John Menard is a throwback in racing – and I mean that in the best way possible.
Menard bought what had been the Buick V6 stock-block engines, rebadged them as Menards and ran his own team as an Indianapolis 500-only entrant in the 1990s.
Once the Indy Racing League was born in 1996, Team Menard developed into a championship-winning outfit as a full-season entrant in the Indy Racing League. His team won the 1996-1997 title with Tony Stewart and the 1999 title with Greg Ray.
Alas, he’s a business entrepreneur the likes of which haven’t come into open-wheel racing in recent years.
The Wisconsinite has loved Indianapolis for years, dating back to the 1970s with his maiden appearance with Herm Johnson, albeit been unlucky from a results standpoint. His engines were always fast but fragile through 1996.
His team scored two pole positions back-to-back with the late Scott Brayton in 1995 and 1996, but Brayton lost his life in a practice accident that same year. Then-rookie Stewart took over the pole, and also delivered the best finish for a Team Menard entry at Indy a year later in fifth.
The itch of wanting to come back to Indianapolis for the 100th running of the race has spurred Menard’s interest and rekindled his passion after a 13-year hiatus.
“It means everything,” Menard said Tuesday during the press conference announcing the Menards program for Simon Pagenaud at the Indy 500, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and his home race at Road America in late June.
“I’ve had so many good times, good experiences, good friends made here at the Speedway. It’s a bucket list item to do it one more time, and I thank Roger for making it possible.
“The good news is I don’t have a team to run!”
In more recent years, Menard consistently fielded anywhere from two to four cars in the 1990s. Drivers such as Brayton, Stewart, Eddie Cheever Jr., Arie Luyendyk, Buddy Lazier, Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Sneva and others drove Menard entries.
Perhaps unfortunately for Menard, Lazier, Luyendyk and Cheever won the ‘500 from 1996 through 1998 for different teams after they’d moved on.
Menard noted how much he’s learned from Penske.
“I’ve always looked up to Roger, to his methods, and have learned many things. ‘Penske Perfect’ was always my goal,” he said.
“I’m kind of an old guy now. But I had some really good times, and some really, really tough times. I’ve made an awful lot of friends. I’ve learned a lot about life and business from guys like Roger.”
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”