STEVE SNODDY / indycar.com
Saturday, May 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The first week of on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had just concluded and Richie Hearn found himself in an unusual situation. Instead of strolling through the Speedway’s famed garage area, helmet in hand and searching for a ride in the Indianapolis 500 — his usual mid-May ritual — Hearn was tooling around Las Vegas in the family car, running errands.
When the rain-delayed second round of qualifying for the Indy 500 gets under way today, Hearn will be 1,500 miles away in Tooele, Utah, where he will serve as crew chief and driver coach for Goshen Motorsports in the Star Mazda Championships Series.
Hearn, a longtime Henderson resident who has been a semiregular at Indy since his rookie race in 1996, admitted it would be difficult having to watch this year’s race on TV but said he saw it coming as soon as the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series reunified American open-wheel racing back in February.
“The merger needed to happen and I’m glad it did,” Hearn said. “But when that happened, the IRL pretty much made a lot of the teams give up their extra cars. A lot of those (former) Champ Car teams only have backup cars for Indy.”
As a result, he said, “there are just no good rides available. A lot of it comes down to there’s just a shortage of equipment so nobody’s going to be putting any extra cars out there.”
The merger, though good for open-wheel racing, cost Hearn, 37, the opportunity to make his eighth Indianapolis 500 start. A Southern California native, Hearn made his presence felt as a driver in the IRL’s debut season in 1996. He finished fourth in his second career start, at Phoenix International Raceway, and earned his lone IRL victory in his fifth start, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hearn posted a stunning third-place finish in his first Indy 500 that year in only his third IRL race. Although he was the highest-finishing rookie in the race, the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award went to the 24th-place finisher, pole-sitter Tony Stewart.
From that race, Hearn’s love affair with Indy — the track and the race — blossomed, although he never achieved that same level of success at The Brickyard. He finished sixth in the 2002 race while driving for fellow Henderson resident Sam Schmidt, Hearn’s only other top-10 finish in seven Indy 500 races.
Last year, Hearn landed a last-minute ride with Hemelgarn Racing and qualified the car in the 32nd starting position despite having only 19 laps of practice.
“I’d much rather be driving than doing what I’m doing, but it’s just the way it is right now. I’ve got to make a living somehow,” he said of his role with Goshen Motorsports.
“I’d love to be there and be involved, but what I went through last year was a nightmare and I don’t want that. I stuck my neck out to make the race and honestly, I didn’t get paid what I thought I should get paid, and I didn’t want to put myself in that position again.”
In the meantime, Hearn has not given up on his racing career. He said he is looking for a ride in one of the U.S. sports car series and would like to continue to compete at Indianapolis on an annual basis.
“It sucks, really,” to have to watch the Indy 500 on TV, he said. “I’ll enjoy watching everybody else stress out and I’ll try to enjoy it, but I’m disappointed not to be there.
“Maybe next year.”