Monday, March 22, 2010

Indy Journal - 1980


The nearly flawless performance of Johnny Rutherford’s Pennzoil Chaparral, the nearly unbelievable finishes of Tom Sneva and Gary Bettenhausen, the outstanding job by rookie Tim Richmond, and my visit with some former church friends were highlights of this year.

It was about 9:30 on Friday morning, May 9, when I left in my 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Classic for my trip to the Speedway to see the first day of time trials. I took old Route 36 to Decatur and then the regular Route 36 the rest of the way. It was a few minutes before 12:00 when I arrived at the Colonial Kitchen at Chrisman for a snack of a grilled cheese sandwich, french fries, and coffee.

At 12:20, I left the restaurant and, unlike last year, didn’t have any detours the rest of the way. I arrived at the Standard Service Station on Lynhurst Drive about 2:15, where I stopped for a fill up, and then I made two more stops at Rosner’s Drug Store and Carl Hungness Publishing Office before arriving at the Speedway. I decided on something new on entering the Speedway this year. I would enter from the north, instead of the usual southern way. I had to go to 30th St. and right a short distance. I turned right onto the road, paid my $1.00 admission, and drove to the museum parking lot. To my right, along the way, was the infield parking lot, and on my left was the Speedway golf course. I had never seen this area of the infield up close before.

After parking the car I toured the museum gift shop and also the one adjacent to the refreshment stand. From there, I walked to the Tower Terrace and pit area. There was a large crowd everywhere in the stands, garage area, pit area, museum, gift shop, and infield. There was much activity both in the pit area and on the race track. I watched the activity for a while and took a walk to the fourth turn area of the infield.

A happy-go-lucky carnival atmosphere pervaded the area. A large number of young people were listening and dancing to rock music played at almost ear-splitting volume. Some were eating and drinking and sunbathing all at the same time. There were parents watching their children in their playpens, and even a few people were watching the race cars speed by.

As the afternoon wore on, the competition on the race track wound down to the 6:00 closing time. I returned to the Tower Terrace area where I remained until closing time. When the racing activity ceased, I returned to the car via the same route I had used to go the other way. The route included the garage area, Speedway hospital, and museum.

I had no trouble with the Friday going-home traffic, and a few minutes later, I was parked at the Speedway Shopping Center. My first order of business was supper and for that, I patronized the MCL Cafeteria. There was a long line, but it moved quickly. My tray was full, but I ate every bite of food and felt quite a bit better for doing so. After supper, I walked to the Kroger store and bought my box of fried chicken to take with me to the Speedway on Saturday.

I then called Mary and David Jones, who had been in my Kum Dubble Sunday School Class at Central Baptist Church, but who had moved to Indianapolis a few months earlier. I talked to Mary. She seemed real happy I called her, and we agreed to meet at the MCL Cafeteria on Saturday night at 7:00.

After the telephone call, I went to a bakery store and bought Dixie’s Mother’s Day present – a long white cake with pink icing in the form of roses on it. I also looked in several other stores for presents but couldn’t find anything. By now, it was gradually becoming darker, so I decided it was time to leave and get to the motel.

It was about 8:30 when I arrived at the Holiday Inn Motel in Lebanon. Since I had a guaranteed reservation, all I had to do was register and go to my room. It felt real good to take off my shoes and sit down and relax for a few minutes. About 9:15, I decided to take a walk and see what was going on around the motel. As I was returning from the Holidome area, I walked by the entrance to the motel restaurant, and standing there to pay their bill was my next-door neighbor, Rosalie Roethe, and her escort for the weekend. We both laughed with surprise when we saw each other. Neither one of us knew the other one was staying at the motel. We chatted for a few minutes and then went our separate ways. I returned to my room and did some reading, watched a few minutes of television, took a bath, and about 11:00 decided to call it a day.

My alarm clock did it job and awoke me at 5:30 on Saturday morning. I rose up, washed my face, shaved, combed my hair, then got dressed and walked to the motel restaurant for breakfast. There were only a dozen or so customers and I was seated and waited on right away. Remembering the long wait I had last year, I brought my National Geographic magazine with me to keep me occupied while I waited for my food.

The meal consisted of pancakes, sausage, coffee, and orange juice. I was most appreciative of the pitcher of coffee which I received for consumption. The service was much better than that of a year ago, and I left in a better state of mind. I returned to my room to wash my teeth and get my equipment together, and then left for the Speedway. It was about 7:00 now.

I parked at the First Bank & Trust Company parking lot and then walked to the Speedway, stopping to have my thermos bottle filled with coffee. After buying my ticket and going in, I took a quick trip in one of the gift shops, and then found a seat in the Tower Terrace section a few rows behind the photographers’ area. It provided an excellent view of the cars and drivers after they finished their trial run.

The weather was cool and unpleasantly windy with the sun going in and out all day. To nobody’s surprise, Johnny Rutherford had the fast time of the day with an average speed of 192.256 mph. Two of Roger Penske’s drivers, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser, had the second and third fastest times respectively. In addition to Rutherford, the biggest event was probably the 186.374 mph run made by rookie Roger Rager in his stock-block car.

About 4:00, it started raining, ending all activity on the track. Then, between 4:30 and 5:00, a strong hail storm hit the Speedway. Almost everybody ran for cover. My sanctuary was the area at the bottom of the Control Tower. The hail lasted only a few minutes and then the sun came out. There was water standing on the track, so it would be some time before any cars could get onto it. In the meantime, many of the spectators left for the day, but others like me waited out the last hour to see what would happen.

Finally, a few minutes before 6:00, the engine of AJ Foyt’s car was fired up and he was pushed away for his qualification run. He ran his four laps, but it was nothing spectacular and only 12th fastest of the day. Now the day was over and fifteen cars had qualified.

It was 6:50 when I arrived at the MCL Cafeteria for my 7:00 date with the Joneses. It was about 7:10 when they arrived, but it was only Dave, one of his boys, and his father-in-law. Dave explained that the other boy had injured on of his legs during the day and didn’t want to leave the house. He wanted me to come out to the house, but I told him I thought it would be too late and I might get lost. He replied that it was only a few minutes’ drive and then drew a map to show me how to get there. I told him I would eat supper first and then try to find it.

I followed the map carefully and it was 8:20 when I arrived at their house at 2223 East 74th St. Mary’s parents were visiting them and all of them seemed happy that I came to see them.

We had a real warm, friendly visit. When it was about 9:30, I decided it was time to leave, since I still had quite a distance to go to the motel. I returned via the same route until I arrived at the I-65 intersection, and then turned right and went north to the motel.

It was 10:00 when I arrived so I walked around to see what was happening. The bar was doing a good business. A three-piece combo (drummer, guitarist, and female vocalist) were supplying live entertainment for a few minutes, but the music was so loud that you could hardly hear yourself say hello.

I returned to my room to do some reading, and at 11:00, I watched the Mike Douglas show on TV. His co-host was Loni Anderson, who made the program quite interesting to me. I watched the program about thirty minutes, then took a bath, did some reading, and about 12:45, decided it was time to go to bed. It had been a long day but I liked it.

It was about 6:45 when I opened my eyes and first looked at my alarm clock on Sunday morning. Since I didn’t have to be home by a certain time, I did some reading and then around 8:00, I got cleaned up and put all my equipment into my suitcase. About 8:30 checked out of the motel.

I tried something different for breakfast this time. I stopped at the Pancake House Restaurant a couple miles south of the motel on I-65. The place was almost full and I almost decided to leave when I saw an empty single seat at the far end of the building. I don’t know if the booming business was caused by race fans, Mother’s Day, or people going to church, but it was really good. The service was rather slow, both in taking and bringing my order, but I wasn’t surprised. I had pancakes, toast, orange juice, and coffee. The food was good and I had plenty of coffee, which pleased me.

It was 9:15 when I left. I drove south to the US 36 intersection and went west. Shortly after 11:00, I stopped at Colonial Kitchen for dinner. I had a cup of coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich. While I was eating, the business increased considerably. It was almost all young or middle-aged adults treating their mothers to dinner for Mother’s Day. It was one of the largest crowds I had seen in the restaurant, and I was glad I hadn’t arrived any later.

At 11:45, I left to the restaurant and headed for Springfield, arriving home shortly after 2:00. Another safe, enjoyable trip was over.

