Indy Bad Luck A Staple Over The Years

Danica Patrick. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Danica Patrick is breaking multiple superstitions with a green #13 ride in the Indianapolis 500. [John Wiedemann Photo]

By Allan Brewer

Drivers are a superstitious lot. Some are wary of stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Others carry a rabbit’s foot in their pocket during every race. The belief in fate extends as far as blessing the car as it sits waiting for the start. Some of the traditions are well-known, like the unlucky number 13; but others are unique to racing and require some explanation to newcomers and veterans alike.

The legend of the peanut may be Indianapolis’ most bizarre omen of tragedy. The claim is made that a fatal accident when the Indianapolis 500 resumed after World War II in the 1940’s was due to peanut shells in the driving cockpit. How and why those nuts were placed into a smoking wreckage has never been explained, but the mere appearance of a peanut or its shell portends for a long day at the race track. The legend took on such gravity that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not sell peanuts for many years, though the crunchy beans are now once again available at concession stands.

The Andretti curse is a multi-generational streak of bad fortune at Indianapolis that spans three generations. Mario Andretti’s sensational speed set records at the Speedway throughout the 1960’s and bore fruit in 1969 when he won the Indy 500. Legend has it that team owner Andy Granatelli was first to plant a kiss on Mario’s cheek in Victory Circle, and with that peck a string of failures and near-misses began.

None of the prodigious Andretti clan—including son Michael, brother Aldo, nephew John and grandson Marco—have put this run of bad luck aside despite numerous starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Marco almost did it in his rookie year of 2006 but was nipped at the finish by Sam Hornish in a furious charge from Turn 4. Famed Speedway announcer Tom Carnegie won popular fame with two oft-uttered phrases born of Andretti success and failure: “It’s a new track record!” and “Mario is slowing on the backstretch.”

The only way the Andretti family could be more cursed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is if their last name was Smith. In over a hundred years no one with that last name has ever qualified for the Indianapolis 500. Mark Smith tried to end the stretch twice in the early 1990’s but to no avail.

There is widespread belief in the superstition that surrounds the number 13, not only at the race track but in the public generally. At one point the number 13 was not even issued as a competitor entry to the Indianapolis 500; not that it really mattered as no one would claim it to begin with.

One of the most well-known automotive bad luck traditions is the curse of the color green, which originated in the tragic fate borne by 1920 Indy 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet. Chevrolet died in a crash only seven months after his Indianapolis victory, at a race in California, while driving a green car. From then the color green has been considered a sure roll of the dice to snake eyes and drivers have assiduously avoided it. Teams of the mid twentieth century went to such extremes that if a part were the color green it would be painted black or simply discarded to avoid exacerbating the curse.

According to Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, drivers in the early 1900’s were known to break up green pencils and throw them in the trash if they spotted them around the garage. Green boots or uniforms were strictly taboo.

Nothing illustrates the enduring power of these bad luck superstitions than two-time Indy 500 winner (1959 and 1962) Rodger Ward wearing a green suit to a social event after he retired, much to the perceptible dismay and horror of his fellow drivers. Though he claimed to have no belief in superstitions, Ward subsequently never wore green in public again.

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