Arie Luyendyk quietly compiled some of the most impressive achievements in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Aside from being a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Luyendyk holds the IMS one- and four-lap speed records, and his average speed over 500 miles of 185.981 mph in 1990 is a mark that is unlikely to ever be broken.
A native of Holland, Luyendyk rose through the European open-wheel formula car ranks in the late 1970s but his break came when he moved to America to compete in the SCCA Super Vee championship. He attracted the attention of his countryman Aat Groenevelt, who began to sponsor Luyendyk under the Provimi Veal banner.
“It was like he became my American dad,” Luyendyk recalled. “He saved my career and made my career, and he was also a friend of mine.”
Luyendyk won the 1984 Super Vee championship and finished eighth in his Indy car debut at Road America. The following year, he and Groenevelt teamed up for a full season in the CART-sanctioned IndyCar World Series. One of his best races was the Indianapolis 500, where he finished seventh and claimed “Rookie of the Year” honors.
The Dutchman was pretty much a journeyman in the later half of the 1980s, his best year coming in 1987 when he complied eight top-six finishes to end up seventh in the CART championship. His career advanced in 1990 when he joined Doug Shierson Racing; driving the memorable Domino’s Pizza-liveried Lola-Cosworth, he dominated the latter stages of the Indy 500, pulling away to win by nearly 11 seconds over Bobby Rahal.
Although it was Luyendyk’s first Indy car race win, it was anything but a fluke. He always ran well at IMS, and after qualifying third in 1990, he kept leader Emerson Fittipaldi in sight as the Brazilian led 128 of the first 135 laps. But Fittipaldi’s pace may have been too fast, because his Penske-Chevrolet began blistering tires in the searing heat. Fittipaldi would finish third.
It took Luyendyk just 2 hours, 41 minutes and 18.404 seconds to complete the 500 miles, with an average speed nearly 10 mph faster than any other Indy 500 in history or to date.
“The record for the race speed all depends on how many crashes, and there weren’t that many that day (four cautions for 28 laps),” said Luyendyk. “Of course now they close the pits and pack up the field and by the time they let everybody back in a lot of time has passed so the average speed always drops. Then you have the pit speed limit, which we didn’t have.
“After I won the race in 1990 it definitely became a huge part of my life. Obviously the Speedway always wants you around to do certain things and the fans recognize you no matter what you have done outside of the Indy 500. But they always mainly recognize you for winning that race.”
Throughout the rest of his career, Luyendyk’s best performances came at Indianapolis. He finished third in 1991, but after qualifying fourth a year later, was one of many drivers to crash in one of the coldest days in Indianapolis 500 history.
Luyendyk secured the first Indianapolis pole position for himself and Chip Ganassi Racing in 1993, and they finished second behind old nemesis Fittipaldi. In 1995, Luyendyk qualified a Menard-Buick powered car on the front row and finished seventh.
In 1996, Luyendyk was arguably the top Indy car driver who chose to join the newly-formed Indy Racing League. Arie was in a league of his own throughout the month of May, but he had little or no luck. After setting the unofficial IMS track record with a 239.260 mph practice lap, Arie was not able to complete a first-day qualifying run. He came back the following day to set one (237.498) and four-lap (236.986 mph) records, but it earned him only the 20th starting position. The race wasn’t much better, as a collision with an inexperienced driver eliminated Luyendyk.
Arie bounced back to secure pole position for the 1997 race, at a much reduced speed of 218.263 mph in the new IRL-specification car with a normally-aspirated engine. Many caution flags led to a jumbled race with seven different leaders, but the final battle came down to between Luyendyk and his Treadway Racing teammate, Scott Goodyear. Luyendyk got the jump on Goodyear on a Lap 194 restart and held off his teammate through two additional restarts in the last four laps.
“Some people don’t regard 1997 as a true win because all the CART teams were not there, and I can totally understand that,” Luyendyk said. “On the other hand, that was a hard fought win. It wasn’t easy at all. Those early IRL cars were not easy to drive. They had too much weight in the back and the back end never felt great. It was nothing like my 1990 car or my 1996 car. So you were always a little bit on edge and it was a nerve-wracking deal.
“I was nursing or babying it a little bit and with about 40 laps to go, I said to the guys, ‘Can I run it in fifth gear with higher RPM?’ And they said ‘Go for it, the engine is good!’ So then I used it a little bit harder and it worked out.”
In addition to holding the one-lap, four-lap and race records, Luyendyk thus holds the unique distinction of being the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in cars built to CART and IRL specifications.
Luyendyk drove in four additional 500s from 1998 to 2002 but his best result was 13th place.
“Indianapolis has been nothing but positive for me, I have to say,” Luyendyk remarked. “I have pride in being able to be a guy who was able to win races but also go fast in qualifying, and in that regard, be versatile. I know a lot of guys who were really good racers at Indy, but they didn’t care for qualifying. They didn’t want to hang it out, they didn’t want to run low downforce. I always enjoyed putting together that one phenomenal lap.
“I could have won some more races but that’s not necessary to mention, because if you talk to Mario Andretti or even Rick Mears, all those guys could have won more races. I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished there.”
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