On Saturday, May 24, at 11:50am, I left home for my 26th trip to see the big race. I stopped at Dalbey’s to leave some Indianapolis newspapers for dad, and left again at 12:07. I drove old Route 36 to Decatur, where I arrived at 12:57. As usual, the traffic was quite heavy on this first day of the holiday weekend. As I continued east on Route 36 and was within ten or so miles of Tuscola, the sky got real dark up ahead. A couple minutes later, big rain drops started pelting the car and a few seconds later, the clouds opened up with a downpour. It lasted only a few minutes and when I went through Tuscola, it had calmed down to a light shower.

A few miles further east, the rain stopped and the sun came out again. About a mile before I reached the Colonial Kitchen intersection, I noticed that the restaurant on the south side of the highway had been destroyed. This caught my eye because I was sure it had been there just two weeks ago.

It was 2:25 when I arrived at the Colonial Kitchen and stopped for a little rest. I don’t think there were more than a dozen customers in the restaurant, several of whom were farmers having an afternoon cup of coffee. For my snack, I had a barbecue sandwich, French fries, and coffee. It wasn’t a full meal, but it relieved some of the hunger feeling I was having. When I finished my second cup of coffee, I used the restroom and paid my bill.

I asked the cashier about the destroyed motel and she said there was a gas explosion there earlier in the week, that there was an investigation being conducted, and that was all she knew.

It was 2:58 when I left that restaurant and started my trip to Danville. The traffic was quite heavy and in every town there were many people pulling weeds, cutting grass, and doing many other Saturday-afternoon jobs. I reached Danville at 3:25 and arrived at the motel at 3:32.

I registered and then checked on my room, which was on the second level on the west side of the motel. The first thing I did was check on the room, and then I took off my shoes and relaxed for a couple minutes.

The first thing I wanted to do was to find a Derby Service Station. I used the telephone directory to see if there was one and while I was at it, I looked for a smorgasbord restaurant. There was only one of each listed and they were on the same street, about three blocks from each other.

When I opened my room door, I had the unpleasant surprise of seeing rain on the ground, although it wasn’t coming down now. I was getting uneasy about the weather situation and hoping it would settle down before tomorrow. The service station was on East Voorhees St., and when the cashier made the receipt, I discovered that the cost was $0.05 per gallon more than it was in Springfield. About three blocks further east was George’s Buffet. I looked the place over on the inside and decided I would come back for supper. I rushed back to my room and got cleaned up.

Feeling livelier and refreshed, I returned to George’s Buffet in hopes of arriving before the big supper rush. There were only a few people ahead of me and the line moved quickly. The customer pays for his meal at the beginning of the line, and the charge is $4.00, which is real reasonable. Most of the selections were ones I liked, and I had chicken livers, baked ham, macaroni salad, beef & noodles, cornbread, rolls, beets, sliced potatoes, lettuce salad, and coffee. Everything tasted fine and at $4.00, I thought it was a real bargain. I wanted to break my habit of eating supper at the motel restaurant because it was so expensive, and this was a good way to do it.

It was about 6:30 when I left and business had increased considerably. Before returning to my room for the evening, I stopped at the Famous Recipe chicken house and bought my dinner for tomorrow at the Speedway. It was about 7:15 when I arrived back at the motel.

The motel was a busy place. I heard the desk clerk tell somebody that all rooms were occupied or reserved for the night, and many of them were race fans on their way to the big race. The swimming pool was also getting good use. Upon returning to my room, I spent the rest of the evening catching up on my Indianapolis newspapers and National Speed Sport News newspapers. At 10:00, I broke the routine and watched the news on one of the Indy stations. The race, of course, was the big news and there were pictures of the 500 Festival Parade. The weatherman said there were rain clouds in the area, but they were expected to go north of the capital city, and the race should have no problems with the weather.

After the news, I put all of my equipment into the tote bag so that it would be ready to go in the morning. With that important job done, I set my alarm clock for 4:30, and shortly after 11:00, turned out the lights and retired for the night. The big day was almost here.

A few minutes before 4:30, my alarm clock did its job and awoke me for the beginning of race day, 1980. I lay in bed for a couple minutes and then got up and washed my face, shaved, combed my hair, and dressed. When I awoke, it was dark outside, but when I left my room at 4:55, the sun had risen for another day.

There were already several persons waiting for the restaurant to open when I arrived, and it was almost 5:05 before customers were allowed in. After a couple years of not having it, the restaurant had gone back to having a buffet breakfast. That was most pleasing to me. I had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, orange juice, and coffee. I had two large servings of everything, including two cups of coffee, which, luckily, I didn’t have to beg for. Business was good and it was almost all race fans having a good breakfast before leaving for the race. When I could eat no more, I paid the bill and returned to my room. I brushed my teeth, made a quick check to see I had everything I needed, and then I walked to my car. It was 5:35 when I left the motel parking lot.

Before I got out of Danville, I encountered a problem that was to trouble me almost all the way. The problem was fog – the very thick, soupy kind. It was so bad that I almost missed the Indianapolis turnoff because I couldn’t see it until just a few feet ahead of it. After I got onto I-74, I had to be very alert for other cars because I would almost be on top of them before I could see their tail lights. The fog necessitated driving with low beam lights on all the time and windshield wiper blades on almost all the time. At times, it was necessary to drive 35-40 mph, and the only thing I could see was the blurred light coming from the cars’ lights. It was certainly the thickest and longest fog I’d ever encountered. As I drove along, three thoughts ran through my mind concurrently: 1.) I was hoping the sun would come out and evaporate the fog; 2.) I would not run into another car; and 3.) Some car would not run into me. The dense fog made the trip seem longer than usual, but when I came within about ten miles of Speedway, it started thinning out and in a couple minutes, it was all gone and I could see normally.

It was 7:05 when I arrived at I-465, and traffic became the bumper-to-bumper type. It moved slowly but with no long, exasperating waits. Many people were walking to the Speedway, while others ate an outdoor breakfast or slept on the ground. At 7:25, I arrived at the bank parking lot, only to be told that the lot was full, and the only space available was a house about a block west of the bank. I drove on until a Lions Club member directed me to the rear of the house. It wasn’t where I wanted to park, but I couldn’t afford to be choosy, so I took it.

I paid my $5.00 fee, made sure I had everything, locked the car, and started for the Speedway. I walked the distance of about two houses when a sudden sickening feeling struck me – I didn’t have my keys! I did a quick about-face and almost ran back to the car. My mind was in turmoil, and I was very relieved to see the keys still in the door lock. Somebody could easily have walked off with them, and I would have been in one heck of a mess!

Again, I started my walk to the Speedway, feeling much better this time. When I reached Fisher St, I saw Bud Kramer standing in his yard, so I stopped and talked to him for a few minutes. He seemed happy to see me and asked about Dad and Bobby. My next stop was the White Castle restaurant where I had my thermos bottle filled with coffee. It was between 8:00 and 8:15 when the gateman tore off my gate admission stub and I entered the Speedway grounds. I bought three souvenir programs and then continued on my way. Along the way, I looked for a present for Mark and John, but didn’t see anything that appealed to me.

When I reached the pedestrian tunnel, I walked though it and then turned right and went to the gift shop between the Control Tower and the garage area. It was real crowded and warm, so I left and walked along the north side of the garage area. The race cars had been pushed to the pit area, but there were still hundreds of people hoping to see one of the drivers.

I stopped at a concession stand and bought a small Coca-Cola and then started my walk to my seat. At times, the walking was elbow to elbow, but I finally reached the north end of the Tower Terrace area, and joined several dozen other men in making use of a restroom. With that important job out of the way, I handed the gateman my ticket, and at 9:00, I entered the Tower Terrace area and walked to my seat.

It felt good to sit down and rest my feet after doing so much walking. While my feet were resting, I watched the spectacle of bands parading on the straightaway. A few minutes later, when my feet felt okay, I walked behind the pit area fence all the way to the Gasoline Alley driveway, hoping to see a race driver, famous chief mechanic, or any other person I might recognize. Among the recognizable faces I saw were Sam Hanks, Pat Vidan (now retired), J.C. Agajanian, Roger Penske, and Chris Schenkel.

Between 9:45 and 10:00, I returned to my seat while the Purdue University Band played the first of the traditional prerace songs, “On the Banks of the Wabash,” and the pit crews responded to announcer Tom Carnegie’s order to push the cars to their starting positions on the race track. Only one hour remained until the start of the race.

Between 10:00 and 10:30, the parade of 500 Festival Princesses and celebrities from the entertainment industry were driven around the track for everybody to see. Shortly before the parade started, my two race-day companions for the past three years, Barbara and Malcolm McKean, church friends of mine from Central Baptist Church, arrived on the scene to claim their seats. We exchanged greetings and race talk as we watched the activity on the track.

