Lunch, laughs and life at Indy

Twice a week a group of retired racers meet near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to talk old times and trade insults. Motor Sport secured an invite…
By Robin Miller

To the casual observer it is simply a table full of grey-haired, loud, sometimes vulgar old men who can’t hear due to all those years of running without earplugs. But to anyone who followed Indycar or open-wheel racing from the late 1960s to the early ’80s, it’s a noon gathering of some bad-ass racers from an era we’ll never see again.

Team Lunch at ‘Charlie Browns’, a quaint little breakfast joint a mile south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, can best be described as an unsanctioned enduro of laughs, insults and stories that usually lasts a minimum of two hours on Mondays and Fridays.

It began last year when Bill Vukovich Jr moved back to Indy and enlisted some old friends and foes to dine with him on Main Street – just a couple of blocks from where his famous father drank a milkshake after winning his second Indy 500 in 1954. So Johnny Parsons Jr, Lee Kunzman, Larry Rice, Jerry Sneva, Bubby Jones, Steve Chassey and Gary Bettenhausen began breaking bread twice a week.

Besides trading verbal punches, this group’s common bond is that they all came up through the short-track ranks. There were no million-dollar motorhomes, seven-figure retainers or PR flacks to carry their helmets. For the most part they lived race to race, shared rooms in flophouses, drove for 40 per cent and kept racing midgets and sprints even after making it to the big time.

Bettenhausen, 67, is the son of Tony, who lost his life during practice at Indy in 1961. Gary’s tenacity and talent carried him to 21 Indy 500 starts, a pair of USAC sprint championships, two dirt car titles and 27 victories in the midget division.

Vukovich, 65, was only 10 when his father was killed while leading Indianapolis in 1955, but he carved out a successful 15-year career that included a dozen starts at Indy, 27 USAC victories and twice finishing as runner-up in the national championship.

Parsons, 64, son of the 1950 Indy victor, had a penchant for getting a lot of speed out of a little practice at the Speedway and qualified 12 times. He amassed 38 wins in USAC’s three open-wheel divisions during 40 years of racing.

Kunzman, 64, was being compared to Parnelli Jones in the late ’60s when he came busting onto the USAC scene because of his prowess on dirt, flat tracks and high-banked tracks. Being badly burned in a sprint car in 1970 didn’t slow him down, but serious head injuries in a testing accident in 1974 took its toll and he only got to run four times at Indy.

Rice, 62, an Indiana farm boy who quit teaching to chase race cars, used his smooth, smart style to collect a USAC midget crown and a dirt championship, in addition to sharing Rookie of the Year honours with Rick Mears at Indianapolis in 1978.

Sneva, 59, was a west coast sprint ace who followed his brother Tom to Indy, but never had anything approaching a top ride. So he made his mark hoofing bad cars into the show and competed five times from 1977-82.

Jones, 68, is recognised as one of the best dirt-track sprint car drivers of all time, with more than 500 main event wins, yet he hopped into a rear-engined car in 1978 and, without much practice, qualified for his lone 500.

Chassey, 64, went from building and crewing race cars for Bettenhausen to starting three Indy 500s, and was the last driver to also serve as his own chief mechanic.

In the beginning

There were no drivers’ schools in the early ’60s and you had to be 21 before USAC would grant you a licence, so motorcycles, jalopies or hardtops were about the only thing a teenager could learn in. And, unlike today, car owners wouldn’t think about putting some untested kid in their car, so most of these guys started out in less than frontline Indycars.

“You needed a tetanus shot to get in the first car I drove at Indy,” recalls Sneva of his 1975 debut. “But I was too young and dumb to be scared.”

Bettenhausen nods: “I tried to run some old Shrike at Milwaukee in 1966 or ’67, and the first time I accelerated the upright broke and I spun into the infield. USAC told me to go get more experience; they just figured I was in over my head.”

Rice probably topped both of them in terms of bad scenes. “It was 1974 at Indy and I was going to drive a ’68 Eagle for these guys out of Ohio,” he says. “They missed the first two weeks of practice. When they finally arrived they didn’t have a starter or an oil heater; thankfully I didn’t try to qualify. I made my debut the next week at Milwaukee and the rear wing fell off as I was going into Turn 3 and I hit the wall. The good news was that I killed that car.”

