INDIANAPOLIS - Ron Hemelgarn admits he is hopelessly infatuated with a very expensive and very seductive temptress. He has spent untold thousands courting her over the past three decades, but her siren's song keeps luring him back for more.
"There's just something about this place, and something about this race," the Toledo businessman and IndyCar Series team owner said yesterday as the final practice session took place for this year's Indianapolis 500.
"There's a lot of joy and a lot of heartache and disappointment here, but I still keep coming back."
Hemelgarn, the owner of Super Fitness health clubs, has his 30th date with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in tomorrow's race. Only open-wheel racing icon A.J. Foyt has a longer-running relationship with the event.
"It's very difficult and really complicated, just trying to get into this race," Hemelgarn said. "And even when it looked about impossible to pull off, every year I've just said to myself, you've got to do it again. For some reason, the Indy 500 just keeps coming back into my life."
Hemelgarn, who owns several hundred health spas around the country, including ones here and in Toledo, first became involved with the Indy 500 in 1978 as one of the sponsors on Dick Simon's car. Hemelgarn took on a more active role in 1984 when he purchased his own team and created Hemelgarn Racing.
"I think I was attracted to the excitement of the sport, and just the spectacle of the Indy 500," Hemelgarn said. "It was the largest sporting event in the world - it still is - and it was something I wanted to be a part of. It's always a big risk, because you put a ton of time and money into it and you have no idea how it is going to turn out. But it's all worth it when you succeed."
Buddy Lazier drove a Hemelgarn Racing car to victory in the 1996 Indy 500. They wore the winner's garland, drank the milk reserved for the victor, and took a place of honor on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
"I'm one of the very few people who have won this race as a team owner, and the thought of that still kind of overwhelms me a little," Hemelgarn said. "It changes your life when they put 'Indy 500 winner' next to your name. There's just so much history and tradition involved with this race, and I'm proud to be a part of it."
He has experienced the extreme disappointment at the other end of the Indy 500 spectrum, as well.
In 2006, a hybrid promotional partnership brought Hemelgarn together with NBA star Carmelo Anthony and put brash, young driver P.J. Chesson in their entry Car Melo. But on just the second lap of the race, Chesson crashed into Hemelgarn's other car driven by Jeff Bucknum, knocking both vehicles out of the 500.
"Over the years, I think I've finished in about every position there is," Hemelgarn said. "You have to take the good with the bad, because so many things can happen in this race. It's the hardest race in the world to win, but I think that's part of the attraction."
Hemelgarn has reunited with Lazier for this year's 500 after not racing together since 2004, and the pair had to pull off a dramatic qualifying run in the final minutes of the final session just to make this year's field. They will start in the second-to-last position in the 33-car grid, but past success has Hemelgarn expressing tempered optimism.
"It is very exciting to be back with Buddy in the car, and I think it was a good move for both of us," Hemelgarn said. "All you can do is put together the best car you can, and then put the most qualified driver in it. We've done that, so now we'll have to find out if all of the stars are aligned for us."
Lazier brought Hemelgarn second-place finishes here in 1998 and 2000, as well as a fourth place finish in 1997 and a seventh in 1999. Lazier also provided Hemelgarn with his only IndyCar Series season championship, in 2000. Lazier is the most experienced driver in this year's field, in terms of laps completed in the Indy 500.
"That experience we both have at this place, that's worth a lot in terms of confidence and knowledge. But you can't really know how that all translates on race day," Hemelgarn said. "It would be nice to bring another championship back to Toledo."
Hemelgarn has struggled to challenge the leaders at the Indy 500 over the past seven years, finishing out of the top 15 in all but one of those races once the much more well-financed teams from Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti started dominating the competition. But Hemelgarn said yesterday a top-10 finish in tomorrow's race is realistic, and with a few breaks, something more is possible.
"Looking back, all of the goals I set when I first got involved with the Indy 500 those 30 years ago - I accomplished all of them," Hemelgarn said. "But winning once and being in the top 10 all those times, I guess it's not enough if you keep coming back."
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