INDIANAPOLIS — Dale Jarrett loved his win so much he had to celebrate it with a kiss.
His impromptu smooch with the bricks in 1996 has blossomed into a tradition for drivers of all series when they win at the famed Brickyard. It’s time to pucker up again: NASCAR runs its 21st Sprint Cup race Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Jarrett started a love affair that lasts to this day, and has crossed racing series all the way to the Indianapolis 500. Back in 1996, Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott kneeled down and planted a big ol’ kiss on the bricks that serve as the start-finish line at the venerable speedway.
“It’s something I would like to take all the credit for,” said Jarrett, who also won in 1999.
Winners of the Indy 500 usually drink milk after the race. Jarrett and Parrott had discussed the idea for a new celebration at a track steeped in history should they win the race. But by the time Jarrett grabbed the checkered flag in only NASCAR’s second year at the track, he forgot about sealing the win with a kiss.
Like a good crew chief, Parrott again made the right call.
“Todd grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, remember what we talked about?’ It wasn’t until then that I remembered that we were going to do something a little different,” Jarrett said. “We hadn’t told any of the crew or anything like that. So we just told them to follow us and went out and had our time on the yard of bricks.”
And now, every driver from Ryan Newman (last year’s Brickyard winner) to Ryan Hunter-Reay (this year’s Indy 500 winner) kneel down and plant one on the row of bricks.
“It’s pretty cool now to see that every race winner and their teams,” Jarrett said. “Of course it’s a lot more orchestrated now than what it was at that time because we took everybody by surprise. But to even see the guys that win the Indy 500 go out and be a part of it, it’s pretty cool to know you started a tradition that will probably carry on for a long time.”
It’s just a small slice of what makes racing at Indy so special. The Brickyard may not be the marquee race to win on NASCAR’s schedule — the Daytona 500 is still No. 1 — but it’s close.
“It’s definitely the biggest win of my career,” said Ricky Rudd, the 1997 winner. “I was never fortunate enough to be able to win at Daytona. I’d probably put them in that order, Daytona out front. Right in there would be Indy. If I wasn’t able to win Daytona, at least I got Indy.”
NASCAR first kicked the tires of running in Indianapolis in the early 1990s. By 1992, the stock car series was ready to take a dip in the Indy pool with two days of tire testing. An estimated 30,000 fans at the speedway chanted “we want a race” as the cars roared from the pit past a hand-lettered sign, “Indy fans love NASCAR.”
In 1993, former IMS President Tony George extended the official invitation for NASCAR to come aboard.
On Aug. 4, 1994, NASCAR hit the track for its first practice on the 2 1/2-mile track. Cup veteran Ken Schrader was the first driver to complete a lap. Greg Sacks was the first to bring out a yellow flag as his engine burst just minutes into the opening session.
Tim Steele became the first to crunch his car against the speedway’s concrete walls in an official practice.
So it began — and there was no turning back. IMS later added Formula One, Grand-Am, and motorcycles to the racing schedule.
The Indy 500 is still the undisputed king race of the track. But NASCAR sure has made it known stock cars have as much a place at the track as a nice swig of milk.
“It’s the win that keeps coming,” said 2000 winner Bobby Labonte. “You haven’t been forgotten. I’ll just put it this way: I don’t have many trophies in my house, there’s like two, and one is the Brickyard trophy. Kind of shows you where I put that, if that makes sense to you.”
It sure does to any driver in NASCAR.