It was big news when Kurt Busch hopped into an Indy car in 2014 and did himself and the stock car circuit proud by finishing sixth. And now we’re hoping his brother and NASCAR’s hottest commodity, Kyle, can cross over some May and compete in the Indianapolis 500. But, back in the 1960s and ’70s it was commonplace for some of NASCAR’s biggest names to try their hand at open-wheel racing’s mecca.
Cale Yarborough, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Bobby Johns and Paul Goldsmith (pictured at Indy in 1962) all made Indy starts while Charlie Glotzbach, Neil Bonnett, Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner gave it a quick look but didn’t make the show. Turner did run the 1963 opener at Trenton and finished 12th while also strapping on the dirt of Langhorne and Springfield but failed to qualify at either place.
Richard Petty politely declined various offers to run Indy: “Not for all the gold you pile in front of me,” The King once said.
Those were the days when drivers didn’t have binding contracts and were free to explore other options and Indy was the best payday in all of motorsports.
Indy legends A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti each won NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500, and while the good ‘ol boys have given it a good run, nobody has come close to Victory Lane.
Goldsmith (pictured above at Indy in 1961), a motorcycle champion who went to stock cars in the late ’50s, owns the best finish (third in 1960) among NASCAR regulars and prompted A.J. to say he was the most “under-rated” driver he’d faced.
Yarbrough came the closest to winning an IndyCar race when he was leading 1970’s inaugural California 500 at Ontario with nine laps left before breaking down. The Allisons had the best rides, with Donnie driving for Foyt — where he finished fourth in 1970 (pictured below) and sixth in ’71 — and Bobby hired by Roger Penske in 1973 and again in ’75; he qualified 12th and 13th, but retired both years with mechanical failures.
Journeyman Johns came home seventh in 1965 to capture rookie-of-the-year honors and finished 10th as Jimmy Clark’s teammate in 1969, while Bonnett looked set to qualify in 1979 before getting an offer he couldn’t pass up at his daytime job.
Yarborough shocked everyone by walking away from NASCAR to run IndyCar full-time in 1971 as teammate to Lloyd Ruby. He didn’t have a very good car but showed plenty of moxie, scoring two fifth-place finishes, and impressing Ruby: “If we get that boy a good car, look out,” he said.
Before Busch’s star turn a few years, the last NASCAR champion to run an Indy car on an oval was Bill Elliott, who mustered 212 mph at Michigan in the early ’90s.
But Kyle Busch has made it known he wants to run in the Indy 500 and add open-wheel stars turned tin toppers Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell to that list. Indy’s always boasted the best 33 drivers and it would be hard to argue with that trio in the line-up.