When I Really Got The Indianapolis 500

This Saturday, May 13th, will not only mark the fourth IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but it marks the fiftieth anniversary of the day I really fell in love with the Indianapolis 500. Most would think that that happened two years earlier when I attended my first race in 1965. Well, that race made a lasting impression on me and I knew I wanted to go back – but I was still a little young to fully comprehend what was going on.

In a kid’s world; the two year jump from being six to eight is monumental. As a six year-old, you might like the idea of going to a baseball game, but you probably don’t really understand what is going on. As an eight year-old, you do.

I did not get to go to the race in 1966. My father took my uncle and grandfather, instead. That gave me two full years to comprehend what I had witnessed in May of 1965. I studied the programs and pelted my brothers with questions so I could be as knowledgeable as any kid my age about the race.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my father announced that not only would we all be returning to the race in 1967, he had upgraded our seats to Stand A – very close to where I currently sit. As an added bonus, we would also attend Pole Day for the first time – an event that ended up being an annual ritual for the next several years, along with going to the race two weeks later.

What I remember most about the 1965 race was the bright color of everything. The sun was shining. We sat in Stand J and could not really see any of the cars on the grid; at least I couldn’t at my height. I remember the bands, the Golden Girl from Purdue and the big bass drum. But I never saw a race car until the field came around for the first time on the Parade Lap. It’s a sight I remember vividly to this day.

Talk about color! The front row was an explosion of color. The red & white car of AJ Foyt on the pole, the beautiful British racing green Lotus of Jim Clark and the white car with the red nose of Dan Gurney are a sight I’ll never forget. Add in the unique gold car of Parnelli Jones and it was almost sensory overload – or so I thought.

Pole Day in 1967 had a completely different feel. It was cold and cloudy. We sat in our new seats for the race on Pole Day. Although it was General Admission, you had to stake out your seats early and stay there. It wasn’t like qualifying today where everyone has the ability to roam around freely and check out different viewpoints. In those days, Pole Day was unofficially considered the world’s second-largest single day sporting event. While Race Day estimates were close to 400,000; Pole Day reportedly drew over 200,000. So if you had a good seat, you kept it for the day.

We got there not long after the gates opened and quickly claimed our new seats, which would be our vantage point for the next several years. Unlike Stand J, we were under the overhang in case it rained. It never did that day, but it always looked like it could at any minute. As the stands filled, the additional bodies made it a little warmer and helped block the wind. I was freezing, but my father bought me a cup of hot-chocolate that was about the best thing I could have at that point.

I was getting restless when they suddenly started pushing the cars out of Gasoline Alley. One by one, they rolled out the silent machines. Our seats were located just slightly south and across the track from the entrance to Gasoline Alley so we could see some of the old garages through the opening between the stands.

Pit Road was coming to life. More and more cars were lining up in the massive pits and each one had people swarming around it. As the steady flow of cars and mechanics continued, I was content to sit and watch. But then it happened.

I had heard my brothers talking about a car that Parnelli Jones would be driving, with a jet engine in it. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I figured it would probably look like most of the other cars. But when they rolled Silent Sam out of Gasoline Alley and onto Pit Road, it was like nothing I had ever seen before.

I mentioned the color from front row accented by the sunlight in 1965. That was nothing compared to the day-glo color of the STP Turbine. There’s a reason they use the term day-glo to describe the fluorescent orange that adorned the No.40 car. It seemed to glow on such a dark and gloomy day. As they wheeled it further down Pit Road, we never lost sight of it. The car stood out and seemed to glow as if it had spot lights on it.

Practice got underway and our better seats gave me a whole new perspective. Sitting down low in Stand J was a little difficult for a six year-old to see a lot. But sitting up high on the straightaway allowed us to see the cars seemingly ricochet coming out of Turn Four, speed down the main straightaway and head through Turn One. The obtrusive Gasoline Alley Suites had not been built yet and you could see a lot more of Turn One than you can today.

I was amazed at how crowded practice was. I don’t know if they split them into groups like they do now, because it seemed like there were fifty or sixty cars on the track. Maybe that was just my perception still being a wide-eyed kid.

After practice, there was a lull. We broke into the cooler and ate the lunch my mother, who didn’t make the trip, packed for us. I was also able to talk my father into buying me a hot dog at the concession stand down below. Too bad I was unaware of the classic Jumbo Tenderloin back then.

And then qualifications started. By now, I understood what the qualifying format was about. I may not have understood the intricacies of Bump Day, but I knew Pole Day was all about who was the fastest over four laps.

Do I remember every single qualifying run that day? No. I’d be lying if I said I did. But I remember many of them, some for the strangest of reasons.

