Tales From The Track
Here is Judy Greeson at the speedway in 2004. She has attended every Indy 500 since 1961. She now resides in Clinton, Tennessee. - Oct 2004
Note: The following was published in 1978:
Judy Greeson, a librarian and resident of Crawfordsville for two years will attend her eighteenth straight Indianapolis 500 Mile Race this May 28. To Judy, the month of May each year has been a special time. Living in Indianapolis during childhood, Judy looked forward to that year in 1961 when, a freshman in high school, her parents decided she was old enough to attend her first 500. As she puts it, she has been “hooked” ever since. This story is a personal reflection of some of the people and events of the last seventeen Indianapolis 500’s.
By Judy Greeson
By the time I arrived, this event was already fifty years old. The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race had grown from a gimmick to promote the automobile into the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Reams have been written about this, the granddaddy of American automobile racing, but perhaps a spectator can put it all in a different perspective than those who don’t view it from the top of a grandstand.
I felt a part of something special as I sat on my allotted 16 inches of the grandstand row. It was as clear to me as the blue sky above. To other race fans, my memories of the last seventeen years can undoubtedly be matched by yours. We know together, deep inside, what draws us to this Mecca each May. It is a religion that verges on being fanatical. To those of you who have never experienced the strain in your neck as you watch for the front row to come out of the corner, your experiences have been incomplete.
No words anyone can write, or any pictures ABC Television can bring to your screen can substitute for being a part of it in the flesh. There is no adequate way to describe fully the sight of thirty-three machines gleaming in sunlight as 10,000 multicolored balloons float over your head. There is no adequate way to hear the sound of 350,000 voices saying silent prayers for a safe race, as one voice sings of being back home in Indiana. There is no adequate way to describe the disappointment you have inside when your favorite driver fails to come out of the turn. Yet share with me some memories of the last seventeen years of this race; its winners and losers, the changes of men and machines, and the tradition this race commands to hold it all together.
No one knew it at the time, but in my rookie year, 1961, a living legend and a revolution were being created. A young driver from Houston, Texas, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. pulled into Victory Lane in a Bowes-Seal Fast Special, after a fellow driver from Allentown, Pa., Eddie Sachs, backed off the throttle. Sachs was a sure victor just three laps from the finish when he saw the cord on his treadless Firestone tire. To avoid risking an accident by a blown tire, Eddie settled for second place. Foyt would still be around to pull into Victory Lane for a record fourth time in 1977. Sachs would be a part of the event that meant more to him than anything else for only three more years.
In this golden anniversary 500, Jack Brabham, a European world road-racing champion, finished ninth. Brabham was driving a tiny cooper-Climax. This rear-engine machine was a prototype of the future “funny cars” of the middle sixties, that, in turn, became today’s standard configuration. Since 1961, the front-engine roadsters have been replaced by rear-engine designs of Lolas, Lotuses, Hawks, Coyotes, Eagles, and McLarens, Engines of the Offy variety have been replaced by Fords, Foyts, and now Coswroths. “Hot dog” drivers like Ward, Rathman and Jones have been replaced by Rutherford, Johncock and Sneva. The Voice of Firestone has been replaced by the Blimp of Goodyear. Qualifying speeds have risen from Jim Hurtubise’s 1960 record of 149.601 mph for one lap to Tom Sneva’s 200.535 mph established last May. Not bad for a two and one-half mile oval designed in 1909 for a top speed of 75 mph.
As I sat in my fifteen dollar seat by myself, I didn’t know all the driver’s names, nor how to adequately watch a race. I probably did become tired of sitting on my allotted sixteen inches of the grandstand row. But I was convinced that I was part of something special. That feeling was as clear to me as the blue sky above, and as bright as the paint jobs on the golden colored Ford Thunderbirds. I knew that that year’s savings from baby-sitting had been well spent, when on an April day I purchased over the counter my ticket for my first 500.
Favorite scenes of the 500 need to include those in Victory Lane. In 1969 a jubilant Andy Granatelli planted one big smooch on the cheek of our man, Mario Andretti. This little Italian driver finally landed a win for the portly Italian car owner. Mario (presently in 1978 pursuing a Formula One world championship title) gave Andy, in 1969, what had been taken from him the two previous years with less than ten laps to the finish. In 1967. Granatelli had shaken the piston-engine world by bringing a Pratt-Whitney turbine engine to the track. Parnelli Jones qualified it in the sixth position. After the starting flag fell, Jones dominated the field until just three laps from the finish, when a six dollar bearing silenced the engine, which sounded more like a vacuum cleaner.
