The "500"


God willing, I will attend my 50th Indianapolis 500 on May 29th. Fifty. Wow, I mean, holy sh!t!
I can’t help but to reflect on all those years. I could recount the racing history, but that gets done elsewhere. I think I would be of better service to others if I reminisce about life in Indianapolis during the Mays of my childhood.
While Indy 500 fans have no trouble getting excited about their favorite race, and especially so during May, I know from listening that people don’t truly understand the cultural impact of the race when I first became enamored along about 1963. During those days Indianapolis was a pretty sleepy place to live. The Indiana Pacers didn’t come along until 1967 and the Hoosier capital boundaries had not yet expanded to the borders of Marion County. Along with the Pacers, the Indianapolis Indians baseball team defined the city as “minor league.” Critics inside and outside its borders derisively referred to my home town as, “India–no–place.” We rolled up sidewalks at 9 pm, they said.
All that changed when each May rolled around and Indianapolis burst back to life, center stage across the world. No kidding. Really. As far as relevance transcending the narrow realm of motorsport, the Indianapolis 500 was as big as it gets. The city was vibrant and buzzing. Suddenly, everyone including those that demonstrated zero interest in the sport the other 11 months were adamant experts about goings-on at the Speedway. Friendly banter and even intense arguments ensued. Checkered flags and race-theme decorations sprouted up in everyone’s lawns and homes all around the city. Automotive product decals were embraced by fans to step into the passion. Nobody did it better than STP, with stickers everywhere. You got that right; this was all around the city. Not just on the westside.   
Early in the decade the names invoked were Parnelli, A.J., Rodger Ward, Jim Hurtubise, Eddie Sachs, Don Branson, and the foreign interlopers of Lotus – Jimmy Clark and Dan Gurney. Anybody in the legendary Novi was someone to watch, speculate on, and argue about.
In these early days of my awakening to the sport, no one was referring to the event as the Indy 500. It was simply, the “500.” This was particularly true in Indianapolis and across sports pages throughout America. If you wanted to get more formal, you could say, “The Indianapolis 500,” but never Indy. That moniker developed late in the decade.
The magic of the race captured national and even global media coverage. It was everywhere and no more evident than the winner waving from Victory Lane on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Johnny Carson drove the famous STP sidewinder turbine around the track. The Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasted around the world. In Indianapolis, if you weren’t at the track, you were at a picnic or backyard barbeque with the radio on. No self-respecting Hoosier could come to work the following day without being well-versed in the goings-on at the track.
As it was in the 1950s, it was a time when Hollywood stars and A-list celebrities did not have to be paid to come to the track. They came because, like the rest of us, they were thrilled by the spectacle. They also garnered a ton of publicity and enjoyed millionaire face time. Team Lotus heightened the attention the historic race had always earned in Europe. Frankly, despite the fact that TV was not allowed to broadcast the race and the crowds were not quite as large as we see today, it was simply a bigger deal. The smaller attendance was a function of having fewer grandstands. The infield would always swell to madness, but otherwise it was a sure-fire sellout.
In those days track officials and the media dubbed Pole Day as, “the second biggest sports event in the world.” Measured in terms of butts in seats it indeed was. Think about it. Every seat taken on Pole Day. Every last one. The large attendance extended into the 1990s, but nothing tops what it was in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s not the gauzy nostalgic memory speaking. It’s fact.
What’s more, practice days were attended by upwards of 12,000 fans and for good reason. During most of those years the track record would be destroyed “unofficially” on every day. This factored mightily into those huge Pole Day attendance numbers. Practice or pole, the unwashed such as myself swarmed Gasoline Alley and I occasionally tried my luck at sneaking into the Garage Area. This was the era when “Yellow Shirts” earned disdain. More than one yelled at me, and one time pushed me because I was in the way.
Anticipation was palpable. This was fueled by an extremely local enthusiastic media.
All of the four TV channels serving central Indiana broadcast shows like “Trackside,” and “Today at the Track.” We counted on Tom Carnegie, John Totten, Jim Wilson, Chuck Marlowe, and others to bring us the latest insights. Not only did the track fling open their gates to all media, but news outlets at least seemed to be cooperating with one another by staggering their shows. Throughout the month there were 30-minute profiles of champion drivers and reflections on past events. I hung on every word and eagerly reported news back to my parents.
I don’t mean to go on and on, but my god it was exciting. Interviews with A.J., Parnelli, Rodger Ward, Jimmy Clark, and, as the decade progressed, Mario and the Unsers. I enjoyed that they would take a deep dive and interview the lesser lights of the sport, like the seemingly perennial bubble man, Bill Cheesbourg. Speaking of him, he got the attention of such shows in 1966 when he signed on to drive a twin-engine Porsche. Not a factory entry. Just something cobbled together by Joe Huffaker in Albert Stein’s garage. It didn’t make the race, but it, like most everything else was 200-proof magic, and local media loved it all.
The holy grail for me was The Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News souvenir sections leading into Memorial Day weekend. Talk about media magic for this little boy. There you would find a list of the starting field – times, speeds, and averages. Each of the eleven rows of three were accompanied by headshots of each driver. Another feature was Wayne Fuson’s odds chart. Although I frequently rolled my eyes, convinced of an egregious error, I nonetheless soaked it all in with verve. Another mesmerizing delight was the annual editorial cartoon of the front row. It was a pen and ink of each driver’s face floating above a smaller sketch of the cars. It electrified my imagination, and I have a particular memory of 1965 with A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark, and Dan Gurney. Even to this day, I recall it as my favorite front row.
Granted, there is no limit to the enthusiasm of children for their heroes. I didn’t care much about other sports, but I loved racing. The names were magic. The champions were God-like figures to this kid.
The aftershock of May in Indianapolis was most evident in the annual September champ car race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The Hoosier Hundred was part of what the United States Automobile Club’s (USAC) “championship trail.” It was broadcast live on local radio and included all the stars of the “500” in competition. The cars were like sprint cars, with powerful engines at the front of beefy, shorter wheelbase machines. The track surface was dirt and that fueled railbird speculation about who was best on the dirt and how it might shake up the point standings. In 1968 Lloyd Ruby entered his rear engine “500” racer and was summarily bumped from the field.
Along with the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Summer Nationals, the “500” and the Hoosier Hundred made Indianapolis a racing capital. To be clear, though, nothing came within a country mile of the, “500.”
Granted, I hold a nostalgic perspective as does virtually everyone about their early memories, their early happy places. Still, the “500” and its municipal context are markedly different than when I was growing up. My heroes helped me forget some of the bullies and the larger reality of civil unrest, and political assassinations. I soared into a world of my own design, insulated from the fury of the world and my personal challenges.
I reflect on all this not to suggest it was better then. It just happens to be a time far more magical to me than any other in my memory. I notice as I age that even the most enthusiastic fans of today don’t fully grasp how it once was. How big the “500” was. Times are different. We live in the era of exclusive sponsorships, TV contracts, social media, and thousands of distractions redefining our culture and what should capture your imagination.