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(Editor’s note: NBC Sports is marking the 25-year anniversary of the eventful 1996 Indy 500 – the first conducted after the IRL-CART split – through an oral history series this week, starting with longtime team owner and sponsor John Menard.)
INDIANAPOLIS – May of 1996 was among the most tumultuous and volatile months in IndyCar history, and few endured more of a roller coaster ride of gut-wrenching emotions than John Menard.
The Indy Racing League team owner won the pole position for the 80th Indianapolis 500 with Scott Brayton, who withdrew a guaranteed spot in the race and nipped Arie Luyendyk with a track-record lap at 233.718 mph in one of the most thrilling qualifying runs in Brickyard history.
Six days later, Brayton was killed in a Turn 2 practice crash because of a cut right-rear tire.
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Menard still entered the ’96 Indy 500 with the top starting position as a relatively unknown open-wheel upstart named Tony Stewart had qualified second for Team Menard. The team had three more V6-powered Lola-Menards in the field (with Eddie Cheever, Mark Dismore and Danny Ongais replacing Brayton), making Menard’s cars both strong contenders and the object of scorn from the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams Series.
With many of IndyCar’s most famous names (Penske, Andretti, Unser and Rahal among them) CART counterprogrammed against Indy with the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, and there was sniping that Menards’ cars were allowed to run illegal turbo boost to post speeds that topped 235 mph (Stewart turned a 237.336 mph on his second day of rookie orientation).
“We went into the month with high hopes, and there was a lot of back and forth between us and the CART people,” Menard told NBC Sports. “We sided with (IRL founder and then-IMS owner) Tony (George) and the Speedway because that’s we did. And it was very emotional from that standpoint, that a lot of the people that you really love to race against were not there. And that all went well, actually. It turned out that I think the Indy 500 carried on a tradition of putting on a really great race and a really great show for the fans.
“For myself personally, I remember that year very, very well from the fact that I lost a good friend. That’s what I remember. Some of the other things that were so important at the time, and were important to the sport and to history, were lost and overlooked a little bit by myself, by my emotional state, especially at the race.”
Since attending his first Indy 500 in 1979 (begging an Indianapolis Motor Speedway staffer for admission to the garage without a credential), Menard has been a fixture in auto racing for more than four decades. Aside from owning IndyCar teams for many years, his home improvement stores have sponsored teams in IndyCar and NASCAR (where his son Paul was a winner of the 2011 Brickyard 400 in the Cup Series). In the 2019 Indy 500, he reached Victory Circle at IMS as the sponsor of Simon Pagenaud’s winning entry for Roger Penske.
Menard, 81, rarely grants one-on-one interviews, but the billionaire home improvement chain founder recently sat down with NBC Sports to recall his memories of May 1996:
Though Brayton would have wound up on the pole position anyway because Luyendyk’s time was disallowed because of an inspection failure, Team Menard went through high drama to get the pole position. With about an hour left in time trials, Luyendyk bumped Stewart off the pole position. So Menard elected to pull Brayton’s primary car (which was safely in the top 10) and roll out a backup that hardly had any laps on track. The Coldwater, Michigan native bettered his previous speed by more than 2 mph to take the pole. In the second round of time trials the next day, Luyendyk turned a 236.986 mph lap that remains untouched as the qualifying record a quarter-century later.
Menard: “We were younger and a lot more foolish then. But we were there to get the pole because the pole was a huge thing at that time. I think that racing has lost a bit in not making more out of the pole position because the pole position at Indy was probably 40% as important as winning the race. It was not as important, but it certainly was a reason to be at Indy in the month of May. Had a lot of fun doing it. The fans had a lot of fun. The partying that took place around the track and in the track during qualifying was great. So I think we lost something in racing in not having the qualifying.
“Of course, we wanted to qualify on pole, and we got really disappointed when we got bumped, and Scotty came over and said, ‘John, I know I can do it. I know I can do it.’ And if I was probably my age today, I wouldn’t have done it. But at the time, the disappointment in not (being on pole) and being bumped. I looked at Scotty and said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘You bet. We’ll get her done.’ So we withdrew the car, which probably 30 seconds after I did it, I had thought that this is either going to be the thing you’re going to be remembered for well all the rest of your life or the thing you’re going to be remembered for being the biggest fool all the rest of your life. And we really didn’t know which way it was going to go. We had a lot of confidence. I had a lot of confidence in Scotty as a driver. Had a lot of confidence in the team. I knew our second car was just as good as our first car, but a lot could go wrong. Everything could go wrong, and it was getting a little time pressure, there wasn’t a lot of time left, but we did it, and off we went, and it was one of those things that you do at the time as a spur-of-the-moment decision that you just hope will go right later, and luckily it did.