The following year on lap 191, race leader Joe Leonard found no power as he put his foot on the throttle, after a yellow light, when the signal was given to resume racing. Just as he was about to enter the first turn right below us, Leonard’s car slowed to an agonizing halt. This pole-position winning car placed twelfth in the final standing. To add insult to injury, the teammate car to Leonard’s, driven by Art Pollard, quit three laps before Leonard’s to finish thirteenth. So in 1969, as Andretti rolled the Brawner-Hawk onto the black and white checked carpet of Victory Lane, we knew it was Granatelli’s time to find the pot of gold after twenty-three years of trying.
What does a fan do when the sky decides to fall raindrops on your head? You usually become part of Plastic City. Such a year was 1967. After eighteen laps, the stands became chilly and soggy as the rain fell and the winds pushed paper plates and pop cans down the aisles of the stands. Our group had packed the usual ice cold soda pop. We made the wrong choice that day. The next morning began with cloudy skies and cool temperatures. For this day, we chose to take a thermos of hot chocolate. Later that day our hot chocolate seemed very out of place in clear blue skies and temperatures in the seventies. On another occasion in 1975, the skies hardly gave us time to pull out the plastic sheets. A sudden deluge of water made the cars look like hydroplanes as they skated down the mainstretch. One year later, for the fifth time in sixty runnings of the race, rain came again. This time, as if someone were counting laps to make sure it was official, the race was stopped on lap 102. (A race must be at least 101 laps to be considered complete.) This 255 mile race ended in a light shower and Johnny Rutherford was the first winner to walk, not drive, into Victory Lane. As we funneled out the track’s gates, another cloud dumped its contents on us, and soaked us to the skin.
Short glimpses of memories bring other years to mind. Mark Donahue cried tears of joy in 1972 as he was interviewed in Victory Lane. His race record of 162.962 still stands today. The record for the greatest increase of speed of a pole sitter over the previous year was also established in 1972. Bobby Unser’s qualifying speed of 195.940 was 17 mph faster than Peter Revson’s the previous year.
In 1966, the speed of spectators along the mainstretch trackboxes seemed to be a record also. As the green starting flag fell, a chain reaction of bumping race cars sent wheels, halfshafts, and various other pieces of metal flying through the air. A.J. Foyt, Jr. made an exit from his car, handclimbing the metal chain fence between spectators and the track. I looked up and saw a wheel sailing through the air and decided that the trackboxes were not the prime choice of seating. (After 1973, these same seats were permanently removed for the safety of the spectators.)
The first million dollar purse was awarded to participants in 1971. Al Unser led 190 of 200 laps, after beating Johnny Rutherford for the pole position by eight one-thousandths of a second – the blink of an eye. Six years before, European champion Jimmy Clark led all but ten laps in one of the safest 500’s with only eleven minutes and forty seconds of yellow light time. One-third of the field that year was rookie drivers, including three who would eventually become winners: Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Gordon Johncock.
There are two years I would just like to forget. In 1964, as Jim Clark crossed the starting line for his second lap, it seemed as if a bomb had dropped at the head of the mainstretch. The cars of Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald collided and fuel exploded into a ball of fire. The red flag fell to stop the race the first time in the race’s history for an accident. The grandstands were hushed in disbelief. I remember my knees were shaking as I watched billows of oily black smoke rise and float over the back of the stands. An hour later, we heard the public address system echo, “It is with deepest regret that we make this announcement….” and we all knew Eddie was gone. Eddie, the Clown Prince of Auto Racing, always said, “If you can’t win, be spectacular.” Even in death, Eddie was.
