He started out as a fan and went on to order some tools through a catalog and bought a Formula Ford. There was unused space at the plant of the family company, Chelsea Milling in Chelsea, Mich., where he worked on it.
Thus started the career of Howdy Holmes. He went on to win a Formula Atlantic championship and make six distinguished starts in the Indianapolis 500.
He came on the Indy scene as a rookie in 1979.
“I was the only rookie to make the race,” Holmes said. “There were 14 who tried. The Indy 500 was always serious to me. But my career path was Formula One. There was considerable discussion about putting together an all-American team in Formula One. I went to The (Watkins) Glen in ’79, and everybody asked what I was doing. I didn’t know enough not to say anything and that went away.”
Holmes was a model of consistency at Indianapolis. In his six starts, his best finish was sixth in 1983 and his worst was 13th in 1984. He finished in the top 10 four times.
In 1984, Holmes joined Team McLaren and went to the front of the pack.
“Tom Sneva and myself were with Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, and we started fast, Holmes said. “I was second at Phoenix and tangled with (Bobby) Rahal at Long Beach. But we figured out those March cars better than everyone else early.”
The result was Sneva on the pole at Indianapolis, with Holmes alongside on the front row with a four-lap average of 207.970 mph. But problems struck early.
“At the start of the race, maybe the second or third lap, we had some sort of electrical problem, and the guys changed the black box and checked some other things,” Holmes said. “So I was out of contention.”
Holmes was skilled at all the varied circuits of Indy car racing in the 1980s. But he said oval racing was harder.
“Because the concentration is so much more.” Holmes said. “You’re on a road course, you have depth perception, changes, right and left turns, and you can make up for mistakes. On an oval, you lose momentum, your lap time is gone. You miss a corner on an oval, you’re into the wall.”
The diminutive Holmes also figured he had an advantage over some of his larger-framed competitors.
“Being short is an advantage,” he said. “It doesn’t take as much time for impulses to run from my brain to my foot.”
Today, Holmes is president and CEO of Chelsea Milling, which manufactures Jiffy Mixes, which grocery shoppers see most everywhere. He and his wife, Carole, have a son who also goes by Howdy and is handling marketing and communication for a Pirelli World Challenge team.
The elder Howdy returns to the Speedway each year.
“I come down to the first qualifying weekend and talk to all the mechanics and yellow shirts,” Holmes said. “For the race, I bring some employees down, we sit in Turn 1, and I’m kind of a host.
“Each year, I begin to realize what a big deal it really was to compete in that race.”
question for donlad what is the fastest recorded speed on the front and back stretch at the speedway..i would vebture a guess that it was the pushrod mb. please set me staright and fast !!!
I remember when Howdy was up and coming and Jiffy Mix was used for reasons other than "eating". Nice guy at the after day refreshments at various West Coast tracks...
Enjoyed your article Jan. Thanks for your perspective. Glad to see he is well and still involved some.
84 was my third Indy 500 and I remember even as a kid how much Howdy seemed to be approachable and such a down to earth guy after meeting him. 26 races and 29 years later, I'm glad to see his reputation still precedes him. Great update IMS.
I met Howdy at Michigan when he was driving for Domino's Pizza and Doug Shearson. Howdy took time to talk for about a 1/2 hour that day with me. We talked about Michigan, Indy and a few other race's he had been in. In recent years I have bought his book and read it cover to cover. Class Act and always takes time for anyone. Thanks for the Great Racing memories. Oh and yes we did discuss the wheel getting in to turn one at Michigan shortly after a pit stop long before Howdy and the rest of his ride got there.
Howdy is one class act. I once sent him a handwritten letter at his office there at Jiffy & he sent me back a handwritten card & a nice note along with it. Awesome individual. Hope to meet him in person one day.