For members of the motorsports community, and lots of others too, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is hallowed ground.
For Paul Menard, driver of the No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Fusion, the world’s most famous race track holds an extra special place in his heart.
“Every time I drive into the track there it gives me goose bumps,” Menard said. “It’s exciting. Being a driver at Indy is the coolest thing in the sport.”
He attended races there as a youngster, tagging along with his father John Menard, a veteran car owner who fielded entries in the Indianapolis 500 for a Who’s Who list of drivers including Gary Bettenhausen, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Danny Ongais and Tony Stewart. But John Menard never tasted victory at Indianapolis until 2011, when his son Paul won the Brickyard 400.
Although his father was a big figure in open-wheel racing, Paul Menard took a different route to Indianapolis.
Growing up in Wisconsin, there were several asphalt short tracks within reasonable driving distance of his home in Eau Claire, so that’s where he began his racing career.
“There were a lot of short tracks within two hours of home, so Indy car racing really wasn’t an option,” he said. “I would have liked to run the Indy 500, but it’s too late to do that now.”
He did get to the Speedway through his NASCAR career and scored his biggest career victory there in 2011.
“That was definitely a day I’ll never forget,” he said of his run there while driving for car owner Richard Childress. “We were pretty competitive all day long, and then I was involved in a caution flag.”
That yellow flag flew on Lap 121 of 160 for an incident involving Landon Cassill and David Ragan.
“I had to go to the grass to miss them and got grass on the grille and a little damage,” Menard recalled. “We were just outside our fuel window at that point, so they packed it full of gas and I was saving fuel as I headed down pit road.”
Over the final 34-lap, green-flag run to the finish, Menard spent the early laps saving fuel, and as other drivers began making late pit stops he cycled into the lead.
But it was no cakewalk to the finish line.
“The last four or five laps I started running hard again and held them off.”
Menard, who led the race on four occasions, took the lead for good with four laps remaining, and at the checkered flag was .725 seconds ahead of runner-up Jeff Gordon.
“It was pretty cool, pretty special,” he said.
Menard said that looking back, the best part of the victory celebration was enjoying the moment with his family and teammates.
“My dad, my mom and my sister were there, and I talked to my brother on the phone in Victory Lane,” he said. “And riding around the track in the pace car with Richard Childress and my dad was really special.”
Menard is hoping to make some more Indy memories this weekend in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.
He said a recent test session at Indy gives him reason to be optimistic.
“I feel like we learned some things that will apply,” he said. “It was hot and rainy at the test, and it’s looking like the weather will be similar this weekend although a little cooler.”
Qualifying is set for Saturday at 6:15 p.m. Eastern Time, and the race is scheduled to start just after 2 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage for both events on NBCSN.