It's hard to believe it's been eight years since I first met Paul Menard, but it has.
It's hard for me to forget the day - I was working my first race as PR for a NASCAR truck series team at Mesa Marin Raceway near Bakersfield, California, so it was certainly memorable.
A good friend of mine - one of those guys in racing who seems to know everyone and whom everyone seems to know - approached me as I was watching my driver turning practice laps. He had in tow a tall, dark-haired, good-looking kid with long sideburns.
The kid, of course, was Paul Menard. I didn't know him but I knew his last name intimately. You couldn't be an IndyCar fan without knowing the Menard name's racing history; you couldn't be a resident of the American Midwest without having seen it on one of the sprawling home improvement stores owned by Paul's father.
My first impression of Paul Menard - sight unseen, without having exchanged a single word with him - was that he was a daddy's boy whose ultra-rich father was greasing the skids for him. In racing it is sadly, but truthfully, very easy to make snap assessments like that about people you've never met. The blunt truth is that context is not required to pass judgment on a person in motorsports, and thus a person's character is often generalized and even marginalized from a distance.
It was pretty easy to jump to that (il)logical conclusion, knowing his dad. John Menard of Eau Claire, Wisconsin is one of America's wealthiest men with a net worth over $5 billion. Menard's Home Improvement is the third-largest chain in terms of sales behind Home Depot and Lowe's. That's a lot of scratch to have at one's fingertips, and the elder Menard knew exactly how he wanted to spend big chunks of it - on winning at Indianapolis.
In 1993, Menard began providing Buick-badged engines to Indianapolis 500 entrants. The Menard-developed engines became notorious for two things - incredible speed, and incredible unreliability. The highest finish a Menard powerplant ever achieved was 2nd at the Indy Racing League's inaugural event at Walt Disney World Speedway with Tony Stewart driving.
Menard was one of the biggest backers of the fledgling IRL, transitioning from engine builder to team owner from 1996 until 2004. The vibrant neon colors of Menard's Home Improvement sponsorship outlasted both the Menard engine and race team, however, continuing with various drivers including Stewart and Robby Gordon and, of course, his son Paul.
So to me, the name "Menard" was synonymous with racing. The question was whether Paul would turn out to be a racer or just a dilettante running around with his father's money.
Paul was friendly and curious when he and I first shook hands at Mesa Marin in 2003. He was certainly the quiet type, but he had a firm handshake and a pleasant personality. He gave off the impression of a sponge - someone who made it his business to absorb as many lessons as he could in any given circumstance.
It turns out that he needed to absorb as much as he could about NASCAR racing. He had raced - and won - in two races in the Grand Am Cup Series the year prior, but for 2003 he was about to embark on an ambitious "A-B-C" (ARCA, Busch [now Nationwide] Series, and Cup) program with Andy Petree, as well as a smattering of truck series races. At 22 years old, he was Petree's top development driver.
He would win at Talladega later that year driving Petree's ARCA car, but it would be his only victory for Petree. His next win was in 2006 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., in the Busch Grand National Series at his home track in Milwaukee. He would not win his third until this past weekend at Indianapolis.
In the intervening eight years since his NASCAR career began, Menard has often been dismissed as a daddy's boy with nothing better to do than drive fast cars. Every ride he has gotten, the wags say, has been due to John Menard's checkbook. But that does not do Paul Menard justice, nor does it account for his determination to make his own mark in racing.
When Richard Childress signed Menard for his fourth team this season, neither Childress nor Menard listened to the shouts of "Ride buyer!" And it immediately showed on track, with Menard's average starting position improving nearly 10 positions and averaging a 16.8 finish over 20 races. He has almost as many top-10 finishes in 20 races as he had in the previous seven years of his Cup career, as well as four top-fives - twice the number of his career top-five Cup finishes.
But even Menard's most ardent followers never saw his shock victory at the Brickyard 400 coming. As storybook as Menard's 2006 Milwaukee win was, it pales in comparison to the achievement of crossing the famous bricks at Indy in first place. So much blood, sweat, and tears were poured into the Brickyard by the Menards over Paul's lifetime that Indy had become a second home to them.
There could not be a better validation for Paul Menard to achieve than to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Suddenly, Menard is not only a race winner, he is also a wild-card to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And in one swift stroke, he has given his family their greatest triumph in racing at their most cherished motorsports Mecca.
And yet, even there in Indy's victory lane, he was the same Paul Menard I met back at the short track in Bakersfield... quiet, unassuming, yet determined. Amidst all of the questions and nay-saying, he had remained focused... and now he was rewarded. The kid who was rumored to just be delivering a paycheck just delivered to Richard Childress one of the most cherished trophies in the sport.
Not too bad for a daddy's boy, eh?