The Memories Of The Month Of May

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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!

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “The Memories Of The Month Of May”

  1. Jim Gray Says:

    I have walked the IMS grounds for hundreds of miles over the years and yet I still see something that makes me stop & stare every time I am there. Maybe it’s a flashback to a memory from the past, maybe it’s something new, but knowing that every trip will bring that moment of joy is what brings me back over and over again.

  2. This is how my family views Ohio State-Michigan. There is just something about it every (other) year and you hate not to be there. I am so jealous you saw Jim Clark’s Lotus 38. Such a beautiful car. Now we get aero kits! I suppose you could say things change.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Someone has been making unauthorized withdrawals from my memory bank, but I think my first Indy500 was 1950 or 1951. I am an emotional ol’ Irish man so I can relate to George’s father in that regard. I hope that the scripted agenda of the last hour leading up to the green flag never changes. These days fans often complain if a race is not exciting enough to meet their expectations, but during the Vukovich era, for example, Vuky was usually in a different time zone than the rest of the field. We watched from the infield then and there were no video boards to keep track of the field, so it often became boring. My grandfather liked his beer and after the race my job was to wander the golf course to find him. He would be asleep under a tree somewhere. I had to fill him in on the race results so he could tell grandma as if he had been there.

    My daughter was with me in 1992. The night before the race it rained so hard I could have floated a canoe down my uncle’s street in Broad Ripple. Perhaps the loudest the crowd got in my experience was when Danica Patrick took the lead late in the 2005 race. Electric! The quietest………..the Eddie Sachs/Dave McDonald fire.

  4. George, again you have written a special piece.
    Your first 500 in person was my second. My dad took me for the first time in 1963 when my Uncle, who was GM of Channel 6 in Indianapolis (WFBM in those days) provided us with two tickets across from the pits.
    Mom finally agreed to go with Dad the next year. When they got back that evening she reported that the pre-race buildup and ceremonies were the most thrilling experience she had ever had. Then the Sachs-McDonald crash happened right in front of them.
    Mom left the grounds and spent the rest of the race waiting in the car for Dad to drive home. She never set foot in any race track again and we were not allowed to mention auto racing in our home again for many years.
    Dad took my sister to her first 500 in 1966 and I listened on the radio.
    1967 was the first of three consecutive years I marched in the pre-race with my high school band. At least one of those years, behind our drum major were two or three rows of three band members carrying flags. The IMS photo files include an image our our band, with me on the outside of row one, entering the first turn.
    In 1970 and ’71 I was a paid spectator at the race.
    I believe it was ’71 when Mike Mosely and bobby Unser collided exiting Turn 4 and both cars burst into flames. Mosely bounced off the outside wall and slid into the disables car of mark Donohue and several others which has been parked along the inside wall.
    With the Kodak Retina Automatic III camera loaned to me by my Dad,
    I captured an image of the fireball of that collision, and the photographers who had been positioned at that spot on the wall, running for their lives. While that image has never been published, it did open the door for me on opening day in 1975, when I went to the Associated Press darkroom to offer my services as a photographer for the month. I had covered the race in 1972 and ’73 for the Indiana Daily Student as a sports writer, but wanted to shift to photography.
    I was told they were fully staffed, but I opened a box of my photos I had prepared to show what I could do, and an 8X10 color print of that images was on top. The response was “sign here and here,” and I covered the 500, and many other events, for AP through the ’92 race.
    In 1993, I moved to shooting for Reuters, and covered the race through ’95.
    I didn’t set foot inside IMS or even pay attention to the race again until 2000. In 2001 I was back with AP and back to cover the race, which I did through 2003, before deciding to retire from covering auto racing.
    A few years later I spent three consecutive years on the Safety Patrol, stationed at the end of the backstretch and inside Turn 3.
    Nine years ago this May, I was at the race with my siblings and some of our children, in memory of Dad who had died April 26th of that year. We had buried his ashes the day before and dropped Origami cranes made by my niece on the box containing his ashes. As it happened, the last two to fall were folded from black and white checkered paper and landed side by side, dead center on top of the box.
    I have been to one race since, still follow the month of May closely from San Antonio, TX, and may be there next year.
    I have so many special memories from my many years at IMS. I use to live for those four weeks.
    I have other passions now, but I will be watching The Race on my son’s birthday again this year. (BTW, the first three times the race was run on May 24th, my son was there and an Unser won each time.)

