A Needed Diversion to Yesteryear

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As the entire world is in something of a holding pattern, there is no racing news to speak of. Even in the offseason, there is always some silly season speculation to write about, but right now there is nothing. I could use this crisis as an excuse to take an extended break from this site, but I’m not going to do that. This site may not have the largest following out there, but I think I have the most loyal readership. Many of you have been here since the beginning almost eleven years ago. Because of that, I feel a loyalty to my readers to provide an escape, if only for the few minutes it takes to read one of my rambling posts.

I am one of the lucky ones that are currently still working. My line of quasi-government work is considered essential. While it would be nice to be paid to stay home, that won’t happen for me. I’ll continue to work until we are told otherwise. But if we are eventually sent home, I’m afraid we would all be furloughed – and that means no pay until we are all told to come back to work. Therefore, I am very happy to still be working throughout all of this and I will not complain about it one bit.

I won’t shy away from mentioning the term coronavirus in my posts, because it is such an integral part of our lives right now. But I am going to try and offer a distraction three times a week for racing fans that doesn’t involve watching eSports online, which is basically watching grown men play video games. That just doesn’t do it for me.

Sometimes my topics may appear that I’m desperately looking for something to write about. There’s a reason for that – I am. If you can think of a topic you’d like to hear my opinion on, shoot me an e-mail through the “Contact Me” link under “Pages” on the right-hand side. I’ve got a few ideas for the next week or so, but I’m liable to dry up. But please don’t be offended if you never see me write about your suggested topic. It just means I came up with something on my own. But depending on how long things last, I may use it down the road.

Although this past weekend was the first weekend of spring, it was more like the dead of winter in Nashville. Gray skies and cold temperatures kept us inside all weekend. I was at least looking forward to doing some yard work, but that didn’t happen – so we watched a lot of movies instead.

On Saturday morning, however, I quenched my desire to watch some racing. I found one of my favorite races from yesteryear and decided to watch it in its entirety. I enjoyed it so much that it also gave me the idea for today’s topic, which may or may not become a semi-regular feature through this extended offseason.

The race was the 1991 Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix. If that corporate sponsor name doesn’t ring a bell, it was what some simply called the 1991 Nazareth 200. Not every recording of old races that have been uploaded to You Tube is in great shape, but this is a good recording. It featured Paul Page and Derek Daly in the booth, with Gary Gerould and Jon Beekhuis in the pits.

In hopes that you might set aside time to watch the entire race, I’ll not spoil the ending for you – but the race winner is a bit of a surprise. It’s also worth it just to see the stunned look on the contender’s faces in the post race interviews.

The race was run on Sunday October 6, 1991 under mostly cloudy skies and temperatures in the fifties at what was then known as Pennsylvania International Raceway, before it became Nazareth Speedway. The cool temps did nothing to keep the crowds away, as the stands looked absolutely packed – a far cry from what most ovals are drawing today. The cool and humid conditions caused visible vortices coming off the corners of the rear wings.

I remember watching this race live. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that it took place almost twenty-nine years ago, But knowing what we know now, it’s a very interesting trip back through time. It’s amazing how young so many drivers looked. Michael Andretti was twenty-nine when this race was run, four years younger than his son, Marco, is now. Michael’s twenty-ninth birthday was just the day before this race was run. The broadcast shows clips of a young Marco at his birthday party, complete with a rat-tail mullet.

Gordon Johncock was the pace car driver. On the opening lap, there was a four-car pile-up involving Scott Pruett, Scott Brayton, Danny Sullivan and Scott Goodyear. There was another one-car incident when Willie T. Ribbs backed into the wall. It’s debatable if there should have been a late race caution when Dennis Vitolo coasted to a stop at the end of the pit lane. He created quite an obstacle, but they allowed the car to just sit there for the last fifteen laps or so. Had the caution come out, I’m certain the race results would have been different.

