As a schoolboy he lied his way in, and ever since this local lad has been living out his obsession with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
In 1958, my third grade class on the south side of Indianapolis was presented with the opportunity to take a field trip to Chicago to see the museum of science and industry. For $30, you got to ride in one of those big prop planes and your airfare also included a picnic lunch.
For the half-dozen kids whose families couldn’t afford flying, the school provided a free visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a trip through the museum and one lap around the track in a tour bus.
Lying was a no-brainer for me. I informed my teacher that my mom had forbidden her first-born from the perils of air travel and, regrettably, I would have to stay home and go to the Speedway. And that was the start of my 53-year romance at 16th & Georgetown.
A baby boomer growing up in Indianapolis didn’t have to fall in love with the Indianapolis 500, but it was impossible to ignore the attraction of that majestic maze of grandstands on the west side of town.
Like it or not, the Speedway was our identity with the rest of the world, and for one month a year it commanded centre stage. The incredible speeds, the massive crowds, the gunfighter mentality and the impending danger made for a theatre like no other.
Back then it was a full month of celebration, from the first fan to line up outside the gate to the first car on track for practice to the last driver bumping his way into the starting line-up.
It seemed like every store, restaurant or gas station displayed a chequered flag. The three daily newspapers ran banner headlines and cranked out special sections that we devoured. The local television stations countered with special shows on qualifying and the drivers. There were parties and parades, and the night before the race people lined the streets for miles.
There were no million-dollar motorhomes, suites or concrete bunkers for drivers to hide in like today, all a fan had to do was stand outside the Speedway Motel to say hello to A J or Mario because that’s where they spent the month.
From the first time I witnessed a car at speed — Paul Russo in the Novi blasting down the straightaway in 1957 — it was all over. I was mesmerised, thrilled and half-ass scared all in the time it took Russo to disappear into the first turn.
My dad was equally enthralled, and besides making practice and qualifying our annual ritual, he learned of a way to see the start of the race for free. We would park east of the Speedway, walk over the railroad tracks, climb a little fence and walk across the golf course right up to the fence that was 20 yards from the backstretch.
The roar of the crowd at the green flag, followed by the noise of the pack as they stormed through Turns 1-2 was numbing. And the anticipation of who would be leading as they got to our point halfway down the backstretch was almost as exciting as seeing that first car.
But when Jim Hurtubise muscled the Novi around Parnelli Jones and into the lead coming off Turn 2 in 1963, I vowed that some day, some way, I would get up close and personal with the Indy 500.
Working for my hero
Hurtubise hooked a lot of us in 1960 when he damn near broke the 150mph barrier as a rookie and out-qualified polesitter Eddie Sachs by almost 3mph. “Hurtabreeze,” shouted one of the announcers during his run that vaulted him to Rookie of the Year.
But watching him hustle a sprint car around Terre Haute’s Action Track is what really elevated him to hero status for me, and I would steal beers for him after stock car races at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in the hope of gaining his recognition.
Horribly burned at Milwaukee in 1964, ‘Hercules Hurtubise’ would never be the same driver, but his moxie, charred hands and smiling face made him the crowd favourite at Indy.
By 1968, he was still hanging onto the dream that a front-engined car could be competitive at Indianapolis. Those were the days when there were two weeks of practice leading up to the first weekend of qualifying and, as fate would have it, Hurtubise was there all by himself when the track opened so I convinced him to let me help out.
Now I was an 18-year-old senior in high school who looked every bit of 15, and you had to be 21 to gain entry into the pits or Gasoline Alley. `Herk’ got me a Goodyear jacket, stuffed a rag in my back pocket and told me to keep my head down and my mouth shut.
The first time that we pushed his beloved Mallard roadster into the pitlane, my life was complete. Me and Herk at the Mecca — how could it ever get any better?
Sadly for Jim, it got worse as he quickly learned I had the mechanical aptitude of a monkey. His helmet was too big so one of my jobs was to pack it with rags so it wouldn’t move around at speed. Then I had to tape his goggles onto the helmet.
This all went terribly wrong one day when he was in a hurry to get out and run before six o’clock. A shock of his hair was sticking out but instead of bothering to tuck it inside, I simply taped his hair to his helmet. When he blew the engine a couple of laps later, the first thing he did was rip off his goggles in anger. He screamed at the shock of hair that came off and I tried to hide. That was strike one.
Strike two came two days later after Pepsi and Frito Lay had sprung for a new paint job. One of my duties was to button down the cowl with a Dzus wrench, and in my haste to get the bodywork removed I slipped and put a five-foot scratch through the Pepsi cap.
That was enough. Herk fired his free help and I was devastated.
But when he qualified on the extra Monday that year, I had skipped school to go and cheer him on. I was standing behind the pit fence when he was posing for qualifying photos and he saw me and gave me the wave, so I hopped the fence and stood in for one of the traditional qualifying photos.
That was the last time a roadster made the show at Indy and the first time I got into Gasoline Alley.
By 1972 I was helping cover auto racing at The Indianapolis Star and had convinced Art Pollard to help me buy a Formula Ford from Andy Granatelli so that I could start racing. Bad mistake — I should never have been allowed to own a race car. The second bad mistake was made by Bill Finley, who befriended me that summer.
