Thursday, May 3, 2012

My First May

This year is an anniversary of sorts for me when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500. When I cross through the gates on Fast Friday, it will mark the 25th year that I have spent time at the Speedway, and this year's race will be the 14th time I have seen the 500 in person.

Mears after his pole run/
Lots and lots and lots of great memories, and I could post a blog full of them for pretty much each and every year. Hey, maybe I will! But everyone has great memories of their first time, and I am no exception.

As a young kid growing up in Iowa and later northern Illinois, I probably knew of the Indy 500, but not much beyond that. Everything changed, though, when I was nine years old and my family and I moved to Elwood, Ind. in the summer of 1978.

Elwood is just an hour northeast of the Speedway, up route 37, and when my dad and sister Karen came down to look at houses that May (my mom had just had my brother and didn't make the trip, dad picked out a house without her...somehow it worked out) they went to IMS for time trials.

I remember my sister coming home and telling me of how fast the cars were, and the roar they made when they came by, and I secretly hoped that my dad would want to make the same trip the next year. Of course he did! What I found out later is that my dad had a love for the 500 that went back a long ways, because he was one of those people that almost every Memorial Day would wash and wax his car while he listed to Sid Collins broadcast the race on the radio.

So when May of 1979 rolled around, I was ready to go. To my disappointment, the first day was wiped out by rain, but Dad promised we would still be going the next day, and my mom agreed, even though it was Mother's Day. My mom is 75 now, and is the best mom in the world.

We hopped in the car and drove down, parking in a car wash along Crawfordsville Road (we didn't discover the Coke Lot until a couple of years later). We entered at the main entrance at 16th and Georgetown, and I was about to get my baptism of speed.

Like anyone else, the first thing I noticed when we made it up into the grandstand was just how massive the Speedway really is. Like anything else that has to do with Indy, television does it absolutely no justice. The grandstands are massive, and to a 9-year-old, they went as far as my eyes could see.

To start the day, we made the long trek upstairs to the second deck near the start/finish line, where I quickly noticed the yard of bricks. Across the way the cars were being towed into their respective pits and the area was coming to life. I guess 1979 was what some call the "old days" because there were at least 50 cars up and down pit road, in fact, I remember Tom Sneva in particular having three of them!

Time trials started soon after, and I heard the beautiful voice of Tom Carnegie for the first time. A car came by at speed..."Heeee'ssss ON IT!" and the car roared by. You know the famous line in Jerry Maguire? Yeah, Tom had me at hello.

Armed with my Indianapolis Star newspaper, I dutifully wrote down the speeds in the chart on the front page. A total of 45 cars made an attempt that day, and 25 made the field. Back then, the rule was simple, the pole was settled after one trip through the qualifying line. Once through, they moved to the "second" day of qualifying.

As 4 p.m. neared, the pole was still up for grabs. Tom Sneva, in search of his third straight pole, grabbed the provisional spot with a four-lap average of 192.998 mph, which was eight mph slower than his record run of the year before.

AJ  Foyt came along and posted a 4-lap average just over 189...not good enough. So here we were, with just one driver, a 27-year-old second year pilot from Bakersfield, Calif., left with a chance at the pole.

Rick Mears.

He pulled slowly out of the pits at 4:39 p.m., and minutes later had captured the first of his record six pole positions with an average of 193.736. Shortly after his run finished, as Mears cooled down his Gould Charge on the backstretch, Carnegie called out, "Annnndddd Rick Mears is on the pole for the 1979 Indianapolis 500!" It's been 33 years, I can still remember those words as if I had just heard them sitting here as I type this.

Two weeks later, two days after my 10th birthday, "Rocket" would win the first of his four Borg-Warners.

It was over, I was hooked, and my dad and I went to time trials together for the next 15 years. In 1980 we moved to central Illinois, but still got up at 5 a.m. and drove to Indy for pole day. Several years later my brother Tim joined us, and we all went to the race for the first time in 1988.

I don't know if people understand why the Speedway and the 500 is such a part of my life. Sometimes, even I don't. But I guess is that for everything I have gone through in the last 33 years, life (two sons), death (Dad passed in 2004 and I lost another sister, Joni, just before this past Christmas), graduation, job changes and relocations, marriage and divorce, and so many other ups and downs that I have lived through, the one constant in my life has been the 500.

No matter what, May always comes, and I have the memories and traditions to look forward to. I was fortunate to live in Indy from 1989-94, one of the more epic eras of open wheel racing, and that kept the fire burning. Now, it's about passing that along to my kids, just like my dad did to me.

I don't have much of a bucket list, I've done a lot of cool things in my life, but I do have two when it comes to the Indy 500. I want to cover events at the Speedway as part of the media, and I want to see the race 50 times. The former comes true in a couple of weeks, as I will join many of my fellow bloggers at the track during qualifying weekend. The latter, well, I will be at least 79 years old when that happens, so I've got a ways to go.

Note I said when, because I'm gonna get there. It's been 33 years, I don't see myself losing interest anytime soon. I tell people one amazing thing about my boys is that I have never gotten over (in a good way) the feelings that hit me the first time I saw them. And really, Indy is the same way. It's a living, breathing place, and it is pretty darn special.


  1. Great memories! I never tire of hearing others' stories about their first interaction with IMS and the 500.

    If I can make it down for time trials, I'll try to make the blogger/tweetup which has become among the newest of Indy traditions.

  2. I remember that day as well and it was my first pole day with friends in the snake pit. Many things change in life but Indy has been like a first love,like a fine wine aged with time it just gets better year after year. I still get goose bumps when I drive through the tunnel and hear the cars, what a great feeling after all these years.