Race Day Memories

This would normally be Race Day for the Indianapolis 500. Instead, it is just another three-day holiday weekend to rest up and relax. Rather than spend my holiday behind a keyboard, I’ll take the time to relax. But instead of taking days off, I thought I’d take a cue from the sports networks and run a couple of personal favorite posts I’ve put up here from way back. Friday, I re-posted what I posted on Pole Day of 2009. Then today, on what would have been Race Day, I am re-posting something I wrote for Race Morning in 2009. Keep in mind, this was as it was written in 2009. Many things have changed since then. This will serve as Monday’s post also, but I will return here with new material on Wed May 27. Enjoy your holiday!

It’s Race Day, so allow me to be a little selfish and discuss what the Indianapolis 500 means to me. The Indianapolis 500 mile race means different things to different people. The track is now one hundred years old, and the event itself will celebrate it’s own centennial in two more years. An event this old has had time to develop many traditions over the years. Some of these traditions involve pre-race ceremonies; others are carried out throughout the Month of May. However, individuals and families that have been attending the race for generations have their own traditions. It may be as simple as parking in the same lot every year, visiting with friends they see annually, in the seats next to theirs, or like my own…dragging out my Marlboro Team Penske polo shirt that I wear once a year on Race Day only.

Why do we cherish this event? If you ask twenty different people you will hear fifty different answers. For myself, the reasons are many. I wouldn’t say that I immediately fell in love with the Speedway during my first visit for the 1965 race. I was six years old and didn’t know much about it, except I knew I either wanted Parnelli Jones or AJ Foyt to win. Neither did, although Jones finished a distant second. He had a good-looking, gold car that is still one of my favorites. Our seats were down low, in stand J, coming out of the fourth turn. Being short, I had a very good view of nothing but helmets going by, as the cars approached the outside wall exiting the turn. But when it was over, I knew I wanted to go back.

By the time I returned in 1967, I was eight and had a much greater appreciation for the event—plus, we had much better seats in stand A. We went as a family every year, my mother and father along with my two older brothers and myself. My mother didn’t really enjoy the crowds and the noise. Somewhere along the way, she quit going. She still doesn’t enjoy it all that much, although she makes a point to read this blog every day. It’s nice to know I have at least one reader.

But this was an event that our entire family enjoyed together. We all had our favorite moments. As a kid, I liked the releasing of the balloons. My brothers enjoyed the mechanical aspect of the race—they both grew up to be engineers. For my father, it was an annual tradition to watch him tear up when Tony Hulman gave the command to start engines. It was something we all loved for different reasons, but it was something we all shared. In this era of dysfunctional families everywhere, I feel almost apologetic for saying that I had a very happy childhood. But I did, and the Indianapolis 500 is a big reason why.

We stopped going after the 1972 race, for reasons that are still unclear. My brothers were both in college by then, and I was becoming an unruly teenager. For whatever reason, I didn’t go back for twenty years, until 1992 — when I was grown and had kids of my own. When I got there, it was as if I had never been away. It looked and smelled the same. It even sounded the same. Tom Carnegie was still on the PA and several of the names were the same. That race still had the drivers of my childhood – Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Gary Bettenhausen, Al Unser and of course…AJ Foyt.

The following year in 1993, I took my father to the race. A friend of mine got us into the garage area on the morning of the race. As the race morning hustle flurried around us, my father just stood there in awe, looking out toward the track and simply said, “I never thought I would ever stand in Gasoline Alley”. We sat together for the race, and again he teared up for the command. It was a good race and we had a great time. I was glad we had gone together. A year and a half later, he passed away.

The following year, I took my own young children to qualifying. My son was into it, but not so much my daughter. It was becoming a family event all over again. My tastes had changed. Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again In Indiana” had replaced the balloons as my favorite moment. The older drivers had retired, but we had new favorites. Again, the Indianapolis 500 was a major part of my life.

Soon after that, the split took place and I stopped going. I still watched on television, but I couldn’t see spending the time and money to go watch Racin Gardner battle it out with Fermin Velez and Jim Guthrie. It tore at my heart to see what the one event that bridged my childhood and adult life had become. It had the pageantry and still called itself the Indianapolis 500, but it wasn’t the same. But as the old teams from CART started returning, so did my interest.

I returned in 2003 and haven’t missed a race since. I have four tickets in the Pit Road Terrace and one of my brothers has two more tickets with me. Every year, one of my two brothers will attend the race with me, except for this year—life has gotten in the way. Today, I’ll be attending the race with friends, but I’ll miss having my brothers. I’m hoping for the day when all three of us get to go together. It hasn’t happened since 1972, but maybe someday soon. When it happens, we’ll sit across the track from our old seats in stand A and reminisce about the memories of a lifetime…growing up in the sixties at Indy. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be today.

Enjoy the race.

George Phillips

One Response to “Race Day Memories”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    1992 was one of the coldest Indy 500 races I’ve been at. It rained hard the night before so there was no rubber left on the track. I believe Roberto Guerrero spun out on the pace lap on cold tires and damaged his front suspension.

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