At 10:35, various USAC officials made their final track inspection and declared it ready for racing. The huge crowd rose in silence at 10:40 as the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and about a minute later, the invocation was given by a local minister who asked God, among other things, to watch over all thirty-three drivers and bring them back in safe condition.

Following the invocation, silence pervaded the crowd as the band played “Taps” in keeping with the theme of Memorial Day. Now it was time for the climax of the prerace activities as the band played “Back Home Again in Indiana.” The tension and excitement could be felt by everybody, as the big moment was almost here.

A minute after the song ended, Tom Carnegie turned the PA system over to Jim Phillipe, who introduced the Chairperson of the Speedway Board of Directors, Mary Hulman, widow of the late Speedway President. Mrs. Hulman spoke loudly and clearly as she issued the famous command, “Gentleman, Start Your Engines!”

Immediately, the air was filled with cheering and applause as the thirty-three engines roared into life. That sound I had been waiting for a year to hear was now here, as one member of each pit crew raised an arm to indicate his car was ready to be pushed away.

1950 race winner Johnnie Parsons drove the official pace car, a Pontiac Turbo Trans-Am. Two other Pontiac official cars, with Mary Hulman, her daughter, Mari George, and Mrs. George’s son, Tony George, were between the pace car and the race cars. These two cars pulled off the track after the first parade lap.

As the field exited the fourth turn and headed down the straightaway, the huge crowd erupted into cheering and applause as the cars went by. Shortly after they were pushed away by their pit crews, Tom Carnegie announced that all thirty-three cars had started and were moving. This was good news and it received a delightful response from the crowd. The field was lined up better as it finished the second parade lap and started the official pace lap. The excitement increased as Tom Carnegie kept everybody informed as to the cars’ position on the track, and some fans stood on their seats and stretched in different ways to get a good view of the fourth turn. A few seconds later, the pace car appeared and sped through the pit area as Rutherford, Andretti, and Bobby Unser started charging. Starter Duane Sweeney waved the green flag, and the race was on!

Rutherford and Unser roared side by side into the first turn, with Rutherford winning the duel as they went through the second turn and down the backstretch. Johnny led the first fifteen laps, but during that time, four drivers dropped out of the race. The race had hardly started when the caution flag was displayed on the fourth lap. The camshaft on Larry Cannon’s car broke and he pulled into the infield. At almost the same time, Mike Mosley left the race with a broken head gasket. This was certainly a disappointment after his outstanding third-place finish of last year.

On the 10th lap, the yellow light came on again when rookies Dick Ferguson and Bill Whittington crashed in the second turn. Bill broke his lower right leg when he hit the wall. Dick received a minor foot injury when he spun to avoid the Whittington car and slammed into the inner guard railing, causing major damage to his car. The yellow light remained on through the 18th lap when the field went green again, but came out again when fourth-place Spike Gehlhausen hit the wall in the first turn.

Through the first 24 laps, the race had four leaders – Rutherford, rookie Roger Rager, George Snider, and Gordon Johncock. On the 25th lap, Bobby Unser became the fifth leader and led through the 30th lap when Johncock regained the lead.

Meanwhile, the dropout list continued to grow as Tom Bagley was forced out after 29 laps with fuel pump failure and Al Unser’s day was finished after 33 laps with a broken cylinder.

At 50 laps, the race had a new leader, Mario Andretti in his Penske car. He led laps 47-56 and then relinquished the lead to Pancho Carter for one lap.

At this time, the yellow flag came out again when Jim McElreath spun in the first turn and hit the wall. Following closely behind him were Roger Rager, who was forced to spin out to avoid the McElreath car. The caution flag remained out for six laps.

When the pace car went onto the track, Carter led the procession of cars behind it. USAC official, Bob Cassady, was in the pace car and gave a signal to Pancho. Pancho said Cassady signaled him to go around the pace car. Cassady said he signaled Carter to hold his position. Whatever the signal meant, Carter passed the pass car and was penalized a lap for doing so, which dropped him from second to sixth position.

The lead went back to Rutherford, who remained there though the 72nd lap. The next lap was led by the rookie sensation Tim Richmond. It was hard to believe that the new race leader was Tom Sneva. He had accomplished the incredible job of moving from last to first position, and he received a warm cheer from the fans when Tom Carnegie announced what had happened. He remained in the top spot until Bobby Unser regained the lead on lap 85 and kept it through the 103rd lap.

After 44 laps, Johnny Parsons was out with a broken piston, and rookie Gordon Smiley left after 47 laps with turbocharger trouble. Dick Simon followed McElreath and Rager out of the race on his 58th lap when he lost his right front tire.

Jerry Karl was the next dropout when he encountered clutch trouble, and then a loud groan came from the crowd when Tom Carnegie announced that Mario Andretti’s car had stalled on the backstretch after 71 laps of racing. Strangely enough, there were no more cars to leave the race until Andretti’s teammate, Bobby Unser, was forced out after 126 laps when his ignition coil failed. That left Roger Penske with only one car still in the race – Rick Mears.

In addition to Roger Penske, car owner Sherman Armstrong also had three entries in the race. All three were doing quite well, with Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Bigelow, and Greg Leffler doing the driving.

On his 128th lap, rookie Hurley Haywood was done for the day when his turbocharger caught fire. The yellow light came out again when Jerry Sneva crashed in the first turn and damaged his car too much to continue.

The lead continued to be traded back and forth among several drivers, including Bobby Unser, Rutherford, Mears, and Sneva. Rutherford’s car seemed to be superior to all the others, but he certainly wasn’t making a runaway of the race.

Rookie Dennis Firestone was the next victim of bad luck and was forced to retire after 137 laps when his car stalled on the backstretch with transmission trouble.

AJ Foyt and George Snider were teammates and their pits were just north of my seat and within vision. On his 170th lap, George came in. When he started to leave the engine quit, not once, but three times. While his pit crew was trying to keep the engine running, Foyt came into his pit after 173 laps. His car was also done for the day.

While the cars of Foyt and Snider were still in their pits, rookie Don Whittington crashed into the inside wall of the fourth turn on his 179th lap, causing his exodus from the race.

Defending champion Rick Mears was running near the front of the field when some debris on the track got into one of his tires and caused it to go flat, thus necessitating an unscheduled pit stop on his 179th lap and a drop in position. Rick led laps 172-178, but gave up the lead to Rutherford when he made his pit stop.

If everything went okay, Rutherford and Sneva would finish first and second, but the interesting and exciting battle was for third place. Like Sneva, Bettenhausen had started in the last row and made an incredible advance in position. Now he and Gordon Johncock were putting on a ding-dong battle, and the crowd was enjoying it immensely. As the finish came closer and closer, Johncock edged closer to Gary, but Gary managed to hold him off.

Rutherford’s Pennzoil Chaparral continued its fine performance and as he came down the straightaway on his 200th lap to receive the checkered flag, the crowd cheered and waved him to victory. Thirty seconds later, Sneva received the checkered flag for the most incredible second-place finish in the Speedway’s history.

Now came the fight for third place. The crowd was going wild as Bettenhausen and Johncock came out of the fourth turn and charged for the checkered flag. Just a few seconds from the finish line, Gordon made a sudden dash to the inside to pass Gary and from where we were sitting, McKeans and I couldn’t say how it finished. About a minute or so later, we heard that Gary had won the battle and taken third place.

Rutherford and Sneva received the plaudits of the fans as they came through the pit area, but the crowd erupted in unabashed elation when Bettenhausen pulled into his pit. He was immediately swamped by his happy crew, and a couple minutes later he was helped out of the car and waved to the crowd, which increased it applause even more. He had something to drink, gave a couple radio interviews, and then shook hands with several people. He could really be proud of his work for the day.

After Johncock, Mears, Carter, and Danny Ongais all completed 199 laps for fifth, sixth, and seventh finishing positions, respectively. Bettenhausen’s teammate, Tom Bigelow, took eighth-place honors, and rookie Tim Richmond and Greg Leffler were ninth and tenth.

As the cars deserted the race track and pit crews carried, pushed, and drove their equipment back to the garage area, the huge crowd started the exodus from the Speedway. Several thousand, like McKeans and me, decided to stay for a while and eat our belated dinners. McKeans ate their sandwiches and cold drinks while I ate my cold chicken and lukewarm coffee. We could take our time eating and not worry about spilling something on or bumping into somebody.

