INDIANAPOLIS — Short track racing made its return to 16th Street in 1997, nearly 40 years after it originated down the very same street.
The 16th Street Speedway opened inside Bush Stadium on April 26, 1997.
The original 16th Street Speedway was located across the street from Turn 2 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The asphalt track operated from 1946 through 1959.
New life for a battered ballpark
Bush Stadium was in need of serious renovations in the mid-1990s. The ballpark, which opened as Perry Stadium in 1931, faced an uncertain future after the Indianapolis Indians announced the team would move to a new stadium in downtown Indianapolis.
Many feared the crack of a bat would be replaced by that of the wrecking ball.
The Bush Stadium Reuse Committee was formed to hear proposals on the future of the stadium. The committee considered two final proposals in July 1996, both of which involved race tracks.
Businessman Robert Parker submitted a proposal that called for a paved oval track that would include periodic antique shows and flea markets.
“We end up with a circus-fest-type environment,” Parker said. “I think we can attract kids and older citizens to that facility.”
The other proposal was from Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Anton “Tony” George.
The George proposal, which according to a WRTV report had won the support of neighbors, called for a dirt track along with programs to introduce inner-city kids to the auto industry.
"We're hoping to benefit Indianapolis and the people involved in racing and [we’re] going have a good time as we do it,” said James Voyles of the George proposal.
The committee ended up waiving the green flag on the proposal from Tony George, who entered into a 3-year lease with the City of Indianapolis, which maintained ownership of the stadium.
From running the bases to running laps
Excitement grew as the dirt inside Bush Stadium began to move in February 1997.
Reporter Linda Lupear talked with a construction worker and aspiring race car driver named Eddie Phelps.
“I want to see it built and maybe if I do get to drive on it one of these days, I can say I built the thing,” he said. “ I just want to be part of it.”
WRTV talked with Tony George shortly before the track’s inaugural race.
“I think we’re really void of any good little quarter-mile dirt tracks in this immediate area, but Indianapolis is a big city,” George said. “Hopefully we can provide some entertainment and bring racers in from all over the country to come run her.”
More than 10,000 fans were in attendance for the track’s first night of racing.
The winter of the first feature race was none other than Tony George.
While George may have taken the checkered flag, the yellow loomed large over the track for most of its existence.
A heavily promoted Summer Sizzle event in July 1999 ended up being mostly a fizzle and the backers of the 16th Street Speedway declined to renew their lease with the city in 1999.
Back home again
Short track racing returned to 16th Street in 2016 just steps from where it originated.
Officials with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced they would build a temporary dirt track inside Turn 3 to honor Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart, who was completing his final full-time season in NASCAR.
The two-time Brickyard 400 winner took a few laps around the track alongside fellow Hoosiers Sarah Fisher and Bryan Clauson on July 5, 2016.
“He’s kind of our guy,” Clauson said of Stewart. “He was here the longest, he’s probably put in the most work at this level, and he’s a guy you could strap into anything and he will be competitive.”
Fisher said the fans were the driving force behind the sport.
“The short track fans that we have are just so passionate; it’s the enthusiasm, it's the sport itself, it’s the competition, all those combined,” said Fisher.
Just weeks after turning laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tragedy struck when Bryan Clauson was killed in an on-track crash in Kansas.
As an organ donor, Clauson helped save five lives, but that was just the beginning of Clauson’s legacy.
Driven to save lives
A stunt for Tony Stewart just two years earlier eventually became the catalyst for a permanent short track inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IMS officials announced the track would host a USAC race to kick off the Brickyard 400 weekend.
800 truckloads of clay were brought in for the facility, which also boasted fencing and lights for night racing.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words what it is,” USAC driver Tyler Courtney said. “We’ve talked about it now for a couple of years, since they made the makeshift track out there, but we’ve been on Doug [Boles, IMS' president], we’ve been on everybody at IMS to do something like this because we know we can make it great.”
And great it was. The inaugural race, Driven2SaveLives BC39, served as a tribute to Clauson. The race had 110 entries and each was greeted by Clauson’s father, Tim Clauson.
Also in attendance for that first race was Dan Alexander, who was the recipient of Bryan Clauson's heart.
The Driven2SaveLives BC39 returns this August.