What If? Some Indy 500 Winners Could Have Enjoyed Brickyard Glory

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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This weekend, Juan Pablo Montoya will arrive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a chance to become the first Indianapolis 500 winner to add an Allstate 400 at the Brickyard victory to his resume.

There have been 13 previous editions of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series classic at IMS, and "500" winners A.J. Foyt and Danny Sullivan were in the starting lineup in the inaugural event in 1994. But neither had a realistic shot to win against the NASCAR elite. Montoya has quickly made himself a member of that elite just as he did when he won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2000.

But what if there had been a NASCAR race at IMS before 1994? Who among the Indy 500 winners of the 1948-93 era - NASCAR was formed in 1948 - had a stock-car career that would have made him a serious contender on home turf?

Two names jump off the page: Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, both Daytona 500 winners at the height of their Indy car careers.

But Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue each won a major NASCAR event to complement their respective Indy victories. Johnny Rutherford, Rodger Ward and Troy Ruttman all had notable success in full-bodied stock cars before NASCAR came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There has been a connection between the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR since Bill France founded the organization in 1948. The first NASCAR champion, Red Byron, was a former AAA big car driver whose Indy dreams were short-circuited by combat injuries in World War II, and the winner of the first Southern 500 at Darlington in 1950, Johnny Mantz, finished seventh in the 1949 Indy 500.

The first attention-grabbing performances by Indy drivers in stock car competition came in the Carrera Panamericana, better known as the Mexican Road Race, a week-long marathon spanning the length of that country. Mantz finished fourth in the 1950 inaugural.

The first Indianapolis 500 winner to appear in the Carerra was Ruttman in 1951, a few months before he won the 1952 Indianapolis 500.

Driving a 1948 Mercury coupe prepared by master mechanic Clay Smith, who also served as co-driver, Ruttman led at the Mexico City halfway point and finished fourth overall, winning more than $11,000, including contingency money. Another future Indy 500 winner was along for the ride in the 1951 Carrera: Bobby Unser, age 17, was co-driver for his father Jerry Unser's Jaguar. They failed to finish either that race or the following year's Carrera.

By 1953, there were three Indy winners, or winners-to-be, in the Carrera: Bill Vukovich, Ward, and Jim Rathmann. For the last Carrera, in 1954, Vukovich was the leader of the powerful Lincoln team which aimed for a hat trick after '52 AAA champion Chuck Stevenson had won the previous two races. The Mad Russian - "El Ruso Loco" in Spanish - was the only Lincoln team driver to avoid a plague of engine failures due to bad fuel, but to no avail. Vukovich and co-driver Vern Houle crashed over a cliff and landed on a narrow rock ledge, from which they gingerly crawled to safety.

With the days of the Mexican adventure drawing to a close, the rest of the 1950s offered few stock car opportunities for the Indy 500 winners outside the fledgling AAA stock car circuit, which came under USAC's stewardship in 1956. NASCAR opportunities expanded as the 1960s dawned, and the golden era of USAC stock car racing arrived.

The USAC stock car circuit of the 60s was built around four annual races at the Milwaukee Mile, plus the Springfield and DuQuoin state fair races on dirt that are still run under ARCA sanction. There was even a race in Indianapolis during the month of May - the Yankee 300 on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park. While lacking prestige events of NASCAR stature, USAC's tour attracted the interest of the race-minded executives in Detroit.

Multi-car teams from some of the top race shops in the nation contested the series, including Plymouths from Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., Pontiacs and later Dodges from Ray Nichels of Munster, Ind., Fords from the Milwaukee-based Zecol-Lubaid team, and a Mercury fleet from the old master of the Carrera-dominating Lincolns, Californian Bill Stroppe. The driving lineup was loaded with Indy car stars who never won the "500," including two-time series champion Roger McCluskey, Tony Bettenhausen Sr., Joe Leonard, Lloyd Ruby, Eddie Sachs, Len Sutton, Bobby Marshman and Jim Hurtubise, whose last major victory would come in the 1966 NASCAR Atlanta 500.

And the series also attracted Indy 500 winners.

A.J. Foyt raced for Nichels in the early 1960s, had a successful run with Nelson's Plymouth in 1963 and then rejoined Nichels and Dodge to win his first of two straight Firecracker 400's at Daytona in 1964. His '65 Firecracker win was in a Holman-Moody Ford. The Texan would remain a fixture in the "taxi cabs," as open-cockpit purists derisively branded stock cars at that time, winning the USAC title in 1968 for Jack Bowsher and two more USAC crowns in the 1970s.

Foyt's best-known stock car win was the 1972 Daytona 500, driving for the Wood Brothers. A.J. retired after the inaugural Allstate 400 at the Brickyard with 42 career USAC stock car win, second to Don White on the all-time list, and seven NASCAR triumphs.

Parnelli Jones scored 13 career USAC stock car victories, including seven in a row at Milwaukee, and four with NASCAR, most notably the 1967 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, Calif. While not stock car wins by strict definition, his seven SCCA Trans-Am wins achieved when that road racing series was at its peak as a manufacturers' battleground from 1969-71 are further testament to Ol' Rufus' ability to drive anything with wheels. His Stroppe Mercury teammate in the 1963-64 heyday, Ward, put five USAC stock car wins in the record book, including one shared with Jones as part of his Milwaukee streak.

Parnelli's great rival of the Trans-Am glory days, Mark Donohue, joins Foyt, Jones, Andretti and Montoya as he only drivers today who can claim Indy 500 and modern-era NASCAR Cup Series wins. But his only NASCAR win was at Riverside in 1973, when he also scored the maiden victory for the AMC Matador and became the last non-NASCAR regular to win a Cup Series race. The Penske team did not enter Donohue in oval-track stock car races, not surprising because he was running the USAC Championship Trail and SCCA Can-Am schedules simultaneously.

While Donohue won at Riverside once, Indy 500 standout Dan Gurney won NASCAR events at the famed road course in Southern California five times between 1963-68.

Neither three-time Indy 500 winner Rutherford nor 1969 Indy winner Andretti had extensive stock car careers, but they made their appearances count.

Rutherford, only a couple of years removed from the IMCA sprint car circuit, was tabbed to drive Smokey Yunick's Chevrolet at the 1963 Daytona 500. Yunick was notorious for stretching the rules to the breaking point, but nothing out of line was found in the black and gold #13 that Rutherford drove to win his 100-mile Daytona qualifying race, which counted as a Grand National win at that time. In the Daytona 500, he brushed the wall, allegedly due to a gust of wind, and finished ninth.

When away from the Indy cars, Andretti's interests led him to sports cars and eventually Formula One, but his only NASCAR victory was in the 1967 Daytona 500, driving a Holman-Moody Ford. He's also shown in the record book with one USAC stock car win. No doubt had he run more with a roof over his head, his totals would approach those of Foyt and Jones.

Al Unser spent the late 1960s racing Dodges i