A few minutes after 3:00, the three of us put our equipment in our carrying bags and left our seats for another year. They went to their car and I started my walk to the gift shop by the museum. The traffic, both pedestrian and automobile, was quite heavy, particularly around the garage area.

When I came over for the time trials, I saw some undershorts for little boys, but didn’t buy any because I wasn’t sure what size Mark and John wore. When I arrived at the gift shop, I was disheartened to discover there were none to be bought. I looked around for their gift possibilities but didn’t see any, so I walked back to the garage and Tower Terrace area.

I left the infield area via the gate between Grandstands A and B, which opens directly onto the race track. A few minutes later, I exited through the same set of turnstiles I had entered a few hours earlier. I crossed Georgetown Road and stopped at the White Castle to buy a Pepsi-Cola for my dry throat. There was a long line of customers, so it took several minutes, but the soothing effect of the drink made the wait worthwhile.

As I walked along Crawfordsville Road, I encountered the usual hot and impatient drunks and drivers, and I had to be careful to avoid being hit by some of them. After walking on hot pavement and bumpy rocks for several blocks, it felt good to walk on the grass of the lot where my car was parked. Mine was the last car, so I had no trouble leaving. It was 4:40 when I left the parking lot.

I turned right and stopped at the stop sign by Crawfordsville Road. A friendly, understanding driver let me onto the road before I had hardly stopped, so I waved my thank you to him and zipped into the stream of traffic. The traffic from here to the I-74 interchange was bumper to bumper, but it moved right along and in a few minutes, I was out of the heavy traffic and moving right along to Danville. Air conditioning in the car and enjoyable music on the radio combined to make a pleasant trip for me, and it was 6:20 when I arrived at the motel.

I took my equipment to my room, washed my face, and then watched television for a few minutes. About 7:00, I walked to the Eisner grocery store and bought some food for my supper. My purchase included baked beans, macaroni salad, and potato salad, all from the delicatessen department, and a quart of milk. All these items, plus the fried chicken I still had, made my supper for the evening, and it tasted real good.

At 8:00, I tuned in the ABC same-day telecast of the race. It was expanded from two to three hours this year, and I was well pleased with the program. It showed several of the accidents and action in the pit area, which I couldn’t see during the race. One of the reason I’ve always watched the telecast is to see some of the highlights of the race which I couldn’t see from my seat at the race.

The telecast of the race ended at 11:00, after which I took a bath, read a little bit, and then watched television for a few minutes. It was 12:00 when my 19 ½ hour long race day came to its end, and I retired for the day.

It was not quite 6:30 when I awoke on Monday morning. I got up and did a little reading, and then turned the television set on and watched it off and on while I got cleaned up and then got everything arranged in my suitcase. I double checked to be sure I hadn’t left any of my possessions in the room, checked out of the motel, and at 8:34 left the parking lot for the beginning of my trip home.

The traffic on the way to Chrisman was real light, but there were several persons cutting grass on riding mowers. I stopped at a Standard Station in Georgetown for a gas fill-up, and then continued on to the Colonial Kitchen

There were a few holiday morning customers at the restaurant, most of whom were farmers around a table having their morning coffee. I had a second cup of coffee then used the restroom, paid the bill, and resumed my trip. It was 9:48 when I started west on Route 36.

There was a lot of traffic around Lake Decatur because the annual Memorial Day boat races were in progress. When I left Decatur, I got onto old Route 36 and drove on it to Springfield. On my way into Springfield on Camp Butler Road, I was detained by a long, slow freight train for about 10-15 minutes, but it finally passed and I continued on to my house, where I arrived at 12:20. Another trip to the big race had come to a safe and happy ending.


At the victory banquet, Johnny Rutherford received a first place purse of $318,019.63 out of a record total purse of $1,502,425. Johnny’s Pennzoil Chaparral ground effects car was the fastest car during the time trials and lived up to its prediction as the race winner.

The second and third place finishers of Tom Sneva and Gary Bettenhausen will be something to remember for a long time. Not only did Sneva come all the way from last starting position, but his car wasn’t even qualified to be in the race. Tom had had only a mediocre year for him, and he qualified a disappointing 15th fastest time on the first day of time trials. During a practice run the following week, he crashed into the wall in the first turn and damaged the car too much to be in the race. As a result, he was forced to drive one of car owner Jerry O’Connell’s backup cars and start in last position. His steady drive to the front of the field was a most pleasant surprise to everybody, and his second place finish was a highly commendable fete.

After eleven frustrating attempts, Gary Bettenhausen finally finished the Indy 500. It was a most remarkable fete, considering that he started next-to-last, had the slowest qualifying speed, and had the oldest car in the field. He may not have been in the race at all if it had not been for the late afternoon rain on the last day of time trials, which prevented anybody else from making a qualifying attempt.

Gordon Johncock finished fourth in the North American Van Lines Pacesetter, 0.004 seconds behind Bettenhausen. Gordon incurred a foot injury during a practice lap when he crashed into the south wall, but he qualified on the second day and drove a good race.

Defending champion Rick Mears finished fifth but might have finished as high as second if it hadn’t been for his unscheduled pit stop to replace a flat tire.

Sixth place finisher Pancho Carter might have finished in second place, too, if it hadn’t been for the pace car incident. He and his chief mechanic, Johnny Capels, filed a protest about the incident, but it was denied by USAC officials.

Popular Danny Ongais took seventh place honors in his Interscope Panasonic car. He was the fastest second day qualifier and moved up steadily during the race.

Tom Bigelow, along with Bettenhausen and Tom Sneva, started in the last row and drove his Armstrong Mould machine to a fine eighth place finish.

Rookie Tim Richmond was the ninth place finisher and unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. He was also the fastest rookie qualifier and had the fastest practice lap of anybody all month, a 193+ mph lap on the day before the beginning of time trials. His fine accomplishments on the race track, plus his pleasing personality, made him popular with the fans.

Another one of the ten rookies who qualified for the race, Greg Leffler, drove a good race and finished in tenth position.

The other drivers still on the track when the red flag ended the race were Billy Engelhart, Bill Vukovich, and Don Whittington.

One rather unpleasant, but memorable, highlight of the race was the large amount of caution time. There were a total of thirteen caution periods which accounted for 56 of the 200 laps. This accounted for Rutherford’s slow winning average speed of 142.882 mph, which was the slowest winning speed since the 140.293 mph average of Roger Ward in 1962.

There was little controversy about this year’s race in contrast of last year’s activities. After 18 months of separation, the USAC and CART factions had reunited, although many people were doubtful if it would last very long.

I hope future 500-Mile races will be run with as little controversy as possible. It certainly makes it more enjoyable for the race fan. Next year, once again, I plan to be in attendance to see “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” – the Indianapolis 500.

Pace Car – Pontiac Turbo Trans-Am

500 Festival Queen – Joan Pearson

Monday, December 7, 2009

Indy Journal - 1979


My silver anniversary year at the Speedway was highlighted by increasing controversy during the practice and qualifying periods, my first time of seeing time trials on Sunday, almost not being able to see the time trials in person, the first new race champion in five years, and a precarious gasoline situation.

On Friday, May 4, Dixie was operated on for a ruptured disk in her back. This had been unscheduled until the day before when she had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, and the doctor decided to operate the following day. She was not released from the hospital until the following Friday morning, my scheduled leaving time for the Speedway. My parents brought her home from the hospital and after I made arrangements with them to check on her while I was gone, she told me everything would be okay and to go on my way.

It was between 10:30 and 10:45 when I left home. I traveled old Route 36 all the way to its intersection with the new Route 36 a few miles west of Decatur, and then followed the old route to the Colonial Kitchen at Chrisman. It was 1:00 when I stopped for a cup of coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich. As usual, there were some farmers sitting at a table and drinking coffee, plus a few other customers.

I left shortly before 1:30 and about 10-15 minutes later, I was in Indiana. When I reached the Route 63 intersection, I had to detour south for a few miles and then east. The detour signs were few and far between, and several times I got upset thinking I might have gotten off the road. Luckily I stayed on the route and it finally ended at the US 231 intersection. From there I stayed on Route 36 until I stopped at the Amoco Service Station at Lynnhurst Drive.

I had the gasoline tank refilled and then drove to 16th St and turned right. The further I drove the heavier the traffic was. Traffic rules prohibited me from turning left into the tunnel, so I went to the Speedway Motel and turned around and went back w3est, paid my $1.00 and went through the tunnel and then to the museum parking lot. It was 4:00 when I turned off the engine and locked the doors.

