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On the eve of the IRL's 200th race, a look back at its first

Bradley "Buzz" Calkins, Jr., winner of the inaugural Indy Racing League race at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 27, 1996. (Photo: IZOD IndyCar Series)
Bradley "Buzz" Calkins, Jr., winner of the inaugural Indy Racing League race at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 27, 1996. (Photo: IZOD IndyCar Series)

Today, Bradley Calkins, Jr. - better known to race fans as "Buzz" - is a manager for Bradley Petroleum, a company run by his father Brad that owns a chain of below-cost gas stations and convenience stores in the Rocky Mountain region.

Almost 15 years ago, though, he was a professional racing driver preparing to make his first start in a brand-new series - again, working for his father under the aegis of Bradley Motorsports.

He and 25 other drivers showed up in Florida to race on the day before Super Bowl XXX at a track built on the grounds at Walt Disney World. The 1996 Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway would be the first race of the fledgling Indy Racing League's inaugural season.

Calkins had been driving in the Indy Lights series since 1993, but this was his first time in "the big cars." His ride for the Indy 200 was a red-painted 1995 Reynard IndyCar with a turbocharged Cosworth, a used piece from the previous year's CART championship. The normally-aspirated Oldsmobile-powered G-Force IRL car he would use in future seasons was still in development.

The Walt Disney World Speedway where Calkins and company were set to make racing history was a unique beast. Built by the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track was considered a "temporary oval." It had much in common with the street circuits being utilized in the rival CART series, in that the only permanent features at the facility were the track surface, the retaining walls and catchfences. The rest of the track's infrastructure - including grandstands and restrooms - were temporary, erected based on demand a couple of months prior to each event. There wasn't even a paddock area - the teams simply worked on their cars at their transporters, old-school style.

The track itself is a three-turn "roval" similar in design to Phoenix International Raceway and the now-defunct Nazareth Speedway. When it was built, the advent of safety features such as the SAFER barrier and HANS device was years away. Already during the week leading to the Indy 200, drivers Eliseo Salazar and Butch Brickell had been seriously injured in practice - Salazar was laid up in a local hospital with a leg fracture, while Brickell had two broken vertebrae in his neck. This would not be Salazar's last injury thanks to WDWS' concrete walls; nor, sadly, would it be the last broken neck, as first Davy Jones and then Sam Schmidt would suffer debilitating neck injuries at the Speedway the following year.

As it stood, the upstart IRL had to contend with drivers and teams with vastly different levels of experience. Buddy Lazier held pole position, over three miles per hour faster than outside polesitter Roberto Guerrero. Calkins himself was six miles per hour off the pole speed in row three. Behind Calkins was a young USAC driver named Tony Stewart, who had recently made history by winning three USAC championships in a single season. In row 7 was Michele Alboreto, an IndyCar rookie who had five F1 wins to his credit. And then there was Dave Kudrave, nearly five full seconds off the pole speed, but still not starting last thanks to Richie Hearn and Eddie Cheever starting in backup cars. Three other drivers - Jim Buick, Bill Tempero, and Rick DeLorto - were not allowed to start because their practice speeds were simply too slow.

The 20 starters took the green flag in a ragged, undisciplined start - proving that some things do not change after a decade and a half - with ABC announcer Paul Page yelling enthusiastically, "The dream is real!" Lazier would lead the first 28 laps, then after Lazier's Hemelgarn Racing entry suffered a mechanical issue Tony Stewart would blow into first place. But Calkins, threading his way through a minefield of significantly slower cars, made it past Stewart for the lead on lap 66 and never looked back.

It was Calkins' first, biggest, and ultimately last victory in what would turn out to be a brief racing career. He and Stewart would end up as the only cars on the lead lap at the finish of the event, with seven other cars still circulating the track out of the original 20 starters.

As a first step for the IRL, the Indy 200 was not the fall-flat-on-your-face disaster that many predicted it would be. It was more of a baby step; certainly, even with the significant speed and experience-level differences throughout the field, an inherent caution kept the race from becoming a wreck-fest.

Over the next turbulent decade-and-a-half, fortunes would change with the economic and political winds. Tony Stewart would eventually seek the greener pastures of NASCAR, becoming a champion at the highest levels and a household name across America. Two other starters, tragically, would lose their lives; Scott Brayton had less than four months left to live, dying in practice for the 1996 Indy 500, while Michele Alboreto was killed in 2001 testing for Audi. John Paul, Jr., who was hoping that the IRL would rejuvenate a career marred by a stint in prison, won his only IndyCar race in 1998 but was forced to retire three years later after being diagnosed with Huntington's Disease. Most of the rest have retired to team ownership or sports car racing.

By 2001, race winner and eventual IRL co-champion Calkins would be done with racing permanently - and so would Walt Disney World Speedway, which ceased hosting professional racing in 2001 after issues with parking and planning grew to be too annoying to solve.

But on that bright January day, in front of packed grandstands and under the watchful eye of ABC network television, "Buzz" Calkins stood at the top step of the podium, basking in the warm glow of reaching the pinnacle of his profession. He had achieved a goal that he might never have reached without the Indy Racing League's formation. For one, brief moment, Calkins was the best there was.

Click here to watch the 1996 Indy 200 in its entirety on YouTube