Designed to honor Indiana’s short track heritage, the Hoosier Thunder display featured four cars from the racing lives of four iconic Hoosier racers. Indiana is well known for racing and motorsports, and no one would contest that. What many fans don’t realize about the Hoosier state is it is also a bastion of traditional short track racing on dirt and asphalt. The Hoosier Thunder display put the state’s reputation back into the clay and paved tracks where four of the very best have called home.
Niebel’s 1995 Silver Crown Car
Of the decades of United States Auto Club (USAC) race cars featured in the display, the one that drew the most onlookers was Tony Stewart’s Silver Crown car. The driver’s name recognition brought many of the fans to the display on the first floor of the Hyatt Serpentine Lobby, but this display was about the builders as much as the racers. Stewart’s 1995 Silver Crown car was a tribute to Smoke’s “triple crown” season.
The “triple crown” in USAC racing is when a driver claims all three national championships – the Silver Crown, Sprint Car, and Midget Car. Only two drivers – Tony Stewart (1995) and J. J. Yeley (2003) – have achieved the triple crown in a single season. Yeley accomplished the feat as a member of a race team owned by Tony Stewart.
The Silver Crown series has roots to the days when Championship (Champ) Car racing, which was the Indy Car circuit, ran both asphalt and dirt tracks. USAC was the sanctioning body for the Indianapolis 500 and the Champ Car series. In 1971, USAC dropped the dirt cars from the Champ Car schedule and started a series specifically for the dirt car Champ Cars called the National Dirt Car Championship, which was renamed to the Silver Crown Series in 1981. Season champions in this series include A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, along with Tony Stewart and J.J. Yeley.
Stewart’s 1995 Silver Crown car was built and owned by National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Glen Niebel – another Indiana native. Starting Niebel Engines in 1962, he made a living building drag racing engines. Niebel began dabbling in Sprint Car engines in 1965 and was bitten by the racing bug. He went full-time Sprint Car racing in 1973 and worked with several teams while building his engine business at the same time.
Finally, in the early 1980s, he began fielding his own teams. Niebel got the idea of putting a V-6 engine in a sprint car to challenge the larger V-8 cars. In his first effort, a Chevrolet V-6 became a giant killer after running away from the V-8 cars at Winchester Speedway in the International Championship Auto Racing series.
Niebel continued to tune and tweak on his cars. By 1995, he was set for a career-high watermark in racing. Teamed with Tony Stewart for the Silver Crown Championship, Niebel was elected to the Hoosier Auto Race Fans Hall of Fame and the Little 500 Hall of Fame. Shortly after the 1995 season, Niebel was diagnosed with cancer. He fought the disease with courage and dignity but died at his home in 1999. His USAC Championship with Tony Stewart remains a highlight of his career.
1937 Pop Dreyer Special
When it comes to early Sprint Car racing, the name Pop Dreyer carries more weight than any other. Dreyer began as a motorcycle sidecar-racer, owned an Indian motorcycle dealership in the 1920s, worked as a welder at Duesenberg and Stutz, became a team member on the top land-speed streamliner, and found his way to the Indianapolis 500 in 1927. The 1920s were certainly roaring for Dreyer, but after his introduction to Indy, his legend truly began.
He began to build midgets (many of them Indian-powered) and Sprint Cars. Dreyer, a self-taught engineer, brought many innovations to open wheel racing during this period. He is credited with the Ford overhead valve conversions on flathead engines as well as lightweight and strong cast magnesium wheels, among other modifications. In the 1931 Indianapolis 500, the front row of cars all wore bodywork by Pop Dreyer. His reputation in the racing industry grew to the point where he was considered one of the best.
Everett Saylor won the 1937 Central States Racing Association Championship in a Dreyer-built Sprint Car while Duke Nalon won the 1938 AAA Sprint Car Eastern title in a Dreyer. The 1937 Dreyer Special Sprint Car on display was similar to the Saylor-driven car, and is a tribute to those years of racing and the “go-to” builder who made those cars top of the sport. Floyd “Pop” Dreyer is recognized for his accomplishments and contributions to motorsports with inductions to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, National Midget Racing Hall of Fame, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and many others.
Rich Vogler’s 1988 Edmunds’ Midget
With a list of accolades a mile-long, “Rapid” Rich Vogler was actually born in Chicago, Illinois, but quickly claimed by the Hoosier state as one of their own. The five-time USAC National Midget champion (1978, 1980, 1983, 1986, 1988), was also a two-time USAC National Sprint Car champion (1980, 1989). He was the first driver to win the USAC Midget championship and USAC Sprint Car championship in the same season (1980).
Vogler shined brightest on the national stage, winning the Hut Hundred eight-times, the 4-Crown Nationals midget car event four-times, the Copper Classic twice, the Hoosierdome Invitational twice, the WWRA Florida Winter Nationals in 1983, and the Night Before the 500 once. In 1987, he won the inaugural Chili Bowl Midget Nationals race.
His father, Donald Vogler, who was also a very talented driver who died in a midget car crash at the Indianapolis Speedrome in 1981. Tragically, Rich was also killed in a crash while leading a race at the Salem Speedway in Salem, Indiana. The race was called because of the crash.
Because USAC’s rules require the race revert to the last completed lap under a yellow caution flag, Vogler was declared the winner posthumously. He was scheduled to race the following day in his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at Pocono Speedway. The series awarded Vogler a 40th place finish as a “Did Not Start” (DNS). This #1 Pepsi Midget on display was built by legendary builder Don Edmunds in 1988 and owned by Rich Vogler.
Ed Carpenter’s Quarter-Midget
Many of yesterday’s open-wheel stars got their start in the quarter-midget racing program. Quarter-midgets are basically go-karts fitted with racing bodies and raced in organized leagues to give young racers experience and the chance to develop. This quarter-midget provided that opportunity to current IndyCar star Ed Carpenter. Like Vogler, Ed Carpenter was originally born in Illinois but quickly adopted by Indiana fans after moving to Indianapolis at the age of 8. He is the stepson of Indy Racing League (IRL) founder Tony George.
Carpenter learned quickly in quarter-midgets and moved into three-quarter midgets, where he earned major wins in Ohio and Maryland. He continued to rapidly progress up the racing ladder with time in the National Midget series, earning several wins starting in 1989.
This success propelled Carpenter into the USAC Silver Crown Series driving for former Indy Car driver George Snider. Shortly after beginning in the Silver Crown Series, he began to find rides in the USAC Sprint Car series. This led to a Championship in the North American Auto Racing Series Midget racing.
After a short stint in the Indy Lights series, Carpenter found a ride in the IndyCar Series. To date, Carpenter has started the Indianapolis 500 15-times, earning the pole-position for the Indianapolis three-times (2013, 2014, 2018). His best finish in the Indy 500 was second in 2018. It all started with this quarter-midget car.