Welcome to the Month of May for 2019 and the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500!! The 500 is still 25 days away and there is still the requisite INDYCAR Grand Prix to pay attention to, but let’s be honest, we are almost universally already focused on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
If ever there is a yardstick for the saying “days go slow and years go fast,” I find it with the Indianapolis 500. It doesn’t seem possible it has already been 337 days since Will Power demanded his respect, but here we are. Another IndyCar Season has been completed, we’ve survived another seemingly endless Midwestern winter, and we are already a quarter of the way through the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. Our favorite month of the year is finally upon us.
To kick off the Month of May, I thought it would be nice to somewhat reintroduce myself and give some background on how, and why, the Indianapolis 500 is so important to me. Even just saying “important” feels like a crazy understatement. It’s the day by which my calendar revolved. If I had to choose between the Indianapolis 500 and my birthday, it wouldn’t even require consideration. If I had to choose between the Indianapolis 500 and Christmas, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I had to choose between the Indianapolis 500 and any other event, there is no doubt. The answer is the Indianapolis 500. The answer is always the Indianapolis 500.
My dad attended his first Indianapolis 500 as freshman in high school in 1954. His father had been to the race a few years earlier (something tells me grandpa might have attended the 1949 race, but I’ve never confirmed that). The only year dad has missed since 1954 was 1965 when he was in the US Air Force stationed at George Air Force Base in California and was not able to secure leave to attend the 500.
Starting at some point around 1963, dad started writing very detailed journals about his annual trips he went on to the race with my grandpa and his aunt. He doesn’t recall exactly when he started writing the journals, but based on some factual errors that I’ve uncovered over the years, it seems likely he started writing in 1963. The first nine or ten years were done from memory but still provide very interesting details of his personal journeys during those early years.
Dad has continued his practice of journal writing every year, and starting sometime around 2000 or 2001, I began the arduous process of transcribing the journals. The early years were only a page or two of handwritten memories. However, as the years went by, dad’s detail grew exponentially. Not only did dad give great details of his personal experiences, he also started giving very detailed descriptions of the race itself. And then when he started attending the time trials in the late 1960s, the length significantly increased again. What started out as a couple pages soon turned into nearly 50-60 written pages for each year.
As the years have gone by, life has gotten in the way and my effort to complete the transcription of the entire volume of journals has ebbed and flowed. I currently have transcribed all journals from 1954 through 1994, and those are available on Fieldof33.com by click HERE. I have had many people tell me over the years how much they enjoy dad’s journals and how wonderful it is to read of such a different time in the race’s history. To me, they are an invaluable link to our family history, for sure, but also to a time when racing drivers were gladiators and the race was truly a centerpiece of America’s Memorial Day weekend.
For me, my obsession with the race started the very first time I went to time trials in 1988. However, my love and memories of the event go back even further than that. One the very first memories I have as a child was my father coming home from the 1986 race. I was five years old that day, and I vividly remember asking him who had won the race, to which he responded “Bobby Rahal.” From that day forward, Bobby Rahal was my racing idol.
Over Christmas Break of 1986 leading into 1987, my family visited Indianapolis for several days and I got my first look at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I remember driving through the tunnel off 16th Street and being inside the facility for the first time. I was in awe. I know we visited the museum that day, but 32 years later, I honestly don’t remember that much about the specifics.
Several months later, I recall watching the television broadcast of the 1987 Indianapolis 500. I still didn’t really understand the race, but I really liked the yellow car. When the yellow car won, the emotion and excitement spoke to me and said this wasn’t just another event. On the few occasions I got to watch the Cubs win baseball games (and in 1987, they didn’t win many games at all), victory was taken in stride with genteel handshakes and then players casually removed themselves from the field. When the Man in the Yellow Car won the Indianapolis 500, grown men were jumping around like children. The Man in the Yellow Car was interviewed on TV by his brother and both were crying. This wasn’t just another game. There was something very special about this event.
A few months later, I got my first real taste of racing – figuratively and literally – when dad took me to the Tony Bettenhausen 100 at the Illinois State Fair for the USAC Silver Crown Series. Watching the championship cars fling mud around the 1-mile dirt oval was a site to behold and complete overload of all five senses for a six-year old boy (I was just short was turning seven that day). But as cool as it was, there wasn’t a big celebration by the winner. There wasn’t a TV interview with the winner and the broadcaster crying with each other. I wanted to see that. My interest had been piqued, but I wanted to see the BIG show. I wanted to be at the Indianapolis 500 in 1988.