In keeping with the spirit of the day, Parsons made his USAC national championship debut at Riverside’s daunting road course in 1968 – in Joe Hunt’s front-engined dirt car. “I actually outqualified a couple of rear-engined cars but I only had a two-speed gearbox so it was exciting. Dan Gurney almost ran over me the first time I came into the pits because I had one hand on the gearbox to keep it from jumping out of gear, and one hand on the wheel. I couldn’t signal I was slowing down because I ran out of hands.”

Vukovich made his Champ Car debut in 1964, four years before going to Indy for the first time and starting his full-time career in USAC’s National Championship. “I was only young and I’d never driven a sprint car, only midgets, when Fred Gerhardt asked me to drive a Watson roadster at Phoenix. I think I qualified 14th and finished eighth. I’m glad I got to drive a roadster at least once. But I knew I wasn’t ready to move up yet.”

Kunzman’s debut was as impressive as it was surprising: “We were in Phoenix and I had won a midget race the night before. I went out to watch Indycar qualifying and Aggie (J C Agajanian) asked me if I wanted to run his second car. I’d never sat in a rear-engined car and I got no practice so they gave me an extra warm-up lap. I think I qualified eighth or ninth, but when the race started I forgot to take it out of high gear and I was last going into the first turn.”

That first Indy 500

Bettenhausen, Vukovich and Parsons grew up in Gasoline Alley while the rest of the boys got to Indy via different routes, but all eight share an appreciation of what Indianapolis did for their resume.

“When I moved from LA to Indianapolis my goal was to make the Indy 500, that’s all that mattered,” says Chassey, who survived the war in Vietnam before embarking on his racing career. “I ran sprints and midgets, worked on Indycars and finally got a ride in 1981 but it had no horsepower. In ’82 I had a good car but I wasn’t smart enough to explain what it was doing, so I killed it in Turn 3. When I finally qualified in 1983, I appreciated it so much more because it had been anything but easy.”

Ditto for Parsons and Rice. “I was desperate to make the race because I had a wife and two little boys to feed so I hung it out. It was definitely a white-knuckle job, and I got in on the last day,” says Parsons of his 1974 run.

Following his 1974 nightmare Rice returned in ’78 with a better car, except he had no back-up. “On the final day of qualifying we blew up in the morning. My team borrowed an engine and had it back in by 5.30. I went out with no practice and qualified. I never felt pressure like that because I knew it was probably the only chance I was ever going to get.”

Jones was a dirt-track specialist with little track experience when he made his one and only start in 1977. “The first time I got up to speed going down the backstretch it scared the hell out of me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go that fast,” he says. “We were a bunch of sprint car guys on my team but somehow we managed to make the show on the last day.”

Kunzman qualified a mediocre car with good speed for his initial 500 in 1972, while Sneva had little drama when he breezed into the first of his five starts in ’77.

Bettenhausen and Vukovich ended qualifying right next to each other as rookies in 1968.

“Obviously, because of the legacy of our fathers, that was a very special moment, making our first Indy 500 together,” says Bettenhausen, who started next to his second-generation buddy on row seven. “I hit debris from Al Unser’s crash and that put me out, but I knew I belonged after that first race.”

Vukovich, who had received an unheard of salary of $15,000 from car owner Agajanian, went from 22nd to finish seventh and take rookie of the year honours.

You can't make this up

Of course the best stories are the funny ones and this group has no shortage of memorable moments in that department.

“Hey Schmuck, remember when I saved your life at Milwaukee?” says Vukovich, using the cheerful nickname he has bestowed on his lifelong buddy. Bettenhausen rolls his eyes and nods. “How could I forget it? I flipped on the first lap at Milwaukee in 1969 and I was in a wedge-shaped car which landed upside down in the mud. I was breathing and everything felt OK, and then I heard these two guys yelling.

“It was Larry Dickson and Vukovich screaming at the fireman because they figured I was on fire. Well, Vukovich grabs the fire bottle and sticks it under my car and nearly chokes me to death. When they finally turned the car over I walked down the nose with powder all over me and I looked like a ghost. Billy almost fainted.”

If any driver ever had a reason to faint at speed it was Sneva… “I spun once at Trenton on the first lap and didn’t hit anything, so I drove into the pits so we could change the four tyres, which were all badly flat-spotted,” he recalls. “But this team didn’t have any spare tyres so they sent me right back out. I drove about 25 laps with the worst vibration you can imagine until the front suspension finally broke.

