My First Race, Fifty Years Ago
You will hear more than once this month that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my first Indianapolis 500. Some are surprised to find out that I have any recollection whatsoever of being there in 1965, since I was only six years old.
I don’t have that many memories of 1965. I remember that Winston Churchill died that January. I wasn’t real sure who Winston Churchill was back then, but from my father’s reaction – I knew he was someone important and that he respected a lot. That was also about the same time that I had the chicken pox.
1965 was also the year that I wrapped up first grade, in fact just about a week before going to Indianapolis. It was an uneventful first year in school. I remember being there, but nothing remarkable really stands out – except that a classmate named Pam pooped at her desk. We got an unexpected and extended recess that day.
But I vividly remember Memorial Day of 1965. Back then, the Indianapolis 500 always ran on Memorial Day, May 30th, – no matter what day of the week it fell on. If it fell on a Wednesday, the race ran on Wednesday. In 1965, May 30th was on Sunday. Running on Sunday was a no-no in those days, so they always ran it on the following Monday when that happened.
I remember that we drove up on Sunday. Unlike today, I-65 was very incomplete between Nashville and Indianapolis. Given the fact that I grew up in West Tennessee, it was more than an eight-hour drive to get there. One of my memories of that trip was that we saw oil wells on the way. Another was that Kentucky and Indiana had toll roads.
One thing that really surprised me was that Esso stations in Indiana were called Enco. The signs looked the same, but with different names. Less than a decade later, they both became Exxon, so it didn’t really matter. But in my very few trips to Canada, I’ve noticed that it’s still called Esso up there. Anyway…
I remember going to the track the afternoon before the race, after we got up there. It was not the mob scene before the race that there is now. I don’t recall any campers alongside Crawfordsville Road or Georgetown Road like there are nowadays. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, but I don’t remember them.
What I do remember is seeing the lower concrete stands and the upper steel stands shining in the late afternoon sunlight. I also remember being amazed at how big the whole place was, as we seemingly drove down Georgetown Road forever. I think in my mind I pictured something just slightly bigger than our local Little League baseball stadium, where I had gone to watch my brothers play. Throughout the past year, I had studied pictures from my brother’s programs from when they attended the 1964 race. I knew what the place looked like, but it never dawned on me how big it was. Come to think of it, every time I go into the place, I’m still amazed at the size.
My brothers had been to the 1964 race, and the program they brought back with them had many photos and articles devoted to the previous year’s winner. My father and brothers saw AJ Foyt win the year before and they were pulling for him. After memorizing the 1964 program for a year, I decided that Parnelli Jones was my guy. His 1963 winner was the best looking car in the program and he had that great name. To a six year-old, there was no other reason to look any deeper. When I saw magazine pictures of that unique gold and white Lotus that Parnelli was to drive in th 1965 race, there was no question who I was for.
My father and brothers were not for Jim Clark – for two reasons. First, he was foreign. Second, they saw Clark and Colin Chapman as the ones most responsible for the demise of the roadsters. Pay no attention to the fact that AJ Foyt had switched to the rear-engine Lotus that year. There were only six roadsters in the field of the 1965 race. By 1969, they would be gone for good.
I wasn’t as enamored with the roadsters then as I am now. I saw them as clunky relics, while the rear-engine cars were sleek and futuristic looking. But I do remember there was one roadster that had a loud and unique sound that I liked so much better than the other cars. Bobby Unser drove that Novi past our seats for sixty-nine laps, before dropping out. His teammate, Jim Hurtubise only lasted one lap, so I never got to hear his car much. That was the last year a Novi engine ever raced at Indianapolis.
My mother was very indifferent about the whole thing. If the truth were known, she would have preferred to stay at home. I think her job was to keep me entertained in case I got bored. Instead, she got bored because I was fascinated with everything I saw. She went to the race every year up through the 1969 race. After that, I think she had had enough. My mother will turn ninety-one in a couple of months, and is probably healthier than I am. She still drives everywhere, sings in the church choir, lives alone in the same house I grew up in and goes to exercise class three times a week.
She has also read every post I have put up here for the past six years. I’m very grateful that she reads it early each morning and e-mails me the corrections by the time I get to work. Although she was very uninterested in going to the race in the sixties, now that I have this site – she watches the race every year on television.
I never told my brothers that day that even though Parnelli had lost, finishing second, I was very happy with Jim Clark’s win. From the little I knew about him, he seemed like a nice enough guy. But even then, I knew what a beautiful car that Lotus 38 in British racing green was.
His car was in the middle of the front row, in between AJ Foyt on the pole and Dan Gurney on the outside. We were sitting in Stand J that day, as the cars were coming out of Turn Four. As the field made its way around on the parade and pace lap, that car was striking. It was a bright sunny day, and the yellow trim on the car jumped out at you. I can remember that sight as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
In fact, it’s really amazing how much I do remember. I was on sensory overload. All those cars and all those sounds made a lasting impression. There was also the smell that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t the smell of methanol or burning rubber that has stayed embedded in my brain all these years. It was the smell of cheap cigars. To this day, if I’m ever downwind of a bad cigar, it immediately takes me back to my first Indianapolis 500 when Jim Clark won.
One thing about my father, he always wanted to be the first one there and the first one to leave. Unlike myself, he was never one to stand around and savor the moment of a driver winning the race. By Lap 195, we were told to gather our belongings. When the checkered flag flew, that was his cue to bolt for the exits. We never saw Clark take his victory lap or ride around the track in the pace car. We were long gone by that point.
Thank God my mother was there, because he and my brothers scooted way on ahead and left us behind. The race we had watched on the track had nothing on my father’s race to the car. I remember holding my mother’s hand through the massive crowd, wondering if we’d ever see the rest of the family again.
Of course, we did…eventually. Driving back to Tennessee the next day, I buried myself into the new program that differentiated itself from the previous year’s only by saying it was the 49th instead of the 48th. That’s how much simpler things were then. I had been looking forward to that race ever since I had been left behind the year before, as a five year-old deemed too young to go. Unfortunately, it would be two years before I returned – as my father opted to take his brother and father instead.
But that day confirmed what I had been suspecting since my brothers returned a year earlier with their programs and their tales of going to the “500” – this was something I never wanted to miss.
Fifty years later, I still don’t want to miss it. I’ve been to this race as a young child, an adolescent, a young adult and now approaching old-age (if I’m not considered there already). The last race I missed was in 2002. I’m hoping I’ve got at least another twenty-five or so left in me. Nothing short of a family catastrophe or my own ailing health will keep me away anytime soon.
As I said a couple of weeks ago – I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, but there’s one thing that will never change. The excitement that I’ll feel on Race Morning in a week and a half will be at the same level as it was when I was a six year-old in 1965 awaiting my very first Indianapolis 500 – fifty years ago.