This is an occasional series spotlighting the men and women who work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For more “People of IMS,” click here.
With Ryan Hunter-Reay leading the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on May 25, 2014, the caution flag came out on Lap 191. Townsend Bell made hard contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier, soon causing Race Control to throw the red flag and bring the race to a complete halt.
Enter Forrest “Bud” Tucker and his crew.
Tucker is the only welder on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway staff and he’s kept busy year-round working in anonymity while repairing fences, stands and machinery on the IMS grounds. However, there are rare occasions when Tucker and his crew are the most important members of the IMS staff and the focal point of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The pressure fell on Tucker to lead the repair job that had to be done as quickly as possible. Bell’s crash tore a hole in the SAFER Barrier wall and Tucker and his crew were called upon to quickly make the repairs before action on the track could resume.
Just 10 minutes and 27 seconds later, it did. The race restarted with the efforts of Tucker and his crew serving as the prelude to a dramatic duel to the finish between Hunter-Reay and three-time winner Helio Castroneves that ended with Hunter-Reay winning by the second-closest margin in race history.
“We practice for that,” Tucker said. “We put steel plates or patches over the SAFER barrier wall, and we actually came up with the idea to weld two patches together in case of a long tear because the Indy cars sometimes cut the wall and it can be a fairly long 4- or 5-foot tear. In already knowing this from years past, we’ll weld two pieces of steel plate together so we’ll have a longer piece to cover a tear and we carry those long pieces just in case.”
“We kind of get a really quick game plan as we look at the tear and decide what size patch to use, and as we pull up we usually already have a plan as to what we’re going to do before the truck stops. That particular day, myself and another guy grabbed the patch as the two welders were putting on their gloves and helmets, and two of us are getting the material over there. Once we set the patch down, the welders come in behind us and I jump on the truck and start the welders, and I stay there and monitor the gauges to make sure everything is running properly. While the welding is going on I’m coordinating with Race Control, whose always wanting to know how much longer it’ll take us to finish, and I’m assessing what my guys are doing and how much longer it’ll take them to finish, and I can usually get it pretty close. When they red flagged the race, we pulled up and the welders were ready to go and we chose the piece we needed. It was a really long tear and we had the piece ready to go, so we were able to get the piece on there, weld it and throw our stuff back on the truck, and it only took us seven minutes.
“We focused on the task and it was right next to the Turn 2 suites, so the fans were right there and the balconies were right there, and they’re full and they were like our little cheering section. It was pretty intense, but you don’t want to think about where you’re at or the overall circumstances. You just do the job you practice for and we went in and got the job done and got away from it and got off the track. It was real exciting and I was really proud of our welding crew because we were under extreme pressure and we went out there and got it done.”
Tucker, who started coming to IMS while in fifth grade when his mother would drop him off for a fun-filled day at the track, started his career as an ironworker and welder in 1978. He worked in construction for 27 years — which included carpentry and concrete work — and while with Summit Construction he found himself doing occasional work at IMS. Acquaintances that Tucker made with IMS staff members eventually led to him being hired in 2004 as the facilities department welder, which includes fabrication work and repairing vehicles and other equipment.
When Tucker isn’t busy with his many tasks at IMS, he puts his welding and other skills to work as an accomplished abstractive artist, which provides the vehicle to express himself using media such as wood, stone, steel, glass, cast bronze, iron and aluminum.
“I love art as most children love art with drawing or coloring or whatever, and I’ve always been good with my hands,” Tucker said. “As most people do, you do what you have to do to raise your family, and my wife and I raised three children and when they got older and started moving out I began to pick up more of what I enjoyed doing. I started wood carving in 1999, and that’s probably my favorite.
“Then I started to experiment and I started to mix wood things with aluminum, and the media that I work with depends on the sculpture I have in mind and what I want to accomplish, whether it’s wood, metal, or stone. I have an image and a thought of what I want to do and I don’t really limit myself to one media. I do whatever needs to be done to accomplish my sculpture that I’m trying to complete and that’s how I choose the materials. The original thought for a sculpture always evolves into something else, and then it kind of takes on its own life and it’ll end up completely different from what the original thought was.”
Although many who have seen Tucker’s work admire what he does for its quality and uniqueness, he’s not necessarily looking to profit from it monetarily.
“I’ve never sold anything,” he said. “A lot I’ve given away to church charity auctions and an aluminum-fabricated IMS Wing and Wheel piece that I made in 2008 I donated for the Sam Schmidt Foundation last year; that’s a cause pretty close to my heart and we’re going to support that cause any way we can. So now I’m trying to think what I can do for them this year.
“We don’t have a business and we don’t sell anything, but that could change as I get closer to retirement. If that happens it happens, but if it doesn’t, I’m fine. Sometimes when people put their passion into a business it becomes work. If that happens, I’ll guard it so it doesn’t turn into a job. I thought about maybe putting a few things in a gallery.”
As Tucker continues to determine what the future will be for his many artistic abilities, he still appreciates the opportunity to apply his skills at the world’s greatest racecourse.
“Being a part of the long history of the place and realizing that there were people before me that are no longer there, and now I’m here in their place and eventually someone will come in and take my place, and it’ll keep going after we’re gone,” Tucker said. “We’ve got a short little part in the long history — sometimes you can forget what an honor it is to work here. You get caught up in the work and you forget where you’re working until Race Day.
“We’re all caretakers of this great place for a few years and as long as we always move forward and make improvements and leave it better than when we got there, that’s what we’re here for.”
To see more of Forrest “Bud” Tucker’s artwork, visit: www.tuckeratelier.com