IndyCar Races I Wish I Had Attended

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Social media is full of a lot of garbage and meaningless posts. I don’t think I’ll get any argument from anyone on that point. A couple of days ago, the IndyCar on NBC Twitter account ran one of those tweets that are designed to keep up fan interest during the IndyCar offseason.

Usually I gloss over these without paying a whole lot of attention, but this one caught my eye and made me think.

Tweet

The responses to this post were very interesting. I had assumed that most of the answers would be limited to the Indianapolis 500. While many were about the Month of May, there were a lot of answers that involved non-Indianapolis 500 events. Many went back less than ten years ago. Some involved old IRL races from the late nineties to the early 2000s. Other fans went back to the CART days of the eighties and early nineties. Others went way back to obscure races at tracks that are long gone.

I started thinking about it myself and came up with my own list. Some of mine were from Indianapolis 500s that I had missed for whatever reason. Some occurred even before I was born. I also sprinkled in a few races that did not take place at 16th and Georgetown. In no particular order, this is what I came up with…

1964 Indianapolis 500: Most will look at that and think how gruesome and morbid I must be to want to attend a race that many attended and chose to never return afterwards. Yes, two drivers were fatally injured at the end of the second lap in a gigantic fireball. That is not why I wish I had been there.

1964 was the first year that anyone in my family had ever been to the Indianapolis 500. My father had a lifelong dream to attend the race. At the age of 37, he finally had the opportunity to go. He took my two older brothers, who were 14 and 11. My mother cared nothing about going, so she volunteered to stay home with five year-old me, seeing as how they figured a five year-old had no business going to the Indianapolis 500.

I wasn’t exactly sure what they were going to, but I knew it was a big event. I also knew I was being left behind, and I made my displeasure known. Regardless, they still went without me. The day of the race, I asked my mother to find the race on the radio. By the time she found it, the Lap Two crash had already occurred and they were in the midst of the cleanup. I was bored through that part and didn’t fully understand why the race was not running. But when it resumed, I sat still and listened to the whole thing.

I didn’t know who AJ Foyt was, but he won the race. The only name I knew was Parnelli Jones, not because he had won the year before – but because it was such a strange name.

When they got back home, they had brought me a few souvenirs – a T-shirt that I wore all through the summer until a wore it out, and a “racing” helmet with goggles, that was really nothing more than a construction hard-hat with some cheap green-tinted goggles strapped on

My favorite thing they brought back was not even meant for me – the 1964 program. I could barely read, but I studied that program cover-to-cover for the next several months. As you can imagine, it was full of pictures of the car of the previous year’s winner – Parnelli Jones. I immediately fell in love with Ol’ Calhoun, and Parnelli Jones became my favorite driver.

Fortunately, my father and brothers were not deterred by the Sachs-MacDonald crash, and they returned in 1965 along with my mother and me. Thus began my lifelong love affair with the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing. But how I wish my first race had been the same “first race” as everyone else in my family.

1960 Indianapolis 500: This was the race that featured the famous battle between Rodger Ward, who had won the race the year before; and Jim Rathmann, who had come close on numerous occasions, but never won. Many old-timers consider this to be the greatest Indianapolis 500 of all time.

The two swapped the lead back and forth for most of the second half of the race, and settled into a comfortable pace as they battled up front. In the latter stages of the race, Ward was content to run in second and conserve his tires. What he didn’t count on was the hard charging of Johnny Thomson, who was running in third. With Thomson closing in, Ward had to pick up the pace and used up his tires, forcing him to settle for second rather than make a daring late race pass for the lead.

This race took place when it was rare to have more than one car on the lead lap at the end of the race. Ward and Rathmann finished less than thirteen seconds apart as they crossed the line. At the time, it was the second closest margin of victory in the history of the race (1937, Wilbur Shaw finished 2.16 seconds ahead of Ralph Hepburn – a record that stood until 1982).

1991 Road America: If you’ve been to Road America, you know that the on-track racing is only part of the allure of the 4.017 mile track just east of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. This was the race that made me vow to include Road America on my list of race tracks I had to visit one day.