  5. JohnMc Says:

    I have a very personal relationship with the Indianapolis 500 as well as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Being a 6th generation Hoosier it is in my DNA. Also my grandfather, mother and father and my older brother gave me a strong background and made the race a family event. I knew the drivers past and present before I knew about Bill Wade and Ernie Banks. I now share the race and the track with my son, Jack, and I feel it is even more special than ever. Happy May 1st!

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Great stories everybody. I love reading about fans’ connections to, memories of, and experiences at 500 about as much as I love reading about the race and participants themselves.

  7. jhall14 Says:

    My 1st year was 1960, as a 5 year old kid with my mom and dad. We sat inside turn 1 before it became the original snake pit. I remember mom saying that they were gonna kill the race when it was switched from being on Memorial day to the Sunday version. Obviously she was wrong, but mom and dad were very religious people. Unfortunately as a family,we never had grandstand seats due to limited incomes. This fueled my desire to get seats in 1974, after graduating high school in 1973. In 74 we sat low in the NWVista, faced gridlock when the race was rained out,and it took 7 hours to get home when we lived 45 minutes from the track. Fast forward to 1982, upgraded seats to L stand,which now has became NEVista, and to this day, one of my greatest memories is dad clocking Mears, saying he was gaining a second a lap on Johncock. Now dad was not a PENSKE fan, he was so happy when Gordy won in 82. And now since 1989, I have the enjoyment of 2 sons who have completely followed my steps and as a family, my wife, my 2 sons and their wives enjoy the day, race day. My last wishes are for me to be able to enjoy this great event and attend with my grandson. He is only 1 now, but I look forward to the day in 4 – 6 years where he will attend.

    But May is here, and as I age, I become more meloncholy. Some days of practice or qualifying days, I just set there and remember great times I had at the track with a lot of friends and family. This will be my 56th straight year of attending this great race, and I certainly hope there are many more. “God I love this place”, as no other place in the world stirs the memory bank as The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

  8. SkipinSC Says:

    My May memories started in 1961, more as a family day at home with my parents and brothers “camped” around a radio, listening to the great Sid Collins relating the tragedy of Eddie Sachs late pit stop and the triumph of A. J. Foyt’s first victory. For the next 9 years, through 1970, it was always a “radio” experience, although living in Anderson, I got the “Star” every day and had WIBC plastered on my radio dial for the entire month.

    It was Pole Day in 1970 that I first went to the track for actual racing activity, even though I had been to IMS for “the tour” and to visit the original Museum on several occasions. The next year, our senior class from Culver Military Academy went to the actual race. My roommate and I walked up to the ticket window the morning of the race and acquired a pair of seats in (what was then) Tower Terrace and I was HOOKED.

    I missed the 1972 festivities while I was attending college in Atlanta, but I did get to see the tape-delayed coverage of the race.

    Ironically it was 1973, the year most of the denizens of the Speedway would like to forget, that I became a track “bum.” In that year, if there was a wheel turning at IMS, I was there. Even with all the rain and carnage of that unfortunate year, my love for the place only grew, as I spent most weekdays with camera and stopwatch taking pictures and timing hot laps and the weekends in the infield partying with my friends. Interestingly, the only day I missed being at IMS that year was the day when they finally completed the ill-fated race.

    Every year after that, I was at Pole Day and the race with two exceptions: In 1982, I willingly stayed away in protest over the abortive Bobby Unser/Mario Andretti/Bobby Unser long-litigated finish. My reward for doing this was to miss the closest finish in the history of the race to that time. So, it sucked me back in for another 4 years until 1986, when the double rain out caused me to miss due to job complications. I came back for 1987 to see Al Sr. win his fourth 500, but in ’88 and ’89, the job intervened again, and in 1990 I had moved south making a trip “home” for the race impossible.

