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Ask Donald Davidson - November 7th, 2011: Senna's test and Gasoline Alley

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson has been the expert on the history of the Racing Capital of the World since he arrived in Central Indiana in the mid-1960s. Now 2010 Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee Davidson is answering your questions periodically in this blog!

Q: Is there any truth that the late Ayrton Senna had a test run with Penske at the Speedway, back in November 1993?

-- Michael Brucker Jr. via email

A: Senna did in fact test with Penske, but it was the week of Christmas 1992 and it took place at Firebird Raceway (a road course) in Phoenix, rather than IMS. The situation was that Senna was not at all happy with his current lot in Formula One and was undecided as to whether or not to stay with McLaren (which he did), especially in view of the fact that Honda would not be returning for 1993. Largely through the efforts of fellow Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, Senna showed up at Firebird, and under Emmo's tutelage, took a number laps in a Marlboro-liveried Penske car.

Not surprisingly, everyone involved was extremely impressed with his runs, and Emmo pushed for Senna to come on as teammate to Paul Tracy and himself, Rick Mears having just announced his retirement at the Penske Christmas party a couple of weeks earlier. There are several minutes of footage of that day available on YouTube, including an interview (in Portuguese) conducted with Senna and Emmo during which time Senna comes over as even a little bashful, the two of them clearly having great affection for each other.

 

With Nigel Mansell already confirmed as joining Mario Andretti at Newman/Haas and Nelson Piquet expected to return with John Menard (which he did), Emmo was fantasizing that there could be at least five World Champions at Indianapolis in 1993. There would only be four. The next step was to get Senna on an oval, which never happened, and it wasn't before he was re-signed with McLaren for another year of F1.

In the meantime, longtime Penske engineer Chuck Sprague, who had been somewhat apprehensive as what Senna might be like to work with, was absolutely amazed that he showed up at Firebird as the lone passenger in Fittipaldi's rental car. No handlers, no entourage, just himself. He was extremely polite, very complimentary about the car and gave tons of feedback after very few laps.

The following day, Senna accompanied the team over for a test on the other side of town at PIR's oval with Fittipaldi and Tracy, and he paid plenty of attention but declined to take any laps. He shook hands with everyone involved when he left and a year later, Chuck was flabbergasted to receive a Senna Christmas card.

Q: I recently visited a signage business in Indianapolis, located at the southern tip of a road called Gasoline Alley. When I looked at the map, although there are northern sections of this road that bear other names, it might have originally led right up to the track itself? So is there a historical connection between the lower stretch of this road and the track?

-- Mel Francis, Oconomowoc, Wis.

A: We know it well, and we'll hazard a guess that the signage business you visited was Freelance Lettering. Prior to 1985—the year in which that stretch was officially re-named Gasoline Alley—it had always been Roena Street. It did cause some confusion at the time—and since—one having to specify precisely which "Gasoline Alley" was being referenced, that of course, having been the nickname applied to the Garage Area at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a mile to the north as far back as the 1920s. And yes, it did lead directly to IMS until quite recently, in spite of it going by three different names during the 1.5-mile trip.

We can remember when the Roena stretch (from Vermont Street down to where it dead-ends into Rockville Road) was pretty much out in the country, much of it being occupied by row upon row of fruits and vegetables and several large greenhouses. The sweeping left- and right-hander just south of Vermont Street where Bob East and Steve Lewis had their operation for several years used to be lined with so much foliage overgrowth that to drive through there was almost as if one was travelling through a winding carwash with the brushes on but no water! That's all gone now.

A longtime "500" crew member named Charlie Patterson purchased some property along Roena in 1978, with a view to relocating his driveshaft business there, but after clearing out a bunch of shrubbery, one thing led to another. He began purchasing more and more property and pretty soon was putting up buildings for the purpose of housing race teams, accessory companies and a variety of racing-related businesses. It has been a height of activity for the last 30-odd years, and at the risk of leaving somebody out, we recall at various times over the years Bignotti-Cotter being down there, along with Vince Granatelli, Ron Hemelgarn, Newman/Haas, Riley & Scott, Chris Paulsen's C & R Racing, several drag racing teams, including Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's, Herb Porter's HP Performance (now Speedway Engines run by Rick Long), Rick Hendrick's IMSA GTP team, Dan Gurney, Jud Phillips, Tony Bettenhausen, PacWest, Jackie Howerton, Steve Lewis and Bob East, Alex Morales and Johnny Capels, Elouisa Garza, Mike Fanning, Frank Weiss, Donnie Ray Everett, Jeff Sinden and Joe Kennedy, Gordon Barrett, Bob Lazier, Adrian Fernandez, Pagan Racing (with John Barnes), HVM Racing (driver Simona de Silvestro), J. J. Yeley, Steve Long, Dan Drinan, Jason Leffler, Bud Kaeding, Joe Devin, Gambler, Earl's Supply, Van's Metalcraft and countless others. Over this last winter, Hinchman Uniforms moved in there.

For many years, as you suggest, the journey from IMS down to Gasoline Alley was a direct route, specifically Polco Street running from West 16th Street south to West 10th Street, followed by Grande Avenue from 10th to Vermont Street and finally Roena/Gasoline Alley down to Rockville Road where it dead-ends. Polco and Grande have retained their names, but the very handy direct route to IMS did come to an end a few months ago when the Town of Speedway closed a portion of Grande Avenue in a transaction made with Allison Transmission.

The name Polco, by the way, has an Allison connection. Now approximately 100 years old, the name is derived from using five letters out of "Prest-O-Lite Company," the firm underwritten in 1904 by Carl Fisher and Jim Allison for about $5,000 and then sold in 1917 to Union Carbide for $9 million!

Send your questions to Donald by clicking here!

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