John Menard wouldn’t put a number on it but until Sunday afternoon nobody in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had spent more money trying to win the Indianapolis 500.
He had his own engines, multi-car teams and former Indy winners in his cars but never made it to Victory Lane during the past 40 years.
A conservative estimate would be $200,000,000. “I was always good at raising money,” Menard (pictured at right, above, with Pagenaud) said after Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag in the Menard’s Chevy of Team Penske. “But I don’t know how much I spent.”
Of course money is no object to the self-made billionaire and racing has always been his escape — whether he was ice racing himself, fielding an Indy car for a rookie named Tony Stewart or going NASCAR racing with son, Paul.
Indy doesn’t owe anybody anything but it certainly seemed like justice was finally served Sunday.
“Winning the Brickyard was probably the highlight of my personal racing career just because it was my son that won,” said Menard, speaking of the 2011 NASCAR race at IMS. “But this ranks right in there and it’s a good deal. I can’t thank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway enough for the great memories and times over the years that we’ve had here. It’s amazing.”
When the late Herm Johnson brought Menard to IMS in 1979, nobody knew his sponsor, a wealthy entrepreneur who started his business behind his house in Eau Claire, Wis. He was kind of quiet with a very unassuming presence who dressed casually and looked like he might be a stooge for the team instead of the owner.
“It was 40 years ago when I first came down here in 1979, and I didn’t get all the way in, and I had a big sign that we used to put up over the garages. So I’m dragging the sign on Georgetown road, and I’m walking — I didn’t know where the entrance was. I didn’t know enough to go there on 16th and drive under. So this guy at the gate in a yellow shirt was standing there, and he goes, ‘Where are you going with that sign?’ I said I want to get in the garage area. So he said, ‘I’ll open the gate for you.’
“So he unlocked the gate and let me in. I didn’t have a credential. I didn’t know where I was going. I said which where was the garage area? I think he thought I was crazy, but we had a good time. But that was the first time I was here, 40 years ago. Been trying ever since. I see some stubborn, stupid guy. Here you go. Great fun.”
Johnson was a journeyman who suffered a bad accident in 1981 but came back to qualify for Menard’s initial Indy start in 1982. From there he won pole positions with Scott Brayton and Stewart and hired Indy winners Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Arie Luyendyk, Eddie Cheever and Buddy Lazier during the next 20 years. But none of them were Indy winners for Menard, who converted the Buick engine into his namesake during the CART era.
But he always kept coming back and trying to win — just a couple laps away from a victory in 1999 when Robby Gordon had to stop for fuel while leading.
Then he sponsored Pagenaud in the 100th Indy 500 for Roger Penske.
“It was just supposed to be a one-time deal and then it grew,” said Menard, who sponsors Pagenaud on the NTT IndyCar Series. “Roger is a good friend and obviously it was a pretty good move for us because he owns this place (IMS).
“You ever watch that movie called ‘The Candidate’ when that guy works and works and works and finally gets elected; after the election, he won, and he gazed into the mirror and says, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ That’s the way I feel.
“Now we’ll go try to win another one.”
Pagenaud said that being able to win Indy for both Roger Penske and Menard was especially rewarding.