My first stop was the gift shop, where I spent a few minutes browsing, and then I walked to the Tower Terrace Area, via the hospital and garage area.

Several drivers were participating in the last two hours of practice; including AJ Foyt, Janet Guthrie, Johnny Rutherford, Pancho Carter, Tom Sneva, and several others. Several hundred persons were in the Tower Terrace seats taking in the action.

When the 6:00 gun went off, I left the grounds and stopped at the fried chicken place ½ block west of Georgetown Road on 16th St. They didn’t have what I wanted, so I drove over to the Speedway Shopping Center.

My first stop was the MCL Cafeteria. The line of waiting customers stretched almost to the door, but it moved quickly, and in a short time I was going through the serving line. When I reached the cashier my tray was full, but I was hungry and it cost less than $5.00 so I didn’t mind.

With supper out of the way, I did some window shopping in the shopping center. I was trying to get some ideas about what to get Dixie for Mother’s Day. I finally stopped at a bakery which had many delicious looking items on display.

It was hard trying to choose just one item, but I finally decided on a long cake with white icing and the words “Happy Mother’s Day” and three roses in pink icing. Roses are Dixie’s favorite flower so I thought it would be appropriate. From safekeeping, I put the cake in the car trunk and then went to the Kroger grocery store and bought my box of friend chicken for eating at the Speedway on Saturday.

By now it was almost 8:00 so I thought I’d better be on my way to the motel. I took I-465 north to the I-65 intersection and followed it to the Holiday Inn at Lebanon. My registration at the motel was easy because I had paid for my room at the Holiday Inn East in Springfield in January, and the desk clerk was waiting for me.

My room was on the south side of the motel and was one of the best I’ve ever had. It had two double beds and was very clean throughout. I unpacked some of my belongings and then watched TV for a couple minutes to see how the set worked.

With everything ok in my room, I decided to take a little walk and see what was going on elsewhere in the motel. Business at the Holidome was good, with several people using the swimming pool, slide, shuffleboard, ping pong, and refreshment area. The restaurant, bar, and lobby were also busy.

At 10:00 I watched the news to see what had happened at the Speedway and what kind of weather was predicted for tomorrow. After the news I watched a few minutes of the Tonight Show and a movie, and then did some reading. About 11:00, I got ready for bed, set the alarm clock, turned off the lights, and retired for the night.

It was 5:30 when the alarm sounded and awoke me from my sleep. I got cleaned up and then dressed and walked to the motel restaurant for breakfast. It was shortly after 6:00 when I arrived. The hostess seated me and gave me a menu, and a few minutes later the waitress took my order. I didn’t know it, but the next hour or so was to be quite upsetting for me. I ordered French toast, bacon, coffee, and orange juice, and thought I would be eating in fifteen minutes or so. As it turned out, it was almost an hour before I received my food. I was almost ready to take some action, but the waitress apologized and was quite upset herself. I had my Readers Digest with me, so that helped pass the time.

Feeling better physically, but not emotionally, I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, and got ready to leave for the Speedway. It was about 7:30 when I left the motel and 8:00 when I arrived at the Lion’s Club parking lot at Lynnhurst Drive and Crawfordsville Road.

As I was walking to the Speedway, I felt something terrible hit me – rain. I increased my pace and dashed into the White Castle for some shelter and a filling of my thermos bottle with coffee.

There weren’t many people walking around the Speedway grounds. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but certainly enough to prevent any cars from getting on the track. The rain was a blessing for the gift shop and other vendors. The gift shop could hardly keep up with the business.

I sat in the Paddock area and read my newspapers and Readers Digest, listened to the radio, ate chicken, and visited with some of the fans around me. As the afternoon wore on, the rain eventually stopped, and the track dried out enough to be used. The crowd was getting restless for some action, and at 4:19 it was announced that the track was open for 1 ½ hours of practice.

Shortly thereafter, Danny Ongais lost control coming out of the fourth turn and crashed into the inside wall twice before stopping. It took 22 minutes to extract him from the car, and by the time the debris was cleaned up and the practice period finished, there was no time for qualifying.

It was 6:30 when I arrived back at the parking lot and a few minutes after that, I was at the MCL Cafeteria. I ate a big supper, and then took a little ride through the residential area of Speedway. It was a real quiet and well-maintained neighborhood, and it was the first time I had seen that particular area.

When I arrived at my hotel room, I sat down for a couple minutes to glance at my newspapers. While I was doing so, the telephone rang. I answered and to my surprise, Dixie was on the other end. She had heard on television that the time trials had been washed out and urged me to stay over and see Sunday’s time trials. Since she wasn’t going to work on Monday, I could stay another day and come home Monday morning. I told her I would think about it.

I went down to the front desk to see if I could get a room on Sunday night at the Holiday Inn in Danville, IL. When I got that confirmed, I went back to my room and called Dixie to tell her my plans.

With that important job done, I walked around to see what was happening around the motel. The Holidome, bar, and restaurant were all doing a good business. I returned to my room in time to see the 10:00 news, and then watched a few minutes of a couple movies, did some reading, and around 12:00, I turned in for the night.

Because the time trials didn’t start until 12:00 and I didn’t think a huge crowd would be present, I didn’t set my alarm clock. It was about 6:30 when I woke up, after which I took a bath, brushed my teeth, shaved, and combed my hair. Feeling ready to face the world now, I left about 7:15 for the motel restaurant. For breakfast I had pancakes, bacon, toast, coffee, and orange juice. The service was much better than it was Saturday morning, and that made a better beginning of my day.

I returned to my room to brush my teeth and to pick up my equipment, and then drove to the Standard Service Station about ½ miles north of the motel just off I-65. I was real happy to find the station open and not limiting the amount of gasoline sales to their customers. The gasoline situation throughout the United States was quite precarious at this time, with some stations closing at night and/or Saturday and/or Sunday, or all three. The ominous feeling this situation caused me dissipated when the attendant filled the tank and I saw the needle go to the right side of F. I felt I had enough to drive all the way back home if necessary.

I had already decided to park in the same place I did Saturday, but I was quite surprised when I arrived and found no cars or people there. I asked a state policeman if the place was open for business. He said he didn’t know, but then added I could park there if I wanted to because he would be on duty all day and would watch my car for me.

I stopped at the White Castle to have my thermos bottle filled with coffee, and then proceeded through the main gate.

The size of the crowd was considerably smaller than I had expected, although it was almost three hours before qualifying started. For a change, I sat in the lower deck of Grandstand E and watched most of the practice period from there. The view is somewhat different than that from the Tower Terrace area. You can see the entire front straightaway and south chute, plus all or part of the 1st, 2nd, and 4th turns. Also, the cars are only a few yards from you as they go through the first turn.

About 11:00, I walked over to the Tower Terrace area. My seat was south of the tower and a few feet north of the photographers’ stand. Practice ended at 11:30, and at 12:00, the engine of Joe Saldana’s car was fired up and he was pushed away to try to become the first qualifier for this year’s race. The lady sitting next to me was by herself and a half hour or so later, we started talking to each other. I discovered she knew quite a bit about racing, and eventually found out that she was the wife of Bobby Grim, who drove at the Speedway for several years beginning in 1959. She made a real interesting companion as she told me about many drivers, mechanics, car owners, and Speedway officials, both present and from many years back. Although Bobby doesn’t drive at the Speedway any more, she still maintains her interest in the race because her son-in-law is driver Sheldon Kinser. When Sheldon qualified his car, she excused herself and left to join Sheldon and her daughter, Susan. She seemed to be a real affable and unpretentious person, and I was glad to have been able to talk to her.

The weather was ideal. It was sunny and pleasant, warm but not hot, with little wind. It was just as beautiful as Saturday was ugly.

There were 16 first-day qualifiers, and the front row provided the most excitement. Shortly before 1:00, Al Unser qualified his Pennzoil Chaparral “ground effects” car at 192.503 mph, which was the fastest time until 4:00 when Tom Sneva pleasantly surprised everyone with a 192.998 mph run in his Sugaripe Prune Special.

For half an hour it seemed that he would be the first man in Speedway history to have the pole position three years in a row, but his dream ended when the last “first day” qualifier, Rick Mears, went out in his Gould Charge. His first and fastest lap was a crowd pleasing 194.847 mph, and his four-lap average was 193.736 mph.

Pancho Carter was the only second-day qualifier and his 185.806 average was faster than the slowest three first-day qualifiers. During the last hour or so, there was little activity on the track, and at 6:00, the gun sounded ending the first weekend of qualifying.

