Owen Snyder III, a two-time Indianapolis 500-winning chief mechanic, often wonders where the time has gone. Twenty-five years ago, amid a transformational period in INDYCAR SERIES history, he was one of the team members who helped convince their new boss, owner/driver Eddie Cheever, to switch to the chassis of the Italian manufacturer still relatively new in town.
In Dallara’s chassis, Snyder saw the shape and flair in the spirit of Ferrari, and there was first-year performance to match. Three of Dallara’s cars had won INDYCAR SERIES races in the company’s debut season in 1997, and a full-speed breakout seemed imminent. Snyder also thought it helped that Cheever, who was raised in Rome, could speak the language of the manufacturer.
Cheever indeed secured a Dallara chassis for the start of the 1998 season and came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a spring test to begin Dallara’s march to becoming a cornerstone of the equipment package that fuels this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (11 a.m., NBC, Peacock, Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
Meanwhile, this is the 25-year anniversary of Cheever and Snyder delivering Dallara its first Indianapolis 500 victory. The company has won all but three “500s” since then and has won every INDYCAR SERIES race since the middle of the 2006 season.
Today, the veteran mechanic whom Dallara hired in 2011 and now serves as the assembly supervisor and motorsports technical support director of Dallara USA is at the core of everything the company does in its headquarters on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana – less than one-half mile from the main gate of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“When I joined Dallara there were nine or 10 employees, and I can almost name every one of them,” Snyder said this week amid preparations for Sunday’s race. “When Dallara started here (in 1997), I think there were four people who were Indianapolis residents; the others supporting the program flew in from Italy for each race. Today we’ve got (more than 50) employees.
“Yeah, it’s come a long way.”
Today, the 114,000-square-foot Dallara INDYCAR Factory and its trove of employees service all of INDYCAR – the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and INDY NXT by Firestone and efforts in NASCAR and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Plus, it has defense and aerospace contracts, a full-scale simulator and hospitality space for community events.
Dallara’s corporate headquarters in Varano de' Melegari, Italy, which traces its roots to the shop Giampaolo Dallara opened behind his home in 1972, has an additional 600 employees, working on projects for Formula One, Formula 2, Formula 3, Super Formula, Formula E and several sports car divisions.
“Dallara is now by far the biggest open-wheel manufacturer in the world – by far,” Snyder said. “I’m biased, but I’d like to think the success of the INDYCAR program has shown all these big automotive manufacturers that Dallara is building all of the cars for INDYCAR, and the ‘500’ is the biggest race in the world.”
Dallara will celebrate the occasion of its 1998 “500” victory Friday with a private event featuring Giampaolo Dallara, George, Cheever, Snyder and Stefano DePonti, Dallara USA’s CEO, at its Speedway headquarters.
DePonti said the company’s founder is “87 years old and the youngest guy in our company in terms of strategy and those types of things.”
To understand how far Dallara’s INDYCAR program has come, consider the landscape when it arrived in the mid-1990s.
Tony George had started the Indy Racing League in 1996 with existing cars, the Lolas and Reynards that competed in the rival Indy Car World Series. When the calendar turned to 1997, the lineup featured a mix of new chassis manufacturers, including Dallara, which had never competed on an oval track in its three decades in motorsports. The introduction of Dallara and George is believed to have been made by Andy Evans, a sports car team owner who had become a founding IRL team owner in 1996 and fielded a record seven entries in that year’s “500.”
The ’97 Indy 500 had a near-equal mix of Dallara and G-Force chassis, and the first Riley & Scott chassis earned its first starting position later that season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (one of the two cars was driven by Michael Shank, a co-owner of Meyer Shank Racing, which is fielding Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud in Sunday’s race).
Cheever won the ’97 race at Walt Disney World Speedway in a G-Force while Snyder fielded two drivers in Dallaras that year – Jack Miller and Snyder’s brother-in-law, sprint car legend Steve Kinser, who competed in the “500.” Jim Guthrie won the second race of the year, at Phoenix International Raceway, in a Dallara, the first victory for the Italian manufacturer. Dallara also won races that year at Charlotte Motor Speedway (with Buddy Lazier) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway (with Eliseo Salazar).
At year’s end, Cheever hired Snyder to lead Team Cheever, but it wasn’t among the prominent teams. In fact, Team Cheever was an alternate for Goodyear’s spring 1998 tire test at IMS, getting to run only when another team withdrew. Snyder said the information gleaned in that session was the driving force behind winning the next month’s “500.”
“We were asked to do long runs (for Goodyear), and drivers hate to do long runs in testing,” Snyder said. “But Eddie learned about the tire choices, and we came out of that test with a pretty good idea of what tire Goodyear was going to bring, and that’s as much to what helped us win the race as anything.”
On May 24, 1998, Cheever led 76 of the race’s 200 laps and beat Lazier, another Dallara driver, by nearly 3.2 seconds. Photographs of the company’s first “500” victory are prominently displayed at IMS and in Dallara’s factory in Speedway. In the victory lane shot, Snyder is standing to the left of Cheever.
“When Eddie called in me in (the fall of ’97), I had my toolbox ready to go back to sprint-car racing with Kinser,” said Snyder, who won the 1992 “500” with Al Unser Jr. at Galles Racing. “Eddie wanted a redneck American mechanic who knew oval racing, and (Kinser) said I needed to get back to what I knew best. Luckily, I answered the phone.”
In a seven-year chassis battle with G-Force and Riley & Scott, Dallara won 78.3 percent of the INDYCAR SERIES races (112 of 143), and Sunday will mark Dallara’s 368th series victory. Nearly 200 of those race wins have come as the exclusive chassis supplier, a period that began in 2012 with the introduction of the IR-12 chassis, a model that is still in use today. Dan Wheldon was Dallara’s test driver for the eight sessions Snyder’s group held in the summer and early fall of 2011.
Dallara’s Speedway factory has built and assembled most of the parts used over the years, and it has its stamp on all of the suspension pieces, headrests, attenuators, engine covers – and much more -- on this year’s 33 cars. Significantly more of the parts on the INDY NXT by Firestone cars are made or assembled on Main Street.
Much has happened since Guthrie delivered Dallara’s first INDYCAR SERIES victory in 1997 and Cheever won the company’s first “500” in 1998, but DePonti said those events are still revered by all who work at Dallara here and abroad.
“They’re absolutely important because when Dallara came to America it didn’t know anything about racing on ovals,” he said. “This type of environment, the teams, the strategy was (a learning experience) for Dallara, and those (wins) were symbolic in that they (confirmed) Dallara had learned the proper way to approach the sport.”