Opening Day Memories From 1994

And so it begins…Tomorrow morning begins our three weekend odyssey to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, weather permitting. Only once before have I made three trips in three consecutive weekends – that was in 1995. I had bought the bronze badges to get into the garage area. My soon-to-be ex-wife went with me to Pole Day weekend. Then my oldest brother joined me for the second qualifying weekend, including one of the most historic Bump Day’s ever – when both Marlboro Team Penske cars failed to make the race. Then it was back for the third weekend in a row with my wife for the race.

In the morning, Susan and I are driving up for Opening Day. We’ll spend the day at the track and then drive back to Nashville tomorrow night. The schedule works out well for a one day turnaround. The track opens at noon for veterans. Then Rookie Orientation is from 2:00 until 4:00, followed by another two-hour session for everyone (I assume).

I’ve only been to one Opening Day before – in 1994. What I remember most about that day was parking in the infield and immediately hearing the strange drone of the Honda engine that was new to CART that season. If you thought the early IRL engines emitted a sour note, it was nothing compared to the Honda in the back of the cars driven by Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff. It was indescribable, but if you ever heard it – you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m glad I was able to hear it then, because the Honda was gone by Race Day. It was way too slow. Bobby Rahal had already missed the 1993 race as a result of Rahal/Hogan Racing attempting to revive the old Truesports chassis, which was made in America. It was a sled when Scott Pruett drove it in 1992 and Rahal could do no better with it. The 1992 CART champion would have certainly been bumped for the second year in a row, had he stuck with the Honda engine. So he cut a deal with Honda to allow him to leave the developmental program for the 500. He and teammate Mike Groff struck a deal with Roger Penske to lease two Penske chassis with the Ilmor-D engine. Rahal finished third. By Milwaukee the next week, Rahal and Groff were back with Honda, where they stayed for the remainder of the season.

It is a matter of dispute who dumped who at the end of 1994. Some say that Honda was miffed with the way Rahal bailed on them at Indianapolis, and they terminated their relationship. Others say that it was Rahal who had lost faith in Honda and he decided to drop Honda. Whatever the case, they both went their separate ways for 1995.

Another strange sound that I heard – or didn’t hear – came from the pushrod Penske-Mercedes. It was noticeably quieter than any car on the track, including the V-6 Buicks, that were by that time known as Menards. The purpose-built Mercedes engine was a result of Roger Penske always seeking the unfair advantage and exploiting a loophole in the USAC rules. The engine was built strictly for the Indianapolis 500 in complete secrecy. It was rumored to put out over 1,000 hp, and would completely dominate the race. Emerson Fittipaldi had the field covered with his Penske-Mercedes, before crashing while exiting Turn Four and handing the victory to his teammate Al Unser, Jr. The engine was outlawed prior to the 1995 race limiting it to a one-race appearance in its short life.

The last two weekends in Nashville have been very un-spring-like. Heavy rain and temperatures dipping down into the thirties is not my idea of the Month of May, but that’s what we’ve had the last two weekends. I never thought I would have to go four hours to the north to have a warm weekend, but that is what we’re hoping for tomorrow. The forecast calls for possible early morning rain to be cleared out by noon – sunny in the afternoon, with a high of 66. Hopefully, Mother Nature is getting these rainy weekends out of her system and we can have a Month of May not too heavily influenced by rain.

We are probably overdue to have a cold Race Day. Maybe it will be this year, with the unusually cool spring we’ve been having. The last time I can remember being chilly on Race Day was in 2003, when Gil de Ferran won on a cool cloudy day. I wore a sweatshirt and a windbreaker and was still cold. That’s hard to even imagine now with the steamy hot Race Days we’ve had for the past few years. Of course, 2003 was nothing compared to the morning of the race in 1992. The crowd never warmed up and neither did the tires, as multiple accidents were caused that day by cold tires.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough – but that’s what I tend to do in the Month of May. I probably won’t be posting from the track tomorrow. We won’t have a lot of time there since we have to drive back. But I’ll have plenty of pictures on Monday of whatever we see of interest. However, I will be tweeting from the track and posting pictures on Twitter throughout the day tomorrow. You can follow me at @Oilpressureblog and you may follow Susan at @chiapet58.

It’s the Month of May! I’m ready to kick it off for real.

George Phillips


7 Responses to “Opening Day Memories From 1994”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Thanks for the great posts George, we will looking forward to yours and Susan’s photos et-al. Travel safe…!

  2. Jim Gallo Says:

    I will be there for 3 weekends in a row also. The Celebration of Automobiles tomorrow is an excellant show in itself. Again, hoping the weather holds out for all and maybe we can cross paths sometime during these upcoming days. Thanks again George for all these posts. We do enjoy. Good luck and be careful all.

  3. It would be nice to go, but duty calls. However, I may make Pole Day a day-trip.

  4. I too will be there tomorrow, as well as on Pole Day. Can’t wait to see those cars on the track. The auto show they have on opening day is also worth the trip.

    I remember a couple of cold races (none worse than 1992) but I remember several cold and rainy Pole days in the early 1990’s. It was so bad that 1991 really stands out as it was a perfect day and one of the only ones for a number of years in that stretch. It was also one of the last with so many of the great drivers of that era. 1995 was nice but cool. Several of those Pole days in the early 90’s ended up getting rained out.

  5. Christopher Says:

    The last several years I have gone out for bump day and virtually every year since 1987 I have gone out for race day. I took my 4 year old nephew to bump day last year and his reaction to the cars was priceless. The first car on track he saw was Simona on her warm-up lap but he still could not believe how fast the cars were. He just exclaimed loudly “Wow. That is fast.” He watches races with me on TV but I don’t think he realized the true speed until he saw it in person. He is 5 now and I will be taking him again — hopefully his slightly longer legs make the walking a little more bearable.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    I will join you and the others both saturday & sunday this weekend and next. race weekend it will be frei,sat and race day.This will be 53rd race,all since 1960. Ive spent every weekend at the speedway since 1978.

  7. Steve K Says:

    As a Columbus native, I grew up rooting for Bobby with my father. I still remember how fed up he was with that Honda engine wasting the last years of Bobby’s prime. It figured Honda got its act together after Rahal’s team did all the development work. Of course the split happened soon there after and we both stopped watching. We all know that story.

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