Over the next many months, I pestered dad relentlessly to take me to the Indianapolis 500 the next year. At some point, he finally relented and said he couldn’t take me to the race because all three tickets he had purchased were spoken for but that he would take me to the time trials. My two older brothers had been going with dad for the last several years (oldest brother Mark had gone since 1983 and middle brother John started going in 1986). Mark, for whatever reason, decided not to continue going in 1988 so I took his spot. On Pole Day, May 14, 1988, I first set foot on the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see cars on track.
I was only seven years old, and I don’t remember too much about that day. I do remember I got to see Bobby Rahal and The Man in the Yellow Car, both of whom were driving cars that looked just like the cars I had seen them win the race with. My favorite car from that day, though, was the beautiful gold PC-17 driven by Danny Sullivan.
It was a lesson in disappointment when we had to leave that day knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to come back for probably another year since I couldn’t go to the race. As luck would have it, however, one of dad’s race tickets freed up a few days later when the user found out she needed to attend a wedding on race weekend. Dad still didn’t think I was old enough to go to the race, but neither Mark nor John showed interest in going, so dad reluctantly allowed me to go. (Being a father myself now, I can’t fathom taking my seven-year son to the race. What was dad thinking?!)
Without boring you with details of that first race, suffice is to say that I enjoyed many traditions that day that would continue for decades to come. That first year, and for many years thereafter, dad and I stayed at the Ramada Inn Motel in Danville, Illinois, (mostly because dad was and is frugal to the max and refused to pay the inflated prices of hotels closer to Indianapolis). To get there, we traveled on the “old road,” which consisted of Old US Route 36 from Springfield to Decatur and then US Route 36 from Decatur to Chrisman, where we’d stop at the Colonial Kitchen for lunch before heading north on Illinois Route 1 to Danville. (It was called the “old road” because that was the route dad had originally taken with his dad back in the 1950s long before Interstates 72 and 74 linked Springfield and Danville (and onward to Indianapolis) via much faster route.) We ate dinner at George’s Buffet in Danville and then got a box of Lee’s Famous Recipe chicken to take to the track for the lunch the next day.
In the evening after dinner, we watched ESPN’s Saturday Night Thunder, which always included the USAC National Midget Series “Night Before the 500” from Indianapolis Raceway Park. (BTW, it will always be IRP regardless of what corporate entity has currently paid for the naming rights.) Whenever possible, even on the bitterly cold afternoon before the 1992 race, I would swim in the Ramada’s outdoor pool for hours on end during the afternoon.
These were traditions that dad and I continued for many years. From the time I started in 1988 until even after I had moved to Champaign to attend the University of Illinois in 1998, we continued these pre-race traditions year after year. We left around noon on Saturday, took the Old Road, stopped at the Colonial Kitchen, arrived at the hotel, went swimming, went to dinner, got our chicken, and watched Saturday Night Thunder.
Race morning always started at 4:15 am so dad could get cleaned up, wake me up, and we’d be at the hotel restaurant when they opened at 5:00. The goal was to be out of the hotel by 5:45 so we could make it to our parking spot on 20th Street just west of Lynhurst Drive by 7:00. It was a long walk, but I have many memories of making that trek both before and after the race, the walk post race providing a multitude of memories that a pre-10 year old boy should not have!!
Being at the race is full of its own traditions, many of which I’m sure are similar to those of other families. We would enter through what I still consider the “Main Entrance” at the corner of 16th and Georgetown, buy our souvenir programs upon entering the grounds, and then cross into the infield by walking across the track at the entrance to Turn 1 between Grandstands A and B. Most often, we would then stand along the chain-link fence on the south end of Gasoline Alley to watch the cars as they were being pushed through the fueling depot and out to pit lane, all the time hoping to catch a glimpse of one of my favorite drivers, a car owner, or another famous celebrity I might recognize.
Then it was off to our seats in the Tower Terrace. The same seats were in our family from the time my grandpa first went until 2017. Tower Terrance, Section 47, Row J, Seats 5-7. Due to my dad’s declining health, we decided after the 2017 race to move our seats to the outside of the track starting in 2018. Now we are about 100 feet south of the start/finish line in the shade.
Once we arrived at our seats, it was pretty much the same story as everyone else for the next several hours. To this day, we still attend the race with my dad’s friend from my childhood church, Malcolm McKean. The race would be run and then it was time to eat the chicken we brought with us. (Full disclosure… I never realized how disgusting it was that we just carried the chicken around in its box without a cooler all day until I was much older. How I never got sick from food poisoning, I will never know.)
