The First Time

Published On December 10, 2013 » 8045 Views» By Richard Dowdy » Blogs, Indy 500

Do you remember your first Indianapolis 500 and the thrill of being part of the crowd that packs the Speedway every May? Or hearing Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”? Not to mention the thunder of high-revving engines flying down the front straight to take the green flag?

1991 was my first Indianapolis 500. At the time, I was editor and art director for a car magazine in Southern California. I had a longstanding love of racing. As a kid in Phoenix, my mom would take me to midget and jalopy races, and those early days set the stage for my ongoing interest in racing. I recall as a teenager my mom revealing that a friend (car builder and mechanic Clint Brawner) told her, “Any time you want to go to the 500, let me know and I’ll make it happen.” She said she regretted never taking him up on the offer. I didn’t forget what she told me, and I vowed that someday I would get to Indianapolis for the race.

Back in those younger days, I met Brawner a few times at Manzanita and South Mountain Speedway and at the State Fairgrounds where the USAC roadsters would race on the dirt oval. At the time, I didn’t know Brawner worked for many well-known drivers, including Jimmy Bryan, Troy Ruttman, Bill Vukovich, Eddie Sachs and A.J. Foyt. Brawner was crew chief when Mario Andretti won the “500” in 1969. Back home in Phoenix, he prepared race cars for local driver Bobby Ball, who finished 15th in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1951. In 1953, Bobby was seriously injured in a race accident in Los Angeles and was in a coma.. He was taken home to Phoenix, where he lived across the street from me. His two young sons were friends of mine. One day they took me to a small room in their garage, where a nurse constantly attended their dad. I peered at him lying in bed, motionless. He never regained consciousness and passed away in 1954.

But I digress. After moving to Southern California’s Ocean Beach in the sixth grade, I kept going to dirt-track races in San Diego. While in college, I photographed sports car events at Riverside Raceway. In 1975, I shot the first Long Beach Grand Prix (Formula 5000 cars). I also shot the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix for three years. My love of racing and photography led me eventually to work at a car magazine, where I continued to shoot photos and write stories, always with the thought of someday going to the “500.”

One day in May, my publisher said I should think about going to Indianapolis. I was stoked to hear that. He had gone the previous year and told me all about the experience. I didn’t hesitate. I made a plane reservation and told him I would return with a story and photos of my experience. He said OK.

me at the museum-91

A tourist snapped a photo of me in front of the Hall of Fame Museum

I admit back then I was clueless about how to approach photographing the “500.” First off, I flew into Louisville to miss all the traffic and high costs of hotels and rental cars. I didn’t realize that staying in Scottsburg, near the Indiana/Kentucky border, I was at least an hour-and-a-half away from the track. My next foolish move was to fly in on Thursday before the race, missing a chance to check out the Speedway in detail before the Sunday race. Live and learn – that’s me. I found a clean motel off I-65 in Scottsburg and prepared for Friday’s drive to the track.

The next morning, I left for the Speedway early. Once I got near Indianapolis, I glanced at my map as I drove, not sure where the Speedway was. When I got downtown, I turned onto 16th Street and joined a parade of cars. Then in the distance I saw tops of the grandstands outside Turn One. I stopped the car, got out and took a photo of my first glimpse of the Speedway.

I followed other cars turning into the underpass into the Speedway, and saw the Museum ahead of me. I parked and went straight in and spent about an hour looking at the historic cars and exhibits. It was better than I imagined. Leaving the Museum, I walked to the credential office and got my photo credential, then to the press room behind the Tower Terrace, where I discovered that it was small, cramped and filled with reporters and photographers. About that time, I heard engines come to life and joined several photographers who hustled down to Turn One. I got to the turn and saw for the first time Indy cars zooming around the track. What a thrill! I got some side shots of most of the cars going into Turn One and then simply stood there in awe of the sound, colors and speed as Carb Day roared to life. It was all I expected it to be, and better. Once the cars had completed their runs, I got a pork tenderloin sandwich at the track and left for the convention center downtown and the racing memorabilia show.

