My First Race, Fifty Years Ago

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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.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “My First Race, Fifty Years Ago”

  1. HB Donnelly Says:

    Fantastic retelling, George!

    My first was 1995 and, unfortunately, my first memory of cars at speed was Stan Fox’s brutal first turn crash…lots of smoke, debris, and confusion. Like you, I did pull for the eventual winner (Villeneuve) because of how striking the blue and white Forsythe car looked and because I knew Jacques was a great young driver. When the murmurs from folks with radios started that Scott Goodyear had been penalized for passing the pace car, I loved it!

    My seats are way better now (I have pagoda access as a part-time employee, as opposed to the old insode-Turn-1 bleachers), but I’ll be just as excited as I was in ’95 come May 24!

  2. If there is one thing that has been a constant over the years it’s the Indy 500. Thank God it was invented and carries on today. It has been a part of my life since I was about 6. It is fascinating to read your accounts from such a young age. I can’t believe you remember in so much detail. Its amazing memory is engaged when all 5 senses are overrun.

    My first race was in 1989 when Emerson Fittipaldi won. A good college friend of mine and I, just finishing our second year of college drove my 1980 Volkswagen Scirocco from Denver to Indy. Being the son of a race car driver , I always watched it on t.v. for as far back as I can remember which was about 6-7 years old. We sat low in the south stands between turns 1 and turn 2 to where the cars would almost disappear behind the wall as they passed in front of us and all you could see was the roll hoop go by. I will never forget the speed. To actually see, feel, and hear a race car going well over 200 mph drifting right up against a concrete wall just feet in front of hundreds of people was short of utopia for me. You can always pick out the first timers in the stands and we were 2 of them. There were 2 distinct sounds: the engine- a Chevy and Ford turbo v-8 (there may have been a couple of Buicks in there too) but almost as loud was the air traveling around and over the car. That sound burnt an indelible memory into by brain that will last forever. I have always been fascinated with speed and that was the ultimate incarnation of it for me.

    Another memory for me was the scene outside of the track before the race. To see that many people offering their driveways and yards as places to park and everyone so happy and in party mode was for me, the perfect place to be.

  3. I had been to qualifications in 1978, but my first race I attended was 1983. I remember being shocked at the size of the place. We sat in the Snake Pit area of the infield between turns 1 and 2. We couldn’t see a lot of the race but it was fun to actually be there (I had watched the races on TV beginning in 1970 with Al Unser’s first win).

    Loved sitting there watching all the crazies come into the infield though the tunnel. My favorite was a guy sitting in a full size living room chair in the back of a pickup. Like the king of the race. The truck had to stop in line part of the way up the entrance ramp just before where the road forks basically around the museum area. When his buddy sped up too quickly, he fell head first out of the truck and rolled head first all the way back down the roadway and under the track. Got up and ran back to the truck to the cheers of thousands. One of the funniest things I saw there (of many!)

    In fact we went up Saturday and the antics outside the track were amazing to watch as well. I had never seen such crazies. We stayed in the parking area that used to be railroad tracks. I was last up there in 2011 and it seems like the crowd has calmed down quite a bit compared to those days.

    This was when the White Castle was still across the street from the track. I will never forget the sight of white castle hamburger boxes all over the roads for miles. White Castle must have sold a hundred thousand hamburgers that night.

    It wasn’t until two years later, sitting in the same place, that we got to see Danny Sullivan spin right in front of Mario Andretti, probably the highlight of the race. And the only part of the track we could see. Sullivan regained control and went on to win the race. Definitely the highlight of our “infield” years.

  4. My first Indianapolis 500 was the 1964 race and if it wasn’t for the fact that I grew up in a race fan family it might have been one where I developed a different perspective. However, AJ Foyt won and we were already an AJ Foyt family. I can remember seeing Parnelli Jones and AJ duel throughout the early part of the race and Parnelli leap from his car in the pits because it and he were on fire. I fell in love with the Mustang and got my first look at Jim Clark.

    In 1965 I was enamored Jim Clark’s Lotus. What a terrific race.

  5. I’ve never been but that changes this year!

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Congrats! The first one always ranks up there with our favorites. The sensations are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced and most everyone else here will tell you the same. Wherever you may be located when the green flag flies, know that we’re all with you somewhere in there and feeling that excitement all over again.

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    George, I feel like I was there, even though that’s impossible. Thanks again for sharing those very personal memories with us all. For those of us who remain dedicated attendees, I think we all share this ‘first race’ experience to some degree. I love the ‘knowing nod of understanding’ whenever I hear someone’s regaling of their first Indy 500.

  7. Gurney Eagle Says:

    The thing I most remember about my first 500 in 1968 was the huge cheer that went up when the Joe Leonard turbine dropped out on the restart on Lap 192.

    I have exactly the same response to the smell of bad cigars. And spilled beer.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Interesting how strong a memory that first race can be, even at such a young age. Probably half of things I remember from age 5 involve rooting for Jeff Ward at a Supercross race at the Astrodome, my first motorsports experience. Indy at around that age would have really been something else.

    Thanks for sharing George, and everyone.

  9. There is something mythical about greatness that is robbed from us before their time. From Lincoln and Kennedy to Clark and Senna. I cannot think of a better 500 to be anyone’s first. Well done George.

  10. jhall14 Says:

    1960 was my 1st. 5 years old, I became a Rodger Ward fan that day until he retired in 1965 or 66.The things I remember were the back and forth battle of Ward and Jim Rathman. The other thing I remember was watching from the infield,mom and dad were not wealthy but always went to the race. I always said I would get grandstand seats someday. Well I did in 1974, when I became 19 years old. I sat in the NWVista in 74,75 and 76 and in 1977 I upgraded to Stand L in turn 3, which became the NEVista, and I have been there ever since. One of my best memories was to get to set by my dad in the grandstands from 1977 until he no longer went in the late 80’s. So I pass it forward to my sons,there wives and a family gathering, they have taken my passion and it has became there’s. I love this place, this race, and once again we will meet in Section 20 Row DD & EE to place another year in the record books, for my 56th straight race, at the World’s Greatest Race Course, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Thank You Lord!!

  11. After years of wanting to go to the race, I got my chance in 2008. So many reasons that I got hooked and keep going back. Just got a bronze badge for my birthday. I love it more than I can even put into words.

  12. very good, george.

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