When Tony Stewart announced his decision last week to decline Roger Penske’s offer of a ride in the Indy 500, a chorus of boos rained down on him from an otherwise friendly crowd.
But the boos and criticism of Stewart were misguided. It’s not Stewart’s fault he won’t race at Indianapolis.
So who’s to blame? The government – of course.
For more than 60 years the Indianapolis 500 was always held on Memorial Day, May 30, no matter what day of the week it fell on – except if it fell on a Sunday. Then it was held on Saturday or Monday.
When the current Charlotte Motor Speedway opened for operation in 1960, its May race was scheduled for the Sunday before Memorial Day. As a result there was never a direct conflict.
During those years a couple of NASCAR drivers gave Indy a try. Curtis Turner, after being banned for life by NASCAR for his unionizing activities in 1961 and struggling financially (he was later reinstated by NASCAR in 1965), talked Smokey Yunick into letting him drive Yunick’s Indy car in 1962. Yunick was not only a leading NASCAR builder; he entered the Indy 500 nearly every year and was the winning crew chief on the 1960 car. But Turner crashed the car in practice and did the same thing ’63, wrecking so badly Yunick vowed he’d never let Turner drive an Indy car again for fear he’d kill himself. In 1963 Junior Johnson also showed up at the track in a roadster with a complete roll cage, something not typically seen on Indy cars. He practiced in the car but elected not to attempt to qualify.
It wasn’t until 1965 that Bobby Johns, a NASCAR regular with a couple of Cup wins under his belt, qualified for the 500. He’d also tested – and crashed – Yunick’s unique sidecar racer while attempting to qualify for the ’64 race. But in ’65, thanks to his Firestone and Ford connections, he found himself in the Lotus team car to eventual winner Jimmy Clark. Johns skipped Charlotte to focus on Indianapolis, where he finished sixth. The Wood Brothers worked the pits for the Lotus team on race day and were one of the reasons Clark was able to coast to victory.
Cale Yarborough decided to run at Indy in ’66, but was forced to skip Charlotte when he had to qualify on the second weekend at Indy, a direct conflict with the 600. The following year Cale became the first driver to run both races, finishing 41st at Charlotte on Sunday and 17th at Indy on Tuesday. Lee Roy Yarbrough also raced at Indianapolis that year, but had elected to skip the Charlotte race.
In ’68, Jerry Grant, who passed recently away and was primarily a road racer at the time, became the second driver to run both Charlotte and Indy. In ’69 Yarbrough ran both, winning the Charlotte race in the process.
The most successful of all the drivers running both races was Donnie Allison, who drove for A. J. Foyt despite being a “taxi cab” driver according to Foyt. Allison who won Charlotte in 1970 on Sunday and then finished fourth at Indy. He was impressive again the next year, finishing sixth at Indy on Saturday and second at Charlotte the next day.
Just when things were starting to get interesting, the government stepped in and screwed it up, passing the Uniform Holiday Act in 1971, moving the celebration of most holidays to Monday so workers could have a three-day weekend. Memorial Day would be celebrated on the last Monday of the May. Charlotte continued to run on the Sunday before Memorial Day while the 500 was moved to Monday.
Cale Yarborough ran at Indy in ’72 and Bobby Allison tried his hand at the Speedway in ’73, both electing to skip the 600 the day before.
In 1974 the Indianapolis 500 was moved to Sunday for the first time. Fans had requested the move, wanting to use Monday as a travel day. It’s an indication of the status of the two races at the time that USAC didn’t give much thought to the conflict with Charlotte. Now the Speedway was willing to change the starting time of the race to get Stewart back.
Bobby Allison ran at Indy again in ’75, skipping Charlotte. The Alabama Gang must have had a special attraction for Indy as Neil Bonnett was ready to bypass Charlotte and run the 500 in ’79 but car troubles got in the way. Then nothing.
It wasn’t until 1993 when Charlotte moved its race to Sunday night that the possibility of running both races returned. John Andretti was the first to run both races in one day ‘94, followed by Robby Gordon and Stewart. Stewart had the most success, becoming the only driver to run all 1,100 miles in 2001.
In search of improved TV ratings, Indy moved its starting time later in the day for 2005, effectively eliminating any possible hope of a driver running in both races. Last year the time was moved back to a 12 noon start in hopes of attracting someone to run the double, but no one stepped forward.
Now that Stewart has turned down Penske, it’s unlikely anyone will attempt the double this year.
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