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.”