“But I’m still thinking about it. When I heard was going to probably have to answer questions about it again after 25 years, I still get a little sweat out of me myself just thinking about Oh, what did you do?”
“Indianapolis used to have a different rhythm to the race. At the time it was the world’s biggest sporting event, bar none. If you got the pole, you had two weeks where — your team, your sponsors, your driver — you were the reigning royalty of Indianapolis. You were the king of Kansas City. It was really a good thing to win from a prestige standpoint. Sometimes you got more publicity for winning the pole than you did for winning the race. Because winning the race, the day after the race, more or less, things got forgotten, everyone is packing up to go to Milwaukee or the next race. But winning the pole, you had two weeks, and it was fun. You got to lord it over all the other teams. It’s what you did for a sportsman.
“The fact that the CART people were off trying to do whatever they were trying to do, and God bless them, they were doing well at it. But we really at Indy and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stole the show with this unbelievable speed. The 236 mph was crazy. Thank God nothing went terribly wrong because you were in experimental aircraft-type happenings. If anything would have gone wrong, it could have been a really big deal. I’m very, very proud of the fact that 25 years later, it’s still the fastest that anybody ever got a car to go there.”
The Team Menard driver lineup for the 1996 Indy 500 was a diverse and eclectic collection of youth, experience and personality. Brayton was an affable journeyman who had become popular with fans and peers while making 14 Indy 500 starts since 1981. The hiring of Ongais (who survived a crash in the 1981 Indy 500 that left him in critical condition with compound fractures in both legs, a broken arm and internal bleeding) was a stunner as the enigmatic Hawaiian hadn’t raced at Indy in 10 years. And Stewart’s introduction on the national racing stage came in the 1996 Indy 500, six years before he’d become a household name with the first of three championships in NASCAR.
Menard: “Scott was this bigger than life personality. He’d just start talking to you, and pretty soon everybody in the whole room was listening to Scott because he was just like, ‘Well, you know … ’ He’d start in and just tell you how it was. And tell you a joke and was entertaining. I had more fun with Scott, and it was just great. If you went along to talk to a sponsor, he was the best wingman you could have because he’d just take over the conversation and be telling stories, and he just had this way about him. He was a big, strong together guy. What you saw is what you got. There was no baloney with Scott. It was totally straightforward. Midwestern, very Midwestern values.
“Scott was very, very fast and very excitable. You had to work a little bit on, ‘OK, we’ve got time. Let’s slow down and think about this. He’d come in after making a qualifying run, and as tight as the seat belts were, and he was very strong then, the seat belts, and he was breathing, and the seat belts would be going up and down, and then you knew you just had to take a little bit of time. Let’s talk about this and then go back out again. He was all about racing. Totally devoted to the sport.
“I’d known Danny for quite a while. He’d driven for Ted Fields. And that whole group was very nice people but also kept to themselves. Very private. Danny was known as the ‘Ghost from the Coast.’ They’d come in, and you wouldn’t even know they were there most of the time. I got to know Danny and got to like him, and he was a very nice man. And a very fast driver. Got into a terrible accident and never really had another chance after that. We’d always kept in touch. We always talked and sit and talk about everything. I liked Hawaii, so he’d tell me stuff about Hawaii. We just talked.
“So when this all happened, I was really going to retire the car, but Scotty’s dad and the crew and everybody and then Scotty’s wife said, ‘No, that’s not what Scotty would want to do.’ I didn’t want to put a young guy in there that didn’t have respect for the situation possibly. I wanted a guy who had been around a little bit and would show the proper respect for situations. And Danny knew Scott and loved him. And so I asked Danny if he’d do it, and he said he would, and he wound up being our best finishing car. But Danny is a really, really nice man.
