My personal journey to the Indianapolis 500 began before I could even realize it.
It was way back in the early 1960s when I was too young to remember most things growing up in the Northern Indiana community of Koontz Lake. The youngest of five kids, I was the last of the line for a hardworking ironworker named Homer Martin. At that time in America, it wasn’t unusual for a family to have five kids, although today it would probably be scrutinized for one reason or another. But it was a great time to be a kid because my mother, Dorothy, was a full-time mom and housewife, so I had the traditional “Leave it to Beaver” type of upbringing.
My father taught me several things that I take with me today, among them how to be a sports fan and the other was to hate the Chicago Cubs, which I continue to do to this day. Going to a baseball game in Chicago meant the South Side – Comiskey Park – home of the Chicago White Sox.
Dad wasn’t much of a gearhead, which may seem strange since I would be interested in high-speed racing machinery. The 1959 Ford served as the family car until the 1964 Ford made its way into the driveway for a brief time. He kept it for about a year but noticed the aqua-colored paint scheme was two-toned upon closer inspection of the front fender and the rest of the car. So it wasn’t long before a gold-colored Ford Custom 500 became the new family ride.
When I was just over 1 year old, my oldest sister, Nancy, began her freshman year at Indiana University in 1960. She would soon meet a boy who graduated from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis named Jim, and that is how my interest in the Indianapolis 500 began.
Jim had been attending the Indianapolis 500 for years with his father, and whenever my sister and her boyfriend would come to visit, I would hear him talk about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and that year’s race. He also talked about his favorite driver when he was growing up, although I thought the name sounded a bit odd.
Remember, I was quite young at the time, so the memories are like old black-and-white snapshots that have faded over time, but that is when my curiosity began about the Indianapolis 500.
As Nancy and Jim became more serious, they decided to marry in 1963. She attended her first Indianapolis 500 with Jim in 1962 to witness the second of Rodger Ward’s two Indy 500 wins. I remember the name Parnelli Jones being mentioned as a mere youngster, and I wondered what this big event they talked about was all about.
As a 5-year-old in 1964, I experienced the danger that existed at the Indianapolis 500 at that time. I’ll never forget the front-page headline in the May 31 edition of The South Bend Tribune that said “Sachs, MacDonald Die at Indianapolis 500.” Underneath the headline was a picture of this huge fireball on the frontstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with spectators just behind the flames.
Remember, this was the 1960s. It was a different era where the working man of that time had fought in World War II and returned home to build the United States into an economic power. These brave men had seen death face-to-face in their battles in Europe and the South Pacific. It was also during the Cold War where a youngster’s toys were tanks and planes and warships and toy guns – something far different than today’s society. We even played cowboys and indians – something that would likely get us kicked out of public school today.
The point is I was fascinated at both the headline and the photo. The element of danger at the Indianapolis 500 was part of its lure; that brave men would willingly strap themselves into fuel-filled bombs that raced around the track at over 150 mph. This was also a time of the Space Race, and I made sure I was in front of the television set every time a Project Gemini launch was about to happen from the newly-renamed Cape Kennedy.
Race drivers in the Indianapolis 500 were in the same category of bravery as John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Frank Borman, John White, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell or any of the other astronauts of that era who displayed “The Right Stuff.”
Even though I lived in the same state as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it may as well have been as far away as the moon. My father had little interest in ever attending the race and would have probably found the entire experience to be more or an expensive, day-long headache than anything else.
The closest I was ever going to get to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a kid was when we traveled from Northern Indiana to Bloomington to visit my sister and her husband. It was always a highlight of the four-hour car ride to be on I-465 and see the Speedway exit for Crawfordsville Road as I looked out the window from the back seat of the old Gold ’65 Ford Custom 500 drove on by in what was literally a “so close, yet so far away” moment for me.
I would also notice something unique that happened in the spring when a bright orange temporary road sign would be placed on I-465 that said “500 Track Next Two Exits.”
Somewhere around the mid-1960s, however, I remember my brother David would turn on a radio every Memorial Day, and I could actually hear the race. It was Sid Collins’ voice on the “World’s Largest Radio Network” telling the world about what was going on in the Indianapolis 500 with the roaring sounds of engines in the background. To me, it had all the drama of a Titan II rocket with a Gemini capsule and two astronauts on board. To hear this event on the radio was a bigger-than-life experience as we fired up the old charcoal grill for a Memorial Day cookout.
David was the next-closest to me in age but was 6 years older than me. He was lucky enough to go to Indianapolis 500 “Time Trials” as it was known back then in 1966 and 1967 with Jim. I was considered too young at the time to go on such a journey – perhaps my parents were wise enough to have heard about the “Snake Pit” and didn’t think that an 8-year-old should see such things. And this was back in the days when “anything goes” in the Snake Pit.
More than likely, it was just a case that I was too young to attend an all-day and all-weekend event such as this.
