Nothing lasts forever, including long-standing traditional open-wheel racing events. Usually, when they come to an end they never return and, if they do, they are unable to achieve their past glory.
However, that wasn’t the case with the annual “Night Before The 500” midget race, which returned for one final dance on Aug. 22.
The Night Before The 500 was the nation’s second-oldest midget race, behind only the “Turkey Night Grand Prix,” prior to its final running at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) in 2014.
The inaugural Night Before the 500 was held the evening prior to the Indianapolis 500 at the now-defunct “original” 16th Street Speedway in 1946. Twin AAA midget feature events were won by racers Leroy Warriner and Benny Emerick.
The event was deemed a resounding success, fueled in-part by the numerous traveling fans in town for the “Month of May” events surrounding the following day’s Indy 500.
After AAA discontinued its role as auto racing sanctioning body following the 1955 season, the race was sanctioned by USAC beginning the following season. USAC sanctioned the race all the way until its final event in 2014.
The race has almost always held at a race track in the city (Indianapolis) the night before the Indianapolis 500 Except for runnings at Kokomo Speedway in 1959 through 1961, and again from 1965-1968, the race was traditionally held at venues in Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis Speedrome and Indiana State Fairgrounds were among the facilities that played host to the Night Before the 500 before the event found a permanent home at Lucas Oil Raceway in 1980.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE 500 WINNERS
LUCAS OIL RACEWAY
2020 – Bobby Santos III
2014 – Tracy Hines
2013 – Darren Hagen
201 – Tracy Hines
2011 – Darren Hagen
2010 – Tanner Swanson
2009 – Chuck Gurney Jr.
2008 – Bobby East
2007 – Kevin Swindell
2006 – Bobby Santos III
2005 – Michael Lewis
2004 – Ron Gregory
2003 – Aaron Fike
2002 – Jason Leffler
2001 – Kasey Kahne
2000 – Kasey Kahne
1999 – Ryan Newman
1998 – Dave Steele
1997 – Ryan Newman
1996 – Kenneth Nichols
1995 – Andy Michner
1994 – Ted Hines
1993 – Mike Bliss
1992 – Doug Kalitta
1991 – Mike Fedorcak
1990 – Jeff Gordon
1989 – Jeff Gordon
1988 – Jack Calabrase
1987 – Nick Fornoro Jr.
1986 – Sam Isenhower
1985 – Nick Fornoro Jr.
1984 – Steve Lotshaw
1983 – Ken Schrader
1982 – RAIN
1981 – Mack McClellan
1980 – Mel Kenyon
1979 – Jeff Nuckles, Sleepy Tripp
LUCAS OIL RACEWAY
1978 – Rich Vogler
1977 – Mel Kenyon
1976 – Bob Wente
1975 – Bill Engelhart
1974 – Tommy Astone
1968 – RAIN
1967 – Mike McGreevy
1966 – Chuck Arnold
1965 – Mel Kenyon
1964 – Chuck Rodee
1963 – Mel Kenyon
1962 – Jimmy Davies
1961 – Jimmy Davies
1960 – Jimmy Davies
1959 – Gene Force
16TH STREET SPEEDWAY
1958 – Mauri Wilson, Gene Force, Tony Bonadies
1957 – Chuck Rodee, Len Sutton
1956 – Shorty Templeton, Shorty Templeton, Shorty Templeton
1955 – Eddie Sachs, Forrest Parker
1954 – Potsy Goacher, Johnnie Kay, Tony Bonadies
1953 – Johnnie Tolan
1952 – Potsy Goacher
1951 – NO RACE
1950 – Leroy Warriner, Mike Nazaruk, Manuel Ayulo
1949 – Eddie Haddad, Eddie Haddad, Mike O’Halloran
1948 – Eddie Haddad, Eddie Haddad, Johnnie Parsons
1947 – Sam Hanks, Teddy Duncan
1946 – Leroy Warriner, Benny Emerick
Pavement midget racing began to lose traction in the Midwest after the 2012 season, when USAC removed pavement events from its national midget schedule and created a pavement-only midget schedule prior to the 2013 season in hopes of keeping pavement midget racing alive.
However, car counts continued to decline, including those at the Night Before the 500. The final 2014 event saw only 10 cars take the green flag on the huge .686-mile oval.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March, and race events began to be cancelled or postponed, the Indianapolis 500 was moved to Aug. 23. This began a whirlwind of rescheduling of the events traditionally surrounding the Indianapolis 500, to align with the new date.
