On May 25, 1962, less than a month before his thirty-fifth birthday, Richard Petty put on a display of power and skill at the Indianapolis Raceway Park that changed the face of stock car racing forever.
It was there that he won the first of his nineteen NASCAR Winston Cup Championships. And like many motorsport venues, Indy Raceway Park had seen its share of change. The very same track that Petty raced on had first opened its gates in 1926. And for the better part of two decades, it had welcomed a mix of great drivers and fans from all over the world.
Sadly, things had begun to change at Indy Raceway. Attendance was down, and the track was struggling financially. The city and state of Indiana had begun to eye the track with skepticism. Many fans and drivers voiced their displeasure with poor maintenance and bad weather causing countless delays and ruined races. Others simply stopped going altogether.
The situation was dire, and it looked like Indy Raceway Park would have to close its doors for good.
Fortunately, an enterprising business owner saw an opportunity and stepped up to try and save the day. That man was Arthur Reynolds, and he saw in Petty and his quest for racing glory the chance to revive interest in one of the country’s great motorsport venues.
So in the summer of 1962, after finishing second at the Indianapolis 500, the unassuming Richard Petty headed for an Indiana summer vacation — and the reopening of Indy Raceway Park.
On August 4, 1962, the gates opened for business at the newly named Indy Raceway Park, and for the next five months it was the home of some of the greatest racing battles in NASCAR history. Fans from around the world flocked to see this great American pastime, and more than 100 teams — including eight Hall of Fame drivers — competed for twenty-one events between August and October. All this led up to one final hurrah as the Indianapolis 500 returned in October 1962. The month of May 1963 was to be Richard Petty’s last racing season, and it was a fitting cap to a great career. The NASCAR champion would retire from full-time driving, and he’d go on to become one of the most successful team owners in history, winning numerous races and championships with his car owners team, the Wood Brothers. He passed away in 2018 at the age of eighty-three.
The closing of Indy Raceway Park was a major disappointment to fans who had made the much-fabled track their home during the Golden Era of stock car racing. But amidst all the heartache, a man named Reynolds had saved the day, and it was there that Richard Petty would call home for the last time. Sadly, the same could not be said for Arthur Reynolds. In the summer of 1963, he was broke and nearly broke. He’d lost heavily betting on horse races, and his health was in serious decline. He died of a heart attack in July on the way to the hospital to receive open-heart surgery. He was sixty.
It was a dark time for Arthur Reynolds. But amidst the loss, he’d gained a great deal of insight into the business of motorsport, and perhaps that’s what kept him going when so many around him had given up. The Richard Petty train had left the station a long time ago, but in his last months, Reynolds had given it a grand farewell, savoring each moment and relishing in the glory that had brought him. Even in his later years, he’d tell reporters that no matter what, he’d always be proud to have been part of such an important chapter in American racing history. Sadly, Arthur Reynolds passed away on July 25, 1963, two days short of his sixteenth birthday. But in his short life, he’d done more than enough to make up for the losses of his previous fifteen years. One might say that he’d fulfilled his destiny, and he left this world a man more comfortable in a suit and tie than a racecar. He was laid to rest in Indianapolis with full military honors, and his grave site is still visited by family, friends, and fans of all things Richard Petty.
The Rebirth of Indianapolis
In the decade following the reopening of Indy Raceway Park, the city had risen from the ashes of the great depression to become a thriving metropolis. It experienced a construction boom, and new businesses and corporations had sprung up. The population had increased by more than 100,000 people.
But while the city had been revived, it was still heavily dependent on the automobile for transportation, and the demand for new cars had far outstripped the supply. That was the problem that Richard Petty, who’d grown up in nearby Concord, had set out to solve. He saw the potential in the city and knew that in order to preserve the growth that had taken place, a new speedway was the answer.
Petty was a self-made man, a man of great vision and confidence. He’d started out in the trucking business, hauling freight for various companies. He spent years traveling the country, seeing different racing venues and learning from the best NASCAR drivers of the day. It was his desire to bring the thrill of racing home to the city where it all began.
In 1966, Richard Petty and four of his business partners purchased the rights to build and operate a 4.5-mile paved oval motor speedway in Indianapolis. They christened the track with a simple but fitting name: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The facility went on to become the largest motorsport venue of its kind in the world. It was here that the Indy 500, the Grand Prix, and countless other major racing events were staged. Millions of dollars changed hands, and it became a mecca for race-car enthusiasts from around the world. The facility continues to see a lot of action today, holding all types of motorsport events from IndyCar to NHRA drag racing.
Indianapolis had been waiting a long time for a track like the one that Richard Petty had envisioned. He’d gone on to become one of the most successful team owners in history, winning numerous races and championships with his car owners team, the Wood Brothers. He passed away in 2018 at the age of eighty-three.
Getting The Shakedown Test
One of the first cars to roll off the assembly line at the legendary new Indianapolis Motor Speedway was, in fact, a brand-new vehicle. It was built entirely from the ground-up and had never before left the factory floor. It was designated as car number 51, and it was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that would go on to become known as the first Brickyard 400. This was the culmination of a nearly ten-year project, and it was put through its paces by legendary driver and engineer Ralph Earnhardt before a crowd of automotive journalists — including some from foreign lands — gathered at the track for the big afternoon launch.
It was an exciting moment for the city of Indianapolis. The first Brickyard 400 held on July 11, 1966, and it would go on to become one of the great races of all time. In the end, it was a battle of endurance as the winning car, a Lotus 36, completed the course in 24:30.4 while unofficial clockers clocked a still-standing 23:59.4. The entire event had been a showcase for the new-car industry, with Chevrolet and its Corvette proving to be the equal of any of the other cars on the track. One writer described the spectacle as a cross between Goldrush Days and a modern-day Indian feast. It was certainly that — lots of entertainment and food for a wonderful day out.
Sadly, it would not be the last time that cars from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would end up in a deadly crash. On October 12, 1968, during the second running of the Brickyard 400, driver Junior Johnson suffered an accident while lapping a friend. He veered into oncoming traffic, where he collided with a car driven by Darrell Waltrip. Johnson suffered a fractured skull, and he died shortly after from the injuries he suffered in that terrible accident. The coroner’s report gave the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, and it put a sudden end to the NASCAR career of “The King” — one of the most popular drivers of all time. Johnson’s death was a shocking blow to the racing community, and it overshadowed what would have been Ralph Earnhardt’s last running of the Indianapolis 500.
Racing At Its Best, But Not Without Its Shadows
As exciting as the introduction of the first Brickyard 400 was, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. The new speedway was beset by financial problems from the start, as several lawsuits were filed shortly after the opening day of racing. The suits accused the racing organizers of slander and defamation for falsely advertising the inaugural event as the “Grand National Circuit” — a claim that was eventually dropped — and the city of Indianapolis was forced to step in and cover the costs of the new speedway. The lawsuits would be settled out of court, and the issue was finally put to rest in 1971.