Fans new to the sport of vintage racing and trying to get their heads wrapped around what is actually taking place can only do it one way — by coming to the track and experiencing it. Without a first-hand look, it’s easy to see the show as a confusing hodgepodge of old cars and aging drivers.
“I have talked to people who were once great fans of racing but have turned away because they feel like it has changed,” says Indianapolis Motor Speedway track historian Donald Davidson. “I tell them to come to the Brickyard Invitational because it is, in many ways, what racing used to be.”
The Brickyard Invitational is part reunion, part industry convention, and entirely a good time. The atmosphere is relaxed, but the drivers and teams still want to win their races. This is especially true among the Indy 500 veterans and other professionals who come for the chance to relive their glory days in the Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am Presented By RACER Magazine.
“I recall speaking with Lyn St. James a couple of years ago and she spoke of a special bond among her peers,” Davidson adds. “People think all the Pros just naturally know each other, but many never raced against each other. Still, they recognize names and faces from media coverage of the ‘500.’ What connects them is that they all share a special bond. They all raced in the Indianapolis 500.”
The SVRA event has become a networking opportunity where people connect and reconnect. St. James met SVRA regular Bruce Hamilton at the 2014 Brickyard Invitational. Since then they have shared his 2008 Indy Lights racer as co-drivers in 60- and 90-minute “enduros” at IMS and other tracks. Darren Manning and John Martin are two drivers who never shared the same track before competing in the Pro-Am event. Now they are collaborating in a coaching and driver development business for aspiring young drivers and vintage drivers on a quest to improve their skills. Another example is Willy T. Ribbs and Al Unser Jr., who recently formed a similar business called Unser-Ribbs Vintage Racing.
“I have known my little brother Al for over 30 years, but over time we didn’t really stay close,” says Ribbs. “I give full credit to Tony Parella for helping both of us stay relevant and find a renewed life in racing. Since Al and I both raced in the first Pro-Am back in 2014, we became very close friends, like family. I’m excited about going into business with him and seeing if we can create some new adventures.”
Understanding the Brickyard Invitational weekend, or any SVRA weekend is all about soaking in the wide variety of race car design, engine sounds, and even smells. The grounds at IMS this week is packed with over 300 racecars and the transporters and motorcoaches associated with them. The cars range in vintage across a span of 100 years from the Pre-1920 Race Car Exhibition Series to 21st-century sports car prototypes, Formula One machines, and Indy cars.
“This weekend has a great vibe,” says Chris Gardner, an enthusiast of Hoosier history who goes by the Instagram handle, ‘Indiana Junkie.’ “The relaxed atmosphere is just pure fun. Everything is so accessible. You can roam the garage areas and even poke your head under the hood of some amazing machines. No credentials are necessary. It’s good to share with your family. Kids get in free and can go into the garage areas too.”
Scott Gauger is an Indianapolis resident who has a long history of signing onto pick-up team roles for race teams in May who need extra hands for the month. Scott has a couple of winner’s rings to show for it, including one for being part of Takuma Soto’s team in 2017.
“This is a wonderful event and the more a person roams the IMS grounds, the more racers and history you come across,” Gauger relates. “You might walk into a garage and find a guy like Johnny Rutherford just standing there, looking at an Indy roadster.”
Rutherford served as grand marshal for the weekend and spent a great deal of time simply tooling around in a golf cart to visit old friends or check an interesting car. The Patrick Petroleum Special he drove in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 was speeding around the circuit this weekend. When asked about his grand marshal role, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion chuckled.
“It sure sounds important, doesn’t it?” Rutherford says with a smile. “Oh, they ask me to do a few ceremonial things like give the command for the Pro-Am drivers to start their engines or do an autograph session, but mostly it’s about fellowship and camaraderie. This atmosphere is so informal, so relaxed, compared to the hectic, high pressure of competing in the Indianapolis 500 or other major races. I really enjoy just chatting with fans and listening to their stories about watching all us old guys race years ago.”
In a similar role as “Chief Steward” was another three-time Indy 500 winner, Bobby Unser. He doesn’t get around as fast as he used to, but his mind and biting wit are sharp as ever. Still a most recognizable character, “Uncle” Bobby motored his golf cart about the grounds so much that at times he seemed ubiquitous. Fans called his name and he coasted to a stop to sign any number of pictures of his old cars, models, and checkered flags.
Other big-name drivers without assigned roles can be found roaming the grounds like any other fan. Scott Goodyear, perhaps the best-known Indy 500 runner-up of the last 50 years, was seen catching up with fellow Canadian and Pro-Am driver Ron Fellows. As he walked, he was greeted by fans and acquaintances of the past, some seeking a conversation, others an autograph.
The informality of the entire weekend is exemplified by how several of the Pros raced in other events beyond the Pro-Am. Max Papis rode a motorcycle in the vintage moto sessions and races. Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham brought other cars and ran in enduros, as did Davey Hamilton and Lyn St. James. Geoff Brabham continued his winning ways in SVRA with another victory driving Ron Horning’s 1971 Brabham BT-35 in Group 2.
In addition to the drivers, many of the SVRA crews have professional mechanics and engineers who previously competed at the highest levels of the sport. Jay Creech, of Jay Creech Motorsports in Avon, Indiana just west of Indianapolis, was previously a top mechanic with IndyCar and Indy Lights teams of Gerry Forsythe and Ron Hemelgarn. He saw an opportunity for a good living and a more enjoyable career path by opening a prep shop to support vintage racers.
“Vintage racing in general and this weekend, in particular, is just so enjoyable for everyone,” says Creech. “The competition is serious but never ruthless. I love the camaraderie. People help one another, even your competitors. It’s the way I remember racing used to be.”