The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis gets the green flag Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but the first time they ever tried to marry Indy cars and road racing was in 1965 at Indianapolis Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind.
My buddies and I were geeked beyond belief – not only another chance to see A.J., Mario, Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Jim Hurtubise, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Roger McCluskey and the Unsers just a couple months after the Indianapolis 500, but good odds we could get real close to the action.
Turns out we weren’t as excited as Mario Andretti.
“Nobody lobbied as hard as I did for road course racing,” says Andretti, who had made an instant splash that May by finishing third behind Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones to win Rookie of the year,“so I was in heaven when USAC booked that first road race at IRP.”
At the time, USAC’s championship trail consisted of six paved ovals (Phoenix, Trenton, Milwaukee, Langhorne, Atlanta and Indianapolis), four dirt miles (Springfield, DuQuoin, Sacramento and the Indiana State Fairgrounds) and the Pikes Peak hill climb. In order to reach 18 races, USAC ran three times at Milwaukee in ’65 and twice each at Trenton, Langhorne and Phoenix. But the inaugural Hoosier Grand Prix on July 25 was expected to bring longtime Indy 500 fans, road racing aficionados and people who couldn’t get Indy tickets flocking to the 1.8-mile road course just four miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Built in 1958 to incorporate a road course, drag strip and oval track, IRP hosted sports cars races from 1961-’63 that were won by Augie Pabst, Jim Hall and Dan Gurney. Attendance was minimal to watch sports cars and there was no race in 1964 but USAC figured a road race with its stars would be a box office hit.
“Everybody was excited at this new way to have more racing and get things going,” says Bill Marvel, easily the best promoter USAC ever had who also worked at the Speedway’s press room for 45 years in addition to managing Pocono Raceway and the Houston Astrodome. “Nobody was down on it at all and the drivers were looking for another challenge.”
That first Indy car road race was a little rough around the edges. There were five front-engine dirt cars and nine roadsters among the 24 starters and the 10 rear-engined cars sported only 2-speed gearboxes. Andretti edged Foyt for the pole position and then captured his first-ever Indy car win by beating Bobby Unser to the checkered flag.
“It was my first win and my only win of 1965 but I managed to win the championship,” recalls Andretti, whose road-racing prowess would culminate with the 1978 Formula 1 World Championship. “The thing I remember most about those IRP races was that I could never out-brake Gordon Johncock.”
Mario started second, spun out and then charged back to win again in 1966, then made it three in a row in ’67 before finishing second to Al Unser in ’68. In an effort to try and draw more people, doubleheaders were held in 1968 and 1969 (split by Peter Revson and Gurney) before going back to one race in 1970 – the finale at IRP won by Unser.
Despite the fact tickets were reasonably priced and parking was free, the Hoosier Grand Prix never caught on with the fans. Estimates of the best crowd never topped 8,000 people.
“For some reason it never drew very well and maybe it was too much of a novelty for Indy car fans,” says Andretti. “IRP wasn’t very glamorous, compared to IMS, and there wasn’t much of an infrastructure. But it was the beginning of road racing in Indy cars and today that’s a staple of our series.”
During the next few years, USAC branched out with road races at Riverside (California), Brainerd (Minnesota), Kent (Washington), Castle Rock (Colorado) and Las Vegas in addition to Canada (Mosport and St. Jovite). But, by 1971, it was an all-oval series again before trying England (Brands Hatch and Silverstone) in 1978.
Under CART’s governance starting in 1979, road racing again became prominent on the Indy car schedule and street courses were added to the mix in the early ’80s. Road course races at Elkhart Lake, Mexico City, Cleveland, Montreal, Laguna Seca (LEFT), Edmonton, Watkins Glen and Portland have come and gone during the past 20 years, starting out strong before fading due to The Split of open-wheel racing, lack of title sponsors, or both.
If they draw 25,000-30,000 this Saturday at IMS it will look empty, yet will be somewhat of a success considering the Indy 500 is only two weeks later and May has been devoid of paying customers (except for Carb & Race Day) since 1995. But, nearly 50 years after the first experiment at IRP, there’s still a major question if anybody wants to see Indy cars in Indianapolis on anything but the most famous oval in the world.
“People weren’t used to road racing back then, there was nothing to background it,” says Marvel, who continues to run the USAC Benevolent Fund. “It got good promotion but everyone was used to oval racing and it just didn’t work. I see what IndyCar and IMS is doing, trying to replace the big crowds of qualifying and develop a special week. And Indy cars and road racing are synonymous nowadays so I hope this adds to the month of May. But there’s a lot more things to do nowadays than there was when Pole Day was the second biggest crowd in sports.”
And it’s not like everyone in city is tuned in to what’s going on this weekend. Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner and most popular of the active IndyCar drivers, was stopped three times the other day by people wondering if he was participating in “that Grand Prix race?”