Dad always like to wait a significant amount of time after the race ended before we attempted to leave. He wanted to eat his food. He wanted to watch as much of the post-race celebration as he could, including watching the winner be driven around the track in the pace car. And probably most significantly, for him anyway, was he believed the crowd actually thinned out if he waited 30-45 minutes after the race ended. It never really did, but somehow he was convinced it did.
The walk back to 20th Street past Lynhurst was grueling. I was always hot and tired and just wanted to be back at the car.
(The older I got, though, the more “entertained” I got by the post-race festivities of those who were among the more inebriated. Fourteen-year old Paul looked forward to that walk back to the car, if you know what I mean…) By the time we arrived back to the car, we would open the doors and it would be approximately 300° in the car (except in 1992 when it was still just above freezing), so we’d open the doors and take a seat on the grass for about 10 minutes before trying to get going onto Crawfordsville Road.
Generally the ride home was pretty quiet. We would listen to the radio all the way back to Danville, anchored by Donald Davidson and the Drive-Home Edition of the “Talk of Gasoline Alley” with traffic reports from Big John Gillis on 1070 WIBC.
Sometimes when we’d return to the hotel, I would swim, but most often I just wanted to plop down on the bed and rest a while. For dinner, we would always eat in the hotel restaurant and then make our way to the Off-Track Betting parlor in the hotel to watch the ABC rebroadcast of the race. It wasn’t unusual that I would fall asleep in the middle of the race. I just couldn’t hang after a long day in the sun.
The day after the race was relaxing and depressing. I hated the drive home knowing it would be another eleven and a half months until I got to go back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The feeling seemed to get worse every year. After we’d leave the hotel, we would often not go straight home but would instead visit some of the small towns around East Central Illinois and West Central Indiana. I remember visiting the small town of Attica, Indiana, home of the largest waterfall in the State of Indiana (which, I promise, isn’t saying much). We once visited the tiny village of State Line, Indiana, which wasn’t much more than a post office, a church, and a bar. We also visited Veedersburg, Indiana, home of the Wabash Clay Company that provided roughly 90% of the 3.2 million paving blocks used to paved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the fall of 1909.
We would drive home the same way we came. A dad and his son on the Old Road, reminiscing about the just-completed race and already looking forward to next year’s big event. Sometimes we would stop in Decatur where they would have annual boat races on the lake there. Usually though, we just went straight home after our small town adventures.
So that was it. Those were my traditions with dad at the Indianapolis 500 for many years. It’s hard to believe how many years we kept to the same script. Same roads, same hotels, same meals at the same restaurants. For a time as a young adult, I looked back and thought it was silly how often we did the same thing. But eventually I realized the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t just about a race, and it wasn’t just about doing the same things over and over. It was about a weekend together with my dad and with hundreds of thousands of race fans who shared their own similar experiences.
For a while, I thought my son was going to take a similar interest in the Indianapolis 500, but the bug hasn’t caught him like it did me. He’s 11 years old now, and while he has a passing interest and is still a fan of Will Power, he has his own interests now, and the Indianapolis 500 isn’t chief among them.
I don’t know why the Great Race latches onto some of us and never relinquishes its grip. For me, it caught me at a very young age and hasn’t let go. Soon after I first attended, I realized I wanted to know more about the race. I began watching my recorded copies of Indianapolis 500 broadcast on VHS over and over and over again until I had practically memorized every word of Paul Page, Bobby Unser, and Sam Posey. I loved reading about the race, and it didn’t take long for me to memorize all of the winners. I wanted to hear the old stories of Donald Davidson whenever I could. When I moved to Champaign for college, I would often just drive around town in the May evenings so I could faintly pick up WIBC and hear the Talk of Gasoline Alley on the radio long before the program was streaming nightly over the internet.
Things are a bit different now. We’ve started staying at various hotels in Indianapolis probably over the past 15 years, and with my duties as part of More Front Wing, my access throughout the Month of May has changed. But I still get the same feeling every time I enter the gates and walk around the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I still remember being in awe as a 7-year old walking around the track, and I love when I see that same sense of awe on the faces of children at the track today.
So that’s my May story. That’s how the Indianapolis 500 got into my blood and how the traditions of May became forever ingrained in my memory. I hope you will comment below and share your story. What are your favorite family traditions that has made the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so special to you?
I’m looking forward to a great month here at Fieldof33.com and bringing you some very neat stories. I will look back at some of my favorite races, some of my favorite broadcasts, some of my favorite racers, and have some neat features on today’s Indianapolis 500. Please stay tuned for daily posts throughout the next few weeks and be sure to say hi if you see me at the track!