Growing up around Willow Springs and L.A. County Raceway (RIP) in Lancaster, CA allowed me to be exposed to racing early on in life. We didn’t frequent the track, but early exposure helped lay the groundwork for a fascination for the automobile and appreciation for the sport. One of my favorite childhood pictures features me behind the wheel with a young Buddy Lazier showing me the ropes. I continued to follow his racing career throughout my life and still remember the feeling of watching him take the checkered flag to win the 1996 Indianapolis 500. Just over 20 years later, I would be standing on the most famous strip of bricks in all of motor racing. The exact same bricks where Buddy, and some of the most famous names in racing, would become an Indy 500 champion.
Valvoline is no stranger to racing or the Indy 500. Walking through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum we were able to see vehicles from legends like AJ Foyt, Al Unser JR, and even the deep purple 1996 car of one Buddy Lazier. Many cars featured the Valvoline brand logo and Al Unser JR discussed the importance of the brand to his family’s storied career at Indy. We discovered what it means to Never Idle at the Daytona 500 and that spirit would be reaffirmed at the Brickyard.
Dale Coyne Racing was kind enough to give us a tour through their garage on race day to explain the development with Valvoline that goes into racing oil for the gearbox in their cars. Lubricant strain in stop and go traffic may be grueling, but shifting gears at over 220mph requires an entirely different level of performance. The oil is tested and perfected through a joint development between the team and Valvoline to ensure the Dale Coyne cars can race their hardest. Al Unser JR then led us through the pits and told us he had a surprise in store.
Walking onto the track just prior to the start of the 101st Indianapolis 500 will stick with me for the rest of my life. Al led us to the end of the front straight where he would be piloting one of AJ Foyt’s cars for a pre-race ceremony. There I stood, taking in the cheers of 250,000 people in attendance and the sound of a group of classic Indy cars firing to life. We then hustled back to our seats near the finish line for the start of the race. A prayer was said, “God Bless America” was sung, and the most famous words in all of the motorsports were uttered, “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!”
Several more drivers would fall prey to the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” before the day was over. Buddy Lazier suited up, even at 49 years old, to try and capture another Indy 500 victory. He would make it 122 laps before losing control of his car and grazing the wall. Fernando Alonso would face an all-too-familiar fate on lap 179 of 200 as his Honda-powered car would fail. The ghosts of his problems with McLaren Honda in F1 would seem to follow him all the way to Indianapolis. Several locals had mentioned that the Indy 500 winner was always the driver to be patient in the middle of the pack and wait for the end to make their move. That driver would be Takuma Sato as he battled late in the race to finish ahead of three-time Indy 500 winner, Helio Castroneves.
Takuma would become the first Japanese winner at the Indianapolis 500 and ecstatically kissed the bricks and took a drink from the famous milk bottle in the winner’s circle. His win would echo throughout the United States that Memorial Day weekend and reach across the ocean to adoring Japanese fans. Perhaps some young Japanese racing fan will dream to also someday stand where Takuma stood that day. That’s the allure of Indy, it’s where men become legends and where fans go to witness them fight it out to the end.
Special thanks to Valvoline, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Dale Coyne Racing team! This was a trip of a lifetime and created memories and pictures that I will stare at until I am old and gray.