1965 – My First Indianapolis 500

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I was only five years old, when my father and two brothers went to the Indianapolis 500 in 1964. I really didn’t know what it was at the time, but I knew it was big and I knew that I was being left behind. I was aware of Parnelli Jones, mainly because he had won the year before. He had a neat sounding name, so I wanted him to win. There was no television broadcast – not even tape delayed. My mother and I listened to it on a transistor radio, as Sid Collins told us what was going on. I quickly got distracted, so she made me take a bath. Had I listened intently, perhaps I could have avoided that fate. While I was in the tub, my mother came in to tell me that AJ Foyt had won the race. I had never heard of him and his name sounded funny. I was bummed.

When my father and brothers returned, they carried on for days about the race. They brought me the obligatory T-shirts and even a kid’s racing helmet complete with goggles. But what stole my attention over the summer was the program they brought back. I could barely read, but I stared at all of the pictures for hours. I quickly learned the difference between a rear-engine Lotus and a front-engine Watson roadster. My brothers preferred the roadsters. I was partial to the Lotus.

Fast-forward to one year later. I had convinced my father that I was old enough to justify a ticket to the race. Much to my mother’s chagrin, he bought tickets for the entire family of five. My mother, to this day, is a non-race fan. She still reads every post on this site, but could care less about the subject matter.

I’m not sure, but I think this may have been my first time in a hotel. I was usually left behind when trips were made, so this was already shaping up as an adventure before I had even seen the track. But then I saw it. The first thing that impressed me was the immense size of the place. Almost anything seems big to a six year-old, but this place was huge. Plus, growing up in a “Leave It To Beaver” household in Jackson, TN didn’t expose me to many things of the real world. I saw a lot of “firsts” that day, which I won’t bother to go into here. Just suffice it to say they burned an impression on my brain that lasts to this very day.

We had tickets in J-Stand, coming out of turn four. Our seats were down low. With me being so small and sitting so far down, I had a great view of the driver’s helmet as they shot out of turn four and came close to the wall, right at about our seats.

The Parade of Bands was enjoyable to me. The giant bass drum from the Purdue Band was fascinating. My father and brothers liked the Golden Girl, as she twirled her baton. I didn’t figure out why until I was much older.

The cars were rolled out onto the grid, but we were so far down the track and so low in our seats – I couldn’t really see them. Jim Nabors was just becoming famous and had not yet started singing “Back Home Again In Indiana”. I don’t really remember that part, but I’m sure someone sang it. My father was an emotional man and always cried when Tony Hulman said “Gentlemen Start Your Engines”. I never could understand that at the time and it was always amusing to watch.

Even though it was hard to see the grid, it was certainly no problem hearing it as the engines were fired. They even drowned out Tom Carnegie’s booming voice over the loudspeaker. One sight that I’ll remember ‘til the day I die, is when the pace car brought the field around on the parade lap. To see that front row of Foyt, Clark and Gurney come around with their paint jobs glistening in the bright sun was enough to justify the entire trip.

When they came around a second time as they were getting up to speed to take the green flag, I thought I had just heard the loudest sound I had ever heard. Little did I know that it would be eclipsed in about a minute.

As the cars came back around, this time at full speed – the whole place seemed to vibrate. The sounds of the V-8 Fords, the Novi’s and the Offy’s were painfully deafening and thrilling all at the same time. My father had his score sheet from the paper and stopwatch in hand. He and my brothers seemed to know exactly what was going on, but I didn’t. Whether they did or not, I’ll never know – but I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I was having the time of my life.

Every time Parnelli Jones whizzed by in that beautiful gold Lotus, I felt compelled to scream “GO!” at the top of my lungs. I was sure he could hear me and I was equally certain that my urging him on would make a big difference in his motivation that day. Parnelli didn’t win that day. He finished a distant second to Clark and I pouted.

I didn’t know how to appreciate Jim Clark’s victory. I had yet to develop my allegiance for Foyt and wasn’t even aware of Mario Andretti’s Rookie of the Year performance. I was six years old. But I was crushed when Parnelli had failed to produce.

