Andy is an old friend of mine and I wanted to preserve this article off of TotalSports.Net
Thursday, May 25, 2000, 7:09 ET
'Indiana Andy' Hillenburg finally in the 500
PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Andy Hillenburg sat patiently outside his garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both arms turning a bright shade of red under the scalding sun. The fans kept strolling up -- men, women, children. Some wanted an autograph. Others asked him to pose for a photo. Everyone wished him luck. "You're an inspiration to all the small guys," one man said. "This is the only autograph I got today," another said, cradling a signed slip of paper. "It's the only one I wanted." At 37, Indiana Andy -- an appropriate nickname for someone who grew up just 12 miles from the speedway -- doesn't mind all the ancillary duties that go with qualifying for his first Indianapolis 500. Luncheons. Radio shows. Speaking engagements. So many phone messages to return. "I've wanted to drive in this race my whole life," he said, grinning. "Now that I'm finally here, I'm going to enjoy the whole panoramic experience." Most of the drivers who showed up at Gasoline Alley to sign autographs Wednesday confined their stints to an hour or two. Hillenburg? He signed. And signed. And signed. And signed some more. Finally, after 5 1/2 hours, Hillenburg retreated to his garage. Strips of white could be seen under his shirt sleeves, revealing the depth of his sunburn. He might be a little uncomfortable when he climbs into his race car, but there are no complaints. "Glad to do it," he said, smiling again.
The track will be open today for the final practice, a two-hour session known as "Carburetion Day." Hillenburg will be there, having slipped into the final spot in the 33-car field last Sunday. "You can't even describe the feeling," he said. "I thought I had been through the most nerve-racking things possible, but that was 10 times worse." As Hillenburg stood in the pits Sunday, Bump Day, tears welling in his eyes as he realized that his speed of 218.285 mph was good enough, it was obvious how much this all means to someone who's spent his life on the fringe of racing. After qualifying, Hillenburg's life flashed before him. He remembered his first trip to the speedway for the 1969 qualifying sessions. He reflected on his own career, which began with the soap box derby at age 11, followed by midgets, sprint cars, anonymous testing sessions for big-name drivers, an occasional moment in the sun behind the wheel of a stock car. Hillenburg won the ARCA championship in 1995 and has qualified for eight NASCAR Winston Cup races, including the Daytona 500 two years ago. For the most part, though, he's failed to make much of an impact at the top levels of racing, stymied by a lack of opportunity. "It's very frustrating," he said. "But I always wanted to get here, get in the show. A lot of times I wondered how I was going to do it. But I never wondered if I was going to do it." Hillenburg put together a team for Indy and found enough speed to get in the field on his first try. Sure, he'll start from the back of the field. No problem. "It may not have been a grand slam, but it was definitely an inside-the-park homer," he joked. Hillenburg hopes his break at Indy will lead to a regular ride for the rest of the IRL season. But he's got no complaints about the way life turned out. Married with three children, he moved to North Carolina in 1990 and founded a racing school that now operates at tracks in Charlotte, Atlanta, Fort Worth, Texas, and Bristol, Tenn. He also does extensive testing for Winston Cup teams and the International Race of Champions. "I'd like to race regularly in the (Indy) Northern Lights series," Hillenburg said. "I'd like to do three or four Winston Cup races a year. I enjoy ARCA. I have my racing school. It's more than a full-time job, but that's my idea of the perfect life." In the past, he also filled in from time to time at his family's construction business. "Actually, he's a pretty good framer," his mother pointed out. "He's helped to build some fairly nice houses. He comes from a family of builders. But he always wanted to be a racer." Now, Hillenburg is getting ready for his biggest race of all. He's easy to spot, too -- just look for the guy with the smile and the sunburned arms. "I'm definitely enjoying this week," he said. "I will enjoy this experience for the rest of my life."
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