Indy 500 Memories

Fans who attend major sporting events often return home with memories that last a lifetime. Some can’t remember the exact score of a particular Super Bowl or which horse won the Kentucky Derby that they attended, but there always seem to be personal moments that stick in their mind forever.

I’ve attended the Indianapolis 500 since 1961 (with a few years off to cover the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte), but I have to check reference materials to see who won in 2003 or who was Rookie of the Year in 1965.

So, what exactly do we remember? Usually it’s something unique; something random or unexpected. Running into a driver at the hotel or seeing something unusual that may never happen again. Often it’s a record breaking event or the final race for a veteran driver.

With the 97th 500 coming up soon, I’ve come up with some of those "stick with you forever" moments that come to mind each year as I prepare to attend another 500. Some of these are personal recollections, and some were witnessed by thousands. Hopefully these will help get you started thinking about similar memories that you have about the "Greatest race in the world."

• As a fifteen year old, an eight-hour Greyhound bus trip from Milwaukee to Indianapolis with a high school friend for our first 500 in ’61 was an adventure. Mom said to go and get it out of my system; that didn’t work, but did serve to bring me back ever since. We stayed with family friends and I have a few blurry photos taken from our Tower Terrace seats along with my ticket stub and program. AJ won his first and I was hooked.

• That race was the finale for the all-brick front stretch and Jack Brabham’s rear-engine Cooper Climax signaled the beginning of the end for the roadster era.

• To find out what was going on at the track each day, fans often subscribed to the Indianapolis Star or The News during the month of May. Without the internet or much TV coverage, it made coming home from school to find out what happened at the track the most exciting part of the day.

• The fiery crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald on the second lap of the 1964 race seemed to affect most fans who mourned their loss. It was the first time that the race had been red-flagged for an accident and I spent many laps in our car thinking about the race that I didn’t love at the moment.

• Drivers from many areas of the motorsports world raced in the 500 before the time of specialization hit. Jimmy Clark, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, and Jackie Stewart showed up alongside Bobby and Donnie Allison, Bobby Johns and Lee Roy Yarbrough. Smokey Yunick, Colin Chapman and the Wood Brothers were in the pits and fans enjoyed the mix. Oh, how we’d like to see that mixture today.

• Ray Harroun, the winner of the first 500 in 1911, made a ceremonial appearance at the track in 1966 to help celebrate the 50th race. I scored his and track owner Tony Hulman’s autograph on that year’s program cover. The signing was recorded on a movie being made of the race. Didn’t seem as important then as that treasured moment seems today.

• Johnny Rutherford waited in his orange McLaren for the 1976 race to be called due to rain, hoping to be named the winner of his second 500. With an umbrella covering the cockpit, word came that the shortest 500 (102 laps) was over and a loud whoop rumbled from under that cover. JR walked to victory lane with several of us trying to keep up in the rain. Couldn’t tell if those were raindrops or tears on his face.

• That same year saw Janet Guthrie become the first woman to attempt to qualify for the race. She would have to wait a year to make the field, but remained a very classy person through some rough times. It was one of those trail-blazing events that made you glad you were there.

• Seeing AJ Foyt win his four 500’s may have been the best of my memories. Having won in NASCAR at Daytona and the LeMans 24 hours with Dan Gurney, on sprint car and midget dirt tracks and in USAC stock cars, he epitomized the versatile drivers of that era. Foyt was later joined in the "Four-Win Club" by Al Unser and Rick Mears, but AJ was the first and that’s always worth remembering.

• There are many other things that come to mind, but I promised that I would limit this to ten. There are, however, a few I can’t leave out: seeing the Novi and Turbine-powered cars; watching the bitter-sweet victory lane in 1986 as Bobby Rahal celebrated his win while his terminally-ill team owner Jim Trueman tried hard to stand. Trueman died of cancer two weeks later; and finally, seeing so many "Flying Starts" of the race with the cars bunched and in tight formation. It made that run and the roar to the green flag out of turn four exciting, but at times chaotic.

Feel free to send us an e-mail with YOUR best-remembered moments at the 500 or any other race you’ve attended. Memories give a context to all that we experience in life; including races.

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