ABOVE: A.J. Foyt leads the pack at the 1966 Hoosier Hundred.
It was the second-richest race on the IndyCar schedule and only the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 paid more to win. It was sold out every year. It was nationally televised by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was celebrated with special sections from the city’s three newspapers — The Indianapolis Times, News and Star.
And it featured all the stars of American open-wheel racing.
For the better part of three decades (1953-75) The Hoosier Hundred was the most prestigious prize in dirt racing and only took a back seat to that other show run in Indianapolis during May.
“It meant everything if you were a young driver trying to make a name in USAC and it paid damn good too,” said A.J. Foyt, the all-time winner (six) of what became a fall classic in Indianapolis. “I loved that race and it’s a damn shame to hear it’s going away.”
Foyt’s comments came on the heels of the announcement that this May 23rd will be the final time USAC’s dirt cars will perform at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The historical mile oval is being converted from dirt to an all-weather surface of crushed limestone to be utilized year-round for harness training and parking for the Indiana State Fair.
The news was not a surprise because the horse contingent has been trying to get rid of auto racing at the Fairgrounds for years. And, to be honest, despite the efforts of promoter Bob Sargent, the annual dirt race on East 38th Street is a shadow of those glory days when 25,000 people packed the place.
From its early beginnings with Triple A, the Hoosier Hundred had no equal in stature and purses. Foyt, Al Unser (four wins), Jimmy Bryan (three), Rodger Ward (two), Mario Andretti (two), Bob Sweikert and Parnelli Jones grew their reputation and bank accounts.
“It was the biggest purse next to Indianapolis,” said Super Tex, who collected $18,268 for his victory in 1965 — equaling what Mickey Rupp made that year for finishing sixth at the Indy 500. “It paid $100 to lead a lap and I led 97 laps in 1966 and made $17,000 even though my brake pedal broke and I finished second.”
The Hoosier Hundred was a big deal at the box office and the pay window because if you were an Indy driver then you also had to be adept on the dirt. DuQuoin, Springfield, Sacramento and the Fairgrounds were part of USAC’s Championship Trail and those places played to full grandstands because A.J., Ward, Mario, Rutherford, Ruby, Rufus, Hurtubise, Sachs, Marshman, Larson, McCluskey and the Unsers were always there.
But then USAC made the first of several fatal mistakes. In 1971, it removed the dirt races from the national championship and created a separate Silver Crown series. That didn’t have an immediate affect on attendance as Foyt, Andretti and Big Al still ran dirt races for a few more years but it gradually took its toll. Without Indy’s big names competing, the crowds began falling and national television no longer had any interest.
More importantly to USAC’s faithful, it cut the artery to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the future generations of midget and sprint car drivers because the versatility of running dirt and pavement was no longer required in IndyCar.
“They never should have taken the dirt cars out of the championship,” continued Foyt, who promoted the Hoosier Hundred from 1997-2001 and also tried a spring race called the Hulman Hundred. “That was a big mistake because car owners needed guys who could run dirt, road courses, short ovals and Indianapolis but that all changed. And not for the better.”
For now, Sargent will be trying to give the 64th and final Hoosier Hundred a memorable sendoff as Silver Crown boss Kody Swanson goes for a record fifth win a row (Al Unser scored four straight from 1970-73).
“The thing that’s really sad is that we were going in a positive direction and had a good crowd last year,” said Sargent, whose passion has kept places like Terre Haute up and running. “We may have a couple of options for 2020 but it’s too early to say what they are, so we’ll just concentrate on trying to fill the place next month.”
A.J. reckons he’ll try to talk Parnelli into one last trip to the Fairgrounds.
“The Hoosier Hundred was a big part of my career and the history of Indy cars,” said IndyCar’s all-time winner. “I’m just glad I was around for those days.”