It admittedly ranks a distant third to the death of driver Scott Brayton and a feud between racing organizations, but Tony Stewart also remembers his first Indianapolis 500 as the one race that made him nervous enough to want to throw up.
With this being the 25th anniversary year of the 1996 race, Stewart sat down with friend A.J. Foyt to talk about memories of their open-wheel racing days.
The open-wheel organizations were feuding in 1996
Tony Stewart and NASCAR are so synonymous that casual motorsports fans may not realize that he won the open-wheel racing championship in 1997. Five years later, he captured the first of his three NASCAR Cup Series crowns. To this day, he is the only driver to win both season series.
Stewart’s Indy-style car career began in 1996 when he competed in what was a tumultuous season for open-wheel racing. The Indianapolis 500 capped a three-race season for the Indy Racing League (IRL) sanctioned by USAC.
Many top teams and drivers boycotted to protest the treatment of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) that had broken away from USAC in 1979. CART, beset by internal bickering, evolved into IndyCar in 1992 but did not fully settle its differences with the IRL. When the IRL took full control of the 1996 Indy 500, teams from the rival organization – major players like Ganassi, Rahal, and Penske, broke away and staged their own race that weekend in Michigan.
A tragedy in the prelude to the Indianapolis 500
With so many teams deciding to boycott, the 1996 Indianapolis 500 took on a different look. Although 1990 champion Arie Luyendyk competed, more recent champions like Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, and Jacques Villeneuve weren’t there, detracting from the prestige of the one race a year that even casual fans made a point of watching.
Instead, Indianapolis rookies dominated the field. Stewart was one of 17 first-time drivers in the 33-car field. However, that was not even close to the most significant story.
On May 17, 1996, nine days before the race, pole-sitter Scott Brayton died in a crash while testing a backup car. An Indy veteran with four top-10 finishes to his credit, Brayton went into a spin on Turn 2 and hit the wall at approximately 200 mph. The impact caused a basilar skull fracture.
A nerve-wracking day for Stewart
With Brayton having died the previous week and No. 2 qualifier Luyendyk penalized because his car came in under the minimum weight, Stewart knew all week that he would be starting the race on the pole. The excitement got to him on race day.
“That’s the closest I’ve ever been to throwing up before a race,” Stewart said. “The nerves were at a level that I had never seen before in my entire life, in any form of motorsports leading up to my first Indy 500. But knowing the history and knowing the pageantry of race day and everything leading up to it, it was extremely hard to stay composed.”
A year earlier, Stewart had been a crew member on Eddie Cheever’s car as a favor to Foyt, but that race was over in seconds because of an opening-lap crash.
“To go from being a crew member to literally the next year starting the race from the pole was definitely a drastic shift for sure but one that I was very excited to be a part of,” Stewart said.
For a brief time, Stewart looked like he had a shot. He led the first 31 laps and regained the lead later for another 13 laps. Unfortunately, engine failure took him out on the 82nd of the scheduled 200 laps, and Bobby Lazier earned the victory.