Today, I am forty-five years removed from that race. I am now twelve years older than my father was on that day. Most of the participants in that race are no longer with us, and neither is my father. But I remember it like it was yesterday.

Aside from all of the sights that I remember, the two non-visual memories that I carry, are the sounds and the smells of that day. Jim Hurtubise retired in one of the two Novi’s after the very first lap. But the sound of Bobby Unser’s Novi was a sound like no other. I can still remember how my eardrum felt like it was shaking out of my head, every time the Novi went by. Mercifully for my ears, Unser’s Novi fell out on lap 69.

As far as the smell goes, I’d like to say it was the smell of tires or mesmerizing exhaust fumes that I remember from that race. It wasn’t. Instead, to this day – whenever I smell an extremely offensive cigar, it takes me back to my very first Indy.

Everyone says that young kids cannot appreciate going to the Indy 500 and should not go at an early age. Perhaps – but I’m not sure that the event would have made such an impression on me, had I waited until I was fifteen or so. It could be that attending at a young age made such an indelible mark on me, that I developed a life-long connection with the Speedway early on. This May will mark my nineteenth Indianapolis 500 to attend in person. Each one stands out for different reasons. But none have captivated me like that very first one back in 1965.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “1965 – My First Indianapolis 500”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    Good post, George. Takes me back to my first 500, with similar feelings.

  2. JohnMc Says:

    My first race was 1964. I was in “B” and I saw Parnelli Jones jump out of his car on fire while in the pits and roll in the grass. For those who know about the ’64 race I saw all of that, too. My first race, however, was an AJ FOYT win and that is who I was pulling for. I couldn’t believe that I was there watching these beautiful cars and these fabulous race car drivers go by me. I had a “500” helmet on that day. It was a white batting helmet with the 500 logo on the front. My dad bought a whole box load and gave them out to me, my brothers and the buddies who came. My older brothers and their friends were across from us in the pits.

    • John–you just brought back a cool memory of those white batting helmets. I remember them from when I was a kid and haven’t thought about them since. Weren’t they supposed to simulate a “driving helmet?”

  3. Tom G. Says:

    George,

    OK, I am totally off topic. I’ve been reading the news the past few days, and I have to say my thoughts and prayers go out to you and all the folks in Nashville. I think I speak for all of us readers when I say that we are glad to hear you have escaped with relatively minor damage from the flooding.

  4. I grew up in East Tennesse and in the 1970’s I attended countless NASCAR races with my father, grandfather, and uncle from Michigan to Talladega and most points in between. Bristol was 15 minutes from my house. There’s no doubt that those trips are why I am a race fan now. (Although of F1, Indycar, ALMS; I mostly ignore NASCAR.) While I have wonderful memories of those races, I can honestly say that my trip to Indy in 2008 tops them all. The sights, sounds, smells, even the rain that day. I was truly just happy to be there. I was a childish adult.

  5. great article, george.

    my recollections were not of going to the race, but of listening to the race on the radio. growing up in central Indiana, the race was blacked-out live. I think they replayed it in the evenings.

    the Indy Star would always publish the starting grid with a little black and white photo of each driver. we cut those out and “draft” our drivers. my dad would keep track with a chart the paper printed, to see who was leading at 20 laps, 40 laps, etc. we would take the radio into the back yard, grill some burgers and listen to the radio. so my memories of the 500 are mainly tied up with family and summer back in the day.

  6. Thank you, George. Two soul-stirring posts to start the Month of May. I got to attend my first 500 with my dad in 1991 when I was 5, because my brother was just a couple weeks old and my mom couldn’t go. Much like you, I failed to appreciate the significance of much of what was going on in the race – I’m glad I can go back and relive the battle between Mears and Andretti with greater appreciation now – in fact I remember very few specifics of that day, but I do know that the event captured my impressionable little heart like so few things in life can and has never loosened its grip since. I was devastated when I couldn’t go the next year, but fortunately, my parents brought me back in ’93 and I have not missed one since. I now have a little boy of my own and long for the day when I can share his first 500 with him.