I remember when the Channel 2 News in Chicago had as the lead story the start of the Indianapolis 500 and this massive crash in 1966. I was fascinated at the pictures of wheels flying in the air and the sight of A.J. Foyt climbing over the fence. Despite the massive crash at the start, Foyt suffered the only injury – a cut on his thumb from climbing the fence.
Way back then, there were only three ways to see the Indianapolis 500. The first was to be part of the massive throng of 300,000 fans that filled the grandstands and the infield. The other was to go to a theater that had a closed-circuit telecast from MCA of the race. And the third option was to wait about four weeks after the race when ABC finally showed it on “Wide World of Sports.”
Every Saturday after the race, I would make sure to have the TV on “Wide World of Sports” only to be disappointed that it wasn’t on that weekend’s show. I got my fill of track and field, lumberjack competitions and the demolition derby from Islip Speedway in Islip, N.Y., featuring Chris Economaki before the right weekend came around with the Indianapolis 500. Little did I know that decades later I would actually work for Economaki at National Speed Sport News, and he would become a journalistic mentor.
But this is how I saw the STP Turbine and Parnelli Jones coming four laps short of winning the 1967 race before an engine bearing failed leaving his car stranded at the north end of the track. I remember a few weeks earlier that was who my brother David wanted to win the race. Instead, it was Foyt who claimed his third Indy 500 win. I also remember Foyt on the cover of Sports Illustrated after that third victory.
It was also how I knew about Bobby Unser’s 1968 win when another turbine-powered car driven by Joe Leonard conked out near the end of the race.
I had another sister named Linda who had married a bright, young engineer for General Electric in Fort Wayne, Ind., named Ron Krol in 1967. They, too, had attended the Indianapolis 500, and I remember his favorite driver was Mario Andretti.
There was tremendous glamour attached to Mario Andretti. He looked like a movie star and had all the allure of James Bond.
Linda and Ron came up to Koontz Lake for Memorial Day in 1969, and I remember as a 10-year-old that Ron had the Indy 500 on the radio in his car when Mario Andretti won the race for his only triumph at Indy. Ron was excited that his favorite driver had finally won the Indianapolis 500.
By 1970, I used to anxiously await the delivery of the afternoon paper to the house – The South Bend Tribune – so I could read about what had happened at the Indianapolis 500 in practice and qualifications. An ambitious kid, I got to know the sports editor of the Plymouth Pilot News named Harold Lowe, who was a huge Indy 500 supporter and covered the race despite the small size of the Pilot News. He even had a Firestone tire from the rear wheel of an Indy car with glass on top to make it a coffee table.
Something grand happened in 1971 when ABC decided to show same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500. Again, Linda and Ron were up to visit, and I got to hear the race live on the radio when we made a trip to South Bend on a Saturday afternoon. Then that night we got to watch the race on ABC.
No more waiting for weeks to actually see it – we only had to wait until that night.
And it was a fascinating experience filled with some spectacular crashes and daring racing as Al Unser won his second straight Indianapolis 500.
The next night, believe it or not, my father along with Ron and I went to Plymouth Speedway for a Sunday night Memorial Day Weekend race. It’s the first time I ever recall my dad being interested in something like that.
When Richard Nixon was president, Memorial Day was moved from May 30 to the last Monday of the month of May. From 1970-72, the Indianapolis 500 was contested on a Saturday. Tony Hulman, the owner of the Speedway, did not want to run it on a Sunday out of respect to the local churches in Indianapolis. So it was a Saturday afternoon when Mark Donohue gave team owner Roger Penske his first victory in the Indianapolis 500. Gary Bettenhausen could have won the race before his engine blew up while leading on Lap 176. That put Jerry Grant into the lead, but he was penalized for his final pit stop when the crew refueled Grant’s car out of teammate Bobby Unser’s fuel tank. Grant finished second on the track, but the penalty dropped him to 12th place for his ill-fated pit stop on Lap 188, as all laps after that pit stop were not credited to Grant.
In 1973, IMS officials decided to schedule the Indianapolis 500 on the actual Memorial Day Monday, and it proved to be a grim experience because of rain and a horrifying crash at the start of the race on a Monday before it rained again that day. It rained on Tuesday, and the race was finally held on Wednesday. Sadly, it was another grim day when Swede Savage crashed in the fourth turn and a crew member was killed when he was hit by a safety vehicle. Gordon Johncock was in the lead when the race was finally stopped for more rain and was declared the winner in a race that nobody celebrated. ABC was on the air all three nights, and I made sure to watch every night.
By now, I was 14 and more than old enough to experience the Indy 500 for myself. But few of my friends were interested or had the means to go to the Indy 500, and my father simply wasn’t going to go, even if he could get tickets.
By 1974, the Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for Sunday after Hulman got the blessing of local churches in Indianapolis. I remember rushing out of church at 11 a.m. to make sure I could hear the start of the race on the radio.
