1965 – My First Indianapolis 500
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.