For as long as I can remember – which is usually right around six days, two hours, and 41 minutes – May 1 has been almost as big as Christmas.
Back when I was a kid, I had to walk over 40 cubits uphill both ways in all kinds of weather just to get to school, but when I woke up on May 1, I didn’t care about the weather. I couldn’t wait to find out who was the first driver to get out on the track at Indianapolis during opening day at the Speedway.
It was a big deal to be the first car out of the pits, and it really didn’t affect your month’s results at all. It was a piece of tradition that must have ended sometime in the last years, as nobody cares about it anymore. Of course, there was only one race a year at the Speedway back then, but it lasted a whole month, with practice every day until the last week of May before the race on Memorial Day.
This year, it was kind of cool to have them run the day before Memorial Day, for no reason other than that was the way they used to do it. Today they don’t even get on the track until the second week and then they take two days to run for the pole. It used to be you only got one shot at the pole, on Saturday, and if you pulled your time to requalify another car you were done with that car for the race.
I always liked the drama on Pole Day, as it was a scramble to get out that last hour between five and six o’clock when the track cooled down and got faster. But when the gun went off exactly at six, it was over unless you had been able to get onto the track. If you were stuck in line, you were over for the day.
Back then, I loved going down to Indy with my drunken buddies for the pole weekend. We’d bring our Styrofoam coolers of beer up into the grandstands where we usually sat in the first turn penthouse seats. We’d eat hamburgers from the White Castle across the street. When the day was over, we would stay in our cars (or in my buddy Tom Dull’s dad’s Dodge pickup truck with a camper on the back) in the Coca-Cola lot across from turn three, along with thousands of other drunken fans.
Back then they didn’t charge anything to stay on the Coke grounds, and lots of fun was had hanging out there. When it rained and got muddy, we would pretty much trash Mr. Dull’s camper truck, which he always kept quite spotless.
When we brought it back after the weekend, we all scattered like someone pulled a pin on a live hand grenade … except for poor Tom, who was left to face his dad.
Those were great times back then watching the Unsers, Foyt, Parnelli, Lone Star JR, and our personal favorite, Jim Hurtubise, trying to qualify his Mallard front-engine car. Or “Ralphie the Racer” Liguori trying to make his first 500. Or booing the dreaded rear-engine cars with those damn foreigners trying to invade our all-American field of open-wheel veterans.
The stands were full of more than 100,000 fans just for Pole Day, and there were no gimmicks like stage racing, lucky dog free laps or burnouts wrecking the engines after a win. Foyt, Parnelli, and Mario were household names and almost all the drivers who made the show knew what states Eldora, Terre Haute, and Ascot Park were in, and had probably raced at all three.
Time marches on and it’s a different world down there now, but for us old guys (kinda like that Japanese soldier they found in a cave years ago, who didn’t know the war was over and refused to surrender), we still hold on to the idea that it may all go back to the way we remember it from those golden eras. Though, if it doesn’t, it will still be OK, as this year’s month of May was still pretty spectacular.
This year, the week of the 500 started out at Terre Haute with the Hulman Classic in the USAC sprint cars. This is always a pretty exciting race. I remember back in the ‘70s when ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised the Hulman Classic live on a Saturday afternoon. I guess today, with just about any race televised somewhere if you are willing to pay for it, most people would ask, “Why was that so special?”
It was so special because back then live televised open-wheel racing was pretty rare, with most events taped and shown weeks later or not at all. During one televised race, Chris Economaki interviewed the drivers before and after the race. It had rained so hard that year and the track was rough and heavy.
Guys like Jan Opperman, George Snider, Pancho Carter, Dick Tobias, and Chuck Gurney were in the field and cars were bouncing through the ruts and holes in every corner. I think the late Toby Tobias won the race, breaking his rear suspension off after taking the checkered flag. He wouldn’t have made it another lap.
If Tobias had broken one lap earlier, the world would have experienced one of the biggest upsets and incredible interviews of the day. The second-place finisher was none other than the “legend in his own mind” and self-proclaimed world’s fastest racer Duke Cook! Had Duke won, it may have changed the course of history in open-wheel racing, and Chris Economaki would have been left speechless for the first time in his career.
