The Memories Of The Month Of May
Welcome to the Month of May and the beginning of the seventh year of Oilpressure.com. Six years ago today, I started this site. I had no idea what it would lead to when I started, nor did I have any clue I would still be blogging six years later. It has been a blast and led to experiences I never would have dreamed of. I’ve committed to myself that I will continue this site through the one-hundredth running of the Indianapolis 500 next year. After that, I’ll play it by ear.
Susan and I have our most ambitious May schedule yet. It starts tomorrow as Susan and I will be heading up for our first of four weekends. We’ll kick the month off by dining tomorrow night with friends at Dawson’s on Main in Speedway. Then on Sunday, we’ll be at IMS for the debut of the oval aero kits and the open test that is to be considered Opening Day at IMS.
We’ll return home Sunday night, but we’ll be back up there next Friday for practice and qualifying for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. We’ll be there through the weekend, even though there is no track activity that Sunday. We return the following Friday for Fast Friday and then the entire Qualifying weekend. Finally, we will make the trek up there one final time for Carb Day, the Burger Bash, Legend’s Day and of course Race Day for the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
As usual, I will try to post something here almost every weekday in May through the “500” – but no guarantees. The paycheck job, reality and life may prevent that from happening once or twice, but I’ll try. Except for this weekend, I’ll also be posting on weekends when we are up at the track. For the aero kit open test this weekend, there is so little time – I want to be out watching cars, rather than typing in the media center, but I’ll have a full report here on Monday.
Every Month of May is special to any open-wheel race fan. But to me, this one is particularly special in a selfish sort of way. It’s a personal milestone for me, for it was fifty years ago this year that I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965. Yes, I was only six years-old at the time, but I remember it like it happened yesterday.
The sounds of the Novi, the sights of the six roadsters that were in the field along with the beauty of Jim Clark’s winning Lotus were all things like I had never experienced before, and I knew I wanted to go back. Unfortunately, my father took my grandfather and uncle the next year and two full years would pass before I would return to 16th and Georgetown. To a kid, that’s literally a lifetime.
When I did finally return it was Pole Day in 1967. I got to witness the rolling out of Silent Sam, Parnelli Jones’ turbine-powered machine, from Gasoline Alley into the pits. Never before, had I seen day-glo orange. Even on that cloudy morning, that fluorescent color practically burned my retina. Then later on, the sound (or lack thereof) was so unique compared to the Offy’s and V8 Fords of the day. It was fast, but qualified sixth.
Two weeks later, we returned for the race. It was an iconic front-row of Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Gordon Johncock that led the field to the green flag. But it didn’t take long for the power of the turbine to show its muscle. Jones passed Andretti on the backstretch on the first lap and never looked back. He dominated the race until a faulty ball-bearing sidelined the turbine, with three laps to go. AJ Foyt won the race in dramatic fashion, weaving his way through a front-straightaway pileup on the final lap.
For the next several years, I was there for every Pole Day and the race. I witnessed Bobby Unser’s first win. I saw Mario Andretti’s only victory. I was there for the first two of Al Unser’s four wins. And I saw Roger Penske win his first “500” with Mark Donohue. I also heard Jim Nabors sing Back Home Again in Indiana for his very first time in 1972.
Then shortly after the 1972 race, my father announced he was giving up his tickets for reasons I still don’t understand to this very day. For twenty years, I did not go to the Indianapolis 500 – although I still kept up with it as best we could in those pre-internet days and watched it every year.
About three weeks after the 1991 race, which is still one of my all-time favorite races – my first wife and I visited Chicago. On the way back, I suggested we stop and tour IMS. We went through the museum and took the bus tour around the track. Seeing the pits with the names of Foyt, Mears and Andretti still on the walls gave me chills. The bug bit me – again. On the way home, I informed her that we would return to the Indianapolis 500 in 1992. Reluctantly, she agreed.
We were there on that cold race morning the following May. My wife didn’t really understand why I was so thrilled about the whole day. She shrugged when I explained how that booming voice of Tom Carnegie was still on the PA, as he was when I was a kid and long before that. She thought it was silly to get worked up over an old has-been singing Back Home Again in Indiana. She was indifferent to Mary Fendrich Hulman giving the command to start engines. Worst of all, she didn’t like the noise. It’s not too hard to understand why she became my ex just four years later.
