If you happen to get a hold of a copy of the 1988 Carlmont High School yearbook from Belmont, Calif., turn to the section for seniors and look me up.
You’ll find an entry in my hand-written senior will that reads “Look for me at Indy in 10yrs,” which, despite its nerdy undertones, proved to be rather prophetic.
16 year old Marshall Pruett at the SCCA Regionals.
I grew up at my father’s shop “Pruett’s Olde English Garage” in the San Francisco Bay Area, and with his background as an amateur racer and race car mechanic, it wasn’t long before I was filled with visions of driving and turning wrenches.
I’d grown up with a passion for motor racing, and the Indy 500 in particular. With my father and grandfather constantly regaling me with tales of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti at the Speedway, they became instant heroes.
We’d listen to the “500” on the radio in the late 1970s—wish I could say why it wasn’t televised where we were—and to be honest, it added to my reverie for the race. Hearing the announcers describe the races was a far better experience than seeing it live. My imagination took over and conjured my own version of the races. What a blessing.
A few years earlier, one of my earliest memories involves being dragged to races with my dad in 1973—sitting in the unpaved upper paddock section at Sears Point (about where the first two or three pit boxes are now located near Turn 1)—and helping him pick rocks from his racing tires. I loved helping him, enjoyed being useful, got a thrill from being around racing cars and that experience, even at such a young age, crystalized something inside of me.
I was soon promoted to using Windex and paper towels to clean things, and by my teens, my cleaning talents were being shopped to a local pro racing team.
By the time I turned 16, I’d become a “gofer” for an SCCA Pro Super Vee team, which involved my first stint on the road attending races. I was underage; you had to be 18 to get into the pits, but that wasn’t a limiting factor—not with Super Vees serving as a regular support series for the CART Indy car organization… I wanted to be there and found a way to skirt the rules.
While I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, I would not have changed a thing.
Having started out in an open-wheel training series, I worked my way up the ladder as a mechanic from Super Vee, adding stops in F2000, Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights through the 1996 season. Met a couple of Brazilians guys who came to America to race Lights that year…some Castro-Neves dude and his pal Antoine Kanaan. Not sure where they ended up…
It took the Genoa Racing Atlantic and Lights team to partner with one of its former drivers, Greg Ray, to put together a program to compete in the first season of the new-look Indy Racing League for me to get my shot at the Indy 500 in 1997.
The team, which was based in the Bay Area, bought a Dallara IR07 chassis from A.J. Foyt (he bought Dallaras, then decided he liked G-Forces a bit better and ditched the Italian-made cars), acquired Oldsmobile engines built by NAC out of Chicago, and, as simple as it sounds, a new IRL team was up and running.
Forget struggling to get an engine lease, spare parts prices or any of the other concerns that face IndyCar Series steams today. Bought a car. Bought two engines. Did a deal with our old friends Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri from Firestone—folks we’d known from Indy Lights, and out little Lights team was now an IRL program headed for its series debut…at the ’97 Indy 500!
Ray was brimming with confidence, our team manager/engineer Thomas Knapp was also never short on confidence, and with an exceptional (but small) team of mechanics and crew, we were fast right out of the box. Dallara, with help from Andrea Toso and Sam Garrett, were incredibly helpful with setup suggestions and data.
As our assistant team manager and data engineer, I multitasked just like everyone else and shared in the collective disbelief that a little band of Lights veterans could rock up to 16th & Georgetown and play with the big boys.
It was, by no means, the most beloved era of racing at IMS, but it helped launch a lot of careers like my own and a lot of teams that otherwise would never have been allowed onto the premises.
We broke a water pump and didn’t last long during the race, then came back in 1998 and made a name for ourselves by qualifying on the middle of the front row in a sponsor-less car.
Our sponsor, who’d promised to deliver a check for $250,000 before the start of practice, failed to deliver, and with the team loaded into the garages, our only hope was to run hard and try to attract attention.
We’d continued to use NAC engines…which failed on a regular basis and made minimal horsepower, but it ended up being just what we needed during the first few days of on-track activity.
Knowing we had limited laps available with our engines, we worked hard at perfecting the Dallara’s handling. Our lap speeds were abysmal, and whatever we did in the corners, the car did down the straights.
With the reality of packing up and going home becoming a very real proposition, I flagged down Indianapolis Star reporter Curt Cavin, who kindly did a story for the next day on our team being broke and close to heading home.
The next morning, a Yellow Shirt came by and handed me a $20 bill. “It isn’t much, but buy the boys some sandwiches with it” was his instruction. He also gave me his business card.
I had a dumb idea that I hoped would stretch his $20 bill a lot farther. Knowing that most photographers walk along the outside of each pit box at Indy—the right side of the car, I took his card and the cash and used clear tape to affix it to the top of the sidepod.
My hope was that the shooters passing by would see the strange combo of an Indy car and cash on display, take a photo and hopefully ask what it was all about. By chance, it worked. More stories ran—from the Associated Press to local TV stations – and the dollars started to flow in.
We were able to upgrade to Brayton Engineering-built Oldsmobiles which, after all of our setup work, transformed the car into a rocket. It was a beast in the corners and shot like a rocket down the straights.
Ray held onto the car for four laps of qualifying that were well over the limit—a desperation act of the highest order—and placed the car second on the grid.
I spent the next few days fielding calls from sponsors from coast to coast, and come Race Day, the black No. 97 didn’t have a lot of real estate left to sell.
Ray led before a gearbox issue halted our march. It was the high-water mark for me at Indy—a year where everything went wrong before it went right. I’d return for three more “500s,” my last coming in 2001 as part of Sam Schmidt first year as an entrant with driver Davey Hamilton.
I’d retire from a solid 15 years on the road (and I use that term loosely) at the end of 2001, went to college, met and married by wife, tried working a normal job but could not resist the allure of racing. My last act at Indy from a team perspective was engineering a Lights car at the 2005 Firestone Freedom 100, and since then, my annual visits to the Brickyard have been as a writer, reporter and photographer.
That 1998 Indy 500 was amazing—almost surreal, but if I’m honest, I’m enjoying myself more today as a member of the media than I ever did as a crew member.
I’d have never guessed it at the time, but being able to work with the entire paddock—drivers, mechanics, owners and officials—rather than the small field of responsibility that comes from working on a team is simply invigorating.
Oh, and remember the part where I predicted I’d make it to Indy in 10 years? I was wrong—I did it in nine.