The year 1973. The shortest race to that time, 332 5/8 miles, became the longest 500 to run. The three-day experience honestly became an endurance test and not a race. After one accident, resulting in serious burns to a driver and fans alike, and eleven other cars damaged, and then rain, the race was postponed to the second day. On that day not one lap was scored as rain halted the cars during the parade lap. The third day, we kept our ear to the radio and made a fast trip to the track to see the third and successful attempt to start the race at 2:10 p.m. Everything seemed to be finally okay until the fifty-seventh lap. The leader at the time, Swede Savage, crashed in turn four after just completing a pit stop. His car broke apart in flames. For the third time in three days, the red flag fell. A firetruck coming the wrong way in the pits killed a pit crewman. The race resumed after one hour and fifteen minutes’ delay because of the Savage accident. The race ran until 5:32 p.m. when the skies opened up again and the red flag fell for the fourth time. Gordon Johncock was declared the winner. But no one in the stands celebrated. We stood under very dark skies, thinking very dark thoughts, wondering why we were there. Yet, there is something that has drawn us back to the same seats these following years.
In seventeen years, not only drivers and cars have come and gone, but other members of the racing fraternity as well. Recently, we have lost three of the best – one to retirement, two to death. All aspects of maintenance of the world’s largest spectator sports stadium had been under the direction of Clarence Cagle. Cagle retired at the end of the 1977 race, after 32 years of personally supervising construction, facilities, maintenance, clean-up, traffic, and safety. With all of these duties he still had time to be concerned with the happiness of fans. On May 14, 1974, I wrote a letter to Mr. Cagle stating that in the previous two years the P.A. speaker in our grandstand section had been turned off at the request of U.S.A.C. officials stationed below us. On June 13 I received a personal letter from Mr. Cagle asking me if we had “better results” as he had personally checked the speaker the morning of the race and had instructed the U.S.A.C. officials to leave the speaker on “because the guests in the grandstand wanted to hear what was going on.”
The “Voice of the 500” was a new one for the 1977 race. Paul Page, a young protégé of Sid Collins, was at the microphone, not by a happy transition. Sid Collins had ended his life the month before, unable to cope with a terminal illness. Mr. Collins and his radio network announcers had always provided me with visions of what the “500” was all about until I was old enough to see it in person. Even as we attend the race today, a radio tuned to the network is a necessary piece of equipment to help keep one on top of what is going on around the 2 1/2 mile oval.
And finally, in October of 1977, the “Savior of the Speedway,” Mr. Tony Hulman was taken from us. Somehow, the command to start the engines will not be the same in future years. Mr. Hulman, along with three-time winner Wilbur Shaw, literally saved the facility from becoming a real estate development after World War II. In November of 1945, Mr. Hulman purchased the track from the World War I flying ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, for $750,000. We are benefactors of this man’s desire to develop a weed-infested, rotting racetrack into the finest facility for America motorists.
Bob Collins, sports editor for the Indianapolis Star, said a few days after Mr. Hulman’s death that everybody has a favorite Tony Hulman story. Mine is of his last year with us. Janet Guthrie, the first woman to quality for the 500, drew lots of speculation on how the famous command of “Gentlemen, start your engines,” might be altered. A few minutes before the start of the race, with throngs of press and well-wishers all over the mainstretch, we caught Mr. Hulman all by himself. A man, who in a few minutes would have the world listening to him, was at the end of our grandstand with not a soul around him. We kidded among ourselves that he was practicing his famous words. Our binoculars revealed to us that he really was! Later last year, at the time of his death, it was revealed that Mr. Hulman always carried a card with the words written down, as he was afraid he would forget them. The owner of the place was afraid he was going to blow it in front of his customers!
Mr. Hulman was always accessible to race fans during the days of May. He genuinely enjoyed greeting people who came to his track. Which brings up a point that we often don’t think about. The speedway is a place where the fan can literally rub shoulders with the participants. That doesn’t happen in other professional sports. How close can you get to an O.J. Simpson or a Pete Rose? This personal contact of fans and driver-heroes at the Speedway, even more than at other tracks, is part of the “500’s” success.
Changes have occurred in seventeen years. Some good for the fans. Some not so good, I believe. Traditions are a successful part of the Speedway. The race fan, (defined here as those who are willing to order $20 to $55 tickets a year in advance to watch the race, not just those who party in the infield) can depend on the same sequence of events prior to the start of the race, and the same feeling inside yourself as the command is given, hands are raised, cars are pushed off, the pace car pulls into the pits, and the green flag falls for another”500.”
Author’s Note: This article was written in early 1978 for a May, 1978 issue of Montgomery County Magazine, Crawfordsville, Indiana. The magazine was a publication of the Montgomery County Historical Society.
The author at the speedway in 1985
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