The Origins Of The IMS Yellow Shirt
If you’ve ever spent any time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, chances are you’ve encountered a member of the IMS Safety Patrol or “Yellow Shirts” as they are commonly called now. For the most part, my experience with the Yellow Shirts has been very favorable – as opposed to what I’ve dealt with from local law enforcement officials on race morning outside the Speedway. Last year, I made the mistake of questioning an officer’s instructions on 16th Street. The next thing I knew, he was shouting at the top of his lungs and threatening to have me arrested. Since I didn’t care for the thought of spending the 500 in a cell, I reluctantly shut my mouth – but I digress.
The Yellow Shirts on the other hand, have always been friendly and helpful. This isn’t just a job to them to put money in their wallet. Many of them are volunteers. They are there for the fun of it. Even those that are paid aren’t doing it to get rich – they enjoy being out there with the fans.
To get an idea of the emphasis IMS puts on the job of the Safety Patrol, it falls under the category of Guest Services. A glance at the IMS Employment website shows the qualifications listed in the following order; friendly, hard-working and enthusiastic. Notice “friendly” is listed first. They even have an acronym of G-U-E-S-T that they stand by, which stands for; Greet customers when arriving or exiting the facility. Understand the needs of the customer when assisting. Engage customers by being eager to satisfy and assist. Service the needs of customers whenever requested. Teamwork is essential within the Safety Patrol to provide exemplary service.
The Yellow Shirts get their unofficial name because, well – they wear yellow shirts. But they didn’t always don yellow and their shirts were not always so comfortable. In fact, they were not always employees of IMS.
From the time the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909, there have always been security personnel at the track. From 1909 until after World War II, security was always provided by the Indiana National Guard.
Sometime after Tony Hulman purchased the track from Eddie Rickenbacker in the fall of 1945, he and IMS President Wilbur Shaw decided they could do a better job and have more control by bringing the security in-house. The IMS Safety Patrol thus became a reality by the 1948 race.
But in those days, they weren’t called yellow shirts simply because they didn’t wear yellow. Instead, they were dressed in dark blue, heavy woolen shirts that buttoned up to the top and they all wore ties. The wool shirts were very comfortable only on chilly and blustery days, which we all know can exist in Indianapolis during the Month of May. However, they were unbearably hot during warm weather, which we also can be quite frequent in central Indiana in the late spring. Another frequent occurrence during the Month of May is rain, which was immediately soaked up by the wool shirts making them seem to weigh about thirty pounds. The dark blue woolen ensemble was topped off with a pith helmet. Most were silver, but department heads had theirs painted gold.
As it is with the Novi and roadsters, I am old enough to remember this outfit. Unbelievably, it is hard to find many photographs that show the uniform in detail. I suppose in those days, no one bothered to take their picture. Most records of this apparel exists only in photos of cars or drivers and they happened to get in the picture – such as this picture of Pat O’ Connor on the morning of the 1958 race, when he lost his life on the opening lap.
Around 1970, IMS officials finally recognized that the Safety Patrol could be comfortable and still do their job – perhaps better than ever because they weren’t wilting in the heat. The blue woolen shirts were replaced by the familiar yellow short-sleeved shirt with an open collar. For the first couple of years, a plastic helmet resembling a batting helmet was used in place of the pith helmet. Then they went to the now-familiar baseball cap that we see today.
I’m always amazed at how cheerful the Yellow Shirts are. Every Race Day morning when I pull into the main gate, I roll down my window to hand our tickets to a smiling face saying “Welcome”. Walking through the infield, no matter how obnoxious some fans can become, they do their job with a smile on their face. If you go some place long enough, you’ll eventually encounter a bad apple. I’ve experienced a couple of bad apples among the yellow shirts over the years, but the number of helpful, friendly faces far outnumber the few grumpy ones.
Have you ever tried to cross the path into Gasoline Alley behind the stands? I have no idea of the guy’s name, but I am certain he was the same blonde-headed fellow I saw there in 1992 directing traffic and blowing his whistle seemingly thousands of times a day. These people love what they do. Have you ever struck up a conversation with a Yellow Shirt? They’ve all been doing it for years and they have a million stories to tell.
So if you’re at The Speedway anytime this month and you find yourself annoyed because a Yellow Shirt is blowing his whistle at you – look around. You’re probably about to get run over by a tire cart. They are just doing their job. Instead of yelling back at them, strike up a conversation – they are usually very friendly and fascinating people.