What A Sight To Behold!
I will admit that I suffered a fairly substantial drop-off in interest when baseball lost the World Series to a strike in 1994. I haven’t consciously boycotted the sport; I just found my interest was no longer as high when they came back in 1995. I still keep a close eye on the MLB post-season, though. It’s at this time of year, that I am reminded of the deep history of baseball and how it is one sport that keeps its past relevant in today’s “now” society.
Another sport that has a rich past to draw from is the IZOD IndyCar Series, or more specifically – the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series itself dates back to only 1996; but unlike his predecessor, CEO Randy Bernard is wise enough to recognize that open-wheel racing went back just a little further – about a hundred years further, to be exact. The first automobile race with all cars starting together, was held in France in 1895; when twenty-five cars raced the grueling distance of 732 miles from Paris to Bordeaux and back. For the record, the event was won by Émile Levassore in forty-eight hours and forty-seven minutes – nearly six hours ahead of second place.
We all know that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened in 1909 and that the Indianapolis 500 will celebrate its centennial next May. It will be only the ninety-fifth running of the event, due to lost years during World War I (1917-18) and World War II (1942-45). Many big things are planned for next May’s celebration. I’m sure there will also be as big a deal made for the one hundredth running in 2016.
One of the most unique events in preparation for next May took place on Tuesday with very little advance fanfare. I happened to learn about it on Twitter as it was taking place. It was a photo-shoot that most have already seen and read about by now, but it struck a chord with me and I felt compelled to discuss it.
In case you haven’t heard about this, the Speedway Museum emptied out a large portion of its inventory this past Tuesday. With a crystal clear sky predicted, it was the perfect opportunity for an unprecedented photo-shoot. On the front-stretch at IMS they lined up thirty-three winning cars in the familiar starting grid of eleven rows of three.
(All photos: Ron McQueeney, IndyCar)
The front row consisted of the very first winner from 1911, the Marmon Wasp; the most recent winner, Dario Franchitti’s Target sponsored Dallara; and the first winning car of the first four-time winner, AJ Foyt’s 1961 Bowe’s Seal Fast Special. The remaining ten rows didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it. If there was, I couldn’t figure it out – but who cares?
Almost all of my favorite winning cars were there, except for Foyt’s 1967 Coyote. There was Ol’ Calhoun, Parnelli Jones’s winning entry from 1963, Jim Clark’s Lotus 38 from 1965, Johnny Rutherford’s Chaparral from 1980, Mark Donohue’s 1972 Penske Sunoco McLaren, Bobby Unser’s 1968 Rislone Eagle and Al Unser’s 1970 Johnny Lightning 500 Special.
IMS Historian Donald Davidson was like a kid at Christmas. He actually used a word he seldom uses, to describe the occasion – awesome. He also pointed out that there were four cars that had won the race in consecutive years, and all four were on this magical grid: The Boyle Maserati (Wilbur Shaw 1939-40), the Blue Crown Special (Mauri Rose 1947-48), the Fuel Injection Special (Bill Vukovich 1953-54) and the Belond Special (Sam Hanks 1957 and Jimmy Bryan 1958). Coincidentally, three of the four double-winners were listed in an article I wrote last May entitled My Favorite All-Time Cars Of Indy. The one I didn’t list in my article, the Blue Crown Special – got me justifiably chastised for its omission in the very first comment listed after the article.
Going through the museum each May is always one of the highlights of my month. Although the Speedway tends to rotate its inventory, there are the old stand-bys that I want to see on every visit. Each year, Susan is bewildered how I’ll stand and gawk at the same cars year after year. She doesn’t fully understand how I can be mesmerized staring at a hunk of metal and four tires. She can’t see my imagination at work as I picture Parnelli Jones drifting out of turn four with the rear wheel just inches from the wall or Bill Vukovich charging to the front and refusing a relief driver, in spite of record heat that took the life of driver Carl Scarborough.
I take a trip back to a time before I was born with many of the cars. Looking at other cars takes me back to my own childhood, when I saw these very cars driven to victory. Now to come back some forty to forty-five years later and see these machines sitting still, it’s almost like seeing a long, lost friend. Although Mark Donohue has been gone for thirty-five years, seeing that beautiful blue Sunoco Special every year takes me back to that sunny day in 1972, when the fourth-year driver gave Roger Penske his first Indy win.
Given the thrill I receive with my annual pilgrimage to the museum to visit these machines in an artificial setting, I cannot imagine the feeling of seeing those thirty-three winners actually sitting on the very track where they achieved their glory. To witness these colorful cars basking in the warm Indiana sunshine on the track surface, would be a site to behold. Curt Cavin said it best last night, when he described these stately relics sitting in silence as almost in reverence. He said to wander from row to row and admiring them was almost an eerie cemetery-like experience.
Last May, I wrote about my race morning stroll from one end of the pits to the other. At the north end of the pit lane, it was rather quiet and empty. As I stood in each pit box, I wondered what drivers may have gotten their service there. Which pit was it where Lloyd Ruby pulled away too soon and ripped out the side of his fuel tank? What pit did AJ Foyt use when he got out of the car, removed the engine cowling and started flailing away with a hammer? These were the types of questions running through my head. It would be the same staring out those cars on that grid this week. Each of these cars would have such a story to tell. Just to stroll down each row would boggle the mind as you thought of the history behind each race.
The links to the past are strong in our sport – I think even stronger than baseball. It’s no secret that I enjoy the history of the Indianapolis 500, but I also enjoy the here and the now. You don’t have to be a curmudgeon stuck in a time warp to enjoy both the past and the present. We sometimes get a little frustrated with the current state of affairs, but one look at the cars on that grid on the main straightaway tells you all you need to know about why we follow the IZOD IndyCar Series, and why we keep going back to Indiana every May.