NASCAR drivers usually are fans of all forms of motorsports, and there’s one race outside their circuit that always grabs their attention: the Indianapolis 500.
Some, like Sprint Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who grew up in Indiana, have childhood memories of attending the race. Stewart competed in the Indy 500 five times and won the 1997 IndyCar championship.
Others idolized certain IndyCar racers. Kevin Harvick had a poster of four-time Indy winner Rick Mears, a fellow native of Bakersfield, Calif., in his room as a kid. Kasey Kahne, who grew up expecting to race open-wheel, always looked up to Mario Andretti.
So even as NASCAR’s best prepare for their longest race of the year, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, their thoughts won’t be far from Indianapolis and the 100th running of the Indy 500.
Here are a few favorite Indianapolis 500 memories from some of NASCAR’s A-list drivers:
Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet
“My favorite memory from watching the Indy 500 would have to be the year (1985) Danny Sullivan spun out after taking the lead and still managed to come back and get the win (over Mario Andretti). I remember thinking how crazy it was that he worked his way to the front, spun out and was still able to get back up there and pass Andretti again for the win.
“I love the month of May and all the hype leading up to the Indy 500. I’ve been a big fan since Rick Mears won (Indy) when I was a little kid. We lived in Bakersfield and he was a Bakersfield guy, too. It was really cool to see someone from my hometown get to that level and win so much. When I was little I wanted to grow up and race in the Indy 500 like him.”
Mark Martin, driver of the No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet
“I keep an eye on what goes on at Indy for sure. I think Danny Sullivan’s spin-and-win was pretty awesome. Miller (beer) was the sponsor on his car and I think they were a sponsor on my ASA Late Model car at the time as well, so we had a little kinship in that respect.
“That was pretty incredible to be able to spin like that and keep going and not hit anything and manage to come back and win the race.
“I always watch part of the race. I usually don’t get to see the finish because it’s the driver’s meeting (to attend) and then there are a couple of activities (before the Cup race at Charlotte). But I certainly get to watch the start of the race and a lot of times the first half.”
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
“Some of the better years were when I was glued to the television watching as a kid and was just really, really excited when Al Unser Jr. was a factor and certainly when he won.
“I was always drawn to younger drivers coming along because I wanted to be that driver. And I can remember him (Unser) in his Valvoline car winning and those moments were really cool to me. I also remember being very scared with the start with those cars being three-wide. For a while there they had some terrible, terrible wrecks on the front stretch.
“I also remember Rick Mears and his fire on pit road and how scary that was with Methanol and not being able to see the flames; and here is a guy clearly in pain and trying to get the fire out on himself and no one knew what to do.
“So I have a lot of memories as a kid growing up and watching that and wanting to be a part of it.
“I still pay close attention. No. 1, I’m a fan of all motorsports; it doesn’t matter if it’s F1 or IndyCar or dirt cars or sprint cars or whatever it is. If I can find it on TV, I’m going to tune in and watch it. And then over the years, in meeting different guys, and especially running in the Rolex 24, I know a lot of that field and have a lot of good friends that drive those cars. So I keep a close eye on them. I try not to pick a favorite, but I certainly watch and want everybody to be safe and I enjoy watching those guys do their thing.”
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet
“The one that stands out to me that I watched on TV was when Danny Sullivan spun it and won it. The one time I went to the race, it rained. It was postponed two different days and then I had to go school, so I missed it.
“As a race fan, I feel it has lost a lot of the luster as far as the actual racing now. And it used to mean more when I was racing for (Roger) Penske, just because I always wanted to see how they did. But I still pay attention to it, still watch the start and try to catch the ending.”
Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota
“I love the Indy 500. I’d say the one race I think about as the best moment is the one (in 1992) with Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear. It was a great finish. I always try to watch the race, the hardest part is we usually have four or five meet-and-greets that morning and so I’m running back and forth to the bus trying to watch 10 laps and then out again to the next meet-and-greet.
Tony Stewart, driver/owner of the No. 14 Office Depot-Mobil 1 Chevrolet
“There are a lot of memories. Probably the one — other than when I was driving in the race — was the year (A.J.) Foyt got out of the car and started beating on it with a hammer. That was pretty amazing.
“I think when Danny Sullivan spun and won was the luckiest thing to ever happen to win that race. The impressive thing wasn’t that he saved the car but that he gathered his composure and went on to win.
“I definitely remember my first Indy 500 (as a driver), the race itself and the sight of all those people in the stands and the trash blowing on the track (on) race day and the track being so slick during the race. .. things that weren’t there during practice.
“Really when you think of Indianapolis, you don’t think of one moment. It’s 100 years old. It’s the history of it all.”