Welcome Back, John Menard
The 2016 Indianapolis 500 got a little more colorful this past Tuesday, when it was announced that the Team Penske car of Simon Pagenaud would carry sponsorship from Menards for the two races in the month of May, as well as the race at Road America.
When I say colorful, you can take that one of two ways. The cars with Menards sponsorship have always been known for their vibrant use of dayglow colors. But they also matched the personality behind the sponsorship – John Menard.
The Wisconsin businessman owns the Eau Claire based home-improvement chain with 280 stores across fourteen states stretching from Ohio to Wyoming. Menard has been involved with Indy car racing for decades, but became most prominent as an owner in the nineties.
In the days of CART, he ran one-off efforts in the Indianapolis 500. While the CART regulars were running Chevy’s and Ford Cosworths; Menard chose to run the V6 Buick which required 55-inches of boost to be competitive. The USAC sanctioned Indianapolis 500 was the only race that would allow that much boost for the stock block engine. The Buick was known for three things; it was very quiet, it was very fast and it was very unreliable. While driving for Menard in 1992, Al Unser drover the Buick to its best-ever finish – third.
In 1991, John Menard owned the fastest car in the field – a Lola T9100 powered by Buick and driven by Gary Bettenhausen. Gary B. was the quickest qualifier at 224.460, but started thirteenth as he was not a first day qualifier. Unfortunately, Bettenhausen didn’t fare too well in the race. He got down low onto the apron and spun heading into Turn One on Lap One. He was playing catch-up until he went out with radiator issues on Lap 89 and finished twenty-second.
Menard expanded to three cars in 1992. Bettenhausen returned, along with 1983 winner Tom Sneva and former Formula one champion Nelson Picquet. Picquet crashed in practice and mangled his feet to the point it was questionable if he would walk again. Unser was brought in as a replacement for Picquet and went on to his third place finish. The veteran Menard team of 1992 had a total of five Indianapolis 500 wins, sixty-five starts and an average age of almost forty-nine.
1993 saw Menard expand again – this time to four cars with Bettenhausen, Picquet, Geoff Brabham and a late entry with Eddie Cheever; but they fared no better than a sixteenth for Cheever.
1995 showed great promise for Menard. He had teamed with Scott Brayton who had family ties to the Buick engine. Menard took it on, made his own tweaks and dubbed it the Menard engine. The Lola/Menard’s of Brayton and Arie Luyendyk were fast throughout the month. Brayton qualified on the pole, while Luyendyk started next to him from the middle of Row One, while teammate Buddy Lazier started twenty-third in a third Menard car. Seventh was the best Luyendyk could do as Brayton finished a forgettable seventeenth.
1996 will forever be the year of tragedy for John Menard. In a dramatic move under the old qualifying rules, Scott Brayton did the unthinkable. He withdrew a qualified car that was good enough for fourth, and qualified his backup car on the pole. Sadly, Brayton was fatally injured in a practice crash the following Friday. John Menard was devastated at the loss of his driver and close friend. His teammate, Tony Stewart, slid over and started from the pole, but was not the recognized pole-winner. Danny Ongais came out of retirement and drove Brayton’s car to a seventh place finish after starting from the back of the field.
I go through this history to illustrate the type of drivers that have driven for John Menard over the years. Just some of the well-known names that drove for Menard are Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Gary Bettenhausen, Kevin Cogan, Raul Boesel, Townsend Bell, Eddie Cheever, Robbie Gordon, Buddy Lazier, Arie Luyendyk, Tony Stewart and Greg Ray. That’s a list representing three F1 championships and nine Indianapolis 500 wins. The problem was that none of those wins came while driving for Menard.
With the formation of the IRL, Menard became a full-time entrant. He won two IRL championships in 1997 and 1999, with Tony Stewart and Greg Ray respectively; but he never found that Indianapolis 500 win. Menard made the fatal mistake of merging his team with Panther Racing owned by John Barnes in 2004. Merging with Barnes usually means you are going away, much like it did when Dreyer & Reinbold merged with Barnes in 2013. D&R didn’t even last past Indianapolis after trusting their fate with the black hole that is John Barnes, but I digress.
Although he was no longer a car owner or engine builder, John Menard returned as a sponsor on the Vision cars for a couple of years, but by the start of this current decade, their familiar dayglow cars had completely disappeared from the grid. I’ve missed those Menard cars. I was there in 1992, on one of the coldest and cloudiest days I can remember for the race. When the dayglow Menard cars came around Turn Four and headed down the straightaway, there was no question which team they belonged to. They looked fluorescent amidst the gray skies and the color almost jumped off of the car.
The Menard car that Simon Pagenaud will drive has a familiar look, but it is slightly different. The livery of Roger Penske’s cars usually follow a familiar pattern, no matter the sponsor or colors. Such is the case this year for Indianapolis. Whether it’s Verizon, Pennzoil or Menards, the accent stripes are the same size and in the same place. I would’ve preferred the car followed the pattern of the car the Gary Bettenhausen drove in 1991with wide multi-colored stripes, but what do I know?
Through the years, there were many variations to the Menard cars. There were those that were in the familiar dayglow yellow/green as will be on Pagenaud’s car, but there were those that were predominantly green or blue or a hodgepodge. One thing was always consistent, however – they were always colorful and you always knew who they belonged to.
John Menard was, and I assume still is, a character. He is seventy-six now. His hair always seemed multi-tinted, but is now jet-black. It’s strange how genetics work sometimes. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the paddock, much less a billionaire owner that had as much passion for the Indianapolis 500 as John Menard did in the nineties and the early 2000’s. His excitement and enthusiasm would rival that of the youngest rookie; and he didn’t hide it. He wore his emotions on his sleeve.
As I said earlier, when Scott Brayton lost his life – Menard was devastated, and he did nothing to hide it when he was on camera. But along with the lowest of lows, Menard was exuberant when experiencing the height of this sport. But he never achieved his ultimate goal – to stand in Victory Lane at Indianapolis and drink the milk.
We don’t know who at Verizon or Shell/Pennzoil gave the go-ahead to sponsor the other Penske cars at Indianapolis. If Juan Montoya, Will Power or Helio Castroneves wins the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, chances are we’ll never see the top person with their respective companies in Victory Lane. They’ll be happy for the exposure and that’ll be just about it.
If Simon Pagenaud wins it, he may have to wrestle the bottle of milk away from John Menard. With all of the celebrating that would be going on, none would be louder or more obvious than John Menard – perhaps not even Pagenaud himself.
Few owners that have never driven in the “500” have had more passion for the event than John Menard. He gets it. It’s in his blood. Roger Penske gets it, but he may be the only one of the current crop of owners that is not a former “500” driver that can match Menard’s passion for the event. That’s why I think this is such a great pairing – two men with complete opposite personalities, but with an equal desire to win the Indianapolis 500.
And here’s an interesting tidbit. We all know how wealthy Roger Penske is. Last fall, Penske’s net worth was estimated to be just a little less than $2 Billion. Want to know John Menard’s net worth? It’s estimated to be upwards of $9.1 Billion. Now that they have combined forces, I wonder what they sit around and talk about at night.
We fans are certainly happy to see John Menard back, even if it is only in a sponsorship role for three races. It could lead to more next season. Who knows? The ownership bug may bite him again and he may want to come back as a full-time owner, even at his age. Being associated with Roger Penske is certainly going to be better than his last ownership experience, which was John Barnes. No wonder he left IndyCar racing with a bad taste in his mouth.
But regardless of what he does beyond this year, all of IndyCar is better off with the return of the dayglow on the grid. Welcome back, John Menard!