It might be hard to believe, but Thursday’s blustery, relatively quiet fall afternoon may have been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum’s most important day this century.
While autonomous cars hummed around the IMS oval, the unmistakable roar of a 1980s Indy car engine broke the void as it peeled off Hulman Blvd., pulled around the Gate 2 guard shack and rolled into place in front of the museum’s entrance. The bright cherry-red of Bobby Rahal’s 1986 Indy 500-winning March 86C car with its iconic Budweiser livery brightened the dreary backdrop and widened the eyes of IMS Museum personnel onsite, eager to get it through the doors.
Because after nearly a year-long concentrated effort to acquire the No. 3 car – and more than 20 years of waiting overall – the museum has a new car that’s here to stay. On Thursday, the museum announced it had purchased Rahal’s lone 500 winner from longtime private owner Pat Ryan, making it the 35th permanent member of the museum’s Indy 500 winning car collection, and the first it has acquired since 1999, when it landed Jacques Villeneuve’s 1995 Player’s Ltd. car.
The museum currently has four more cars on longtime loan – Alexander Rossi’s 2016 machine, the late Dan Wheldon’s 2011 winner, Buddy Lazier’s car from 1996 and Mario Andretti’s 1969 replica – but despite it being the home of such an array of Indy 500 and IMS memorabilia, museum curator of vehicles Jason Vansickle says those cars are becoming increasingly hard to come by.
Being a 501(c)(3) non-profit, completely separate from IMS itself and Penske Entertainment Corp., makes it more difficult.
“Donations are very critical for us, for a variety of reasons,” Vansickle told IndyStar. “But we learned (this car was for sale) in March, and winners don’t come up too often. Through our collections committee and board of directors, we were really determined that this was something we needed to add to help tell the story of our collection.
“Today is really a milestone moment for the museum. That 22-year gap shows just how hard these cars are to come by, but we hope it shows the museum is also actively collecting. The donations provided by race and auto fans really help us.”
Why getting Indy 500-winning cars can be difficult
The rarity, Vansickle explains, comes from several factors. For one, the race’s winningest team owner, Roger Penske, has held onto 16 of his 18 Indy 500-winners for his team’s collection. The Museum has Penske’s 1972 car — Penske’s first 500 win driven by Mark Donohue — and a private owner has Bobby Unser’s winner from 1981. Lately, Vansickle said, more team owners – particularly Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti – have followed suit. Others since 2012 have sometimes chosen to keep the chassis in rotation in their fleet of cars because the DW-12 is still in-use, though it’s gone through several body configurations.
Others may have wrecked, or, when it comes to the oldest cars, been lost to history.
“Once we get (the 1986 car) in the museum in November, it’ll be part of what we call our ‘permanent exhibition’ that are usually always on display unless they’re at certain events or other institutions ask for loans.”
Vansickle declined to say how much such a car is worth, only adding, “It’s out there. That’s why donations are so valuable to us. We can’t really go out and throw our weight around to purchase a vehicle very often.”
Rahal has rarely been back in the cockpit of the March 86C since May 31, 1986, when the race had been delayed a week to the following Sunday due to a rough patch of stormy weather on the original Sunday, as well as the following day – Memorial Day. That day, the 33-year-old who would go on to win his first of three CART titles that year, held off the stalwarts of the day — Kevin Cogan, Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Johnny Rutherford and Danny Sullivan — who made up eight of the top-10 spots and today have 13 Indy 500 victories between them.
It was bittersweet, too, in a sense for Rahal at the time because he, his team and much of the paddock knew that his team owner, Jim Trueman, was in poor health due to a fierce cancer battle. And just 11 days after Rahal’s victory – less than a week after the team’s victory parade in Columbus, Ohio – Trueman died.
“(Being back in that car), it makes you kind of emotional because you remember everything about that day,” Rahal said Thursday. “It was a great day for us, and it’s great to see (the car) here at the Museum in Indianapolis. That’s where it belongs, to be able to share it with all the fans.
“I’m really pleased. It looks great, probably even a little better now than it did that day, but I’m really thankful the museum made the commitment to bring it back.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.