INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 5, 2000 -- Friday, April 7, will be a day so special to race driver Andy Hillenburg that it will be Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one. That's when he fires up his Indy...
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 5, 2000 -- Friday, April 7, will be a day so special to race driver Andy Hillenburg that it will be Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one. That's when he fires up his Indy Racing Northern Light Series car and pulls out onto the gray asphalt racing surface at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to begin the Rookie Orientation Program for the Indianapolis 500. It's something he has dreamed about since he was 6 years old. That first dream was back in 1969 when his father, Gary, brought him to the famed track to watch qualifications. Hillenburg grew up in Indianapolis, but getting to Indy in an open-wheel race car has taken him 20 years since he made his competitive debut three days past his 17th birthday at the tiny dirt oval outside the tiny burg of Paragon, Ind. He drove a car that he built himself. His circuitous route took him to Charlotte, N.C., and stock cars. The dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500 seemed to becoming just that, a dream. Except he refused to believe he would never make it. "I'm really looking forward to this," he said from his shop on the far west side of Indianapolis. "Everything I've done in racing has been preparing me for what I'm about to do." It will happen just 23 days shy of his 37th birthday. Hillenburg has formed a partnership called Fast Track Racing Enterprises with three other people to make his dream come true. His fellow car owners are Preston Root of Daytona Beach, Fla., and son of former Indy car owner Chapman Root; Bill Simpson, a racing equipment mogul and a driver in one Indianapolis 500, and Usona Purcell, a retired landscaper and Indianapolis 500 car owner from Vincennes, Ind. They have purchased two 1999 cars and leased Oldsmobile engines from Team Menard. They have hired Tim Bumps, who was Danny Sullivan's crew chief when he won at Indy in 1985, as team manager and John Palinca as crew chief. They are working out of a Simpson-owned building in Indianapolis. An Indianapolis 500 history buff, Hillenburg has christened the cars as the Sumar Specials. They are named after the cars Jimmy Daywalt (1953-56), Johnny Boyd (1955), Marshall Teague (1957), Johnnie Parsons (1957), Pat O' Connor (1957-58), Bobby Grim (1959) and Gene Hartley (1960) drove in the race. No Sumar Special has appeared during Hillenburg's lifetime. "They usually had Hoosier drivers," he said. Actually, Hillenburg is no stranger to the Speedway's 2 ½-mile oval. He estimates he has driven between 3,000 and 4,000 miles there. But all of them have been testing NASCAR Winston Cup or IROC cars. "I had the opportunity to drive a couple Cup cars in the Brickyard 400, but I didn't think they were good enough to get in," he said. "I didn't want to come home and fail. I wanted my first opportunity to be a good one." And that's what he feels he has now. "I'm very excited," he said. "I honestly don't feel nervous. I believe in all of my heart that this is what I was meant to do. I'm 36 and it's taken a little longer, but I really feel this is where I'm supposed to be." His family was not into racing when he was young. But when his father took him to that first qualifications and then the 1972 Indianapolis 500 (they sat in the third turn) won by Mark Donohue, young Hillenburg was hooked. He said all of his book reports in school were about racing, and that's all he really talked about. His mother Willa, though hesitant, talked his father into allowing him to build and run a car in the Soapbox Derby on Wilbur Shaw Hill only about two miles from the Speedway. He won his first heat, lost the next and lost in the first round the next year. That's when at 12 he convinced his father he needed to drive something with an engine, and he stepped up to racing quarter-midgets for three years at a track on the city's southeast side. At 15 and a junior in high school, he worked as a crew member for the sprint car of Rufus and Gary Gray. Then he built a sprinter and launched his own career. "I had it figured out," he said. "I told everyone I would be at the Speedway when I was 21. It didn't work out that way." Hillenburg drove USAC open-wheel cars but wasn't making any headway toward his goal. Simpson suggested he look to stock cars. Again it wasn't instant success, but he twice has won ARCA races at Daytona International Speedway and in 1998 started in the Daytona 500, surviving an overheating problem to finish 29th, two laps down. He became chief instructor at the Fast Track High Performance Driving School at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1990 and now is president of the firm. His father does the accounting. Still, Hillenburg, like the Sumar Special, seems to be a throwback to the old days of racing. In January, he turned the fourth-fastest lap in preseason testing for the Daytona 500. Returning for the mandatory testing the following week, his 1993 truck broke down in South Carolina. He stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride with a vacationing couple heading back to Florida. Then he turned the fastest non-drafting speed of the GM cars and rode back to Charlotte in the transporter. But the team had five engines go sour when he returned in mid-February for the race, and he failed to make the main event. Did he hitchhike to Indianapolis for his Indy rookie test? "I've got a better truck," he said with a laugh. And he hopes he has better engines when the Speedway opens for Indianapolis 500 practice May 13. It's time that nice guy Andy Hillenburg's dream become reality.
OPEN TEST NOTEBOOK
*Schedule: The Rookie Orientation Program will take place from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April 7-8 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Veterans will test on the 2.5-mile oval from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April 9-11.
*Fans welcome: Spectators are welcome to watch the Rookie Orientation Program and Open Test every day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., free of charge. Seating will be available in the South Terrace bleachers on the inside of the track adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.