Pole Day Memories

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has produced its share of personal memories for me over the years. When I think of going to Pole Days as a wide-eyed kid in the sixties, the first word that comes to mind is COLD. Qualifying for the 1967 race was a mixture of rain, cold temperatures and wind. Our seats were covered, so at least we kept dry as the morning started with a drizzle. It was hard for an eight year-old like me to stay entertained when there were no cars to look at. Finally, the rain subsided and, one by one, the cars began to roll through Gasoline Alley. Our seats in Stand A were just across from the scoring pylon, so we had a perfect view as each car made it’s appearance onto pit road.

Of course, everyone watched in amazement as the fluorescent orange, Parnelli Jones turbine from Andy Granatelli, made it’s way into view. I had never seen a color like that. The day was gray and overcast, but the car stood out brightly as if it were burning. That year was only going to be my second 500, but this was unlike anything I had ever seen. My first race in 1965 exposed me to roadsters and the new rear-engine cars, but nothing like this. I thought I had seen it all—until it ran.

We were seated toward the first turn. While most cars went roaring down the straightaway before lifting to enter the turn, this wide-bodied monster went by with just a “woosh”. It quickly earned several nicknames including Woosh-mobile and Silent Sam, among others. It literally sounded like a quick burst of wind. Then the biggest surprise was to watch the airbrake in the back, flip up like a trunk as it entered the turn. Of course, the die-hards didn’t like it, but to a third-grade kid…well, it couldn’t get much cooler than that.

Unbelievably, qualifying in 1968 did get cooler…in more ways than one. It was another cold day at the track, but late in the day the wedge-shaped Lotus turbines took to the track. Andy Granatelli had returned with three turbines for 1968. The wedge-shaped Lotus was by far, the sleekest looking car to ever turn a wheel at the Speedway. They were again painted in day-glo STP orange, but this time the smaller turbines were mounted behind the driver, instead of beside the driver as the year before. This enabled the designers to create a wedge shaped body that would slice through the air and provide downforce in the turns. This car was from the future and made the old Silent Sam look like a dinosaur. It actually was from the future, as the following year, most of the cars had incorporated the wedge into their design.

Two of the three took the top two spots on the grid, with Joe Leonard on the pole. Being a fickle kid, Leonard suddenly became my new favorite, as he set a track record at over 171 mph. Unfortunately, by race day; the STP team had painted the noses of the cars different colors in order to tell them apart. Leonard’s No. 60 Lotus was the ugliest. They painted the nose, and even the front-tire sidewalls and wheels, a hideous fluorescent lime green.

By 1971, I was already a Team Penske fan. When Roger Penske first appeared as an owner in 1969, I didn’t pay too much attention to owners at that time. But his driver Mark Donohue quickly became one of my favorites. I liked his car, the way he drove and the way he carried himself. I was pulling for him to win the Pole in 1971. He had been leading the speed charts all month, but Peter Revson snagged the pole that day. I was bummed.

After attending qualifying and the race in 1972, I went on a twenty-year hiatus from the Speedway. High school, college and life took precedence. But then I got my priorities in order, and I returned to the race in 1992, and Pole weekend in 1993. We had a friend of a friend who was one of the old-timers in the garage area. He got us back there for the whole weekend and into the Old Timers Club, where we got to meet Duke Nalon and Johnny Boyd. Both have since passed away, along with the two friends.

Nowadays, I have made a point to attend the track on Pole Day every year…regardless of the weather forecast. Of course, Race Day is always the big event, but in many ways, I almost prefer Pole Day to Race Day. The crowds are not as big (especially recently), the atmosphere is more laid back, the teams and drivers are more accessible and the whole place is filled with anticipation for what is to come.

I wish more people would go to Pole Day. It is a bargain. For ten dollars, you get full access to almost any seats in the place. It is a good day to go sample other seats in case you are thinking of moving your tickets for next year. You get an entire day at the hallowed ground to just take it all in. Race Day is so intense; it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the moment. Some of my fondest memories of the Indianapolis 500, came from Pole Day. The run for the pole used to be the world’s second-largest single day sporting event. It is still one of my biggest days of the year.

George Phillips

Please Note: I will be traveling to and from Pole Day on Saturday. I will be providing quick updates from the track via i-Phone & Twitter, but there may be no blog column On Sunday.

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