“But my last ride at Indy was a classic. I crashed at 5.59pm one night [the track closed at 6pm], they fixed the car and I crashed three minutes into practice the next day. It was an evil car and they fixed it again and brought it out to the pits. All the sponsors were there so the crew fired it up and the throttle stuck wide open. I hit the kill switch and nothing happened so they jammed rags into the injection to kill it. I climbed back in, took a slow lap around the track, waved at a few people and put away my helmet for good.”

Kunzman’s last Indycar ride in 1980 was also a wake-up call: “I was driving an old Eagle with a Chevy at Mid-Ohio, and through one of the corners my seat belts came loose. I tried to buckle my lap belt and it came out in my hands. I drove back to the pits and quit. I was mad at myself for driving such a pile of shit.”

In 1988 Chassey accepted a ride from a Cincinnati businessman who had big dreams, a tiny budget and a rather raw crew. “I went out for my first recce lap and on the backstretch the brake pedal fell off. I came in and told those guys that nobody was to touch anything on my car unless I okayed it. From then on, I became my own chief mechanic. I think that was the year the ESPN reporter asked me how my car felt and I replied, ‘Like a coffin.’”

Jones only made three Indycar starts, but he made a valuable discovery in his only Pocono 500. “I had no idea what that little knob was on my dashboard. Well, it was the boost gauge. I turned it up at the start and passed 11 or 12 cars in two laps and was running fifth or sixth. Pretty good for the old hillbilly sprint car driver.”

Vukovich can’t resist giving Bettenhausen a hard time and vice versa, but their trip to Flemington in the late ’70s can’t be topped. “We were getting $1000 each to run a midget race at Flemington, New Jersey,” says Vuky. “The Schmuck and I hopped in his car to tow his midget to Flemington. Two hours later we arrived, pulled up to a gas station and asked an old guy where the race track was. He looked at us and shook his head. I screamed that there had been a track in Flemington, New Jersey forever and the old man said: ‘Son, that may be true, but you’re in Flemington, New York.’ The Schmuck didn’t tell me which state we were going to.”

Those were the days

Some of this group had more opportunity and success than others, but they all share the camaraderie of making the Indianapolis 500 when it truly meant something.

“I never felt pressure like you did in qualifying every May – those were the four toughest laps you’d ever run,” says Vukovich, who never matched his father’s ferocity at Indy but was still a damn good racer and posted finishes of second, third and fifth during his 12 starts.

Those were the days when as many as 50-60 cars battled for the 33 starting spots and drivers like Sneva had to make the race to make ends meet, so ‘balls out’ became his byword.

“[NASCAR driver] Neil Bonnett couldn’t get the AMC car up to speed so he went out on the last day of qualifying in 1979 and I got in,” says Sneva. “It was late afternoon so I ran a couple of laps, came in and pulled into the qualifying line. I told them to lower the front and rear wings a half inch. I went out, the throttle stuck going into Turn 1 on my first lap, so I drove down towards the grass to try and scrub some speed off before I hit the wall. But it made it through the corner, so I drove up onto the track and made all four laps. I drank heavily that night.”

Chassey, Rice and Jones were about the last USAC stars to make it to Indy on merit before the oval-track driver began to get phased out.

“I never expected to get to run Indy,” says Jones, “that was just a bonus.”

Scarred from his burns and slowed by a stroke a few years ago, Kunzman nonetheless maintains a marvellous sense of humour and never dwells on what might have been. “That guy was so good in a sprint car,” raves Parsons. “He just had a couple of really bad breaks.”

As did Bettenhausen, who was cruising towards the Indy victory that had eluded his old man in 1972 when Penske’s McLaren broke down 18 laps from the chequered flag. Refusing to stop running midgets, sprints and dirt cars as ‘The Captain’ requested, Gary got permanent damage in his right arm in ’74 and was dropped by Penske. We might never have heard of Tom Sneva or Rick Mears had he obeyed orders.

“The stubborn German,” screams Vukovich, “he could have won Indy five times, but no, he had to keep running on the dirt. That’s why we call him The Schmuck.”

Bettenhausen grins back at his best friend. “You know, it’s probably good I got hurt and got fired,” he reasons, “because I’d have probably won Indy five or six times, been on wife number four by now, and been a bigger prick than I am.”

As the laughter subsides, Chassey adds: “That’s not possible.”