My tribute to my dad

This is the post I never wanted to write but knew someday I would have to. In the early morning hours of September 27, 2022, David Dalbey breathed his last and left this world behind. For just over 42 years, I was his son and he was my dad. Two days from now, I will face the sights and sounds of the Indianapolis 500 for the first time with him no longer with me. Though he attended his last Indianapolis 500 in 2019, he continued to have a great interest in the event for a couple more years before, as happens to so many, his mind began to fail in much the same way as his body had started to do years before.

Like so many who frequent this site and who will join us at 16th and Georgetown this weekend, I was introduced to the Indianapolis 500 by my dad. And he was introduced by his dad. When people say the Indianapolis 500 is an event that literally joins and spans generations, that’s my family they’re talking about. In an unbroken string of races since at least 1954 (and for a few scattered years prior during the post WWII years), the Dalbey family of Springfield, Illinois, has been represented at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend. What started with my grandfather, great-aunt, and great-uncles was passed down to my father, who passed it down to me, and I have finally now been able to pass it down again to the next generation of our family.

It was 1954 when Dad, then only 13 years old and having just graduated from eighth grade, first came to the legendary track. In fact, the ticket from his father was a graduation present. Though I was never able to confirm it, I believe my grandpa been been to the 500-mile International Sweepstakes as early as 1949. As a young boy, Dad saw Bill Vukovich win his second race in succession. One year later, Dad was there when Vukovich lost his life attempting to win his third consecutive race.

Dad at his first Indianapolis 500 in 1954

In spite of the tragedy, Dad continued to go to the race annually. In those early years, Dad attended the race with his father, Jim, and his aunt, Aunt Bobby.  Even though it was a vastly different time, many of the traditions that Dad and I carried through the decades were formed in those early years.  The United States interstate highway system wasn’t born until a couple years after Dad’s first race, and it would be several more years before Interstates 72 and 74 eventually connected Springfield and Indianapolis.  Before then, the direct link between the two cities was US Route 36, which passes through Springfield and Decatur, through the farming communities in East Central Illinois of Tuscola, Newman, and Chrisman, then winds through the Western Indiana towns of Montzuma, Rockville, and Danville, before entering Indianapolis as Rockville Road.  Even in recent years, I have continued to take “the old road” whenever I can.

For accommodations, Dad, Grandpa, and Aunt Bobby camped at the Kramer home located at Crawfordsville Road and Fisher Avenue.  Usually they would sleep in their car, but sometimes it would be sleeping bags or even in the Kramer’s garage. (In recent years, I have learned that the current owner of this home is [or was] the general manager of O’Reilly’s Irish Pub on Main Street in Speedway. In spite of my attempts to connect with him, I’ve yet to do so. Perhaps he is an avid Fieldof33 reader??)

My grandpa and Dad’s aunt stopped going after the forgettable 1973 race, and Dad would attend the time trials and race on his own until my oldest brother first attended the time trials in 1983.  Starting in 1977, Dad was joined on race day by Malcolm and Barbara McKean, sibling companions of Dad’s from his church in Springfield. When Barbara was unable to attend the 1988 race due to another event, Dad somewhat reluctantly allowed me to take the extra ticket. Barbara never got that ticket back. By that time, Dad was attending his 34th race.  Though I haven’t missed a race since 1988 (other than 2020, of course), it wasn’t until 2021 that I surpassed just half of dad’s final count of 65 races attended.

From his first race in 1954 until 2017, Dad had the same seats – Tower Terrace, Section 47, Row J, Seats 5-7. He always like those seats because A.) they were among the cheapest in the facility, and B.) he liked to see the pit stops up close. After sitting through another scorcher of a race in 2017 and knowing his balance was beginning to decline, he agreed to move our tickets to the outside of the track, where we spent his final two races in Paddock Box 12, Row Q, Seats 1 and 2.

2019 would be the last year Dad would set foot in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the place he loved more than anywhere else.

Dad enjoyed other forms of racing over the years, but his real love was Indianapolis.  Other than races at the Springfield Mile and Shaheen’s Little Springfield, Dad never attended any other major races besides one IndyCar race at Chicagoland Speedway around 2006.  However, he always kept up with the series via National Speed Sport News, to which he has had a subscription for well over 50 years, and an annual Month-of-May subscription to the Indianapolis Star.  He never jumped on the technology wagon though, and as far as I know, he never used a computer in his life. To his final days, he marveled and was fascinated by the original dot-matrix message boards that were installed at IMS in 1986. He just never understood how all of those boards could be fed from a single location and how one person could manage them all at once.

When I think back on the changes I have seen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1988, they have realistically been pretty minimal.  We still have the same aerodynamic-dependent, ground effects cars that we had 35 years ago.  The engines have changed from 2.65L turbocharged engines to 4.0L normally aspirated engines and back to 2.2L turbocharged engines again.  Really, that’s about it though.

