If It’s May, Why Don’t I Hear Race Cars?

HAMMOND, IN: I really try not to live on Memory Lane but…damn it…my calender says it’s May, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is quiet. There was a time, not so many years ago, when the entire month of May was filled with noise and action at the old Brickyard.

After attending my first “500” as a 10 year old in 1956, the hook was set. Now…54 years later, I’m beginning to think my affliction may be permanent!

For me, the Month of May actually would begin in April, when I would send in my money for home delivery subscriptions to the three Indy newspapers: The Star, The News and The Times. In those dark days before the internet, Twitter, etc., the Indy newspapers in the mailbox were my best connection to the action taking place daily throughout May, 150 miles south of my home. Unfortunately, the news from the track was always at least a day old by the time I was able to devour it. There had to be a better way to follow the Speedway action and…as it turned out…there was.

One day in 1961, early in the month of May, I made an incredible discovery: the AM radio in my Dad’s 1960 Pontiac Bonneville could actually receive WIBC in Indianapolis…barely…even though 150 miles is a long way for a radio signal to travel. The station seemed the strongest if the car was parked directly in front of our house, but the positioning was critical. A few feet one way or another and…poof!…no signal!

Decades before Donald Davidson began his “Talk of Gasoline Alley” show on WIBC, Speedway fans could tune in to “The Foxes Den” week nights at 6:15 PM, shortly after the end of practice for a recap of the day’s activities. The show was hosted by Indianapolis News sportswriter Bill Fox and…trust me…I was in the Bonneville in front of my house every night with my ear glued to the static-laden radio, absorbing every tidbit. I also discovered that there were live updates on WIBC from the track at the top of each hour throughout the day.

If you ever were in Hammond, IN during May in the early ’60’s, and happened to see a weird kid eating lunch in a Pontiac Bonneville with his ear plastered on the radio speaker, you now know who it was!

One particular WIBC “Radio Day” still sticks out in my memory.

In 1961, it looked like my personal hero, Tony Bettenhausen, was FINALLY going to win the “500”. It seemed that each day leading up to Pole Day, Tony and his Hopkins Autolite Spl. Topped the time sheets as he flirted with the elusive 150 MPH barrier. But, a week before qualifications began, veteran leadfoot Dick Rathmann jumped into Andy Granatelli’s re-conditioned NOVI for a test run…and things began to happen.

Each day that week, the other contenders were left in the dust as Bettenhausen and Rathmann lit up the Speedway, each striving to record the first-ever one minute lap. As the weekend approached, it was obvious that the Pole would be decided between those two.

But suddenly…in the blink of an eye…the epic battle for the Pole, as well as the chances of the first 150 MPH lap, was over before it began.

A few days before qualifications, Dick Rathmann was ordered out of the NOVI by Jim Robbins, his contracted car owner. Granatelli, having lost his star, tried in vane to find another driver to tame the powerful NOVI, but failed. After nearly breaking the track record under Rathmann’s guidence during practice, the NOVI never even made the field that year…

Then, on what is now known as “Fast Friday”, the great Tony Bettenhausen died while attempting to help his buddy, Paul Russo, sort out his unruly Watson roadster.

It was the greatest battle for the Pole that never happened, I guess…

In a little more than a week, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will once again throw open it’s gates, and another Month of May will begin. But, for those of us who have been around long enough to remember what it used to be like, two weeks does NOT equal a month.

But…it’s still Indy…

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