INDIANAPOLIS - In racing vernacular, Ron Hemelgarn has been around the track a time or two.
Some perspective: There are a number of drivers who will take part in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 who were not born yet when the Toledo businessman sponsored his first cars at Indy in 1978.
"This will be my 28th Indy 500, and I've finished first, I've finished last, and I've finished just about everywhere in between," Hemelgarn said from the famous speedway where Jimmy Kite will drive his entry in the big race.
"I've had close to 50 cars in this race over the years, and I think I've run against just about everybody that's here. There's a reason I keep coming back - because the Indy 500 is still the biggest spectacle in racing, and I love being a part of all that."
Hemelgarn, who was born in Dayton in 1947, made his fortune as an entrepreneur in the fitness and financial industries. He started with a few fitness centers more than three decades ago, and grew that into the ownership of fitness centers throughout the world. He is a resident of La Salle, Mich., who headquarters his business ventures in Toledo.
From the short tracks of the Midwest like Toledo Speedway to the world-class road courses like Laguna Seca, Hemelgarn has been involved in the promotion and sponsorship of racing events, and the development of racing technology and driver talent. It is a passion he can not disguise.
"Even after all these years, it still gets me going," Hemelgarn said.
"It is an exciting and dynamic sport where you are always out there on the edge, trying to out-work and out-think and out-drive everyone else. I don't think there is any match for that kind of competition, man and machine."
Hemelgarn, who has had Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Arie Luyendyk and Davey Hamilton all race for him over the years, won Indy in 1996 with Buddy Lazier at the wheel. Lazier also brought him the IndyCar Series championship in 2000, and was second in the points race the following year.
Recently, Hemelgarn has struggled to keep up with the deep-pocketed teams and he did not field a team for the 2004 IndyCar Series season while he unsuccessfully sought additional financial backing, competing instead in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series. Last year he entered just the Indy 500 in the top
series, where Lazier was 23rd.
Hemelgarn comes back to the old Brickyard this year with a jolt of new life, thanks to a four-year partnership agreement with Ethanol that has put him back in the big game as Ethanol Hemelgarn Racing, but with a lot of his team veterans still surrounding him.
"Hemelgarn Racing has been around a long time, so it's not like this is a brand new team," he said. "It's a very old, established team, and in fact, a lot of our crew members on our IndyCar side stayed on the payroll all last year. Even though we were not running in the series, we kept those guys on the payroll knowing that we would return.
"And the biggest thing that I wanted to do was to have that loyalty to those people and those people having the loyalty to me, because that same crew was a crew that took Buddy Lazier to this championship in 2000, and also some of those were on the team when we won the Indy 500."
And that is what brings Hemelgarn back. There are 17 races on the IndyCar Series this year, but this one means more than all the rest put together.
He thinks he has the car and the driver to be near the front of the field when the checkered flag comes out on Sunday.
"We've got a great race car and it is handling just fantastic," Hemelgarn said.
"I look forward to [Indy 500] every year because it is such a dynamic race, and such an overwhelming event," he said. "Many, many people have tried over the years, and put their heart and soul into this, but only a few have ever won it. I'd give up a dozen
championships for another Indy 500 win.
"I could walk away right now, knowing that I accomplished what I wanted to do in racing - I won a championship in 2000, and I won the Indy 500 in 1996. But the thrill is still there. Now, I am here for all the fun and games of it."