When I think back on the changes Dad saw in his 65 years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it is simply staggering.  Changes to engines, tires, cars, teams, drivers, and of course the facility itself.  There is really almost nothing the same as when dad first set foot in the Speedway in 1954.  The cars of his first year were in the midst of evolution having recently begun the transition from upright championship cars to roadsters.  The engines only had four cylinders and were still in the front of the car, the tires were skinny, wings and ground effects weren’t even dreamt of yet, foreign drivers were few and far between, the front straight was still mostly exposed bricks, and the track’s second pagoda (built in 1925) stood where the Master Control Tower would soon stand before it too was eventually replaced by the current Pagoda.

It was a different era in 1954.  The drivers were brawny, larger than life, and very mortal.  Not a single driver from that race is living still today, and an astonishing 13 of the 33 starters would be fatally injured in auto racing.  Many were lost on the treacherous dirt tracks like Langhorn, Salem, and Phoenix, but Indianapolis was not immune.  Just from the 1954 starting lineup alone, Bill Vukovich, Manny Ayulo, Pat O’Connor, and Tony Bettenhausen would lose their lives on the 2.5-mile big oval.  It was tragic, but it was accepted as part of the sport.

Dad was devastated hearing the news in person that Bill Vukovich had been fatally injured in 1955, but it was just part of the constant change at Indianapolis.  Dad was there before AJ was AJ and before Mario was Mario.  He watched the rear engine cars come creeping in in 1961 before completely taking over within just a few years.  He smelled the smoke and burning gasoline as two drivers perished in 1964.  He watched as Parnelli broke the 150-mph barrier in 1962 and then saw Tom Sneva break the 200-mph barrier just 15 years later.  He remembers a time when Andy Granatelli and Leader Cards were the major teams, before Roger Penske’s name was ever known.  He saw AJ Foyt win all four of his races.  Ditto Al Unser and Rick Mears while he watching Helio Castroneves climb the fence after three of his four victories.  He watched Gordon Johncock win the closest race ever and then saw Al Unser, Jr. win one that was even closer.  He was ecstatic when Sam Hornish won over Marco Andretti on a last-lap pass and was nearly in tears when Tony Kanaan finally broke through in 2013.  Most everything about the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has changed since 1954, but Dad’s presence there was a constant throughout seven decades.

While many things have changed, many have also stayed the same.  Some of our family traditions mirror those of many other families and continue to this day.  Other family traditions have faded over the years but not without the indelible memories of their time.  Before I was in college, Dad did not want to take me out of school for the first weekend of qualifying, so we never got into Indianapolis until Friday night before what used to be Pole Day.  For dinner, it was always the MCL Cafeteria in the Speedway Shopping Center.  Our hotel was the Holiday Inn in Lebanon that used to sit on the southeast corner of I-65 and SR 39.  The hotel was razed about 15 years ago, but I still have many years of memories of swimming in the Holidome and playing on the playground there.

During race weekend, our hotel was the Ramada Inn in Danville, IL, only a few hundred feet from the Indiana state line on I-74.  Dad liked this hotel because they didn’t raise their rates or require a three-night minimum stay for race weekend.  Dinner on Saturday evening was George’s Buffet in Danville (which I believe closed around 2000), and Sunday evening dinner was at the motel while watching the ABC race re-broadcast.  It wasn’t until 1999 that we would spend our first Saturday before the 500 in Indianapolis.

One of Dad’s favorite days he ever spent at the track was Pole Day of 2016 when I was able to secure an all-day pass to the Verizon suite on the 10th floor of the IMS Pagoda. In all his years of being at the track, he had never been into the Master Control Tower or the Pagoda. For several hours on that day, he got to see the inner workings and braintrust of the facility and feel like he was among a special crowd. The picture I took of him that day was one of the best I ever remember of him and was the picture my brothers and I ultimately used for his obituary. It was him in his happiest moment in his happiest place.

Dad atop the IMS Pagoda on Pole Day 2016

But as it eventually does to all, time caught up to Dad, and the 2019 Indianapolis 500 would be his last in attendance.  It was not out of a lack of desire or a loss of love for the event though.  Through the countless changes he witnessed over 65 years, Dad’s love for the race was just as strong as ever.  However, it had become more difficult for him to get around the facility as he reached his upper 70s.

In all honestly, I’m not quite sure what my emotions will be this weekend knowing Dad is no longer here to witness the event he truly set his calendar to.  Since I was seven years old, it was our thing.  Dad worked second shift (2:00pm to 11:00pm) at the post office my entire childhood, so I didn’t get to see him much during the week other than mornings before school.  He did everything he could to spend time with my brothers and me on the weekends though, and I don’t remember him missing very many soccer and baseball games that were on Saturdays.

But our two trips to Indianapolis every May (along with another trip we would often take to visit the city annually on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend) were our time together.  We talked about it for months in advance, usually not long after the previous race ended.  We used to watch old races on VHS together over and over again, much to the chagrin of my brothers and mom.  Indianapolis was what always brought Dad and me together.  I don’t know how, but he instilled the love for the event in me from an early age.