Finley was the last of a dying breed at Indy. He built his own cars each year in the shop behind his house and was a combination welder/fabricator/engine man/chief mechanic. He put cars in the Indianapolis 500 all through the 1960s and ’70s, but nobody put him through more grief than me.
In addition to rebuilding my numerous crashed cars during the next decade, he also allowed me to be on his Indy teams at various times from 1972-77. I was the pitboard man in practice, the vent man on pitstops and a full-time pain in Finley’s posterior.
After nearly cutting off my hand on his band saw, I was forbidden from touching anything in the shop that was connected to a power source.
By 19741 had added timing laps and buckling Johnny Parsons into his seat among my duties, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened the night before Pole Day.
I was sitting in our garage watching the boys change engines when Larry ‘Boom Boom’ Cannon knocked on the door and motioned me outside. A veteran sprint car driver, Cannon was a rookie at Indy and was struggling for speed. He wondered if I had time to come down and talk to his crew because they were stuck at a speed that was 5mph off the pace. I laughed and told him that he had the wrong guy — I was just a stooge and knew nothing. He said he’d seen me writing things down and talking to Finley and insisted I could help.
Before I could tell him he was a loon, Finley intervened and told Cannon to go down to his garage and he’d send me along shortly. I then got a five-minute crash course in rake, ride height, springs and shocks. I walked into Cannon’s garage and addressed his crew like I was Smokey Yunick, asking questions and making suggestions while Finley stood outside and laughed until he cried.
The next day, Cannon picked up 7mph and ran down to thank me. It turned out that Firestone’s engineers found ‘ol Boom Boom had been running reverse stagger but they didn’t have the heart to tell him that was his problem.
He went to his grave thinking I knew the hot set-up at Indy.
‘O1 Rube wasn’t that drunk
Of all the great racers to have not pulled into Victory Lane at Indianapolis, none were more deserving than Lloyd Ruby.
‘O1 Rube had some terrible luck and that includes having me work on his team in 1974.
I had been fired at The Indianapolis Star (for the first time) and Mike Devin, the crew chief for Rube’s Commander Motor Homes Team, took pity on me. I was hired to push, polish, run errands, be the vent man on pitstops and entertain Lloyd while Darrell Soppe, Danny Jones and Devin tried to figure out what the car was doing.
You see, nobody drove a car harder or better than Ruby, but he wasn’t much for the details like set-up. He just drove hard and made do. A lot like Gordon Johncock. So I’d sit on the sidepod and ‘BS’ with the pride of Wichita Falls, Texas while the crew huddled behind us.
Anyway, those were the days when drivers didn’t have PR people, sponsor commitments or advisors — they simply had fun. It was a risky business and they played as hard as they raced.
Nobody had greater recovery powers than Rube. He could close down a bar at 3am and be running the wheels off an Indycar 10 hours later.
One night Dan Jones was going through the rear end and gearbox and sent me out to get him some dinner. I came back with a meatloaf sandwich, which leaked through the brown paper bag and plopped onto the greasy floor. Jones stormed out, leaving Jim Bob Luebbert and myself with that disassembled Eagle.
Thankfully, Luebbert was a good mechanic so he was bolting things together and I was handing him tools when ‘ol Rube stumbled through the garage door at about midnight.
“Hey,” he shouted, “I know I’ve been drinking but I also know Robin ain’t supposed to touch my car.”
We assured Rube I was merely serving as technical advisor and he needed to go get some sleep. He was running fourth the next day when he ran out of fuel.
Looking back and ahead
Those characters like Hurtubise, Finley and Ruby are long gone, just like the days when three or four savvy guys comprised a pitcrew and Gasoline Alley was full of innovation and free thinking and possibilities.
We’ve been stuck with spec cars and engines for almost a decade and the month of May has never recovered from ‘The Split’ in 1996.
It’s doubtful we’ll ever see big crowds again on Pole Day, and with NASCAR, Formula 1 and MotoGP having shared the facility, IMS doesn’t hold the magnetism it did in the glory days.
But this is not to say that things aren’t looking up. For the first time, the IndyCar Series finally has a smart, savvy, open-minded leader who possesses marketing skills and a tremendous drive to make things better. Randy Bernard accomplished more in his first 10 months than all the CEOs of CART/IRL/Champ Car did in 15 years.
He wisely hired Tony Cotman to oversee the new cars and engines for 2012, and he and Tony Purnell have come up with a plan to restore some creativity and diversity to the Indy 500.
General Motors and Lotus are joining Honda for 2012, while McLaren, Ferrari and Porsche have all expressed interest in getting involved down the road and Ford is also sniffing around.
For all it’s been through since The Split, the Indianapolis 500 is slowly regaining its swagger. Sure, it hasn’t been a sellout since 1995, but there are still more than 220,000 people there on race day.
It can still make drivers sweat, mechanics cuss and owners cry. And, undoubtedly, the Speedway can still leave a lasting impression on any kid who sees it for the first time and gets smitten.