One thing that stands out in my mind was when Dan Gurney ran. At the time he was on the provisional pole. When they interviewed him all he said was “I’m surprised!” as he seemed genuinely dumbfounded he had found that much speed. Unfortunately for Gurney, it was short-lived. Mario Andretti went out shortly afterward and put up a speed that was more than a mile-and-a-half per hour quicker than Gurney, who still managed to hold on to the second starting spot.

I also remember the run of Parnelli Jones and Silent Sam. Although I was only eight and a total racing novice, I knew race cars didn’t sound like that. You’ve heard it described as a woosh-mobile for good reason. That’s the exact sound you heard as it wooshed by you.

There were twenty-five cars qualified that day. It’s a good thing because the rain that threatened us all day on Saturday washed out Day Two on Sunday. We didn’t care. We left for home just after the gun sounded on Pole Day.

The first three rows of the 1967 Indianapolis 500 made up a virtual who’s-who in racing. From the pole to the outside of Row Three, it contained Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock, AJ Foyt, Joe Leonard, Parnelli Jones, Lloyd Ruby, Bobby Unser and Al Unser. There were a total of fifteen Indianapolis 500 wins in the first three rows of the 1967 race and thirteen poles.

When we left that day, I felt I had a jump on what to expect when we returned in two weeks. We had our new programs in hand and had already seen the cars – including Silent Sam. It was on the way home that I realized I couldn’t wait to get back in two weeks. Looking back, it was then that I really started to understand the Indianapolis 500 and that’s when my love affair with that track and event really started. It’s comforting to know that fifty years later this Saturday – I’ll be right back in the same spot.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “When I Really Got The Indianapolis 500”

  1. Jack Phillips Says:

    Thanks for the memories, George. I have much the same memories, and still feel that was one of the most important races in Indy history. I remember being elated when the dreaded turbine car broke down allowing Foyt to get his third Indy win. You were furious and sulked the rest of the way home.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I’ve heard that about George before, and his love of the turbine (while certainly understandably intriguing as a race car) doesn’t jibe with his ‘change is bad’ mantra of today. I still wonder a bit if there’s a young George in there somewhere that embraces ‘newfangled’ things or if this bitter defeat in 1967 set him on a more traditionalistic course.

      For the record, I had a similar occurrence on my first trip (1979) in which my father’s favorite driver Al Unser (which of course was mine as well) was driving a revolutionary car (the Chaparral 2K – ‘ground effect’ car) and was well on his way to his fourth win when a transmission seal let go, ending his dominant race.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    Sharing comments from Mike Knapp at the web site 15 Days in May.

    And his first memories of Indy.

    The following is from his web site

    “Despite being social media savvy and having an understanding of how all of it works, there are times where I am still completely fascinated by the wide reach media and social media actually has. The information about today’s (Alonso) test just moved so quickly, from video to lap times to interviews, that anything you wanted to know was easily available and accessible.

    It made me think back to when I was first starting to get interested in the Indy 500, and how I got my information then. When I went to IMS the first time, in 1979, we only lived an hour from Indy, so we got to see the wrap-up shows on the news and then got to read everything in long form the next day in the Indianapolis Star.

    A year later, we moved to Central Illinois, and for the most part my only lifeline to Indy — other than Pole Day when I was there and lines of agate in the Peoria Journal Star — was a month-long subscription to the Star.

    Not the digital edition, mind you, since that was 15 years away, but the real, actual newspaper delivered to our house on Apple Drive via US Mail. Sometimes I would get lucky and the paper would arrive a day after it was published, but usually it was 2-3 days before I got my hands on it.

    Then again, that didn’t matter to me. As soon as I got home I would tear the brown paper the Star was wrapped in and open it up to the sports section. Despite being “old news” it felt new to me. I may have heard a little news or saw some speeds or something, but not enough to spoil it for me. I loved reading the stories and seeing the great photography — the Star had some amazing shooters back then — and for a while I felt like I was back in Indiana again, living for the 500.

    Of course, I still live for the 500, but it’s funny to think about how 30 years ago I would wait 2-3 days for information, and how now I really can’t wait 2-3 minutes. I HAVE to know, right now!

    While I love the speed, it’s fun to romanticize about those days, because it was through those newspapers, those words combined with my sense of imagination, that I developed the love for the 500 I have today. Back then, Indy was this mystical place that my eyes only got to see once a year, but in my imagination I was there pretty much every day. The newspaper was what brought it to life for me.

    I’m sure people still do that today, but what’s left to the imagination, you know?

    There is nothing to picture in your mind, it’s all delivered to you in an instant.

    I love technology and everything it brings to our world, but I wouldn’t trade those days of jumping off the school bus, grabbing the paper out of the mailbox and devouring it as quickly as possible for anything. “

  3. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Attending the race merely sealed it for me.

    I had been a faithful listener of the Radio Broadcasts with my father on Memorial Day for years and I can say that between his love of the race and the brilliant way the action was called around the track, each year I hoped the next would be the one my father took me to see in person. We also faithfully watched the delayed ABC coverage each year to see the bits we’d only heard about. After a seemingly interminable number of years (5, I think it was), I finally made it to see the race – age 11.

