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Driven to the Past: Indy 500 Memories

This weekend being the weekend it is, I felt it might be time for one of these columns with the Indianapolis 500-mile Race as the subject.

First, I want to correct a few people. When the short practice day that is always scheduled in the week prior to the race is mentioned, these folks continually ask, “Why do they call it ‘Carb Day?’ They haven’t used carburetors since the 1950s.”

I don’t know if the folks running the Indy Car Series or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have officially changed the title of this day, but when I started paying attention to that race way back when, it was called “Carburetion Day.”

“Carburetion” is defined as “the process of producing a mixture of air and fuel in the correct proportion for engine combustion.” In an internal combustion engine, of course.

So, to my way of thinking, it doesn’t matter if they are using carburetors, fuel injectors or even superchargers, it’s still actually “carburetion.”

OK, I got that off my chest.

I first got interested in that race when I was very, very young. And, yes, that was very, very long ago. I came by it naturally, I suppose, as my father was going to the race in the 1930s, before he was married. I wish I still had those old photos of Doc MacKenzie, Emil Andres, Ralph Hepburn, George Robson, Duke Nalon, etc. that he used to show me. I do have a very fuzzy print of the Fageol Twin Coach Special, which had both front and rear engines and was driven by Paul Russo, being towed off on the backstretch after an accident. Dad took that one from the infield.

A column by Gary London in National Speed Sport News last week about getting acquainted with the Indy 500 through the radio broadcasts perked up my memory.

I first listened in 1954, hearing Sid Collins call Bill Vukovich‘s second win. And I listened again the next year, when Vuky lost his life going for three straight.

I got to go for the first time in 1956, when Dad and my uncle had three seats in Grandstand B. I graduated from high school two days before the race, and then got a call from Gene Powlen, one of the sport’s best writers at the time. He wanted me to come to the old 16th Street Speedway across from the Brickyard and sell NSSN for him at the “Night Before the 500” midget program. They ran three programs then, starting at 2 p.m., complete with qualifications, heat races and a 100-lap feature. Cleared the grandstand out after each program and started over.

I talked Dad into giving me the ticket and letting me take a Greyhound to Indianapolis from Louisville. Gene met me at the station and the adventure was on. He had 500 papers to sell at a quarter apiece, and before the second program was over, I had sold all but 75. Gene said the crowd had been “saturated” and he’d keep those for race day. I told him to give them to me for one more try.

I borrowed a wagon from Justin King, a midget owner/driver from Columbus, Ind., and headed down the long double line of cars waiting for the Speedway gates to open. I didn’t even make it past the railroad bridge which is still there.

I got a nickel a paper, and $25 wasn’t bad for a 17-year-old in 1956.

After the last feature, I went across the street to the main gate, which was then at 16th & Georgetown, and went to sleep on a stack of Indianapolis Star newspapers. Oh yeah, I had gotten to see Shorty Templeman win all three 100-lap main events.

When the gate-opening aerial bomb woke me up, I went inside and up to our seats, and slept there until Dad and Uncle Ben arrived.

My boyhood idol, Pat O’Connor from North Vernon, Ind., who had raced “hardtops” at the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Sportsdrome when I started selling race papers, was starting toward the front and took an early lead. Soon he was being challenged by Paul Russo in the powerful supercharged Novi V8. This was the first year the Novis were in rear-wheel drive chassis, as I recall.

They traded the lead back and forth for five or six laps, when suddenly there was a loud “pop” as they went by us. Russo’s right-rear tire had blown and he slid up into the wall. There was another loud “bang” and a big flash of fire when he hit, and I was afraid the fuel tank had exploded. Somebody explained that it was the magnesium wheel hitting the concrete.

I’ll never forget Russo going to the inside of the track and then saluting O’Connor as they came by the next time.

Pat had trouble, and Pat Flaherty won the race that year. Pat was in the top 10 I believe.

The next year, Pat was on the pole in Chapman Root’s new Sumar Special, and I was proud to watch him lead the field into the first turn. I think he had a broken shock that year, but soldiered on to another top 10 finish.

I’ll never forget hearing on the radio while I was serving my country in northern Japan that Pat had been killed in a first-lap crash in the 1958 race.

Since getting out of the service in 1960, most of my attention has been focused on stock car racing, but I still pay attention to the 500. I watched almost every minute of qualifications last weekend.

As for IndyCar racing today?

Well, it seems to me that the “spec” cars, all Dallaras with Honda engines, have taken a lot of appeal out of the race for most of us old race fans. It’s similar to NASCAR’s situation, I suppose, where they’re trying to control the costs.

It used to be almost “run what ya brung and hope ya brung enough.” I mean, the rules were open enough that even people like Smokey Yunick used to show up at Indianapolis in May with all kinds of machines that had some creative thinking. Smokey even had a sidecar in the ’60s. The driver was out in a pod on the left side. I asked if that wasn’t a little dangerous, and Smokey said, “If you want to be safe, stay in the garage. But you could drop a hammer on your foot back there.” Duane Carter tried the car and didn’t care for it. On the last qualifying day, a stock car ace of the day, Bobby Johns, took it out but ended up taking a trip to Methodist Hospital after some contact with the wall. He wasn’t hurt seriously.

Maybe it would be too expensive to turn the designers loose now, but I still like Brock Yates’s old idea. Build a box of 2×10 boards, maybe 16 feet long and eight feet wide, and say, “If it fits in the box, it’s legal.”

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