We Need John Menard Back
One of the more colorful characters of IndyCar racing over the past twenty or so years, has been John Menard. He has been away from the sport since 2004 and has been sorely missed. There are some persistent rumors that say he and his midwestern chain of home improvement stores may become the series sponsor of the IndyCar Series. I’m not sure if that is the best possibility out there for a series sponsor, but it would get John Menard back into the sport.
For years, John Menard entered cars for the Indianapolis 500 but didn’t run the full CART schedule. At first, the team was known simply as Menard, Inc. Later, they livened up the name to Team Menard. John Menard always ran the V-6 Buick engine. The Buick was a stock block engine that required 55-inches of boost from the turbocharger to be competitive against the Ilmor and Cosworth engines that ran the full CART schedule on 50-inches (later 45, then 40). Since Indianapolis was sanctioned by USAC, the added boost was allowed on the Buick engine.
The Buick engine had three well-earned reputations. The engine was very fast, very quiet and very unreliable. The Buick/Menard engine sat on the pole four times at Indianapolis; Pancho carter in 1985, Roberto Guerrero in 1992 and Scott Brayton in 1995 & 1996. It was also the fastest car in the field with Gary Bettenhausen in 1991. However, the engine had a habit of blowing up barely 100 miles into the race. Rarely, did a Buick engine finish. The best result for the Buick engine was in 1992 when Al Unser finished third driving for Menard. Some teams, like Leader Cards tried running the Buick at selected CART races using 50-inches with disastrous results.
Later on, when Scott Brayton joined the team in 1994, Menard got very involved with the development of the Buick engine. After Buick dropped their funding of the program, Menard re-badged the engine simply as the “Menard”. They improved the reliability to some extent but it still had trouble running five hundred miles.
John Menard first entered cars for the Indianapolis 500 in 1990 with sponsorship from Glidden Paints. Perhaps it was the sponsorship from a paint company but the Menard cars always utilized some of the more creative uses of day-glo colors. Whether they were orange, yellow, blue or even green – there was no mistaking these good-looking cars. His original drivers were Jim Crawford and Steve Barclay, however Barclay was badly injured in a crash during Rookie Orientation so the car was assigned to veteran Gary Bettenhausen who showed up for the Month of May with no ride. The pair produced mixed results for the fledgling team. Crawford finished a respectable fifteenth while Gary B. finished an unremarkable thirty-first.
The following year, Gary Bettenhausen teamed with Kevin Cogan for Menard. Although he was a second-day qualifier and could not start higher than thirteenth, he had the fastest car in the field with a qualifying speed of 224.460 which bested Rick Mears’s pole-winning speed of 224.113. Unfortunately, Cogan tangled with Roberto Guerrero early in the race and left the track on a stretcher. Bettenhausen’s Buick engine overheated and was done by lap 89 forcing him to accept a mediocre twenty-second place finish.
In 1992, Menard expanded to three cars returning with Bettenhausen, veteran and former winner Tom Sneva and former World Champion Nelson Piquet, who crashed heavily exiting turn four and mangled his feet and ankles. Four-time winner Al Unser was tabbed to replace the injured Piquet. Talk about a veteran team – the average age of the three-car team was almost forty-nine. Other than Unser’s aforementioned third place finish, Bettenhausen and Sneva both crashed on a day full of crashes, finishing seventeenth and thirty-first respectively.
For 1993, Menard expanded further to a four-car team with Bettenhausen, Eddie Cheever, Geoff Brabham and Piquet. Unfortunately, the best finish for the Buick powered cars of Menard was Cheever who finished sixteenth. For 1994, the team contracted back to a more manageable two-car team that featured Cheever, who finished eighth and Brayton, who ended up eighteenth. 1995 saw Arie Luyendyk and Buddy Lazier join Brayton on a three-car team for Menard that featured a best finish of sixth by Luyendyk.
The CART-IRL split came in 1996. John Menard joined the IRL full-time although the turbo-charged Buick/Menard engines were due to be outlawed the following year. The first race of the season at Walt Disney World saw team Menard with four drivers; Tony Stewart, Eddie Cheever, Mark Dismore and Scott Brayton. All except Dismore were considered stars in a field crowded with no-names. While Buzz Calkins won the inaugural IRL race, Stewart finished second while Cheever finished tenth for Team Menard.
Tragedy struck Team Menard at Indianapolis that year. Scott Brayton had just won the pole for the second straight year. However, he went out for a practice run in the middle of week two and spun on cold tires and slapped the wall on the south end at a relatively slow speed. Unfortunately, Brayton suffered a blunt force trauma to the brain, never regained consciousness and was fatally injured. Veteran driver Danny Ongais was placed in the car which was moved to the rear of the field. Teammate Tony Stewart inherited the pole position as everyone moved up one position. Ongais actually outpaced all of his one-time Menard teammates and finished sixth.
For 1997, Robbie Buhl joined Stewart and Dismore at Menard and Stewart won the IRL championship. Greg Ray joined the team in 1999 and won Menard’s second IRL championship. Many drivers went through the Menard stables, enjoying varying degrees of success. The colorful cars had a reputation of being very fast and well-prepared by chief-mechanic Larry Curry. Then Curry left to manage Tony Stewart’s Tri-Star effort. Curry later went to prison for stealing from Menard. He currently works for Buhl’s Dreyer & Reinbold team. Menard had his own legal issues later, as he got in trouble with the IRS.
It was after this that Menard merged his team with Panther Racing in 2004. Only one car ran the colorful Menard livery, that being the No. 2 car of Mark Taylor who was later replaced by Townsend Bell. For 2005, the only cars with any Menard markings were the Red Bull cars of Eddie Cheever. By 2006, Menard was completely out of IndyCar Racing, choosing to focus his money and attention to his son’s NASCAR effort.
In 2008, the Menard livery appeared on the sidepod of Vision Racing’s Ed Carpenter. It was a different scheme and is really ugly compared to the Menard cars of the past. Now the rumors have started that Menard may end up sponsoring the series.
While it may not be ideal for a regional company that has no presence outside of the Midwest to sponsor a now-global series; it’s better than nothing. Plus, it would get a very colorful and vibrant personality back into our sport. John Menard was always a little quirky and seemed to march to a slightly different beat. But at a time when no one in the series seems to want to step forward and be a spokesperson for the league, John Menard would not shy away from that task at all. He is extremely passionate about this sport and especially the Indianapolis 500. Somehow, in whatever capacity – the league needs to get John Menard back into IndyCar racing.
* Please note – there will be no articles throughout the upcoming weekend. I’ll return on Monday Sep 28. Have a great weekend!