Witherill is proud to have made the history of the Indy 500 in 2001

Cory Witherill owns the G-Force chassis that he and Indy Regency Racing used to qualify for his only Indianapolis 500 start in 2001. The car is in a store in Columbus, Ohio, with a different paint scheme than it did. racing colors. Witherill would like to give it a retro look as part of a larger project.

On that day, in May 2001, Witherill became the first – and still the only – full Native American pilot to qualify for the “500”. Now 20 years old in the rearview mirror, Witherill, from Los Angeles, still hopes this achievement can inspire others.

One idea is to display the car in its Indy livery at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, or the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. Presenting it in November, which is National Native American Heritage Month, would be a plus.

“It’s still full,” Witherill said of what was then the # 16 car. “I was using it as a show car for my kids’ program at the time with Hemelgarn (Racing) , so he painted No. 92 purple and white, in Hemelgarn’s colors. “

Qualifying for the “500” continues to be the most celebrated moment in Witherill’s motorsport career. Photographs hung in his garage in Redondo Beach, Calif., Recall how an Indy Lights team earned a spot in the most prestigious of INDYCAR SERIES estates.

Witherill was a product of motocross and off-road racing, building an open-wheeled career through various lower divisions before joining CART’s Indy Lights series in 1998. He was 29, with just one start in the Indy Racing League, less than a month ago. at the “500” at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he was recovered in the big crash at Turn 4 early in the race.

Witherill’s legacy garnered quite a bit of attention at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he was focused on securing a starting position. Finally, at 5:02 p.m. on the day of the shock, with an Oldsmobile engine supplied by John Menard, Witherill drove off for what became a four-lap race at an average of 221.621 mph, good for the inside of Row 11.

Witherill thanked two-time “500” winner Arie Luyendyk, whose garage was next to his, for offering advice and answering a rookie’s questions. Indy Regency had participated in several “500” and was led by Sal Incandela, a former Formula 1 mechanic who competed in two Grand Prix world championships (James Hunt in 1976 and Nelson Piquet in 1983). But it was probably the engine offered by Menard that made the difference in the team that took part in the race.

“What stands out (about the qualifications)? Pretty much everything, ”said Witherill, who became the last Indy Regency rider to compete in Indy. “I don’t know if it’s different from the others: it’s being there and knowing the whole history of the ‘500’ and being a part of it.

“I always knew I could qualify, but when you’re an Indy Lights team and you show up for the biggest race in the world with one car and your budget is underweight you are at a disadvantage.”

Witherill completed 187 laps in race 86, finishing 19th. He said his “500” run comes up often in conversation with friends, although neighbors on either side of him are unaware of his Indy feat although everyone has witnessed the run there are times. years and fans of INDYCAR SERIES.

Interestingly, a trophy won in the 2003 Infiniti Pro Series usually gets people talking about Witherill’s racing past. Hanging in the living room of his Southern California home is a custom Gibson guitar he received for winning this year’s race at the Nashville Superspeedway.

“People see it and say, ‘Do you play guitar?’ He laughed. “I’m like ‘No I’m not,’ but it makes for a good conversation. I explain it by saying next to the Borg-Warner Trophy, it is probably the trophy that all the pilots wanted to win at the time. We all wanted to win in Nashville.

While qualifying at Indy remains the key moment in Witherill’s career, he said the first Freedom 100 in 2003 at IMS ranks among his best of his highlights. Ed Carpenter, then 22 and a week away from college graduation, dominated the race, winning nearly 14 seconds, but Witherill, Mark Taylor and Jeff Simmons spent much of the race in a battle fierce for second place. Witherill had the position at the finish.

“I remember we were going down the front right away (start of lap 28), and I had a good run on Simmons,” Witherill said. “He was trying to get around Taylor’s outside, and I tried to go inside Taylor.

“All of a sudden we were going three widths into Turn 1. I was hoping (the tires) would stick, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be the one on the outside.’ But we all got around (the corner).

Witherill and Taylor had an even tighter moment on Turn 3 a few laps later.

Combining Indy Lights and Infiniti Pro Series, Witherill made 54 starts in seven seasons, winning once and finishing second four times. He also made occasional ARCA and ASA departures in stock cars before stepping away from competition after the 2004 season.

Witherill, who turns 50 next month and works in real estate, has returned to IMS a few times over the years, mainly for a pair of Sportscar Vintage Racing Association events and “500” Legends Day autograph sessions. for former pilots. He hopes the end of the pandemic will allow for a proper annual celebration of Indy’s past next May.

In 2001, Witherill earned his place in this story.

About Frances R. Smith

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