My dad said he took me as a nearly 5-year-old when Bill Holland won in 1949. Then in 1958 I knew enough about the event that Hoosier Pat O’Connor was my favorite driver and was killed in the second race I attended. That race is etched in my memory because the Indianapolis 500 brings great glory and unforgettable tragedy.
Growing up in Speedway, I never imagined writing about 50 Indianapolis 500s. Through the years I have written about the race for The Nashville (Tenn.) Banner, Franklin (Ind.) Daily Journal, “Stock Car Racing” and “Open Wheel” magazines, Carl Hungness’ “Indianapolis 500 Yearbooks” and “Racing Cars” magazine plus several local newspapers, particularly The Southsider Voice.
For the past 19 years I have been part of the Indy 500 News Bureau, which was founded by former Michigan International Speedway news director Jan Shaffer, and most recently with the Speedway’s trackside report team.
In 1967 I was working on my masters at Western Kentucky University, where I had served four years as the college’s first undergraduate assistant to the sports information director. At the final home football game I was informed by Banner sports writer Mike Fleming that he was leaving the paper and they would hold the job for me for two days.
With a 10-month old girl and my wife, Jane, from Greenwood, we made the short drive to Music City. I agreed on a salary and was assigned auto racing (mostly NASCAR and Indy 500 pole weekend and race) and college sports beats.
Brash-speaking Bobby Unser won the first 500 I covered in 1968, still a blur. I wrote a pre-race column on famed Formula One team boss Colin Chapman and then mostly about Graham Hill, Art Pollard and little-known Gordon Johncock, who was a tough interview because he was short with words until he trusted you.
The crowded press room in 1968 was inside a small one-story building south of Gasoline Alley. The wooden garages with open doors made driver access easy. Typewritten stories were filed through Western Union or by calling the sports department and dictating a story – just like in those old movies.
We had the perfect view from a front stretch underhang below the penthouse seats for a breathtaking view of the start.
In 1969 I met 500 rookie team owner Roger Penske and his driver, Mark Donohue. I had met a Nashville (Tenn.) car dealer a few blocks from The Banner and he wanted me to say hello to Penske for him. I wrote a column on Penske and his team’s immaculate image. Many media members picked Donohue to win the race that Mario Andretti captured in a backup STP Hawk.
I have always respected Penske, and here’s why. I had not seen him at all until returning to the Speedway in May 1970. He asked me how things were in Nashville, which absolutely floored me that he had that kind of memory. Last year at a Penske team/media luncheon, he introduced me to two of his Australian team drivers as “having been with me since Day 1” at the 500.
Odd how I wound up writing annually about the 500 for SCR. I had covered a couple of NASCAR and Midwestern stock car races for them and began writing a column, succeeding Southport’s Ray Marquette. I met the publisher of SCR the day after the 1970 race; he was a bit hungover and looking for an editor, a position I turned down due to the cost of living in the East. He then wanted me to do the race story. Luckily the day-after winner’s photos of Al Unser Jr. were still being taken on the front stretch so I interviewed him for a story that was assigned to me the morning after.
The 1973 race proved that Johncock was star-crossed. He was in the middle of a divorce that was made public after he won. The race was the most devastating of any 500 I have covered.
Art Pollard was killed in a crash in practice. Johncock’s STP teammate Swede Savage suffered fatal burns in a horrifying Turn 4 crash and STP crew member Armando Teran was killed in a subsequent pit lane accident.
The race took three days to run and it ended in the rain after 133 laps.
On the first day, Salt Walther was injured in an upside-down crash on the front stretch. A.J. Foyt avoided Walther’s airborne car by jumping the start and going under it. Rain later forced a postponement. The next day USAC fined Foyt $100. I was among six writers who approached Foyt’s garage that morning. Most of us expected to see a hot-tempered driver, but I stuck my head inside the garage door and asked him if he had time to talk to us. Foyt not only obliged but he told us that his move probably saved his life. And then he talked about his horse farm and maybe returning with an enclosed cockpit race car. Rain thankfully ended the race the next day; there was no victory dinner, no joy.
Leading to the 1990s
In 1976 I wrote a feature on pace car driver Marty Robbins, a popular country and western singer who also raced in Nashville, Tenn., and several NASCAR Grand National races. Johnny Rutherford won as rained poured after 102 laps. After the race I walked into Johncock’s garage, where he smiled and said that “the monkey’s off my back,” no longer the winner of the shortest 500.
The next year became the most historic race I had covered, more so than last year’s 100th running. Foyt became the first four-time winner; Janet Guthrie was first woman to race in the 500; pole winner Tom Sneva officially broke the 200 mph barrier; and it was the last 500 for Tony Hulman, who died Oct. 27.
Personally, three events in the’90s stand out: Emerson Fittipaldi’s passion for racing; Greenwood Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee Jonathan Byrd discovered Rich Vogler in midget racing at Speedrome and backed him with rides in the 500; and the illegal marijuana smuggling activities of 1986 Rookie of the Year Randy Lanier.
Two-time Formula One champ Fittipaldi was a 500 rookie in 1984. By then I was writing about all the rookies and engines for the “500 Yearbooks.”
Fittipaldi came to Indy with an unknown car owner and a non-competitive pink car. After practice one day we sat on the pit wall and, for the first time during an interview, I realized how passionate he was to compete in the 500. He virtually lit up when he talked about the 500; the gleam in his eyes was unmistakable.
