News & Media

Retro: Moving race triggers Indy short track memories

July 08, 2011, Mark Aumann,

The Nationwide Series has been making an annual visit to the Clermont, Ind., short track now known as Lucas Oil Raceway every season since 1982. But that partnership is about to come to an end, at least for the foreseeable future.

With "The Night Before The 400" being moved to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning in 2012, the 30th edition of the Nationwide Series race later this month will perhaps close the book on NASCAR's first flirtation with expanding what was once known as the Busch Series outside of its traditional southeast fanbase.

Tony Stewart, a native of Indiana, has raced there in both open wheel and stock cars.

"I think it's cool for IMS," he said. "I'm kind of sad for [LOR] though because I know from my history [there] that was a big event that we all looked forward to as USAC drivers, getting to watch the Nationwide guys come. I think it's cool, but it's kind of mixed emotions on both sides."

How popular has LOR been to both NASCAR fans and drivers alike over the past three decades? Three members of NASCAR's Hall of Fame -- Bobby Allison, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip -- competed there. And Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace have been the only Sprint Cup champions since 1980 to have not made a start in either the Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series there.

The track can trace its roots back to 1958, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway chief steward Tom Binford, Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward and several local businessmen pooled their resources to buy the property west of the Speedway for a proposed 2.5-mile road course and drag strip, calling it Indianapolis Raceway Park. Three years later, the group added the .686-mile oval, used mainly for weekly midget and sprint car racing, including an event called "The Night Before The 500" in May.

When NASCAR created the Busch Series from its Sportsman division in 1982, Indianapolis Raceway Park was added to the schedule. At the time, Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina was the farthest west the series had gone. And it would be another 12 years before the Cup cars would race at the Brickyard.

That first race featured the first of Morgan Shepherd's three victories at LOR. He bested a field of 30 cars, which included future Hall of Famers Allison and Pearson, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty and the series debut of all-time wins leader Mark Martin, who finished 26th.

Shepherd's three wins came in three different makes. He drove an Oldsmobile in 1982, a Pontiac in 1984 and wheeled a Buick into Victory Lane in 1988.

In addition to Allison, Pearson and Jarrett, several other former and future Daytona 500 winners made the journey to Raceway Park in the '80s -- Geoff Bodine, Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

For unknown reasons, the track has been an excellent launching point for the Nationwide Series careers of a number of well-known drivers. In 1983, Tim Richmond finished 18th in his Busch Series debut. Michael Waltrip made his initial Busch Series start at Raceway Park in 1988 and returned the next year to win the race.

In 1997, Bobby Labonte put Stewart in a Joe Gibbs Racing car for the first time in Stewart's career. And a relative unknown from California named Jimmie Johnson showed up in 1998 for his first taste of NASCAR and wound up 25th.

The track has also had its share of first-time winners. Joe Nemechek scored his first Busch Series win there in 1992. Three years later, Jason Keller crossed the start/finish line first. And Jason Leffler scored the first win for Toyota in the series in 2007.

Close finishes? How about Tommy Houston beating Darrell Waltrip by three feet in a side-by-side duel to the line in 1983. Runaway victories? Kyle Busch led 197 of 200 laps in 2008 in the second of his three wins there.

For a track that puts a premium on passing, there have been some impressive worst-to-first runs. In 1994, Mike Wallace started last and made it to the lead, only to be black-flagged and sent to the rear of the field. He raced back through the field and took the lead -- and the win -- when Johnny Benson Jr. blew a tire with just two laps to go.

Then there was 2009, when Carl Edwards started 42nd and won, while Busch went from 41st to second and Matt Kenseth climbed from 34th to third.

In the Nationwide Series record book, Shepherd and Busch share the top spot with three wins apiece, while Jason Keller, Kevin Harvick and Randy LaJoie each won twice. For the Trucks, Ron Hornaday Jr. has scored four victories there, while Mike Skinner and Jack Sprague have two each.

Dennis Setzer is the last driver in the Truck Series to win from the pole, and he's also the most consistent driver with 13 lead-lap finishes in 14 career starts.

For Edwards, the final Nationwide event at LOR later this month will be bittersweet.

"It will make the Raceway Park race more special this year knowing we won't be there next year," he said. "I really love racing at Raceway Park and I have a feeling it won't be my last race there, even if it is a Silver Crown race or something in the future."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.