    • Adam – your early Indy 500 experiences are nearly as identical as mine. I was 7 for my first 500 in 1991. I couldnt go to the race the following year as my uncle was in town and took my spot. To this day, I am still upset that I missed the finish between Al Jr and Goodyear. My dad brought be back in ’93 and I have yet to miss a race since.

      George – great article! I have been a long time reader. In fact, I stumlbed on your site on your 3rd post and have read every single one since. This is my first time posting a comment but couldnt have picked a better post to do so. Reading your memory of your first 500 immediately brought me back to my first 500s. Sort of teared up thinking about the great times that I shared with my Dad at the track.

      It is funny what sort of things you remember about the 500. Strangely enough, the smell that will always remind me of the track is that of cheap cigars. LOL

      Of course the sounde of the cars give me goosebumps and I can remember the first time i heard a car go by at over 200mph like it was yesterday, but the odd sound that always makes me think of the track is the sound of a helicopter flying overheard. I would always get to the track extremely early in the morning and there were always 2 – 3 helicopters hovering around the track for hours before the race. To this day, if I hear a helicopter hovering in the distance, I am brought back to race day at the IMS.

      Great post and great work! Keep it up and thanks for providing your readers with insightful information about Indycar racing week in and week out!

  7. Being just a bit on the younger side, my first “500” came 30 years after yours. I had been a big race fan for a while, and I vividly recall sitting about two inches from the TV in ’92 when Unser, Jr, got loose Goodyear caught the draft off of four on lap 200. Our tickets were in the infield bleachers just past Turn 1, the excitement was rising, Tom Carnegie called the green flag and we could hear the turbo V8s spool up, and then sheer carnage broke out directly in front of me: my first experience with IndyCars at speed was Stan Fox’s awful accident. Luckily, I was cheering for Jacques Villeneuve at the time — I knew he was a good driver, and I really liked Forsythe-Green’s blue paint scheme (and no, nanny state, I did not know what Players was at 8 years old) — and I remember, in the confusion that broke out several laps before the end, coming to the realization that Jacques was going to win…fantastic. My second “500” was the final turbo race in ’96, and then I wasn’t able to return until the “Danica Race” in 2005. Now, though, you’d need to break my legs and tie me down to keep me away from the track on the last weekend in May.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    It’s wonderful to hear everybody’s first Indy stories.
    I hope to have one someday soon.

  9. Scott Scheller Says:

    Since this seems to be the place to say it, here’s my first; the year was 1992, and I had little idea what the 500 was beyond that big race my older brother, dad, three uncles, and their repesctive children went to every sunday before memorial day while I got left behind. It was cold, we huddled under blankets, ate grippos by the handful just to keep warm (suspect only those from southern Indiana to know what that means), and watched as wreck after wreck after wreck happened. I remember seeing Lyn St. James in her rookie outing and rooting for her simply because she was a woman racing in a male dominated sport. I remember watching Michael Andretti demolish the field (and subsequently becoming, begrudgingly at times, a fan of the andrettis) only to have an engine failure kill his race with a handful of laps to go. I remeber the immensity of it all, and yet somehow, every time I get to go, the vastness of the crowd is every bit as overwhelming as that first trip.

  10. Nice reminiscence, George – thanks

  11. You’ve just convinced me that I need to take my kids (9 and 6, girl and boy) within the next couple of years. I was 11 at my first one and my first experience had far more in common with yours than not. Won’t be long and I’ll have to try and pass on what my dad did for me (I returned the favor for him in 2003). They’ve been to a practice day and seen some cars up close, but never with the pageantry that is raceday.

    What’s wonderful about these memories, it seems, is that we all have shared these memorable ‘first times’ and with any subsequent racedays, we fans all have a shared history. Cheers all! To the Month of May and the Indy Five Hundred!

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