Byrd owned and sponsored figure-8 stock cars at the Indianapolis Speedrome, where occasional doubleheaders with USAC Regional Midgets were held. Vogler’s daring deeds on the one-fifth mile paved oval caught Byrd’s attention, who signed him to race midget cars.
Byrd arranged a 500 ride for Vogler by pairing with team owner Alex Morales in 1985. Byrd teamed with different owners for four more races; their best finish together was eighth in 1989. Vogler died a few months later that year in a sprint car accident at Salem Speedway.
Byrd co-sponsored John Andretti in 1984, first time for doing The Double on the same day, racing in the 500 and later in the 600 at Charlotte, N.C. Byrd died in 2009. Two sons, David and Jonathan II, and Byrd’s widow, Ginny, revived the team with USAC driver Bryan Clauson, a Vogler clone, in 2015 and 2016. Clauson briefly led last year’s 500 but was killed in a racing accident later in the year.
Stunned by this second tragedy, the Byrd family did not hook up with another car owner for this year’s race. Our prayers go out to Andretti, a Speedrome graduate who’s fighting colon cancer.
Road racing veteran Lanier burst into the 500 in 1986. Unknown at the time, Lanier also had a darker side. In the late ’70s the Floridian had launched a growing multimillion dollar marijuana smuggling and distribution ring with stash houses in Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. He eventually was arrested after fleeing the United States, found guilty in a jury trial in late 1988 and was the first to be sentenced under a new federal continuing criminal enterprise law. He was released from federal prison recently.
I wrote a two-part series for “Open Wheel” magazine about Lanier’s racing and drug smuggling.
Turbulence and opportunity
A new decade featured the split between Tony George’s novice Indy Racing League and well-established CART. George said he believed that IndyCar racing expenses were out of hand and preventing some USAC car owners from moving into major league racing. CART owners stuck together, boycotted the 500 in 1996 and ran a rival 500 at Michigan International Speedway.
The rift opened a path to be even more active in covering the 500. After the 1996 race, former MIS news director Jan Shaffer realized that the strong CART public relations entourage no longer existed at IMS. He and team publicist Lynda Havens formed the Indy 500 News Bureau with the blessing of the Speedway’s Fred Nation. I was the first motor sports writer asked to join the group.
We occupied a small corner of the old press building and hung a “Rebels” sign above our area. Because of my Speedrome schedule, I was to write about drivers from Western states and eventually New Zealand and appropriately Great Britain (my wife was born in Oxford).
Some special memories with drivers and owners:
• Needed a ghost-writer name to write stories to assist Byrd and Vogler in their first 500 together. Havens, Shaffer and team owner Carl Haas were on hand in Speedway Motel 500 lounge for the “birth” of “B.J. Turner” over drinks.
• Interview with Scott Goodyear during 1999 race: After engine problems he returned to his garage, where I met him for driver-written column. We were watching the race on TV and talking when Greg Ray hit the inside wall of the pits, which began a quick shuffle – had to hook up with Ray for yet another driver-written column.
• Our group occupied the back row of the new Media Center, where I would store a box with printed press kits, transcripts of interviews, record books and team reports on a back shelf. Walking back to that location after a practice day in 2005, I noticed a couple of Japanese reporters shuffling through the box. I had known driver Roger Yasukawa for a couple of years, so the next day I had him write “keep out of this box” in Japanese on paper. I taped the paper to the top of the box, which the reporters never opened again.
• Interviews with rookie Danica Patrick in 2005 were set at certain times immediately after each practice day with TV reporters first and then print reporters. A TV reporter from Dayton, Ohio, kept asking her about being a female, modeling and racing, going out of his way to get a verbal rise from her. Patrick, exasperated over his questions, finally said, “Well, you know I am a girl.”
• Dario Franchitti was always a good interview and a teammate of Scott Dixon. When they raced for Chip Ganassi Racing, I often interviewed them in succession after practice. Franchitti was married to actress Ashley Judd, who was trackside to support her husband and not as a celebrity. A true Kentucky girl, she took her shoes off and ran barefoot in the rain to join her husband in Victory Lane after he won the rain-shortened 2007 race.
• I Would usually catch West Coast driver Bryan Herta for a walk-and-talk interview in Gasoline Alley for articles for Los Angeles. This became a habit and he turned to me and said, “My day isn’t over until I talk to you.”
• Driver Justin Wilson, who died while racing at Pocono (Penn.) Speedway in 2015, was special because of his dyslexia. We talked several times about dyslexia, not racing, because my granddaughter Katie Stevens of North Carolina has severe dyslexia. I constantly appraised him of her progress from a child who could not read or write. She graduates from high school in June as an honor roll student.
• Dixon has been phenomenal in his growth as a rookie to a 500 winner and multiple-series champion. I began reporting on him to New Zealand during his early years at the Speedway. I am impressed that he has become the prime driver spokesman for the Verizon IndyCar Series. He still gives me an occasional ride on his golf cart back to Gasoline Alley.
Our news bureau group also carries on in memory of Havens, who died July 2012, and close friend and writer Ron LeMasters Sr., who died in 2015. Our news bureau group includes veteran Todd Glenn of Bedford, Andrew Smith of Greenfield, Bert Bieswanger and veteran announcer Pat Sullivan plus coordinator Annisa Rainey of Brownsburg.
Obviously, I could not have enjoyed covering 49 Indianapolis 500s or all the motor sports events nationally and in Canada without the love and support of my cherished wife.