    Like you, that first parade lap, then the first at speed are images indelibly inked into my being.

  4. John Henninger Says:

    I was nine years old when I went to my first Indy 500 in 1975. My Dad worked in Gasoline Alley for Bear Automotive. They had alignment racks that all the cars used. They also balanced all the tires. Bear had tickets in Tower Terrace. All the Bear workers wives would go to the race every year. In 1975, my Mom and Dad decided that I could go that year. Needless to say, I was very excited. For a couple of year before that, I got the Indy 500 bug by listening to race on the radio.

    Mom and I got to Indy on Friday before the race. We stayed at the Brickyard Motel at the track. On Saturday, we did some souvenir shopping on 16th and Georgetown. That was when all the teams had tents or trailers packed with stuff. After dark, I stayed behind as Mom and Dad and others went down Georgetown and watched the crazies doing their thing. It was a few more years before they would let me go with them.

    On Race day, we got to our seats around 8:00am. I was amazed with everything that was going on. The Purdue marching band, the Gordon Pipers, the cars coming out to the grid, everything was a spectacle. I still remember when they played Taps and the excitement changed to nervousness. When the cars took of for the parade lap, I had a knot in my stomach so big I thought i was going to pass out.

    I was an AJ Foyt fan because my favorite Uncle was. He pitted a couple places from where we were sitting. It was so much fun watching my hero come in for pit stops.

    My other driver was Tom Sneva. I remember the awful feeling when Sneva had his epic accident. Listening to Tom Carnegie describe the accident in his dulcet tones made me a fan of him as well.

    I only left the stands to go to the bathroom. When it started raining, my Mom could not get me out of the stands. I didn’t want to miss anything. After Mom finally got me out of the stands, we went into Gasoline Alley to hang out in the Bear garage. That is a whole different story for another day.


  5. 1982. 7 yrs old. AJ, Mario, and that “damn Coogan!”

  6. I “got” the 500 when I listened to the radio broadcast with my Dad in 1959. My the time he took me to my first race in 1963 (was it really that long ago?), I was already devouring every detail I could get and was already building 1/15th scale models of the cars.
    That first year we sat right across from the pits. I remember two of the roadsters spinning around like gears in the pits, right in front of us. I don’t believe they touched, and both continued in the race.
    My race race to attend was 1965 and we were in the North chute. I remember Dad had a stop watch and was timing Bobby Unser in the Novi and we found out you could set your watch by his consistent lap times before he dropped out.
    Dad took Mom instead in 1966. Se reported when she got back home that the pre-race buildup was thrilling. Unfortunately the Dave McDonald, Eddie Sachs crash happened right in front of them. Mom went to sit in the car until Dad got there after the race and we were never allowed to mention racing around her again for many years.
    I was back in 1967, in Stand J, and marching with my high school band in the pre-race ceremonies, something I also did for the next two years. Somewhere in my old files I may still have the 8×10 color photo of one of those years of us marching into Turn One. I was carrying the flag on the outside or row one in front of the band.
    I didn’t miss a race in person again until 1996.

    • Ed Emmitt Says:

      Mark,I had a good friend that was also in Stand J that year and never could get himself to go back after many years of going.So your mom wasn’t the only one it affected sadly.

      • I was early in my career covering the race as a photographer in 1976 when rookie Eddie Miller spun into the ditch inside the south short chute and flipped end over end into the spectator area where the stands are open on test days. I was the only photographer who had an angle to get photos of the wreck and I was standing in front of the car when the first member of the safety team reached him and felt for a pulse and was unable to find one.
        As they started to unbuckle his belts he blinked, looked up and started talking to them. After photographing his extrication and movement into an ambulance, I turned my film into a runner and went to my truck in the infield to consider whether I could ever go back out to potentially photograph such an event again.
        A of hours I was in position again.
        I photographed many, many spins and wrecks. Many of them can be seen in Indy 500 yearbooks and other publications. I was given the nick name “crash” by other photographers because I never missed an on track incident that was in my line of sight.
        To this day I have never personally witnessed a racing fatality although I thought I had at the start of the 1995 race. I captured Stan Fox’s feet on Eddie Cheever’s rear wing.
        That was my last race until 2001 when I started another three-year run before retiring from race photography.
        My work at the track finally became of enough interest to Mom that talk of the race was no longer taboo.

        • Ed Emmitt Says:

          Great post Mark,I had a hunch that you worked at indy.You lucky man.
          That Fox wreak happen right in front of my daughter and I.
          Kinda gave you a sick feeling.I thought he was dead.
          Next year we meet him in the garage but sadly Stan was never quite the same as you well know.But what got me he thought he could drive again as he walked around in his drivers uniform. Always enjoy your posts.

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