IRL: Smithsonian Indy program a success

The 90th running of the Indianapolis 500, one of the nation's most enduring motorsports traditions, will take place on May 28. The Smithsonian Institution celebrated the annual Memorial Day weekend tradition, which has grown to become the world's...

The 90th running of the Indianapolis 500, one of the nation's most enduring motorsports traditions, will take place on May 28. The Smithsonian Institution celebrated the annual Memorial Day weekend tradition, which has grown to become the world's largest single-day sporting event, at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, D.C. The program, "IndyCar Racing: Celebrate the Spectacle" featured video presentations and discussion with 2005 Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon; the 2001 and 2002 winner, Helio Castroneves; Johnny Rutherford, who won in 1974, 1976 and 1980; Janet Guthrie and Michael and Marco Andretti.

The evening started with two special presentations, the first by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber, who presented the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service to the Hulman-George family for their support of the armed forces. The award, presented on behalf of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was accepted by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Joie Chitwood.

With the famous Borg Warner trophy as a backdrop, Barber and Chitwood posed for photos before Chitwood presented the second award of the evening. Chitwood used the occasion to present Dan Wheldon with his 2005 Indianapolis 500 victory ring, a stunning Herff Jones gold ring circled with diamonds.

After the presentations, master of ceremonies Bob Jenkins asked each driver one question before taking questions from the standing room only audience.

The evening featured many memorable moments, including Rutherford's advice to Marco Andretti on the minutes leading up to the start of the 500. Recounting the pageantry prior to the start, Rutherford said it was easy to get distracted by all the activities. He noted four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who in his rookie year took the green flag before noticing he had neglected to fasten the strap on his helmet.

Other Rutherford classics included the tale of his violent flip in a sprint car at the high banked Eldora Speedway. Rutherford, who broke both his arms in the accident, remarked, "That's when you find out who your real friends are." When the large screen behind the panel flashed a photo of Rutherford's sprinter sailing high over the turn two Eldora wall, his body flailing about like a rag doll, Castroneves asked innocently, "Hey Johnny, what were you doing up there?"

A full 90 minutes of the same type of banter between the drivers ensued with each driver revealing their thoughts on the greatest driver to have never won the 500. Lloyd Ruby was the consensus among Rutherford, Guthrie and Michael Andretti. Wheldon agreed with Marco Andretti when he picked his father, as did Castroneves who added, "and I plan to keep it that way."

In addition to the lively discussion, Dan Wheldon revealed that he had been offered a ride in Formula One for 2006 but turned it down to compete in the Indy Racing League. Later in the program, Wheldon was asked if there were any circuits that he'd like to see added to the IndyCar Series schedule. When he responded with Surfers Paradise, Michael Andretti was quick to add that it had little to do the circuit. With the huge grin on his face, Wheldon could do little to deny Michael's assertion.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway spokesperson Ron Green reported that tickets were sold out the day before the program. At the conclusion of the formal program several drivers stayed to sign autographs, chat with the fans and pose for photographs.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Michael Andretti , Dan Wheldon , Rick Mears , Janet Guthrie , Marco Andretti , Lloyd Ruby , Johnny Rutherford