John Menard, once again, was late to the party.
About 37 years, to be precise.
Simon Pagenaud had already stood up and stepped out of his shiny car to celebrate Team Penske’s Saturday’s conquest of the third Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis when Menard climbed over the pit wall to join the fun.
Menard just stood there for a moment, taking it all in. The first man to recognize him among the frenzied masses was car owner Roger Penske, who stood on the other side of the neon yellow No. 22 Menards Chevrolet and pointed from afar at the car’s sponsor.
That meant a lot to a visibly emotional Menard, who as a team owner was winless at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 26 years beginning in 1979. Menard pointed back and screamed, “Roger!”
While the obvious storyline was Pagenaud winning a third consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series race, no one was more ecstatic this day than a 76-year-old billionaire from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Menard had hired his neighbor, Herm Johnson, to drive a car in that ’79 Indianapolis 500, but Johnson couldn’t qualify. So began a dubious Menard legacy at IMS.
Team Menard won three Indy 500 poles, but became known more for heartbreaking disappointments. Beyond heartbreaking, at times. Scott Brayton won the first two poles, but the popular driver was killed in an Indy practice crash in ’96. Greg Ray crashed out in last place in 2000 after qualifying first.
Other cars were capable. Tony Stewart was dominant in ’96, but his engine failed. Robby Gordon led the 1998 race on Lap 198, just three from the finish, but ran out of fuel and had to pit. During Pagenaud's party, Menard mentioned what he remembered as the closest he came to an Indy 500 victory, when Al Unser led four laps late in 1992. Menard gave up after 2004.
A Team Penske crew member stuck out a hand and shouted to Menard, “Welcome back!” Others embraced and congratulated him.
“I’m thrilled that Roger would have me at all,” Menard said. “Roger and I have competed for years.”
Menard did win Indy Racing League titles with Stewart and Ray, but those didn’t completely replace the Indy 500 heartaches. When his son, Paul Menard, won NASCAR’s 2011 Brickyard 400 at IMS, Menard shed tears before kissing the “Yard of Bricks.”
So who better to team up with than Penske, owner of a record 16 Indy 500 wins and now two Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis triumphs.
“Joining him is much better,” Menard said with a hearty laugh.
They shared the accomplishment and smiled for pictures, two men who don’t want for anything in terms of money, yet are still driven by a competitive desire.
“He’s been a great friend for a long time and a real competitor,” Penske said. “When we had a chance to get caught up and make a deal for these races, it was terrific. To see him happy like this, now all we’ve got to do is let this momentum take us through the Indy 500.”
If anyone is an authority on the subject of winning, it’s Penske.
“I can tell you, when you come here you’ve got one thing you want to do and that’s win,” Penske said. “Once you get to the winner’s circle, that’s where you want to stay.”
But as Pagenaud was closing in on victory, Menard couldn’t help but fear the worst.
“I thought it was going to run out of fuel. The wheels were all going to fall off,” he said. “Something bad was going to happen.”
It didn’t. Pagenaud’s crew pulled off a 6.7-second final pit stop to keep him out in front and running away in clean air on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.
“I told John that if we win the big show, he’ll have all three trophies from here,” said Team Penske manager Tim Cindric.
There’s nothing he would enjoy more than to see Pagenaud prevail May 29 at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 sponsored by PennGrade Motor Oil. But for at least one night, he preferred to savor this one.
After all, it was a long time coming.
“I’m not a drinking man,” he said, “but I’ll have a beer or two tonight.”
And shed a tear or two.
“I will,” Menard said, his eyes glassy. “I’ll get to that a little later.”