, then several CART teams came back to Indy most of the meaningful (a.k.a. actually won some big races) short track open wheel stars were cast aside. I’m somewhat bitter about Tony George’s passing flirtation with sprint car and midget racing, only seeming to lose interest once his stepson made it to Indy Cars.
While growing up during the CART era a handful of drivers had their chances. Drivers like Sammy Swindell and Steve Butler failed to make the field, but we could always root for Stan Fox, Rich Vogler, or George Snyder to have a nice run in the 500. After Vogler passed and fewer short track stars got shots at Indy I became more focused on sprint cars, midgets, and Silver Crown cars. These were the drivers I saw on Saturday night and would see them climb the ladder to the All Star Circuit of Champions or World of Outlaws.
Two things broadened my view of racing. The first was Jeff Gordon getting a NASCAR Busch Grand National Series ride. With Gordon’s success the door was then opened for short track stars to show their talent on Sundays in NASCAR. CART wouldn’t give Gordon a passing look, NASCAR welcomed him with open arms. Gordon’s success was so profound I even went to Michigan International Speedway to watch practice one afternoon (that’s a stretch for me).
Then the IRL came into fruition and gave us hope. Tony Stewart, Davey Hamilton, Steve Kinser, Joe Goesek, Jack Hewitt, and Jason Leffler all got shots at the Indy 500 and/or the entire IRL season. USAC champions were getting tests, and for short track open wheel fans Indy was interesting to follow. Fans could see the stars of the 500 at Kalamazoo in a Super Modified, ORP in a midget car, or at Eldora with a winged sprint car. There was also a genuine connect with Indy via the 16th Street Speedway, owned and operated by Tony George and family. I loved and appreciated this era that was taking place just as this website was gaining momentum.
Then once some of the major CART teams came back and Ed Carpenter was done racing with USAC, the connect between Indy Cars and short track open wheel racing seemed to become a disconnect. 16th street speedway went away and fewer seats were open for short track drivers at Indy. Build your own engine became engine leases, road courses popped up on the schedule, and the IRL neutered the oval racing because the cars were too close together. Tony George stopped popping in to moonlight in midget cars.
I don’t mean to discount all of the drivers in the IndyCar Series. There are some compelling personalities, but there is also a fraction that couldn’t carry Dave Darland’s helmet bag. Sarah Fisher is a great story and had some shining moments in Indy Car, but is as busy pimping Dollar General to keep her team afloat as she is driving (but still a good story). Ed Carpenter has a moment or two on the ovals, but has largely been a mid-pack driver. Davey Hamilton is probably the most talented of the bunch, but only races a handful of times a year after his horrific crash at Texas.
I’m not so blinded by being jaded from the IRL that I cannot appreciate the history and tradition of Indy, but I cannot help but wonder if more of the stars like Darland, Tony Elliott, and company were funded like many of the IRL drivers we never heard of before how this story might be different now. Some will argue that lack of rear engine skills and road racing makes it impossible for a short track open wheel star to make it now, but lack of road racing skills don’t seem to hamper Stewart, Newman, and Gordon on road courses and if someone can adapt from Midget, Sprint, Winged Sprint Car, and Silver Crown one would think adapting to an Indy Car is just another ride for someone with that kind of talent.
I’ll still watch the 500 the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I’ll still love the moment Jim Neighbors sings Back Home in Indiana, I’ll also take a look back at the several years I lived and breathed the 500 and how much I miss seeing Saturday night stars taking the green at Indy.