Friday, February 17, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Rich Vogler

Hard to believe that winter is starting to come to and end, and along with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, we are now officially less than 100 days away from the 2012 Indy 500. It's all downhill from here, peeps.

There has been a lot going on in the IndyCar scene this past week, but most of it has been well-covered by my fellow bloggers. So in honor of cracking the 100-day barrier I'm going with a little 500 love.

There was a time when the Indy 500 was not only a chance for the best in the world to come together and complete, it was the opportunity for some of the best USAC drivers of the day to come to the big leagues for the shot at matching their skills with the best in the business. It was their chance for a moment in the sun before heading back to the long nights in the shop and the dusty tracks where they would spend the rest of the year.

Much respect to that, by the way. I'm not knocking that at all, the heart of our sport still lies on the folks that work hard during the week so the can drive hard during the weekend. But it is long, hard work with little in they way of reward, beyond making a living and personal satisfaction. So the 500 was the chance to step up and show what they could do.

One of the last of the USAC drivers to give Indy a try was Rich Vogler, who, arguably, was one of the best sprint and midget drivers of his era. Or of pretty much any era, to be honest.

A two-time sprint national champion and five-time midget champion, Vogler won 171 USAC races and more than 200 non-sanctioned events. His total of 134 national event wins is second only to A.J. Foyt and his 169 victories. In 1980 he became the first driver to win the sprint and midget national titles in the same year (Tony Stewart would win the sprint, midget and Silver Crown championships in 1995) and he belongs to the national midget, sprint and motorsports halls of fame.

Vogler teamed up with Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria in 1985 and made the trek to Indy, where he was part of a rookie class that included Arie Luyendyk, Raul Boesel and Jim Crawford. He started last and completed 119 laps before a crash in turn 1 ended his day in 23rd place.

Driving a Buick-powered machine in 1987 he posted his career-best qualifying position when he started 11th, but the usual Buick engine gremlins knocked him out after 109 laps. The next year, he was the final driver on the track on Bubble Day and bumped Gordon Johncock from the race after Johncock had bumped him from the field minutes earlier.

1989 turned out to be his last 500, he started 33rd but completed 192 laps to finish in eighth place. In his five appearances at the Speedway, he ran a total of 711 laps and made just over $519,000. Vogler returned to the Speedway in 1990 but crashed on a Pole Day qualifying attempt and after jumping into another car on the second weekend was bumped from the field.

Sadly that was his last opportunity to run at the Speedway. Just two months later, and five days before his 40th birthday, Vogler was killed while leading the Joe James/Pat O'Connor Memorial race at Salem Speedway on July 21st. The race was red flagged and by USAC rule he was declared the winner, with Jeff Gordon finishing as the runner-up.

His spirit lives on in the form of the Rich Vogler Scholarship Foundation. Originally set up to help his sons attend college after his death, the fund has awarded over $300,000 in scholarships, including 2011 when it awarded $1,000 scholarships to 17 lucky recipients. NASCAR driver Ryan Newman was a scholarship winner in 1996, which helped fund his education to Purdue University where he earned an engineering degree.

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