Indiana’s Hoosier Hundred dirt race revels in its second life

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Cameron Neveu

Three hours after Takuma Sato claimed the checkered flag at the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, the green flag was waving on another Indiana crown jewel. Seven miles east of the Speedway, the Hoosier Hundred was underway, and 32 dirt racers launched into the first turn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. They were competing in a race that was never supposed to happen.

The start of the 2019 Hoosier Hundred. Cameron Neveu

In 2019, ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the United States Auto Club (USAC) announced that the 64th running of the Hoosier Hundred would be the last time any type of race car threw dirt around the mile-long Indiana State Fairground horse track. The track’s surface was to be covered in crushed limestone to support harness racing and fair parking. The Hundred, a motorsport tradition since 1953, was getting the axe.

Initial news of the Hundred’s demise was a blow to locals, open-wheel old-timers, dirt-track diehards, and history buffs. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the Hoosier Hundred and the Indianapolis 500 were on the same USAC season schedule. The Indy 500 paid out the most to winners, but the Hoosier Hundred paid second-most, and more importantly, the dirt race was a crucible for future greats. Drivers had to be masters of clay and pavement if they wanted to compete for the national open-wheel title. Hall-of-famers Bob Sweikert, Jimmy Bryan, Roger Ward, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, and Al Unser Sr. have won both Indianapolis races.

A restored example of an early Silver Crown car making exhibition parade laps around the Indy Mile. Cameron Neveu

While rear-engine cars eventually infiltrated Indianapolis Motor Speedway, front-engine roadsters remained the go-to at the Fairgrounds. In 1970, Al Unser Sr. won both events—the 500 in a rear-engine turbocharged Ford and the Hundred in an Offenhauser-powered front-engine roadster. At that time, USAC was the premier sanctioning body for open-wheel competition, long before CART, IRL, or IndyCar. Then, in ’71, USAC split open-wheel competition into three different championships: dirt ovals, paved ovals, and road courses. USAC’s dirt schedule was titled the Silver Crown Series, competing predominantly at fairground tracks across the Midwest, including the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

Tyler Courtney showered in the confetti of victory at the 2019 Hoosier Hundred. Cameron Neveu

The Hoosier Hundred held national sway in motorsports for a couple decades, before blue-chip drivers focused on their pavement efforts, directing the spotlight away from Indiana’s dirt. The supposed final running in 2019 was, therefore, a melancholy end-of-the-road affair. Spectators traded “remember whens” and veteran car owners told stories about open-wheel goliaths in their vertically striped Hinchman uniforms, taming the Mile. A record-setting field, including several drivers freshly un-retired for the big race, took the green flag. Tyler Courtney, an up-and-coming racer (and a native-Hoosier) drove to victory. When the light switches finally flipped at the Fairground, they blinked out the prospect of race cars kicking up dirt on that old horse track ever again.

Two cars battle it out during the 2020 Hoosier Hundred. Cameron Neveu

Until this summer, that is, when the promotional body Track Enterprises announced that the limestone surfacing would be delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that USAC would hold another Hoosier Hundred on August 23—the same Sunday as the rescheduled Indy 500.

“The Hoosier Hundred comeback was a longtime coming,” said USAC publicist Richie Murray. “At times, it seemed certain it was going to happen, then it was two steps back. [The race] was initially intended to run on Independence Day weekend in conjunction with the Brickyard, but the kibosh was put on that.”

On August 9th, USAC made the announcement, rocking the dirt world and sending race teams into immediate prep-mode. The kicker: unlike the rescheduled Indy 500 held on the same day, spectators would be permitted, at Indiana state-guideline capacity. Murray, an Indiana native as well, was elated. “With the announcement of the revived race, I felt like Ralphie from ‘A Christmas Story’ when he found one more gift, that coveted Red Rider BB gun.”

In the weeks leading up to the event, the entry list swelled to nearly 40 cars, necessitating a preliminary race to determine the 32-car field.

A fan positions himself in front of the jumbotron to watch the closing laps of the 2020 Indy 500. Cameron Neveu

At the Fairgrounds, a few hours before the big show, the infield jumbotron was streaming the conclusion to the Indy 500, PA speakers blaring IndyCar “neow-neows.” As the sun set, the high-pitched screams faded out in favor of V-8 roars as the 800-horsepower Silver Crown cars stormed around the horse track. Practice, qualifying, preliminaries, and finally, the 100-lapper. Somewhere in there a veteran fan would have been wise to score deep-fried pickle and, perhaps, talk shop with fellow spectators waiting in line.

If the 2019 Hoosier Hundred was a funeral, 2020 was a rebirth. Time added! A deadline extended! The atmosphere was jubilant, whereas last year’s was just grim. Spectators witnessed a heart-pumping night of racing with much passing and eventual late-race drama. Kyle Larson, recently cut from the NASCAR ranks, earned his first ever Hoosier Hundred victory, after completing an aggressive pass in the closing laps.

 

The race’s triumphant final running left fans and drivers optimistic about its future, including fifth-place finisher and 2016 Silver Crown champ Chris Windom. “It was great to be able to return to such a historical track to compete in another Hoosier Hundred,” he said. “It’s the one dirt champ car race that has eluded me, so I hope to get another shot next year.”

With any luck, he might. But even if 2020 marks the curtain call for the Hoosier Hundred, this final race was an encore to remember.

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