    I went back in 2011 for the 100th Anniversary race and I plan to be there next year for the 100th running. Sadly, after attending with me in 2011, my wife said, “Never again,” so I’m trying to find a friend or two with whom to attend next year. Nowadays, my month of May is spent in front of my computer watching practice, or the TV watching qualifying and racing. But I can safely tell you, my wife still gives me grief when I cry at “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

  9. Yannick Says:

    It is here where it’s showing the most that I come from a whole nother continent: I’ve never even been stateside / to the US and neither have I been to the Indy 500. I don’t even remember when I watched my first Indy 500 on TV because throughout the 90s, I’ve been mainly interested in F1. However, I knew about oval racing in the US since Nigel Mansell’s move to IndyCar, since he was my favourite driver in the early 90s. My memories of that era of IndyCar are not exactly that precise anymore but that’s because I’ve just seen a few races on TV. I remember seeing Nigel Mansell at Milwaukee and my countryman Christian Danner at Elkhart Lake on a satellite TV station called Eurosport – with commentary by an announcer named Jacques Schulz who has been calling all the F1 races for Pay TV station Premiere/Sky here in Germany for what feels like since the beginning of the millenium now. He was the best German language motorsports announcer even then.
    A friend who knew I was into motorsports went to travel the US in 1996. I didn’t know where exactly it was that he went but when he returned, I got a present from him: a styrofoam cup holder with the logo of the Indy 500 on it. He had seen the race from one of the cheap seats. Though a bit more knowledgeable about motorsport in general, I couldn’t really relate to much what he had seen, since I didn’t know anything about the drivers in the field that day. Later, my interest in US open wheel increased again when DTM driver Dario Franchitti joined the CART grid. I remember having been impressed by Jimmy Vasser winning his first race in the season opener and continuing to win the championship, too. And I remember being impressed by Alex Zanardi, who I had seen crashing at Spa’s Eau Rouge whilst having been in the stands there years before, finally having great success on the racetrack. Usually, I tended to watch CART races once the F1 season was over. From this period, I remember having seen several races at Laguna Seca (including that amazing corkscrew overtake), Cleveland and Portland. I also remember switching the TV to see the finish of the 1999 CART season finale at Fontana where Franchitti and Montoya, both of whom I liked in DTM, were racing for the title. Because it was late at night and I wanted to sleep, I didn’t watch long enough to actually understand from the one post race interview I saw, that a driver had died that day. Only when the motorsports paper was in the shops the following week did I find out, and disliked oval racing even more because of that.
    Still, I wanted to watch the local race, the 2001 American Memorial at Lausitzring but my mother switched the TV to another station after just a few laps because she wanted to watch something else.
    As my favourite driver Franchitti moved to IRL not much later, which was all ovals at the time, I lost interest in the sport.
    But I was so happy for him when he won the Indy 500 and the title in 2007. However, he moved to NASCAR after that, and I could not care less about that. Only when reunification happened and Franchitti returned, have I started to watch races more regularly on whatever streams I could find. The SAFER barrier has been an amazing iprovement. I remember being really pumped up about IndyCar after Dan Wheldon’s 2011 Indy 500 victory until the first few laps of the 2011 Las Vegas race. Race officials really should have handed out blocking penalties during those first few laps to spread out the field more, but it all ended in heartbreak. Afterwards, I had an offseason to get rid of the motorsport bug, and even until last September, I’ve tried to be with friends when there’s a race on instead of watching it live because I take that as Dan’s message: spend time with your loved ones when you can. Still, the racing bug bit again, and I’ve seen Tony Kanaan’s record average speed Indy 500 on a webstream in 2013 but I preferred to not watch last year’s race live, instead helping my ex-girlfriend work on something difficult for uni during last year’s 500, even though we had just split some 2 weeks prior.
    Now I may or may not watch this year’s Indy 500. I haven’t decided yet but it might make some good “public viewing” in a pub downtown, if there is actually one that screens it.

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