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