Virtually ignored was a 24-year-old driver and girlfriend who were making their first visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I was on the right side of the plane by the window as we came in and I saw the track,” said Stephan Gregoire, “and I thought it looked huge.”
It would lead to a fascinating journey for Gregoire and his now-wife, Virginie, as they entered a brave new world.
“I’m glad I didn’t know much about Indy, and that helped ease the pressure,” Stephan Gregoire said. “Before we went to Indy, we took Jimmy Vasser’s backup car out to Putnam Park for a day. My first time on the track was with a veteran driver in a pace car, and I didn’t know who it was. It turned out to be Rick Mears.
“Rookie Orientation was very important. I had never driven a car with more than 200 horsepower and those Buicks had, what, 1,000? To me, Indy is the hardest oval you can find. You feel like the banking is flat. The long straights give you time to rest and think about the next corner.”
Growing up, the Indianapolis 500 was far from Gregoire’s mind in Vittel, France.
“I read a book that made reference to a driver racing at Indy as a kid, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. I didn’t know it was an oval. I wanted to be a Formula One driver. They never showed it on TV over there until the same year that everyone wanted to watch Mansell. Emmanuel Lupe, who had brought Phillippe Gache to Indy in ‘92, put together a rental with Dick Simon for me.
“Now we know much more about the Indianapolis 500. A young driver would think about Indy cars or NASCAR, but I wasn’t in the same era. I’m only 41, but they were showing only Formula One and Rally back then.”
He had come to Nazareth, Pa., the previous year for the CART season closer as a spectator.
“That was the first oval race I ever saw,” Gregoire said. “I went with my dad and Lupe. It was amazing … the Andrettis and Rahal. I loved it. Little did I know at the time I’d be racing at Indy.”
When he arrived, he didn’t speak English, but Virginie, who speaks five languages, translated. Today, his English is better than most Americans.
Qualifying came and nerves set in.
“I was really questioning whether I could do 220 four times in a row,” Gregoire said. “It was surprising, including myself. It was very difficult, and I’m very proud of that.”
His qualifying average was 220.851 mph, seventh fastest of the starting 33. And he led Lap 69 of the race.
“That first Indy was my most memorable moment in racing,” he said.
It led to a workmanlike career in the Indy car ranks … and a new home.
“The welcome of this town was so good to us was the reason we stayed,” said Gregoire from his Carmel, Ind., residence. “Mari George was a big part of that. She’s done a lot for me. The reason we’re here I owe to Mari George. We like it here. It’s home here. We go back to France to visit, but it’s home here.”
Gregoire is not retired and is looking forward to the Le Mans 24 Hours in a GT1 car, in addition to driving the series’ two-seater on ride-arounds. Virginie has been a marketing consultant to Eli Lilly for 10 years.
The Gregoires have three children: Eliza, 9; Romeo, 6; and Josephine, 1.
And on Feb. 25, they reached another plateau, becoming U.S. citizens.
“We’re officially Hoosiers and very proud,” said Virginie.
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