The next year, in 1993, she stayed home. It worked out great because I took my father instead. My father was not a sports fan, but he was a car guy and he absolutely loved the Indianapolis 500. Since 1964, when he took my two older brothers, he loved the Month of May. Each May, he would subscribe to The Indianapolis Star for the entire month – because in those days, the Month of May actually lasted an entire month. His love of the Indianapolis 500 led to my love of the Indianapolis 500. He instilled it in me. He was a very emotional man – much more so than me. Each year, when Tony Hulman gave the command to start engines, he blubbered like a baby.
When I offered him the chance to go to the 1993 race, he jumped at it. A friend of a friend worked for USAC in May, and he got us into the garage area on race morning. I’ll never forget the site of my father standing in that large expanse of concrete in the garage area that leads out to the pits. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he said “I never thought I would ever stand in Gasoline Alley”.
We watched the race from our seats. It was a very good race, with controversy at the end as Emerson Fittipaldi chose to drink orange juice in Victory Lane instead of milk. He and I had a wonderful time together as we reminisced about our times together in the sixties, while enjoying what we had just witnessed. We could not have had a better trip together. It’s a good thing. By the time the 1994 race rolled around, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in December 1994 at the age of sixty-eight. I’ll forever cherish our one final Indianapolis 500 together in 1993.
My wife and I went together in 1994 and 1995. When the split took place in 1996, I chose to not go even though we had tickets. During those years that I call the dark days of the IRL, I did not go. In the meantime, my wife and I had our own split that same year. We got divorced and I became a single dad of two young children, as she moved on alone in search of greener pastures. I no longer had the funds, the time, nor the desire to go to the Indianapolis 500. That was not a good time in my life.
But in 2001, Susan and I re-connected from our dating days in college. In 2002, I took both of the kids with me to Bump Day qualifying and got the bug – again. As soon as the 2002 race was over, I ordered tickets for the 2003 race. I have not missed a race since.
My daughter Katie went to the race once, in 2004. I doubt that she has any interest in ever going back. My son, Trey, went with me a few times – but 2005 was his last year to go. He is now twenty-five and lost interest in it during his teenage years, but he has announced he’d like to go next year. As with many that age, his interests comes and goes, so it may or may not happen. But if it does, perhaps that will rekindle the flame for the next Phillips generation for future months of May.
As far as attending the Indianapolis 500, it has been somewhat streaky for me over the past fifty years. I went seven of eight years, then I missed nineteen in a row. After four consecutive years of attending, I missed all of the next the next seven. This year will be my thirteenth in a row. All total for the past fifty years, this year will be the twenty-fourth Indianapolis 500 that I’ve attended in person. That’s not bad, but I know there are many of you that have streaks that run for several decades without ever missing a race.
But in those stretches where I did not go, it always killed me to not be there. Many things have changed in my life over that time and many things have changed about the Indianapolis 500 since 1965. In fact, there’s not a lot that’s still the same. The sight of the track and the massive grandstands still pretty much look the same – at least at first glance. Other than that, the changes have been many. But one thing has not changed – the feel of the place on Race Morning.
In 1965 as well as last year, the atmosphere before the race was electric. There is always excitement watching the cars roll out to the grid as the Purdue Band plays On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away. The anticipation builds with the performing of Back Home Again in Indiana. It ratchets up when the balloons are released. When the command to start engines is given and the field begins to pull away…well, there are not many moments in life, much less sports, that can top that.
Every May is special for anyone that is a fan of the Indianapolis 500. I’ve witnessed a lot at that historic oval over the last fifty years. I’m hoping I have many, many more to go in this lifetime. But when I’m an old man, hopefully in my nineties, and I look back on all of my wonderful memories at the Indianapolis 500 – the best memories won’t be about what happened on the track. It will be about the good times I had and the people I was with – my parents, my brothers, my kids and my wife Susan, who actually gets everything there is about the Indianapolis 500.
Let another May full of memories begin!