INDIANAPOLIS — Drivers always say there’s something magical about Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the opportunity for NASCAR to race there opened the door for one of Jeff Gordon’s most treasured victories.
It was a race Tony Stewart initially opposed.
Stewart, a die-hard open-wheel driver at the time of the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, was one of the many IMS loyalists who firmly believed NASCAR did not belong on the hallowed grounds of the speedway. The Indiana native had grown up dreaming of one day winning the Indy 500. Until 1994, it was the only big race.
“I was one of them that absolutely thought it was a crime,” Stewart said. “I’m a purist. I’m old school. It’s always been sacred ground to me.”
He wasn’t in Indy when NASCAR made his debut, and had to watch the race later on a replay.
Stewart’s mind was instantly changed.
“There were other people that I knew that were dead against it that went just to see what it was going to be like, and they came back and felt the same way,” he said. “I think everybody changed their mind and their opinion after they saw that first one.”
The 20th anniversary of NASCAR’s first race at Indy is Sunday, when Gordon will go for his fifth Brickyard win.
A California native, Gordon moved to Indiana before high school to race around the Midwest. Like Stewart, he was enamored with Indy but his path into NASCAR made him believe he’d never get a shot to race at the speedway, which has been home to the Indy 500 since 1911.
Then the speedway opened its gates to NASCAR, and a 23-year-old Gordon won the inaugural event. It was only his second career victory, but remains one of the biggest in a career of 89 wins and four championships.
“My love for Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 goes way back to when I was racing in California, and I was racing open wheel cars on an oval,” he said. “Sprint cars were what I looked up to and what I loved to watch as a kid. The drivers were my heroes. The (Indy 500) was one that I always put on the calendar that I was going to watch. I always wanted to race there, and to get that opportunity, especially an opportunity to win, it just is a way to live out a childhood dream.”
Gordon also won the Brickyard in 1998, 2001 and 2004. Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, tied his mark with wins in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
Gordon recalled the excitement surrounding his first race at Indy, which sold out in less than 24 hours after the ticket office opened.
“Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big that event was, how popular it was among fans, not just traditional NASCAR fans but new fans to the sport,” Gordon said. “So many fans and you just couldn’t walk anywhere without getting mobbed. That just showed you the impact and significance of that inaugural event.”
Stewart, a two-time Brickyard winner, never got his victory in the Indianapolis 500. But he treasures his two NASCAR wins and looks forward to returning to his home track every year. He won the race as Ryan Newman’s car owner last year.
“When you grow up 45 minutes from Indy — that is sacred ground to me. It always has been, always will be,” Stewart said. “I don’t care how many times you win there, it’s never enough.”