The year 1977 was special for me because I graduated from Oregon-Davis High School on May 22, and the following week A.J. Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 on May 29. It was a historic moment that had been highly anticipated since Foyt won his third Indy 500 in 1967.
I would attend Indiana University beginning in 1977 and begin my path to a journalism degree. As a liberal arts school, the Indy 500 wasn’t something that was at the forefront of many students minds although many of the 500 Festival Queens and Princesses were IU students. The school year ended in early May at IU, and with the race at the end of the month, many of us were already scattered across the country to return home for the summer.
Over the next few years, though, I was determined that I would one day make it to the Indianapolis 500. To me, it was Indy 500 or bust.
I came close in 1980, nearly talking some of my friends in Plymouth, Ind., to leaving town on a Saturday night to party all night outside the Speedway gates and go into the infield before they changed their mind.
Finally, in 1981, I made sure that one way or another I was going to the Indianapolis 500. I had a few college buddies of mine from South Bend that were already going to the race, so I joined in. We met on the northside of Indianapolis where we attended a house party before making the trek to 38th Street and Lafayette Road. I was amazed that traffic had come to a complete stop at Lafayette and 30th Street. We were still several miles from the “North 40” as it was called back then. It was midnight, and the gates would not open until 5 a.m.
The atmosphere was like Woodstock must have been, with tens of thousands of people all with the same goal – getting into the infield at 5 a.m. and staking out a spot for the Indy 500.
There would be no sleep this night, just the raucous atmosphere as the line of traffic crept along before the aerial bomb exploded at 5 a.m. signaling the opening of the gates. It would be another 1 1/2 hours before we made it through the tunnel, and it was still like the Oklahoma Land Rush as cars sped through the infield grass to find a location to park.
I got as close to the fence inside of the fourth turn and threw down the blanket at 7 a.m. The race was still four hours away, and that is when the all-nighter began to hit. But the sights and sounds were amazing as fans continued to drink and fire up the grill. Nothing like seeing pork chops, ribs and burgers being cooked and consumed at 7 a.m.
There was plenty happening in the infield to keep us entertained as the Cavalcade of Bands marched around the track and the booming voice of Tom Carnegie was on the public address system. As 11 a.m. neared, the traditional ceremonies began, although from our vantage point you couldn’t see them.
Finally, the command was given to start engines and the sound of 33 engines could be heard off in the distance.
It wasn’t until the first parade lap that 22 years of waiting became a reality as the Pace Cars drove by with the field of 33 cars from behind. The sight, the sounds and the color were incredible. It sounded like a beehive that had been amplified 10,000 times with a few stock-block Chevrolets thrown in. And this was just the parade lap.
The pace quickened on the Pace Lap until finally, the race was about to begin.
The first time by the cars were so fast and so loud it was hard to imagine there were actually men strapped inside of each one. It was an adrenalin rush I had waited a lifetime to experience. It was when the Indianapolis 500 became an addiction to me.
I would pay close attention for the entire race although I could only see the inside of Turn 4. Bobby Unser would go on to win in controversy for his third Indy 500 victory. I jumped in the car after the race and drove back to Koontz Lake hoping to get home in time to see the race again on ABC. This way, I would find out what had happened on the other parts of the racetrack – something those of us in the infield only knew about by listening on the radio.
I had finally made it to my first Indianapolis 500 although I knew at the time it would not be my last. The next year, I went to Pole Day for the first time. I would return to the same spot in the infield for the 1982 race and vividly remember seeing Rick Mears cut into Gordon Johncock’s lead each lap over the final 10 trips about the oval. I’ll never forget the crowd reaction to that race which turned out to be the closest Indy 500 finish at that time.
I thought I would be attending the Indy 500 every year but after getting my degree in journalism from Indiana University in 1982, my career path took me to North Carolina where instead, I would be covering NASCAR. Every Memorial Day weekend, I was covering a race, but it was the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I remember getting smart-ass cracks from the old-school NASCAR media at the time for listening to the Indy 500 on the radio from the CMS Press Box.
I consider those years my time in auto racing purgatory. I would finally get my release when a new NBA franchise came to Charlotte known as the Hornets. I became the beat writer, and when I cut my deal with the sports editor, I would be allowed to cover the Indianapolis 500. He reluctantly agreed, and I returned to cover the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 1989 from one of the best views in all of racing – the old press box that hung below the Penthouse seats on the frontstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I haven’t missed an Indianapolis 500 since, covering every race from 1989 until today for such outlets as United Press International, ESPN SportsTicker, National Speed Sport News, SportsIllustrated.com and in my current role on Race Day on ESPN Radio and for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.com, among others. Since 2010, I have assisted Fox59 Indianapolis in its coverage of the Month of May. From a sporting perspective, Race Day at the Indianapolis 500 is as big as Christmas when I was a kid.
After all, my Indy 500 or Bust moment began when I was just a kid, too young to even realize what it was all about.