Another Meaning to Indianapolis 500 Veterans

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Today is Veterans Day. Many people don’t seem to know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, although it is a simple distinction. Memorial Day honors those that gave their life during military service; hence the somber playing of Taps, just before the start of the Indianapolis 500. People also confuse Veterans Day with Armed Forces Day, which honors those that are currently serving in our armed forces.

Veterans Day honors the service of all US military veterans. If you served for just a short time, you are celebrated. If you retired after a long and distinguished career, you are celebrated. The only qualifier is that you served in the US Armed Forces and discharged in any conditions other than dishonorable.

Some wonder why we have a federal holiday in November, just before the traditional holiday season. Some seem to think it should be sometime in warmer weather on a Monday, in order to give us a three-day weekend. Well Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day, which was held in several countries to commemorate the end of World War I. The cessation of hostilities was to begin on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

The US commemorated Armistice Day annually. After World War II and the Korean War, there was a push to re-name the event Veterans Day, not just to commemorate the end of World War I, but to honor all of those individuals who served our country in the US Armed Forces.

Why the history lesson?

Normally, when we talk about drivers who have driven in the Indianapolis 500 more than a couple of times, we refer to them as veterans. Today, we are honoring our veterans, so I mainly wanted to recognize just a few of the drivers in the Indianapolis 500 over the years that were also military veterans.

Years ago, things were very different – and I’m talking about years even before my time. I am currently sixty-two years old, which may qualify me as the oldest IndyCar blogger that posts regularly. Being born in 1958, I was too young to serve in Vietnam. In fact, just before I entered the tenth grade, the US draft ended and eighteen year-olds did not even have to register, starting in 1976 – my senior year. By 1978, anyone born after Jan 1, 1960 had to register with Selective Service. So I fell into a very small two-year window of young men who never even had to register for the draft.

But before my time, military service was expected. Few were exempt. If you were able, you went. That included football players, baseball players, musicians and yes, IndyCar drivers. It’s unfathomable today to think about someone losing a chunk of their driving career to go off to military service, but it was commonplace back then. So here’s a salute to just a few of the drivers that gave up healthy amounts of time out of their racing careers, to serve in the military. Some of them went to war, and a few didn’t come back.

Eddie Rickenbacker: Before he owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and before he was America’s greatest flying ace in World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker was a driver in the Indianapolis 500. He drove relief for Lee Frayer in the Inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911, when Frayer finished thirteenth. The following year he was a starter and finished twenty-first. Rickenbacker finished tenth in 1914. In 1915, Rickenbacker finished nineteenth, after throwing a rod on Lap 103. 1916, would be the last Indianapolis 500 for Rickenbacker, the driver; but in 1927, he bought the place and eventually sold it to Tony Hulman in fall of 1945.

Of course, Rickenbacker’s biggest achievements came in World War I as a pilot over Europe. He shot down twenty-six enemy planes and earned the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times. He would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Jules Goux: Most know Goux as the winner of the 1913 Indianapolis 500. Legend has it that he drank six bottles of Champaign during the race on his way to victory. While that story may have taken on some legs through the years, the Frenchman was considered to be an excellent driver.

He did not serve in the US military, but he was a pilot for France in World War I.

René Tomas: The 1914 winner from France also served in the French Army.

George Mason: If you are scratching your head and wondering who was George Mason, you are not alone. He drove in only one Indianapolis 500, in 1914, when he started thirteenth in car No. 13 and finished twenty-fifth. Until Greg Ray ran car No. 13 in 2003, Mason was the only driver to use the supposedly unlucky number. Some sources say he was killed in action in World War I in Bordeaux, France; while others say he died of pneumonia while serving his country in France. Regardless, Mason died in military service and as best as I can tell – he may have been the first American Indianapolis 500 starter to die at war.