The race was good enough. Bobby Rahal was on the pole, and Michael Andretti won the race after a spirited chase from reigning PPG Cup champion Al Unser, Jr. But it was the environment that day that really got my attention and made me promise myself I would go there some day.

Road America ran late that season – September 22 to be exact. It was a cool, overcast day with team members and spectators all wearing coats. The clouds hung low, but the smoke from grills and campfires hung even lower. The fall foliage appeared to be at its peak, which sounds reasonable for that date in Wisconsin. All in all, it created a setting completely different than you saw at most race tracks back then. The only other three natural terrain road courses on the 1991 CART schedule were Portland, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. None of them looked near as appealing on television as Road America did.

I also remember Paul Page going on and on about the food that was available either at the concession stands or one everyone’s grills. He commented on the fragrant brat smoke that has hanging in the air. It all made me swear to myself that I would attend an IndyCar race there some day.

It was another twenty-five years before I was able to keep that promise to myself finally attend an IndyCar race at Road America, when the series returned in 2016. My fear was that it would not come close to what I had built up in my mind in that quarter-century. My fears went away within the first five minutes after we entered the grounds for the first time. Road America was all that I had hoped it would be, and more. Consequently, we have gone there very years since, including the COVID year of 2020. This may be a sacrilege to some, but in a lot of ways – we like going to Road America more than IMS in the Month of May…at least, in some ways.

I had watched races at Road America before, but the 1991 race always stood out to me. Had I not watched it, I’m not sure we would be making our annual trek to Wisconsin each and every year.

1986 Portland: The Grand Prix of Portland was just coming into its own in 1986. It was Father’s Day, which was normal for Portland back then. Unlike today, the stands were absolutely packed and there were more stands then, than now. Being run around Father’s Day in June, meant that this race was run during the rainy season in Portland, instead of the drier September date they run now. The area surrounding the course was lush and green, not the dry, brown grass we see around Labor Day. It was truly a festive atmosphere.

The race was won coming off the final turn. Michael Andretti was leading his famous father, Mario, and appeared to be headed to his second consecutive race of the season. But Michael’s car sputtered coming off of the final turn as he was running out of fuel, just as he was headed for the checkered flag. Mario Andretti passed his son on the final straightaway and won the race by 0.07 seconds, giving Mario a very happy Father’s Day present from Michael.

1989 Indianapolis 500: A “friend” of mine, whom I have since lost complete touch with, got married in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend in 1989. I was a little surprised that he asked me to be in his wedding. It wasn’t until I said yes, that I realized I had committed to be in Orlando the same weekend during the 1989 Indianapolis 500. I had not yet returned to the 500 as an adult. That would not be for another three years, but since they started showing the race live in 1986 – I made it an annual tradition to park myself in front of the television on Race Day.

I was already married and had one child, with another on the way. We were not flush with cash then, and I really could not afford to fly and rent a car – so I drove. My wife (at the time) did not feel like making the drive being six months pregnant, so I hade the trip alone.

That Sunday after the wedding, I made the drive back, tired and hungover. I listened to the IMS Radio Network from start to finish that day. It was one of only two races for the great Lou Palmer to be the Voice of the 500. In the final stages, I was pulling for Little Al to win over Emerson Fittipaldi. I listened intently, as Lou Palmer and Johnny Rutherford brought the race to life in my head while driving. When Little Al crashed into the Turn Three wall, I almost crashed my own car in anger. I could only visualize in my mind what had happened, by depending on Palmer’s description. When I got home and saw the replays that night, it happened just as I thought it had. That’s how accurate Lou Palmer was at painting a word-picture. That was the last time I ever listened to the Indianapolis 500 live, on the radio.

Those are just a few of the races that came to mind immediately. There are others I thought of while typing, but I didn’t feel like writing any more. But this was a good exercise, as I wrote this on Thursday evening – the travel day for the World Series. It got me fired up for next season, even thought we are still in October and barely more than a month removed from the 2021 season. What about you? What Indianapolis 500s or other IndyCar races come to mind that you wish you had attended? Think about it, comment below and you’ll start yearning for next season too.

