They hold a race on Memorial Day weekend every year at what is now O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis (nee Indianapolis Raceway Park) called the Night Before the 500. It’s a United States Auto Club Midget Series race, and this year’s renewal will be the 63rd edition – with this year’s version sponsored by Toyota. But while I was there, we had breweries footing the bill: First Budweiser, then Miller, then Coors. I’m not sure of the years it changed, but all I can remember is that it was Bud in my first years working at the track.
Anyways, in 1989 a youngster showed up for the race driving a midget owned by Rollie Helmling of Vincennes, Ind. The boy was only 17 and hadn’t graduated from high school yet, but he had made quite a name for himself driving sprint cars on dirt. Bob East, designer and builder of Beast open-wheel chassis, got one look at him and told Rollie he had to let this kid drive his car.
That proved to be a very smart decision. The boy started off by setting a new track record in qualifying, then won the 50-lap feature on the challenging .686-mile paved oval. After the race, I was told it was his first time in a midget, and I was incredulous. Heck, we couldn’t even give him a drink of the sponsor’s product in victory lane – he was way too young!
The next year, the boy came back and won the race again, this time in convincing fashion. A short time later, he moved from midgets to stock cars, settling into a Busch Series ride that would quickly lead to the Cup opportunity of a lifetime.
You’ve probably figured out by now that the kid’s name was Jeff Gordon, because he became the star of ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder series from our track in those two years. No use going on about all he’s done since then.
Eight years later, a kid named Ryan Newman showed up and won the 1997 renewal. He was only 19 at the time, and once again, there was no beer in the winner’s ceremony. The second time Newman took it, in 1999, he was at least old enough to celebrate with the sponsor reps. That, too, was one of the kid’s last midget wins one year before stock car racing came calling.
A year later, lightning struck again – and as the pattern continued, it did so twice.
This kid’s name was Kasey Kahne, and he was just 20 when he won the race for the first time in 2000. He repeated in 2001.
I remember USAC’s Jason Smith telling me at the time, “I think we’ve got another example of the real thing, here.”
By then, of course, Gordon had already won three Cup championships and was working on the fourth; and Newman was on the verge of what would be a long-term relationship with Roger Penske, one that continues to this day.
Darrell Waltrip once said that drivers of midget and sprint cars do well in NASCAR because they learn to live on the right-rear tire and figure out how to “feel” a racecar. Well, those three certainly did: Gordon was Rookie of the Year in 1993, Newman in 2002 and Kahne in 2004.
The memories of watching those guys come through the ranks, along with Tony Stewart, Mike Bliss, Jason Leffler and others, made those years some of the best of my life. We even had one guy win that race, along with other midget and sprint car races, who went on to drive an NHRA Top Fuel Dragster – Doug Kalitta.
This column might not be the most entertaining I’ve ever written, but I felt with Memorial Day weekend coming up, it was time for it. Besides, it makes me feel even better about the people I’ve met and what I’ve seen them do. I can tell you this much – take a look at who wins the Night Before the 500 this year. You never know if, or when, they might pop up in the stock car ranks. The pattern is there – and if this year’s winner is still a teenager, at least they’ll be able to use the product that sponsored the race.