An exception was the annual Little 500 sprint car race at Anderson Speedway, where management decided to stick to the annual Memorial Day Weekend date.
When Lucas Oil Raceway General Manager Kasey Coler realized the Little 500 wasn’t moving, it planted a seed in his mind. Would it be possible to bring back The Night Before the 500?
Coler had already expressed visions of bringing back high-profile sprint car and midget events to the track in 2021.
On April 1, 2020, Lucas Oil Raceway management announced that the Night Before the 500 would be returning one more time.
There would be a slightly different format. Sprint cars would join the midgets for the only time in the race’s history for a unique doubleheader on Aug. 22, the new night before the Indianapolis 500.
“Bringing open-wheel racing in 2021 was on our radar. We were thinking about the opportunity to bring back sprint car racing to LOR and reintroduce pavement midgets into it,” Coler explained. “Obviously, that got accelerated with the announcement the Indy 500 was moving to August 23.
“I reached out to Rick Dawson at Anderson Speedway. At the time they didn’t have plans to move the Little 500 date. I mentioned my plans for running the Night Before the 500 and they were on board. I talked to Track Enterprises as well. I was able to announce it on April 1. Everybody thought it was just a cruel April Fools’ joke,” Coler added with a laugh.
Coler announced that the sprint car feature would pay an impressive $10,000 to win. He upped the ante on the midget side to $5,000-to-win when he realized interest in the midget portion was stronger than originally expected.
If it wasn’t for Anderson Speedway’s support of this event, it may not have been possible. For decades, until the demise of the Night Before The 500, the race ran head-to-head against the Little 500. Each track tried to coax the same fan base to their respective events. In fact, LOR went as far as to run a quarter-page ad for the Night Before The 500 in Anderson Speedway’s local Herald-Bulletin newspaper prior to the 2014 running.
Coler, himself, was skeptical as to what the quality and quantity of the midget field would be, given the fact that pavement midget racing in the Midwest has been non-existent since 2014.
“The biggest theme for this event was that everybody was pulling in the same direction,” he explained. “When it was announced, one of the first calls I received was from Kevin Studley. He’s based here in Brownsburg and has a car. He got a lot of the wheels in motion as far as talking to people in the industry. Tim Bertrand from out on the east coast, who runs NEMA, raised his hand immediately and said, ‘We’re interested.’
“Our initial expectations for the midget side of the event were low. If we announce this and can get six to eight cars, it’s a start and maybe we can slowly build this thing up over the course of several years. Maybe we could eventually have a pavement midget event where we could have 18 cars.”
The initial announced purse for the midget event was only $1,000 to win. Coler also received a call from NASCAR driver Alex Bowman.
“Alex said, ‘When you bumped up the purse, I decided I wanted to be there.’ Unfortunately, they had a race at Dover and he couldn’t be here, but he has his car ready for future events.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE 500 (30 laps)
1 – Bobby Santos
2 – Tanner Swanson
3 – Kyle Hamilton
4 – Thomas Meseraull
5 – Jake Trainor
6 – Courtney Crone
7 – Cole Carter
8 – Nick Hamilton
9 – Jim Anderson
10 – Kyle O’Gara
11 – Kevin Studley
12 – Mario Clouser
13 – Derek Bischak
14 – Johnny Zych
15 – Todd Bertrand
16 – Alby Ovitt
17 – Maria Cofer
18 – Kody Swanson
19 – Avery Stoehr
20 – Nathan Byrd
21 – Cody Gerhardt
22 – Justin Grant
23 – Annie Breidinger
24 – Ryan Shilkuski
The event was a success beyond Coler’s expectations. Twenty-six midgets and 26 sprint cars were on hand. Both the sprint and midget portions were unsanctioned.
But Anderson Speedway staff ran and governed the event, while USAC helped with promotion, insurance, and provided live streaming coverage.
An impressive crowd was on hand at Lucas Oil Raceway. Bobby Santos III won the 30-lap midget feature, while Kody Swanson won the 40-lap non-winged sprint car feature.
Despite its success, Coler insists there will not be future Night Before The 500 events, for the simple fact that he doesn’t want to compete against the Little 500.
But he already has plans for three other open-wheel events at the track for 2021 that will see two races each for sprint cars, midgets, and Silver Crown cars.
If the final chapter of the Night Before the 500 has indeed been written, the 70th and final edition closed this historic race out in grand fashion.
It was allowed a much happier ending than was provided in 2014.
If there has been the slightest silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the chance to bid farewell to an old friend in proper fashion.