By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
It’s normal for a NASCAR fan to be somewhat in awe of his or her surroundings on the first visit to a Sprint Cup speedway.
For drivers, however, the same sort of experience is rare.
It happened in 1994, though. Twenty years ago, the Sprint Cup Series, after a landmark decision, raced for the first time at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For NASCAR to finally break through at a racing facility that now has been in operation for more than a century was a stellar moment for stock car racing and its officials, drivers and fans.
Especially the drivers.
Dale Jarrett, who won the Brickyard 400 twice for Ford Racing (each time for Robert Yates Racing), remembers the drama well.
“It was just overwhelming, trying to take in everything that was happening,” said Jarrett, now a television analyst. “It was a lot like I remember Daytona for the first time -- larger than life, and in a couple of ways.
“You have your expectations. I had been there, but getting on the track was simply incredible. Then finding out the difficulty of it in stock cars was overwhelming because it certainly wasn’t built with stock cars in mind. But I loved that challenge about it.”
Ford Fusion drivers will take that challenge again Sunday in the Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 At The Brickyard, a 160-lap test over the most famous speedway in the world. The 2.5-mile rectangular track demanded quite an adjustment for the Ford drivers hitting the speedway for the first time in 1994.
“It took a while to figure out the proper line,” Jarrett said. “It was a little intimidating. You have two hugely long straightaways, so you had a lot of time to think. To work up to the point of making the proper entrance into the corners was the thing that was the most difficult to me.
“You could drive it in straight, and it wasn’t very difficult, but it wasn’t very fast, either, in doing that. So to properly get yourself into position to enter the corner and carry your speed and make the fast time around, it took something totally different than what you really felt comfortable doing in the beginning. That took some time to work up.”
Although the two ends of the track appear similar, Jarrett said driving the course requires different approaches in the turns.
“Even though symmetrically it looks like if you figure out Turn 1 you should be able to handle Turn 3 and if you do Turn 2 well and can figure that out then Turn 4 should be pretty much the same, but that couldn’t be more different,” he said. “Things that you do to go into Turn 1 and make that work and set yourself up for Turn 2 is completely different from what you have to do in (Turns) 3 and 4.”
Additionally, Jarrett said, driving the track on race day took things to another level.
“By the time you got to the race and the stands were filled, you felt like you were looking at a totally different place,” he said. “It took me more time then to acclimate myself to exactly what I was looking at. It was unbelievable to see a sea of people there. It was just amazing just how much it changed the look of the racetrack itself.
“You already knew that the frontstretch was relatively narrow for such a big place, but when you put all those people in there, it looked like a two- or three-groove track had gone down to almost single-file racing. Obviously, it wasn’t that, but it gave you that picture.”
When the first green flag flew in 1994, Jarrett said he experienced one of the most memorable laps of his career.
“It was one of the most inspiring first laps I can ever remember taking,” he said. “You knew you had to pay attention because that was going to be a tight corner going into one with stock cars side by side, so you had to pay attention, but trying to take everything in was simply amazing.”
Jarrett won the Daytona 500 in 1993 and 1996 before scoring at Indy for the first time in 1996. The wins compare favorably, he said.
“Before I won at Indy, I had won Daytona twice,” he said. “Up to that point, it had been by far the most special thing I had achieved. I hadn’t ever given even a thought to having the opportunity to race at the Brickyard, much less go to a victory lane where I had watched so many great champions in motorsports go.
“It was overwhelming, an unbelievable feeling to know that I had achieved something that never had been in my thoughts. It’s an incredible place to race, but to visit that victory lane is something that you’ll have and hold. I sit in my office every day and look at those trophies and bricks they’ve given me, and to this day it’s a special feeling.”