I had thought about eating supper at the MCL Cafeteria, but knowing they’re closed on race day night, I didn’t know whether they would be open tonight or not. I was most happy when I arrived at the shopping center and saw it was open. I ate a big supper and then left right away for Danville. I arrived there about 8:45.

My motel room was a letdown after my two nights at Lebanon. The condition of the room, particularly the bathroom facilities, was considerably poorer. I took a bath, shaved, watched TV for a few minutes, and then went to bed.

As I reviewed the day’s activities in my head, I decided I had been a most lucky fellow for several reasons: 1.) I had been able to get a full tank of gasoline at the first station I tried; 2.) I didn’t have to pay to park my car; 3.) I didn’t have to pay to get into the Speedway, because yesterday’s tickets were accepted; 4.) I sat next to a former driver’s wife who was a good racing conversationalist; and 5.) I was able to eat supper at the MCL Cafeteria.

I woke up about 6:30 Monday morning, checked out of the motel, ate breakfast at the Colonial Kitchen, and then drove home. My trip turned out to be quite different than what I had planned when I left Friday morning.

The period between May 13 and race day was one of the most controversial ever at the Speedway. It actually started several months earlier when a group of unhappy USAC car owners broke away and formed their own organization called Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Before the track opened for practice on May 5, USAC rejected CART’s race entries because they were “not in good standing with USAC.” CART took its complaint to federal court where the presiding judge said USAC was wrong and ordered it to accept the CART entries.

On May 19, the qualification attempts by Dick Ferguson (a rookie), Tom Bigelow, and Steve Krisiloff were disallowed because their turbochargers had been illegally altered. The following day, rookie Bill Alsup’s qualification run was disallowed because his engine actually belonged in the car of his teammate, Bobby Unser. Seven drivers who were bumped from the 33-car starting field filed protests, saying they were not given a fair chance at qualifying. At first, USAC denied the requests, but on Friday, May 25, it changed its mind and announced that the 33 already qualified cars wouldn’t be bumped, but the following day, the seven protesting drivers would be given one last chance to make the field. Roger McCluskey’s speed of 183.908 mph was the slowest in the field, and anybody qualifying faster than that would start the race behind the other 33 cars. The seven affected drivers were Alsup, Bill Vukovich, George Snider, Al Loquasto, Jerry Karl, Larry Cannon, John Martin, and Duane Carter.

On Saturday, May 26, the day before the race, the unusual qualifying session took place. When it was over, only two of the seven drivers, Vukovich and Snider, had qualified and so for the first time since 1933, more than 33 cars would start the race.

During the morning of this same day, I put all my equipment into my suitcase, said goodbye to Dixie and the boys, and at 11:33, I left and started my two-day trip. I ran into light rain shortly after starting out but it had stopped when I reached Illiopolis. I took old Route 36 all the way to Decatur and arrived there at 12:30. The drive from here to Chrisman was real pleasant, as it usually is and at 2:05, I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen. I had a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, and at 2:28, I left for Danville, where I arrived about 3:00.

Because of the gasoline situation, I decided to get my tank filled before I did anything else. This didn’t happen, however, without my experiencing some anxiety. The Standard station about three blocks north of the motel was closed because they were out of gas. The same was true for the second and third Standard stations I tried. Time was passing quickly and I was getting uneasy, so I finally stopped at an ARCO station and inquired about the station’s gasoline supply. The attendant said they were having no problem getting fuel, so I told him to fill the tank. With a feeling of relief, I drove to the Holiday Inn and checked in. It was about 4:30 now.

I took a bath and then shaved, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair. Now I was ready for supper at the motel cafeteria. The cafeteria was almost empty when I arrived. The waitress took my order right away, and while I waited for it to be cooked, I partook of some selections from the salad bar. The main course consisted of hamburger steak, baked potato, salad, and bean soup. The steak was tender and tasty, and the potato was large enough to cover the length of the plate. It was about 6:00 when I finished eating. When I left, the size of the crowd had increased, although there were several tables still empty.

With supper out of the way and feeling better because of it, I drove to the Famous Recipe chicken place, a few blocks from the motel, and bought my box of chicken for eating at the Speedway tomorrow. I then returned to my room and caught up on some of the reading material I had brought from home. My period of reading was broken by intermittent TV viewing.

Earlier in the evening, it started raining while I was taking a bath and cleaning up, and continued through most of the evening. While it didn’t cancel any of my plans for the evening, I was more concerned about it affecting my plans for tomorrow.

At 10:00, I watched the news which included a report of the day’s time trials, the drivers’ meeting, and a few other items of interest about the race. When that was over, I made sure I had everything packed and ready to go in the morning, and then set my alarm clock for 4:30, turned off the lights, and retired for the night.

When the alarm went off, I lay in bed about a minute, and got up and shaved, combed my hair, and then dressed. It was a couple minutes before 5:00 when I left my room, and the sun had just risen to start another race day. The cafeteria was just opening for business when I arrived, but there were already about a dozen customers ready to eat breakfast and get on their way to the race. My breakfast included pancakes, hash brown potatoes, orange juice, and two cups of coffee. It was a good breakfast, and when I finished I went back to my room, brushed my teeth, and then got my equipment and went to the car. Several of the people I saw in the cafeteria were also leaving. It was 5:38 when I left the motel parking lot.

I drove south about a mile, took the Indianapolis turnoff, and a few seconds later was on I-74 and driving to the race. Almost every car I met looked as if its passengers had the same destination I did. As I drove, I listened to an Indianapolis radio station, whose entire program pertained to the race. It included several weather and traffic reports.

It was 7:00 when the traffic slowed down and it was bumper to bumper then. This started just before reaching the I-465 interchange. The traffic moved slowly, but there were no long, irritating waits, and at 7:33, I ended my trip at the Lion’s Club parking lot on the northwest corner of Crawfordsville Road and Lynhurst Drive, the same place I parked for the time trials. I paid my $6 fee, made sure I had everything and that the car was locked, and then started my walk to the main gate.

Before going to the Speedway, I stopped at White Castle and had my thermos bottle filled with coffee and then stopped at Rosner’s Drug Store for a couple minutes. I looked at my pocket watch and it was 8:15 when I went through the turnstiles. Just a few feet inside the gate, I bought a newspaper and four souvenir programs. Then I took the long walk to the Gate 6 underpass and a few minutes later, I was on the infield.

I stopped briefly at the gift shop, used the men’s room for the last time until after the race, and then started walking to my seat. The traffic was elbow to elbow in places now. When I reached the far north end of the Tower Terrace seats, I handed my ticket to the gateman. He tore off one of the stubs, and I proceeded in. It was 8:50 when I arrived at my seat, the same one I’ve had since 1967 – Section 47, Row J, Seat 5.

It felt good to sit down and get off my feet for a few minutes, and to take in the panorama of sights and sounds around me. After a few minutes’ rest, I took a walk along the pit area fence to see what was happening. There were famous people walking through the pit area and being interviewed on the PA system while the pit crews made last minute checks on their cars. Because there was little for the drivers to do now, almost all the personnel working on the cars were pit crews and car owners. All of this pit activity, plus the sound and color of the numerous marching bands, provided fans on the main straightaway with plenty of action and excitement.

It was 9:40 when I arrived back at my seat. Five minutes later, PA announcer Tom Carnegie directed the pit crews to push their cars onto the track and into starting positions as the Purdue University Band played “On the Banks of the Wabash.”

At 10:00, the parade of celebrities around the track began. Among some of the celebrities this year were Peter Marshall, Kent McChord, and Loni Anderson. While this was happening, my two race companions, Barbara and Malcolm McKean from church, arrived to occupy their seats. We exchanged greetings and talked about the race, etc, and then watched the activity on the track.

At 10:30, USAC officials made an inspection trip of the track and said it was ready for racing. This was especially important this year since it had rained the night before and didn’t stop until 5:00. Luckily the sun came out and stayed out to evaporate the moisture.

At 10:45, the huge crowd rose in unison as the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played. It remained standing for the pronouncement of the invocation and the playing of “Taps”, in keeping with the theme of Memorial Day. It was now time for the last familiar song, as the pre-race excitement was reaching its peak. About a minute later, the bank played “Back Home Again in Indiana” as the spectacle of balloons was released behind the control tower and rose skyward, to the pleasure of the crowd.

