The calendar turned to 2018 last weekend and the month of January is full of fun racing events. This weekend is the Roar Before the 24 at the Daytona International Speedway. Next weekend is the Chili Bowl. After the Chili Bowl is the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Both events are prestigious. But, as I scanned through the entry-lists for both, I was surprised to what my eyes saw.
First off, the Chili Bowl is filled with past, present and future NASCAR drivers. Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are obviously on it. So are former NASCAR drivers or even ARCA drivers like JJ Yeley, AJ Fike, Tanner Berryhill, Kevin Thomas Jr., Chris Windom, Tracy Hines, Tim McCreadie, Brad Sweet, Tanner Thorson and Rico Abreu. The only IndyCar connection on the entire entry-list of over 300 drivers is Kyle O’Gara. Chad Boat who made one Indy Lights Series start last year is on it too. Other than that, it’s a star studded indoor USAC Midget race with USAC and NASCAR stars.
When I look at the Roar Before the 24 entry-list for this weekend, I see all kind of current and former IndyCar stars. Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Spencer Pigot, Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais will be at Daytona this weekend and at the end of the month too. Mix in Scott Sharp, Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Pruett, Townsend Bell, Mike Conway, Felix Rosenqvist, Sebastian Saavedra, Gustavo Yacaman, Ho-Pin Tung, Tristian Vautier, Connor De Phillippe, Ryan Briscoe, Jack Hawksworth, Katherine Legge and Sean Rayhall, and you have a star studded field full of current or former open wheel stars.
The only NASCAR mentions on the entry list are Colin Braun, Andy Lally, Kenny Habul, Justin Marks, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric. All have extensive road racing background.
So, in theory, it makes sense to see the NASCAR guys with USAC backgrounds racing in the Chili Bowl and INDYCAR or CART/Champ Car drivers with road racing backgrounds racing in the 24 Hour race at Daytona.
But, if you really step back and think about it, this is backwards.
First off, NASCAR owns IMSA, and sanctions the 24 Hours of Daytona, but here their entry-list is filled with current or former INDYCAR drivers. Then, the Chili Bowl is a USAC event and in the past, USAC and INDYCAR went hand-in-hand.
From 1956 until the split in 1979, USAC ran the entire open wheel series. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, etc, they all ran in USAC. They had to. They were damn good too. Those drivers cut their teeth on dirt and loved going to race from Terre Haute to the Fairgrounds to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From 1956 until 1997, USAC sanctioned the Indianapolis 500 for crying out loud.
Now, it’s NASCAR drivers rising up the ranks that started with a USAC background. Thank the fall of USAC and the open wheel team/drivers and Jeff Gordon for that. Prior to the tragic plane crash in 1978, the divorce was imminent between USAC and the open wheel paddock. In 1978, CART was formed and would begin the 1979 season. USAC, was left sanctioning just the Indianapolis 500. Well, fans and everyone grew tired of the USAC shenanigans and in 1997, the split was finished.
Gordon, was a rising star that should have gone to CART. Instead, CART was in flux with their direction on where they were going. He needed to bring money that he didn’t have. He had options to head south to NASCAR and all he had to bring was his helmet. You know the rest of the story.
He was the pioneer leading USAC drivers south. While USAC is headquartered in Indianapolis and the Verizon IndyCar Series headquartered in the same city, the best USAC drivers head over eight hours south to North Carolina to further their career.
It’s the Jeff Gordon path.
Tony Stewart did start in INDYCAR but left to further his career in NASCAR. Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, JJ Yeley, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and others followed.
So, the 90s were a perfect storm for both events to flip flop their entry-lists. It’s just crazy to think that a NASCAR owned series racing at a track like Daytona is filled with INDYCAR drivers and a USAC race on dirt is filled with NASCAR drivers.
What would you say if I told you this would happen prior to 1990?