One of the greatest things Dad ever did was to begin journaling his experiences at the Indianapolis 500 in his very early years. As best as he remembered, he started his detailed journals around 1959. Sometime after the 1958 race, he started writing down his recollections from his earliest years, beginning with 1954. Every year thereafter, he kept detailed notes in a small, spiral-bound notepad throughout the weekends so he could start hand writing his journal in the late summer. Usually he timed his writing so he was done with all events up to the start of the race when the Floyd Clymer and Carl Hungness Yearbooks arrived in the fall. (Once Carl Hungness cease producing an Indianapolis 500 after the 1997 race, Dad would rely upon the Indianapolis Star for his race content.) Writing would then wrap up shortly after the start of the new year.

I wasn’t aware these journals existed until I had already been going to the race for four or five years. However, once I stumbled upon them and began reading them, I was stunned at the detail and intricacy of the works. As the years went on, the works became longer and even more detailed. What started around 450 words to describe his first race grew to over 8,000 words by the 1980s.

From Dad’s handwritten journals are the final pages of 1994 and the introduction to 1995.

Around 1998, I first started my work to transcribe these journals to preserve them in case of a terrible or catastrophic event. It has been a labor of love for over 25 years now and one that sadly was not completed before Dad passed away. As seasons of my life have come and gone, so too has the amount of time I’ve had to devote myself to transcribing them. What I have finished to date (through 1995) is available here at under the Historic Indy 500 Journals tab.

Dad never wrote his journals for anyone but himself, and when I first got a hold of them, I never imagined anyone else would ever be interested in the intricate details of his, and eventually my, weekends at IMS. However, when I first shared a few of them with my former colleague, Steph Wallcraft at, she was astonished and really thought they were something special that should be shared. As a few of them began to trickle out, word spread about them and the response was beyond what I could have ever imagined. Though Dad never understand what exactly the internet was and how other people could actually read them, it was sufficient for him to know other people had gotten the opportunity to read them, and he was always pleased to know that others enjoyed his recollections. They are truly his greatest works and, without a doubt, the greatest gift he left me.

Though I have since attended the 2021 and 2022 runnings of “The Big Race” (as he often called it), I still knew Dad was watching and enjoying it, at least through 2021. By 2022, his mind had failed him, and though he still knew he loved the event, he couldn’t remember much about it. It was heartbreaking to have discussions with him regarding the race and see unable to recall who he had been there with or what events he had seen. Those who have witnessed their parents and other loved ones go down that road know exactly what a crushing feeling that is.

But starting in 2022, I was able to do what Dad always hoped I would get to do — attend the Indianapolis 500 with my own son. For the first time, my oldest son, Jackson, attended the 500, and I was blessed to begin passing along some of the family traditions that literally span multiple generations on to him. As most 14-year olds do, Jackson suffered through what I’m sure he felt were meaningless rituals, but he graciously put up with visits to the MCL Cafeteria in the Speedway Shopping Center, rising before the sun on race morning, being in our seats in plenty of time to watch all the pre-race ceremonies, and then watching his Dad tear up through the playing of “Taps” and “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.” I know Jackson and I will make many new traditions over the years, but I will still continue to cling to the traditions that made weekends at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with my dad so special.

In 2022, the tradition that started with my grandfather was passed on to the fourth generation of Dalbeys at the Indianapolis 500.

While the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will be my first since Dad’s passing, I know he was proud of the legacy and love of the event that he instilled within me. I am at peace knowing how happy he would be if he knew that his grandson would be joining me again and that he too has a great love for the race.

While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rightly pays great homage of those men and women who have given their lives in defense of this great nation as well as the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of racing glory, many of us in attendance will also being paying homage to the fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and brothers and sisters who have woven the fabric of timeless tradition across generations of the Indianapolis 500. We will remember the road trips we took and the restaurants we frequented, the miles that were spanned and the memories we created, many begun without thought but repeated over decades, becoming as important to us and as integral to the weekend as the Yard of Bricks and the bottle of milk.

There isn’t a mile between Springfield and Indianapolis nor a square foot on the grounds of the World’s Greatest Racecourse where I don’t have a memory of Dad. And while he will no longer step foot within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dad’s legacy will there ever remain. Rest in peace, Dad, and enjoy the race!

5 thoughts on “My tribute to my dad

  1. I feel like I know your dad through his journals and this post. I am so glad you share them. I only attended one day at IMS with my dad but we even I can’t walk through the gates and not think of him. Enjoy the memories and enjoy the new ones you make with your son.


  2. Jim Nelson

    What a wonderful tribute to your Dad. His journal…your memories…and passing these along to your son is what the “Human Experience “ is all about.

    I was glad to know your Dad just as I’m proud to have known you all these years. When you’re at the MCL this year, don’t worry…your Dad is there saving a seat for you and Jackson.


  3. billytheskink

    My condolences to you and your family, Paul. What a beautiful tribute to your father.

    Reading his journals over the years inspired me to keep a journal of my trip the the 500 in 2016 with my father.


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