Now it was time for the big moment. Tom Carnegie excitedly introduced Mary Hulman, who gave her deceased husband’s famous command “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!” The roar of the engines filled the air as thousands of spectators, including Malcolm and me, cheered and applauded their approval. One member of each pit crew raised an arm to indicate his car was ready to go. About two minutes later, the black and silver Ford Mustang pace car, driven by former world racing champion Jackie Stewart slowly pulled away, followed by two additional pace cars which ran side by side behind Jackie to create a V-formation. Jim McElreath’s car was the only one that didn’t start and it was still in the pits. It finally started and Jim sped through the pit area to try to catch up with the field. All eyes were on the fourth turn and a loud cheer came from the crowd as the cars went by us to finish the warm-up lap and start the parade lap. As the pace car came through the fourth turn, the two secondary pace cars came through the pit area and left the one car to pace the last lap. With the parade lap completed, the official pace lap began. The 35 cars lined up in their 11 2/3 rows provided a spectacular sight for the fans to see. Malcolm and I nervously cuffed our hands and tapped our feet as we waited out the last few seconds. Another huge cheer came from the crowd as the pace car came though the fourth turn and sped through the pit area. Row by row, the cars came out of the turn and slowly started picking up speed as everybody looked at starter Pat Vidan to see what would happen. When the front row was within a few feet of the start-finish line, Pat waved the green glad and the race was on!

The front row of Mears, Sneva, and Al Unser stayed that way almost all the way to the first turn before Unser swung across to beat the other two there. Sneva was second and Mears third. As they came down to complete the first lap, Al had increased his lead to almost a full second over Sneva. Mears was third and was followed by AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Parsons, Wally Dallenbach, and Lee Kunzman.

Al increased his speed by about a second on the second lap as the crowd let out a moan. Janet Guthrie was going real slow and was the last car across the starting line. The next time around, she pulled into her pit and was done for the day. The cause of her departure was a broken piston. It was a most stunned and disappointed crowd and pit crew that saw her pushed back to the garage area after only three laps.

Four laps later, George Snider was out with valve trouble. This was George’s 15th race and he was in the race only because there was a fifth qualifying day. Now, after having so much trouble getting in, he was finished after only seven laps.

At ten laps, Al Unser was still leading, and his 187.688 mph average was a new record for that distance. Behind Al were Mears, Sneva, Rutherford, Johncock, Foyt, Bobby Unser, Dallenbach, Parsons, and Kunzman. Johnny Parsons made his first pit stop on lap 15, but ran only two more laps. His car had a burned piston. Also out of the race after 17 laps with a burned piston was Jerry Sneva.

As twenty laps went by, Al Unser was still leading. In fact, his lead over Mears had increased to six seconds. The rest of the top ten behind Al and Rick were Sneva, Johncock, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Foyt, Dallenbach, Sheldon Kinser, and Mike Mosley. Al pitted on his 25th lap and had hardly gotten back on the track when the first yellow light of the race came out. Cliff Hucul’s car had stalled on the track and needed a tow-in. This yellow period initiated a new race procedure. For the first time ever, a pace car would be used to police the “pack up” rule in which all drivers must close up in single file behind the leader. The pace car was driven by 1960 race winner Jim Rathmann, with USAC registrar Bob Cassidy as his passenger. He waved each car past him until the lead car was directly behind him. Then the other cars followed in single file.

At 30 laps, the top ten were Al Unser, Mears, Sneva, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Foyt, Johncock, Dallenbach, and Kinser. After three laps, the pace car pulled off the track and the green flag was displayed again. Al Unser gradually increased his lead to 14 seconds at 42 laps, but then the yellow flag came out again. Sheldon Kinser had stalled on the track, which brought out the yellow. A couple laps later, Wally Dallenbach came bouncing through the pit area with his right rear tire missing. His remarkable job of keeping the car under control evoked a large applause from the crowd.

At 50 laps, ¼ of the race, nine cars were out of the race. The first ten positions were held by Al Unser, Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Sneva, Foyt, Mears, Johncock, Mosley, Danny Ongais, and Vern Schuppan. The only change in positions during the next ten laps came when Ongais passed Mosley for eighth place. Al Unser made his third pit stop on his 69th lap and was away in 14 seconds. Bobby Unser was the leader for four laps, and then Mears for three laps until he pitted and Al took the lead again.

With 80 laps gone, Al had set a new record for that distance with a 164.131 mph average. Brother Bobby was second, and they were followed by Rutherford, Mears, Foyt, Sneva, Ongais, Mosley, Schuppan, and Johncock. Shortly past the 90 lap mark, the third yellow light of the day came on when Larry Dickson stalled on the track and required a tow-in. This brought on a real busy period in the pit area. Among those who came in was Foyt. He killed his engine and by the time his crew got it started again and pushed him out, he had fallen from 3rd to 6th position.

Meanwhile, after 66 laps, John Mahler was done for the day. John was the last qualifier on the last regularly scheduled day of qualifying, but his hopes were ended now.

Larry Dickson’s stall was caused by a broken fuel pump belt, and he was credited with 86 laps for 24th position.

On his 90th lap, Eldon Rasmussen had to retire because of a broken exhaust header. Eldon started last among the original 33 starters and was in last place when he retired.

It was about this time that one of the most dramatic events of the race occurred. Al Unser made a routine pit stop, but two laps later, he returned to his pit. Smoke was coming from the right corner of the rear of his car. A couple laps later, a small fire could be seen as he came down the straightaway. The crowd came to its feet and moaned in disbelief as Al’s speed dropped remarkably. Starter Pat Vidan waved the black flag and a couple laps later, he came back to his pit. He sat in the car about a minute, and then was told the car was done for the day. A transmission seal had broken and ignited because of the heat. It was a bitter disappointment to the man who had led almost every lap, except when he was in the pits.

At 100 laps, or half the race, the first ten were Bobby Unser, Mears, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, AJ Foyt, Ongais, Mosley, Johncock, Howdy Holmes, and Pancho Carter.

While Al Unser was still in his pit, the yellow light had come on again. Phil Threshie had stalled on the track and had to be towed in. The green light came on again on lap 107 and Bobby Unser was now the leader. At 110 laps, Bobby was first, with Mears second, and Sneva four seconds behind him.

As the 300 mile mark approached, Phil Threshie was able to get back into competition after a new magneto was put into his car. The standings were now Unser, Mears, Sneva, Foyt, Ongais, Mosley, Johncock, Holmes, Carter, and Vukovich. There was some good racing at the front of the pack and the close competition made the race interesting for the spectators.

Another series of pit stops took place during laps 120-129. Sneva made a real bone-headed move and waited too long to come in. He ran out of fuel and had to coast to his pit. This cost him valuable time, and he was in sixth position when he returned to the track.

Bobby Unser remained ahead but Mears stayed within a couple seconds of him, thus giving Bobby no time to slow down a little bit.

Meanwhile, in the pit area, Vern Schuppan was forced out of the race after 111 laps with a broken transmission, and Pancho Carter had a wheel bearing go bad after 129 laps, ending his hopes for the day.

Unser and Mears continued 1-2, but Mosley, Ongais, and Foyt were putting on a good fight for third. At the 150 lap mark, or 375 miles, Unser was still leading with a new track record of 163.135 mph. He was followed by Mears, Sneva, Ongais, Foyt, Mosley, Johncock, Holmes, Bagley, and Vukovich.

All of the front runners were making pit stops now, but Unser and Mears were the last ones to do so. Just as they were coming into their pits, the yellow light came on, thus preventing anybody from gaining on them. The yellow was caused by Larry Rice, who, while in the second turn, had his car spin into the infield and then spun again and crashed into the wall. Larry was unhurt, but his car was damaged too much to continue. The green light came on again on Unser’s 163rd lap.

At 170 laps, Unser was still leading, but Mears was only 1.8 seconds behind him. Foyt was third, ahead of Ongais and Mosley. The remainder of the top ten included Sneva, Johncock, Holmes, Bagley, and Vukovich.

The close battles among the leaders continued as they neared the 180 lap mark. With less than 20 laps to go, the crowd came to life again when it was noticed that Unser was slowing down. On the 182nd lap, Mears took the lead as Unser lost fourth gear in his car, which caused him to lose about six seconds per lap.

Foyt was averaging almost 190 mph and on the 185th lap, he was 23 second behind Unser as Mears increased his lead to 25 seconds. The three front runners all pitted on the 187th lap, and as 190 laps became history, Foyt passed Unser to take second place.