“Tony was obviously a great young talent, but Tony at the time was pretty much unknown outside of Indiana. He was not Nelson Piquet. Very young. Very, very good and fast race car driver. But it was hard to reason with Tony as far as we’ve got to go slower. That just wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary back then, including my own. I probably should have jumped up and down and done something to the car. Maybe I should have put a bolt under the footbox or something so we didn’t strain things quite as much.”
Stewart led 44 of the 54 laps before his No. 20 fell out of the race with an engine-related mechanical problem, and Ongais finished a team-best seventh. Though Menard believed his cars were the class of the field after qualifying 1-2 with Brayton and Stewart, the 500-mile test proved too tough for a team that was stretched thin with four cars.
Menard: “We knew we had speed. What we didn’t know, and what came back to bite us, was how well we could race. Our old Menard V6 was a fragile beast. We had put together all the crews and stuff. We were basically only going to do Indy. Everything was put together through the spring months, so we had four teams, four cars. You look back, and it was a crazy undertaking, really. We had to put together all those people. I probably underestimated the people side of racing at that time. I was more focused on, ‘Wow, we’re going to get this thing to really, really go fast.’ And we did. We got that done.
“But perhaps on the people side, we had great guys, but we didn’t spend enough time doing pit practice, coordination and the race strategy that the teams do now are phenomenal and do such a good job. If we would have had 4 percent of that, we probably could have won the race. Our whole push or emphasis was on going fast. We were young and foolish and what the heck. We’re having fun and going fast.
“But we could have backed off by 5 percent, 10 percent, probably stretched all the equipment out, took a little more time in the pit stops. So if we lost a spot or two, we would have got it back. If we would have been a little more careful, a little more thoughtful, in that respect, we would have been untouchable. But we weren’t. Tony was very young, very inexperienced and very fast. And he knew one speed, and that was wide open. And God bless him, that was great. But I don’t think the car knew that. The car couldn’t take it.
“Yeah, if we wouldn’t have had mechanical problems, we would have won. Tony would have won. If we wouldn’t have had some issues in the pits, Eddie had a good chance of winning. And Danny had a pretty good chance of winning also, but he started in the back, he didn’t have the fastest pit stops. There was a lot of confusion because he had just come into the situation. Not as good communication perhaps as we had. But those three cars all had a really, really good shot at it. Mark Dismore was driving a more conservative race, but he ran well.
“But those three cars, any one of them could have won. If I had to rank them, Eddie probably had a really good chance. We fouled up in the pits because Eddie was flying. I think Eddie had the fastest race lap that’s ever happened, 238 or something. It was insane. The race was insane. If you look back and think of the things that could have gone wrong at those speeds, you just thank God there wasn’t some horrible situation that would have … because it was too fast. But it sure was cool!”
Menard eventually arrived at the Indy 500 pinnacle 23 years later with Team Penske when Simon Pagenaud won in 2019 from the pole position. Six months later, Roger Penske announced his purchase of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which Menard believes has IndyCar in the best position since being split into the warring factions of the IRL and CART in a civil war that essentially lasted for 14 years and 12 seasons.
Menard: “The 2019 win with Simon was awesome. I was thinking of going back for the (40-year anniversary of his first Indy 500), and Roger was nice enough to bring me along. This was a great deal. Everything went well. Won the race. What more could you ask for? It almost was too easy.
“From a personal standpoint, ’96 was a lot more work. I was there early and late. Everything happened that you can imagine. So probably ’96 sticks out that we didn’t win the race, but it was a more momentous occasion in my life, if you will. But both were great. It’s like asking me if you like this new Ferrari or this new Maserati. Ohh! They’re both great.
“And 25 years later, it’s easy to look back and say, ‘What were you guys fighting about?’ Does anyone really remember what the World War I was about? It was about something for sure. But you have to study it. And hindsight is 20/20, but really that should never have happened, because it was harmful to racing in general. Certainly it was harmful to IndyCar, there’d be no doubt.
“Thank God for Roger. The poor guy takes over the Speedway when COVID hits, and he’s had everything kind of go in a very difficult road to hoe, but to have one unified force, I think it’s going to build and come back. There’s a rich history of open wheel racing in the United States, and there’s a lot of people who like it. I like it. I think he’s going to do very, very well at what he does, and he always does. Who could bet against him?”