Michael Andretti drew the wrath of many an IndyCar fan recently when he told Marshall Pruett it was time for a franchise system because, “Now, any Joe Blow can buy a car and a truck and show up at the racetrack, and it’s too easy. There’s got to be a way to (make) the franchises worth something.”
First off, what Andretti said was spot on because full-time team owners deserve a financial foundation for their commitment to a series that costs a fortune and pays pennies on the dollar. IndyCar lags woefully behind F1 and NASCAR when it comes to taking care of the teams, and don’t tell me the Leader’s Circle makes up for the pathetic purses.
But, Andretti’s choice of words probably wasn’t the best because guys like Dale Coyne, Sam Schmidt, Mike Shank, Trevor Carlin and Ricardo Juncos all started out as Joe Blows and worked their way into the top level of American open-wheel racing.
And, decades of Joe Blows helped turn qualifying at the Indianapolis 500 into one of the most dramatic days in all of sport and also gave IndyCar racing some feel-good stories for the ages.
IndyCar needs more car owners and an investment incentive for them, but while we wait on A.J. Foyt, Ed Carpenter and Carlin to finalize their driver lineup for 2020, let’s look at some great Joe Blow Moments.
Back in the days when a car only got three attempts at Indy, Willy T. Ribbs delivered in the most pressure-packed situation. With less than 30 minutes remaining in qualifying at Indy in 1991, he drove into history for Derrick Walker’s little team by bumping former winner Tom Sneva and becoming the first African-American driver to earn a starting spot.
Phil Krueger, who piled into the Turn 3 wall trying to qualify at IMS in 1981 and was badly injured at MIS in 1984, spent the winter of ’86 at A.J. Watson’s shop assembling an old March by himself, and then qualified for his first Indy 500 that May. In 1988, he repeated the process, qualified 15th, and finished eighth in a performance that confirmed he was a RACER to the core.
Road racing badass George Follmer decided to try Indy cars in the late ’60s, so he bought a Cheetah chassis, bolted in a stock-block Chevy, and took it Phoenix in 1969. He couldn’t keep up with Mario or the Unsers, but they all blew up so Follmer parlayed his one-stop pit strategy with a wicked pace and attrition to win by three laps!
Sprint car renegade Roger Rager figured he was talented enough to make Indy, but didn’t have the connections to get a decent ride. So in 1980, he bought a three-year-old Wildcat chassis and an old Chevy school bus engine block. He then left Gasoline Alley speechless by qualifying 10th. Rager even led the race for a couple laps before being eliminated by a crash in front of him, but became famous forever with his junkyard motor and outlaw spirit.
The inaugural IRL race at Orlando featured Indy winner Arie Luyendyk, Eddie Cheever, Roberto Guerrero and a rookie named Tony Stewart. But a mom and pop operation won the race with their son: Buzz Calkins, driving for dad Brad, somehow managed to beat Stewart and John Menard. “I’m in shock,” said the winner afterwards, but no more so than most of the paddock. The Northwestern grad drove smooth and smart, and gave Firestone the best commercial opportunity ever that wasn’t used. (“You think Firestones aren’t superior to Goodyear? Buzz Calkins just beat Tony Stewart.”)
Ted Prappas came to IMS in 1992 as a rookie and his car owner, Norm Turley, was a former L.A. policeman whose team was called P.I.G. Racing. They had more heart than money or experience, but somehow Ted managed to qualify in the last row.
In 1995, the last year prior to The Split, when Bump Day at Indianapolis really meant something because there was so much competition, Greg Beck showed up for the second straight year with an old Lola and an unknown named Hideshi Matsuda. He qualified 20th and then watched Team Penske miss the show.
Canadian Eldon Rasmussen had a shop on the west side of Indianapolis, a talent for fabricating metal, a habit of talking forever on the phone and a dream to make the Indy 500. In 1979, he took a re-vamped, seven-year-old Antares (a car so ugly it sent Johnny Rutherford to the bar the first time he saw it) and stuck it in the field.
Other than John Menard, Fred Treadway, A.J. Foyt and Panther Racing, most of the early IRL teams fostered big dreams and small budgets, so Cheever’s performance at Indy in 1998 has to rank as one of the best bargains to ever make it to victory lane. Armed with savvy chief mechanic Owen Snyder but no engineer, Cheever scored mighty Rachel’s Potato Chips as his sponsor and became the first driver/owner to triumph at IMS since his old boss, Anthony Joseph Foyt.
In 1988, Cincinnati’s Gary Trout bought a used car for USAC standout Steve Chassey to drive at Indianapolis. There were a few volunteers but no real mechanics for practice, so Chas had to tighten his own wheels, check the stagger and pretty much police his ride while trying to keep a handle on the chassis. He made the show — and Jack McGrath proud.
John Martin showed up at Indy in 1972 with an old Brabham chassis, one engine that he kept re-building, and no sponsor; but he qualified 14th while also serving as his own chief mechanic.
IndyCar racing was back under one roof by 2011 and Sarah Fisher’s plucky team was competing against Andretti, Ganassi and Penske with a much smaller budget. But Ed Carpenter got her that first victory (and his first as well) at Kentucky by nipping Dario Franchitti at the checkered flag in a car sponsored, naturally, by Dollar General.
In 1971, Frank Fiore towed a 1966 Vollstedt chassis with one old engine to Gasoline Alley for a quiet little guy from the East named Denny Zimmerman. They had no sponsor, slept in the garage and ate White Castles for most of their meals, but DZ qualified, finished eighth and was named ROY — one of the most amazing accomplishments ever.
Blueprint Racing really didn’t have one. With one car, one engine, no sponsors and a crew of volunteers, Jim Guthrie was more than $175,000 in debt when he towed his car to Phoenix behind his motorhome in the spring of 1997. But even with limited practice because he didn’t want to tax his lone power plant, Guthrie gave a preview of this very unlikely story when he qualified second. In the race, Blueprint stuck to its two-stop strategy and that proved to be the difference when future NASCAR champ Stewart had to make a late pit stop for fuel. Jim passed Davey Hamilton for the lead and then pulled away from Menard’s car to score the biggest upset in IndyCar history. And, his winner’s check for $185,000 got him off and running to Indianapolis.