Then a strange, almost unbelievable event occurred. Foyt started having car trouble. He slowed down considerably going into the first turn as white smoke seemed to be coming from under the rear of the car. Just as this happened, the yellow light came on. On his 189th lap, and in sixth position, Tom Sneva lost the rear wing on his Sugaripe Prune Special as he was going through the third turn. The car spun and crashed into the wall. He was stunned by the impact, but wasn’t injured, although the car was badly damaged. Jim Rathman took the pace car out again and the cars lined up behind it. Four laps later, the track had been cleared enough for the green light to come on. The pace car pulled in with five laps to go.

Because of the bunch-up procedure, Foyt was only six seconds behind Mears. His car still wasn’t running properly, and as Mears took the white flag, he had fallen to twelve seconds behind. About 45 seconds later, Mears came down the straightaway to receive the checkered flag and become the first new race champion since Johnny Rutherford in 1974. As the remaining cars crossed the finish line, they were also given the checkered flag, which ended the race for them.

A few seconds later, everybody started wondering what happened to Foyt. Pretty soon he came through the fourth turn and was hardly moving. As he continued, there was increasing doubt as to whether he would make it to the finish line. When he finally got there, the crowd gave him a tremendous ovation. As he waved in response, Mosley was speeding toward the finish line and arrived there only 2.34 seconds after Foyt. Mears took an extra lap around the track and then came slowly through the pit area on his way to Victory Lane, all the time waving to the fans as they gave him a warm applause.

For the first time in five years, since Johnny Rutherford won his first race in 1974, there was a new face in Victory Lane, and everyone, including me, was most happy about it. He was only the fourth driver in the last fifty years to win the big race on either his first or second attempt.

As the pit crews gather up their equipment and took it back to their garages, the huge crowd started its exit from the Speedway. Since I had eaten hardly anything during the race, I took out my chicken, coffee, and napkin, and enjoyed a late dinner. Barbara and Malcolm had brought some food too, and they likewise enjoyed their late dinner. For the first time since the start of the race, we could relax and enjoy our food and converse with each other without being interrupted by some race action or the roar of the engines.

It was about 2:30 when Barbara and Malcolm decided to leave. We exchanged farewells and then I finished my dinner and put all my equipment into my tote bag. I took one last look at the race track, the pit area, the control tower, and the thousands of spectator seats, and then left. The mob of people heading for the tunnel was almost elbow to elbow, but they moved quickly through the tunnel, and then thinned out somewhat when it reached the back of the grandstands.

When I went through the main gate, I crossed the street and stopped at the White Castle. The place was doing a good business, but I only had to wait a few minutes to receive my order of two hamburgers and a small Coca-Cola. The cold Coca-Cola really felt good. As usual, I had to be careful while walking along Crawfordsville Road to avoid being hit by impatient drivers, stepping on or tripping over beer cans, and slipping on the rocks.

It was between 4:00 and 4:15 when I arrived at the car. Most of the cars were gone but a few hadn’t left yet. I opened all the windows so that the hot air could escape and some new air could circulate. I waited a few more minutes and then at 4:26, I drove onto Lynhurst Drive and joined the crowd waiting to get to the intersection.

The traffic was bumper to bumper for several blocks on both streets, but the policemen finally let the southbound traffic go, and it took only a few seconds to get onto Crawfordsville Road. From there, the traffic moved pretty well, and in a few minutes I was on I-74 and heading for Danville. I turned on the air conditioning and in a couple minutes I was feeling better as I drove along and listened to the radio. It was a couple minutes before 6:00 when I crossed the state line, and at 6:10, my trip ended at the door of my room.

I took my equipment in with me and then I took off my shirt and shoes and lay on my bed for a few minutes. It really felt good to be on the bed in the cool room after being outside almost all day. About 7:00, I walked to the Eisner store and bought some macaroni salad, potato salad, and baked beans from the delicatessen section, and some milk. When I arrived back at my room, I turned on the TV set and watched it as I ate my supper. One of the Indianapolis stations had a program about the 500 Festival Parade, which I found real interesting and watched until 8:00. I wanted to watch the ABC-TV same day telecast of the race, but it wouldn’t come in, so I rushed over to the barroom and watched it there. I had to stand all the time and I couldn’t hear real well because of the talking and laughing but I enjoyed it enough to make it worth watching.

I went back to my room, and at 10:30, one of the Indianapolis stations had a one-half hour program of the day’s activities at the track with Tom Carnegie as the narrator. After the program, I did a little reading, and at 11:30, I turned off the lights and got under the covers, ending my race day in the exact spot it had started nineteen hours earlier.

Between 6:15 and 6:30 the next morning, I awoke and felt quite refreshed. I got up, took a bath, shaved, and washed my teeth, and that made me feel even better. I checked everything in my room to be sure I hadn’t left anything, turned in my room key, and at 7:28, started my trip home.

I stopped at the first Standard station that was open, which was in Georgetown. The attendant said his supply was tight, but didn’t restrict me to a certain amount of gasoline. I felt better with the tank full, knowing for sure I could go all the way home. My next stop was the Colonial Kitchen.

It was 8:12 when I arrived. There were a few other customers there, most of them being farmers having their Monday morning coffee. I ordered pancakes, hashed brown potatoes, orange juice, and coffee. It was a good breakfast, and at 8:45, I left and started the last part of my trip home on Route 36. It was shortly after 10:00 when I reached Decatur, where there were many people making use of Lake Decatur. At 11:28, I pulled into my driveway. My 25th trip to see the big race was over, and like the other 24 before it, it provided me with many memories.


On Monday night at the Victory Banquet, the Speedway distributed a record purse of $1,271,954.54, of which $270,401 went to winner Rick Mears. In only his second year, he had what might be called a perfect year, both starting and finishing first.

For maybe the first time in his racing career, AJ Foyt was happy to finish second in a race. His spectacular, creeping finish provided the large crowd with one of its most exciting moments of the race. One thing is certain – if the race had been one lap longer, he would have finished lower than second as he was only 2.34 seconds ahead of Mike Mosley when he crossed the finish line.

After 11 disappointing years, Mike Mosley was finally able to finish a race, and gave an excellent account of himself in doing so. He is a fine driver, but usually had mechanical trouble or chased, thus preventing him from finishing the race.

Danny Ongais deserves special mention. After his crash on the first scheduled day of time trials, it was with some difficulty that he obtained a medical clearance to qualify the second weekend. When this problem was solved, he qualified on the last scheduled day at 188.099 mph and started 25th. He moved up steadily during the race and finished a fine fourth.

Bobby Unser led 88 of the 200 laps, but like brother Al, this was not the year for another Unser victory. Bobby had the 4th fastest qualifying time in his Norton Spirit and appeared to be on his way to his third victory but when trouble struck late in the race, he had to settle for fifth place.

Gordon Johncock finished sixth in his fifteenth race. He drove the North American Van Lines car with master mechanic George Bignotti as his chief mechanic.

Seventh-place finisher Howdy Holmes was the only rookie in this year’s race and for doing such a good job, he was given the Rookie of the Year award.

Bill Vukovich deserves special attention as well for starting in 34th position and rising all the way to eighth place when the red flag came out. The veteran chief mechanic AJ Watson headed the pit crew.

Tom Bagley finished ninth in his second year at the Speedway. He was in that position after 130 laps and remained there for the rest of the race.

Spike Gelhausen finished tenth in his No. 19 Sta-On car. He started in thirty-first position and gradually increased his position during the race.

The practice and qualifications periods were some of the most controversial in Speedway history. The trouble started a week or so before the Speedway opened when USAC officials rejected the entries of six CART teams, involving nineteen cars. An Indianapolis Federal Court judge said USAC couldn’t do this and the CART entries were reinstated.

During the time trials, it was discovered that several teams had modified their turbocharger assemblies to override the allowable boost. This brought about disallowed qualifying runs, leveling of fines, lawsuits, and an additionally qualifying session.

It made everybody unhappy, including the fans whose money keeps racing alive. There were times when I wondered if there would be a 500-mile race this year. The exciting and interesting race made the fans temporarily forget about the pre-race problems; however, the problems remain.

The CART-USAC war shows no signs of easing. Nobody is predicting when, if ever, the two factions will come together again as one group. I hope it is soon. I hope that future races will be much less controversial than this year’s race. In addition to ending the USAC-CART problem, there needs to be a greater application of fair and equal rules to everybody.

The Indianapolis 500 has long been the greatest racing event in the world, and I, along with every other racing fan, hopes it continues that way for a long time.

Pace Car – Ford Mustang

500 Festival Queen – Carol Orem