It’s also striking how different pit stops were back then. We thought nothing of it at the time, but it’s almost inconceivable that there was no pit speed limit back then. In one in-car camera shot you can actually hear Bobby Rahal downshifting to accelerate as he approached his pit. The cars looked out of control as they sped toward their pit crews who were wearing no protection on their heads except for a sponsor’s baseball cap. In one shot, Michael Andretti’s Newman/Haas crew were all high-fiving each other after a 12.8-second pit stop. Today, that would make a crew shake their heads in disgust. Of course, smaller fuel-cells today are the main reason for that.

Most have seen the infamous clip where AJ Foyt is going off in an obscenity-laced tirade over Jeff Andretti. That clip came from this broadcast at around Lap 150. It made for great TV as Paul Page seemed to love it, while Derek Daly seemed a bit put off over AJ’s fit.

While watching the graphics of the starting lineup, it occurred to me that there were three drivers who are no longer with us. Scott Brayton was fatally injured in a practice crash at Indianapolis in 1996, Tony Bettenhausen was lost in a private plane crash in 2000, while John Andretti passed away just a couple of months ago, after a long battle with colon cancer..

I always enjoyed watching the races at Nazareth. The one-mile tri-oval produced twenty-second laps. Although only twenty-one cars started this race, it seemed there was always traffic to deal with and it played a big part in lead changes. When my friend, Paul Dalbey, and I went to explore the now-shuddered facility during a rain-delay at Pocono in 2016, it was a shame to see the track practically in ruins. Even if someone wanted to buy it and bring it back, I’m afraid it may be too far gone to be saved. It looks worse than those old post-war shots of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just before Tony Hulman bought it in the fall of 1945.

Watching this race reminded me how much I enjoyed listening to Paul Page in his prime. His delivery was as smooth as anyone and you knew how passionate he was about this type of racing over any other. Derek Daly was a good sidekick and had a no-nonsense approach to the broadcast when he did the races when they were on ESPN, but I still preferred the ABC races that had Bobby Unser and Sam Posey in the booth. Those broadcasts were pure gold.

So if you’re one of those home from work right now and need a diversion, I would encourage you to pull up some old IndyCar races on You Tube. Not all of them are classics, but many are; and I consider the 1991 Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix to be a classic. With the commercials seamlessly edited out of this broadcast, it lasts only an hour and thirty-six minutes. Do yourself a favor and push away from the news and watch this through the link posted beneath the poll question. You’ll be glad you did.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “A Needed Diversion to Yesteryear”

  1. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    As I work in food retail, here in the UK I’m a “key worker”. This means I have to keep on going to work until either I get COVID19 or whenever this whole thing blows over. Yesterday was my one day off and I spent it in bed watching racing videos and drinking whisky. Makes a change from toilet paper and pasta, anyway.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I was watching the 2001 Michigan CART race the other night. “These cars do not look safe…” said my wife. Lots of passing in that race, though. It was fun to re-live it.

    For what it is worth, I enjoyed NASCAR’s televised iRacing exhibition too.

  3. I miss Nazareth. One of my favorite tracks. I think the schedule has been pretty strong the past few yrs, but man I miss places like this, Milwaukee, Michigan, and Burke airport in Cleveland!

  4. Old memories like how much cooler the cars were back then. The engines were so awesome. That’s sound would send chills through your spine. I went to one race at Nazareth in ‘93 and ‘94 and I will remember them forever. It was such a cool track out in the farmland.

  5. I love going down memory lane. I have a big hard drive full of Indycar seasons from 1983 to today. Indy 500’s from 1950 through today. I love watching old races; brings back great memories.

  6. If you want a real treat, watch the official film of the 1966 Indy 500 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Spectacular. Just a few things. A tour of the track in 1966. One last Roadster in the race. Gus Grissom in the pace car just 8 months before he died in Apollo 1. The tires flying into the air as the cars crash at the beginning. A.J. Foyt climbing the fence to protect himself from the carnage. Something is wrong, Mario’s slowing down. Great interviews with many of the drivers including AJ and Mario. The names of so many legends in the race. And Firestone tires starting at $12.95.

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