As a teenage drag racer growing up in Nebraska, Joe Saldana quickly learned there was no future in competing only for trophies.
That realization resulted in the youngster taking his need for speed in a different direction, and Saldana eventually realized his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500.
“I was 16 years old in Lincoln, Neb., and I bought a little coupe that I drag raced,” the now 76-year-old Saldana told SPEED SPORT. “I thought, ‘Man, all you ever get is a trophy.’ In addition, if you tear it up you’ve got to fix it. I thought, ‘Man, this ain’t for me.’
“So I started helping a friend who had, they called them modifieds back there in Lincoln, and the next thing you know I bought one,” Saldana continued. “My first race car I gave $500 for it with a trailer. It had a Chevy V-8 in it and that’s what I raced for a year. Then I built one, and then I built a couple.”
Saldana soon found success racing on the dirt tracks of the Midwest and his oval-track exploits proved to be more financially rewarding than his attempt at drag racing.
“Then, Don Brown, Greg Weld and myself all got hooked up in California and built cars that were known as ‘Mechanical Rabbits’ (roadster-style sprint cars). We came back and I ran mine in the Midwest and Greg ran his in USAC,” Saldana explained. “When it was all said and done, in 1969 I think it was, I decided I was done driving for myself, so I sold the car and started driving for Roger Beck and John Leverance out of California.
“We won the Knoxville Nationals in 1970, and then Steve Stapp and I got hooked up and that’s how I came to USAC because I wanted to run the speedway, and it all went from there.”
Saldana, who had been given the nickname “Little Joe” because of his 5-foot-4 stature, relocated to Brownsburg, Ind., and became a key player in what many consider the golden era of USAC sprint car racing.
“There were a lot of good guys,” Saldana recalled about his fellow USAC competitors. “You didn’t win very many races because everyone was splitting them up, everyone would win a few here and there.”
The list of Saldana’s 12 career USAC victories (2 Silver Crown, 8 sprint car and 2 midget) includes the two marquee events of the era.
“In 1973, I won the Hulman Classic at Terre Haute on ‘ABC’s Wide World of Sports,’” he said. “Then in ’76, I won the Hoosier Hundred and all of them were stepping stones to get to the speedway. When everybody starts driving, no matter what kind of car or what they’re doing, they always want to go to Indy because it’s the biggest race.”
Saldana’s opportunity to finally drive an Indy car was the result of a tremendous amount of sweat equity.
“I was working at A.J. Watson’s shop in Clermont. I worked for a year — for free — for Leader Card to get to drive an Indy car,” Saldana said. “What they did, they would take me to races and if I made the show in 1977, they would sell the spot or they would let me run to the first fuel stop, because we wouldn’t set up the pit area. That’s how I got my start. I didn’t have the money behind me, so that was the only way I could do it.
“In 1977, I took my rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Leader Card and A.J. Watson. We were 34th quick in qualifying. A.J. had built motors for John Martin and Jim McElreath and they bumped us out of the race,” Saldana continued. “But it was a good education for me because in 1978 and 1979, driving for Gus and Dick Hoffman, I made the race for them.”
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