Art Cross: We know Cross as the very first Rookie of the Year Award winner in 1952, but he was a tank commander in World War II and earned the Purple Heart for his injuries suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. Cross finished second to Bill Vukovich in the 1953 Indianapolis 500. After four starts, he retired from racing after the 1955 season. He was a businessman and a farmer, and passed away in 2005 at the age of eighty-seven.

Rex Mays: Many know that Rex Mays was the record pole-winner for the Indianapolis 500, until Rick Mears cane along. Many don’t know that Mays ferried bombers across the US during World War II. In fact, he set many coast-to-coast speed records during the war. The popular Mays is always in the conversation of greatest drivers to never win the Indianapolis 500. He won three poles before the war, and one more after the war in 1948. Mays was fatally injured in a crash at Del Mar Fairgrounds in November 1949 at the age of thirty-six.

Sam Hanks: The 1957 winner had two starts before World War II, then served at what was then known as Wright Field in Dayton, OH servicing aircraft engines. Hanks would return to racing after the war for eleven more 500 starts. His final two starts would yield a second-place finish in 1956 in the Jones & Maley Special, and finally the win in 1957 in George Salih’s Belond Exhaust Special. Hanks passed away in 1994 at the age of seventy-nine.

Rodger Ward: The winner of the 1959 and 1962 Indianapolis 500 flew B-17s and P-38 in World War II, and later served as a flight instructor; before going on to become a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Steve Chassey: I’m going out on a limb here, but I seem to recall Donald Davidson saying that Steve Chassey is the most recent Indianapolis 500 starter to serve in the US military. If that distinction goes to someone else – my apologies. Chassey drove in three Indianapolis 500s in the eighties – 1983, 1987 and 1988, with a best finish of eleventh in 1983. Chassey served on helicopters in Vietnam. His last IndyCar race was at Michigan in 1992. He later became a broadcaster for ESPN and also worked in the insurance industry, providing policies for drivers. Chassey is still alive at the age of seventy-five.

There are many, many other Indianapolis 500 drivers, or even others connected to the event that served in our US military over the last several decades – way too many to mention here. This is just a small sampling.

I sometimes feel that I missed out on something by not serving in the US Armed Forces. My father had an identical twin. My father also had asthma. He and his twin brother were drafted into the service during World War II. When they went to their induction, it was an unusually cold night for that time of year. A freshly painted wood stove was fired up for the first time, to warm up the barracks. The fumes sent my father into a vicious asthma attack. When he appeared before the doctor for their physical the very next morning, he could hardly breathe. He was immediately marked 4-F and was sent home with a failed physical, while they took my uncle.

My father felt disgraced, to be a young male in town while most young males were off fighting the war. It was a different time then, when everyone was focused on the war effort, and he wasn’t in it. I’m not sure he ever got over the shame he felt during that time. Of course, it was during this time that he and my mother began to date. Had he not been there to date her, I wouldn’t be here today – so there is that.

When I am around veterans today, I sort of have that same feeling. They share a bond and a camaraderie that is palpable, and I feel like I missed out on it. Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge them for it. They’ve earned it and they deserve it.

Thank you to all who served in our Armed Forces in any capacity. We celebrate you today, and every day.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Another Meaning to Indianapolis 500 Veterans”

  1. Jack in Virginia Says:

    George, I share your feelings about feeling I missed something by not serving in the military. I was in that last draft class, with a low enough number that I would have gone, when the draft was cancelled. I did try to go to the Naval Academy, and had a Congressional appointment secured, but failed the physical due to my vision (at that time, the USNA required 20/20 vision, uncorrected). I have always honored our military and thank all veterans for their service.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    Thank you – George.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Thank you for this George and, especially, thank you to all of our veterans.

    Indycar put out an article on veterans associated with the 500 a few years back, which has a few more names in it, including owners and other folks associated with the race.

    https://www.indycar.com/News/2015/11/11-10-Honoring-the-drivers-who-served-in-armed-forces

  4. In my opinion, one of your best writings George! Great work!! And thanks to all who have served, are serving and will in the future.

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