Sunday, May 27

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Just finished a Memorial Day tradition, watching the Indianapolis 500. That's Dario Franchitti on the right, slugging down the traditional drink of milk (no one ever finishes the full bottle) after winning this year's rain-shortened 500, the 91st in Speedway history.

Of course my mind drifted back to when I drove the pace car at the 500, back in 1976.

OK, OK: it wasn’t the pace car, but it was a pace car. And it wasn’t in the race (or even on race day) but it was on the track.

I started as Executive Producer at WISH-TV in Indianapolis in April, ’76, knowing something about the famous race, but not knowing that in those days before NASCAR hit it big the 500 was the premier auto racing event in the world, and that it turned the entire town of Indianapolis on its ear for race month.

But I’m a fast learner. At the end of my first week, on a Saturday, I was getting gear stowed in my new desk when Sports Director Chet Coppock (I’ve written about him here before) walked into the newsroom, said he had some errands to run at the track, and asked if I’d like to tag along. Would I!

So we piled into his loaner car: a pace car replica. Don’t know if it’s still a 500 practice, but back then dignitaries and local sports figures were given replicas of the official pace car to drive around town for the month of May. Several dozen replicas were loaned out. Chet got one—a silver Buick LeSabre, if memory serves, with orange markings.

First stop, the Speedway Motel (the one at the top of Turn One, with the balconies overlooking the track). There we met up with Sid Collins, the long-time radio voice of the race. Sid was about to call his 25th Indy 500. No one knew then that it would be his last. A year later, less than a month before the 1977 race, Sid Collins killed himself after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). But on that long-ago Saturday, being with Sid Collins at the Brickyard was like being with Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium: he couldn’t move ten feet without being asked for his autograph, and he couldn't have been a nicer guy.

As we left, Chet asked if I’d like to take the car around the track. “You’re kidding! They won’t let us do that!”

“Sure, if the track is empty, you can take it around.”

And so…I did!

First impression? The smoothest piece of interstate asphalt feels like a rutted gravel road compared to the racing surface at Indy. A hundred miles an hour felt like 35 on I-70. Next thing you know I was going 110, then 120, then 130 (the Buick didn’t have the full race tuning of the actual pace car, but it was plenty quick). That’s when Chet started narrating: “Over here is where Billy Vukovich was killed. ‘Course, that was back in ’55. Now up here is where Swede Savage crashed and burned just three years ago. But he didn’t die in the wreck; he died a month later from burns.”

Next thing you know I’m going 90, then 80, then 70.

That was fun, and memorable. But the experience of race day—the crowds, the colors, the people, the sounds—words fail me. When the command “Gentlemen, start your engines” was given, and all those cars started revving up, only to be drowned out by a half-million cheering fans—I tell ya, it took my breath away.

The race that year was cut short by rain, just like this year’s. Johnny Rutherford won the “Indianapolis 255:” the race was called 102 laps in, making it the shortest race in 500 history.

I remember pledging after that day that no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, I’d always return to Indianapolis for the race. Sadly, I’ve only made one since. And every year I regret not being there for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

One other note. In those days the race was seen around the country on a tape-delay basis, hours later—except in Indianapolis. In Indy the ABC races played every year as a Christmas Week special: the track owners didn’t want to dilute their fan base by making the race to accessible for the locals: didn’t want to give them an excuse to stay home.

BUT, each TV station in town was allowed to shoot and air its own one-hour race-night special. The logistics of placing and manning the cameras, then rushing the film (in relays) back to the station for processing during the race, is a story I’ll save for another time.

I've been to an NFL championship game--pre Super Bowl, December 27, 1964 when "my" Browns won football's biggest game. I've been to a World Series game. I've never been to an NBA playoff game, or a Stanley Cup final. But what’s the line from that old movie: “Friend, I been to two state fairs a rodeo and a goat show and I ain’t never seen nothin’” like the Indianapolis 500.

Congratulations to Dario Franchitti, the winner of the 91st Indianapolis 500. Hope you had as much fun in ’07 as I had in ’76.