Once inside the convention center, I rummaged through some old photos and bought a few, along with some model cars. That’s when I heard that 1952 “500” winner Troy Ruttman was in the building signing autographs. I bought a photo from a vendor and got in a short line and had Troy sign it. I talked with him for a bit before driving south to the motel. Seeing and talking to Ruttman was really cool.

Saturday I got up early and drove deep into Southern Indiana, shooting photos of barns and scenery. Once again I was clueless as to what was going on at the track (the drivers’ meeting was Saturday morning), and the 500 Festival Parade with all 33 drivers in attendance was downtown. I should have gone.

Sunday morning I was up before dawn and off to the races. Rather than driving to the track and trying to park, I went downtown and parked on the street and took the IndyGo bus to the track. When I got off on Main Street and walked to Georgetown and 16th, I was overwhelmed by the crowd. I had never been in such a large group, as we shuffled through the gates to the infield. I went straight to Turn One again – I was familiar with the location and thought that there would be a lot of action there. What surprised me was about a 4-foot fence at Turn One, and that photographers were lined up in front of the fence, with only a small bank that sloped down to a creek bed. I talked with some of the photographers, and an old timer told me the shallow ditch was called Dry Run Creek. From the creek to the track was all open space, giving us an unobstructed view of the entry into the first turn and on into the south short chute.

Starting in the front row were Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, each of them Indianapolis 500 winners. As the cars came around in formation, I began shooting. I had brought plenty of film and was not concerned about running out. When the green flag dropped, the crowd roared in approval, nearly drowning out the sound of the accelerating racecars. Out of my view in Turn One, Gary Bettenhausen’s car spun. Buddy Lazier, trying to avoid the car, hit the wall in the short chute as I fired off a quick 36 shots. The first lap, and the first caution! I was ready with a fresh roll of film as I waited for the green flag to resume the race.

mears leads michael andretti

Mears leads Michael Andretti

I stood in Turn One for the entire 200 laps, photographing cars as they sped by me. With 20 laps to go, it was a seesaw battle between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti, with Mears finally taking the lead and winning his fourth Indianapolis 500. A great day’s racing for Rick, and the same for me at my first “500.”

I trudged through the slow-moving crowd back to Main Street, where long lines of fans waited for the buses to take us downtown. It was standing room only on the bus, and my feet were sore, my legs rubbery from not eating and with little water to drink. When the bus deposited us downtown, I started walking to my rental car when I realized I had no idea where I had parked. I wandered through downtown streets for more than an hour, up one and down another, until it started getting dark. How stupid can you be? I parked on a street in dawn’s near-darkness, and was thinking only of the race ahead of me. I didn’t think to note the name of the street where I left my car. I had gotten on the bus at a corner near Union Station, but had no clue as to where the car was. Finally, as I trudged east along Pennsylvania Avenue, thinking that I might just get a hotel room downtown and resume the search in the morning, in the distance I saw a single car a couple of blocks ahead. It was my car. I was never so relieved, and never felt so stupid.

The next day I was on the plane for California, with a load of undeveloped film, a dream fulfilled and knew that I’d be back next year.

This past May 2013, I photographed my 22nd 500-mile race. I can’t wait for next May, when I’ll be back again, while looking ahead to 2016 and the celebration of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. That’s an event you shouldn’t miss!


About The Author

Richard Dowdy

From a diverse background as a magazine editor, art director, writer, photographer and co-owner of Studio 2055 (a branding/web design studio), Richard blends eclectic array of expertise with his varied interests that include popular culture and film. He was editor/art director for Surfing magazine, a writer at Capitol Records and is the author of two nonfiction books. As a writer for TV’s the X-Files he created the script for a live-action game and a digital encyclopedia of the first four seasons of the show. For the past eighteen years, he has worked as a staff photographer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.