INDIANAPOLIS — It was 1996 and Tony George’s Indy Racing League was struggling to gain a foothold, even though it had the Indianapolis 500 as its cornerstone event.
If the Indy Racing League was going to ever have a chance to grow and continue without the big-name teams from CART that had boycotted the Indy 500 over the creation of the rival IRL, it was going to need another anchor venue.
Later that year, as Texas Motor Speedway was nearing completion, Speedway Motorsports Chairman O. Bruton Smith and TMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Eddie Gossage announced Indy car racing would be part of Texas Motor Speedway’s inaugural schedule in 1997.
The 1.5-mile oval hosted the first Indy car race in Texas since 1980 and the first night race for Indy car racing.
Texas Motor Speedway officials sold a season ticket for both the NASCAR and Indy Racing League contests. Even if the fans didn’t show up for the IndyCar race, they had to buy the ticket in order to watch the NASCAR event.
It was marketing genius but what happened on Saturday night, June 7, 1997, was stunning.
More fans came out to watch that first IRL race at Texas Motor Speedway than any race other than the Indianapolis 500. Not since the days of California’s Ontario Motor Speedway in 1970, when 172,000 spectators showed up, had such a large crowd attended an Indy car race.
The crowd was announced at 129,000 and many believe it was a legitimate figure in a sport that often inflates attendance.
The crowd witnessed breathtaking racing between young IRL star Tony Stewart and 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier, but the race ended in surprising fashion.
It appeared Billy Boat had won the race aboard A.J. Foyt’s familiar No. 14 Indy car, but it was quickly learned that the USAC scoring system failed and did not credit Arie Luyendyk for leading two laps during pit stops.
Several other drivers, including Scott Goodyear and Tyce Carlson, also had the same issue with the scoring system.
Luyendyk was furious inside of the cockpit of his race car. He wanted an answer from USAC Chief Steward Keith Ward, but no explanation was given.
On lap 190, Stewart was in the lead and — believing Luyendyk was two laps down — waved him by. Stewart had a one-lap lead over Boat. With two laps to go, Stewart’s Oldsmobile Aurora engine blew. Boat was scored as the leader and two laps later, took the checkered flag.
What followed has become Texas folklore and is probably the state’s most colorful contribution to the history of Indy car racing.
“It was such early days in the IRL with teams scrambling to get cars together,” Luyendyk said. “The side-by-side racing is what really did it for the IRL in that race and attracted a different kind of fan. The crowd at Texas was amazing and then there was a lot of stuff going on in that race with the side-by-side racing.
“But the IRL had a long way to go.”
Outside of Indianapolis and Texas, the IRL drew very small crowds at that time.
Luyendyk was one of the more well-known drivers who chose the IRL over CART when the series began in 1996.
“I got my second win at Indy in 1997 and was thinking really hard about retiring, but team owner Fred Treadway wanted me to stay on to continue his team and keep the sponsors that he already had,” Luyendyk said. “People back then didn’t realize the IRL was a bunch of cowboys brought together. They drove sprint cars and modifieds and drove really hard. They had no fear. They were not easy to beat. There were a lot of good drivers there, but the cars were not the safest.
“A lot of guys got hurt back then. I looked around and saw what was going on and said, ‘Shit, I don’t know if I want to do this’ because I was getting up there in age,” Luyendyk continued. “I was vocal about it then and was criticized by IRL management, who thought I was negative.
“To me, it was a very trying time.”
Luyendyk admits the 1997 True Value 500 was a pivotal race in the history of the NTT IndyCar Series.
So, as Boat was celebrating with Foyt’s crew in victory lane, Luyendyk crashed the celebration.
Luyendyk was not venting his anger at Boat or Foyt, but to USAC.
“I passed him two times,” Luyendyk yelled at USAC officials. “You guys don’t know how to (expletive) count.”
Foyt was standing nearby and thought Luyendyk was trying to create an issue with his team.
As soon as Luyendyk uttered the word “count,” Foyt backhanded him with a hard slap to the head.
Foyt, a Texas hero who was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, drug Luyendyk and pushed the driver from The Netherlands into the flowers in victory lane.
Shortly after the scuffle ended, Luyendyk’s team owner filed an appeal with USAC. After working all night, USAC confirmed the system had failed and declared Luyendyk the winner.
It was the last time USAC sanctioned an Indy car race. By the time the series arrived at Pike’s Peak Int’l Raceway for the next contest, the IRL had created its own sanctioning body.
Texas Motor Speedway has firmly established itself as a vital part of the NTT IndyCar Series schedule and it has hosted at least one Indy car race every year since 1997.