I’d like to wish everyone a safe and Happy Halloween, and I’ll close with one of my favorite examples of my wife’s many talents. Susan carved this pumpkin for Halloween in 2012.

IMS Pumpkin

I would also like to take this time to wish the Tennessee Titans good luck this weekend against the Indianapolis Colts!

George Phillips

5 Responses to “IndyCar Races I Wish I Had Attended”

  1. Rick Johnson Says:

    Three races – all Indianapolis 500s – come to mind. Like you, I’d want to see the 1960 race. Also, the 1982 race (I didn’t start attending until 1985). And one of the Vukovich wins – probably 1954 because it was slightly less sweltering than in 1953.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    Good picks George. 1960 was my first 500, great race. 64 was the one that grew me up. I 13 sitting in stand c ,I had never realized how dangerous the sport was. But it made love more than the people in it.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    A host of 500s would be obvious favorites for me, so I’ll exclude Indy from my considerations here.

    Michigan 2001 – While Montoya and Andretti in 2000 gets more attention and the great Greg Moore outdueling both Ganassi cars in 1998 is understandably overshadowed by the tragedy in the grandstands, the 2001 Michigan race was quietly but wildly entertaining, with a heartbreaking DNF from Max Papis (his second in 3 years at Michigan) and a brilliant final few laps from winner Patrick Carpentier.

    Phoenix I 1965 – The great Don Branson keeps the rear-engine revolution at bay one last time, taking the checkers in his Watson roadster for the last win a front-engine car would ever score on pavement. The race featured a fascinating mix of new rear-engine cars, roadsters, and championship dirt cars, including young Mario Andretti leading much of the middle of the race in… a Blum roadster?

    Kansas City 1924 – One of the greatest (and cleanest) races to ever run on the dangerous high-banked board tracks that made up much of the national championship in the 20s. The top 3 were covered by a single second, Jimmy Murphy edging Tommy Milton for victory by less than 4/10s of a second and no drivers wrecking out. In addition to Murphy (who would win the 1924 championship posthumously after being fatally injured two races later in Syracuse) and Milton, who traded 500 wins from 1921-1923, the race also featured 1924 500 co-winners Joe Boyer and LL Corum, 1925 pole sitter Earl Cooper, 1926 500 winner Pete DePaolo, 3 time 500 runner-up Harry Hartz, and future 500 chief steward Harlan Fengler.

    Road America 2006 – An unexpected pole from “Speedy” Dan Clarke and some unexpected speed from Charles Zwolsman Jr. turns into a typical late-era Champcar Bourdais romp… until it doesn’t. AJ Allmendinger reels Bourdais in and is passed on his pit out lap just as Katherine Legge’s rear wing fails and she wrecks in spectacular fashion. Allmendinger holds off Bourdais despite being out of P2P for his last Indycar victory.

    Iowa 2011 – Marco Andretti was everything we all hoped he would be in this one, putting a slick crossover move on Takuma Sato early in the race for 2nd and going hammer and tong with a savvy Tony Kanaan as a once-dominant Franchitti faded with the dwindling daylight. Marco convincingly outdrove a host of present and future series champions that night, if only it was a sign of things to come.

  4. 2009.
    i would have called my broker
    from the stands to buy AAPL.

  5. The 1987 Indy 500. I was (am) a Big Al fan and was listening on the radio that day while attending my friend’s slow-pitch softball tourney. In college at the time, I hadn’t thought of buying tickets because of the ‘expense’, but listening to that exciting and historic finish on the radio made me wish I was there. Immediately following that weekend, I decided to make attending the race a priority over some other things, called IMS for a ticket order form, and bought my own tickets ever since, missing just twice since 1988.

    1960 Indy 500. I’d love to have seen one of the all-front-engined-roadster fields come roaring down the front straight just once. 1960 was a clean start, a classic ending battle, and the last one before the rear-engines showed up.

    If I spent more time, I’m sure I’d come up with some non-Indy races, but those are the two foremost in my mind.

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