This year’s race was a classic in its own right. I have been around a long time and have seen a few things in my day. I have been to a barn dance, a county fair, I have seen a stripeless zebra, a six-foot midget, and I once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But I am not sure I have ever seen what I saw in the first heat that day in turn one.
Brady Bacon got hit from the rear and did a nasty series of side-over-side flips and when it got to the fence it went end-over-end and shot straight up and over the wall, landing on its tail and coming to a stop upright. I guess what made it so spectacular was the altitude he got clearing the fence (see the Shooter’s Gallery in this month’s magazine).
I have seen a lot of great, high-flying flips at Terre Haute and other tracks before, but this one was so high it knocked a bird out of the sky on the way down. The spot where he launched was almost exactly where Pancho Carter cleared the fence one day and ended up almost to the back fence.
Gary Bettenhausen went out one year in the same spot as Brady in the Hulman Classic. Gary’s Indy car boss, Roger Penske, was there that day and, when he saw how real race cars and drivers race on the dirt, he suggested that Gary not run sprint cars anymore while driving for him.
Of course, being the real racer that “The Schmuck” Gary B. was, he completely ignored the Captain’s suggestion and continued on with his love of dirt racing. Ultimately, he lost the best ride in Indy car racing because of it. I loved him for his loyalty to sprints, midgets, and dirt cars, but I must admit, had he stayed with Penske, he probably would have earned a win in the Indy 500. This was something the Bettenhausen family so dearly wanted, from Tony Sr. on down to Tony Jr.
Gary deserved to win a 500 for sure, and had it won one year in Roger’s car with about 20 laps to go before the engine gave out and left Gary in the infield walking back to the pits. I sure would have loved to see one of them win it.
Brady Bacon automatically made my “Real Hard Real Racers” list that night after crashing over the first turn wall in that first heat. He unbuckled his belts, had his seat straightened out to get out of the car, and then hitched a ride back to the pit area where he helped get the backup car out of the trailer and ran the B-Main.
Now, if this had been basketball and some overpaid player broke a fingernail during the game, he would immediately go to the locker room and be placed on the disabled list for a few weeks. But this wasn’t basketball. This wasn’t an overpaid athlete, but a real racer who jumped right back in one of these fire-breathing monsters that try to throw drivers out of the car every corner.
Brady started last in the B-Main and raced his way into the A-Main. Then, to top off the evening, he started 10th and ran all the way to third, keeping his point lead intact. He finally got to sit down to see if anything was broken before getting ready to race again the next three or four nights in a variety of cars, including 500 laps at the Little 500. Oh, by the way, he won one of those races after the crash.
That, my friends is the definition of a real race driver, right out of the mold of a Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, or Jud Larson.
So, the Indy 500 was up on Sunday, with the only flaw being that Bacon and any of the other guys in the A-Main at Terre Haute were not in the field. Still, it lived up to its reputation as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
It was a tremendous race with 34 lead changes. The only way it could have been better was if Ed Carpenter could have won; which he may have if not for a pit stop problem that took him out of the lead pack early. I counted Ed, Conor Daly, and Santino Ferrucci as the only drivers that had midget or sprint car experience, but I count Scott Dixon too. Scott provided an engine in one of the midgets that raced at Western Springs and occasionally comes to the Chili Bowl.
So, with another month of May here and gone, I must admit it was a memorable 500. Once again, the pre-race brought tears to my eyes with the playing of taps and the great job done by the Ghost of Gomer doing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” If you don’t choke up during these two annual pre-race traditions, you should have your citizenship revoked or be checked by Dr. Hackenbush, as there is something just not right with you.
I am marking off my monthly calendar (the one with the chocolate candies in each square) until next May when we do it all again.
I hope that by my next column, I will have a date set for the unveiling of the Bob Tattersall plaque that will be installed in Streator, Ill.
For sure, it’s going to be a cool event, and I plan on being there if I stay away from Reno. – KO
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