Fast Track!

Several years ago I had the privilege to edit a book that chronicled all the activities that took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the inaugural — now legendary — 500 Mile Race.

Bruce Scott, a CPA from Batesville, approached me about helping him with the manuscript and I jumped at the chance.

A race fan for most of my life, the very thought of seeing the fruits of many years of Scott’s dogged research drew me in like a moth to a flame. Over many weeks, I immersed myself into a story of dreams, challenges, and back-breaking work as men cleared what once had been farmland outside the city of Indianapolis and transformed it into what would become the most famous racing venue in the world.

Indy Before the 500 didn’t disappoint me and it hasn’t disappointed the thousands of fans who have purchased the book. Congratulations, Bruce!

I number myself among the most enthusiastic fans of Indy. Those who have attended the race more times than they could count on both hands cherish personal reflections. For me, memories include the wild, frenetic specter of the infield before its current look. The “Snake Pit” was not for the faint of heart. To put it mildly, infield fans defied description. The landscape, too, has undergone major changes.

Yes, the infield trees inside the fourth turn are gone. Sadly, my memory of those trees is the aftermath of the crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald. The trees smoked. The race was stopped for hours. That was a sad day. I’ve heard it said that some attend races to witness accidents. After seeing a couple of horrendous crashes, I find that hard to believe; but, then again, many things are hard to fathom.

The pagoda is gone, too. Today, a sleek glass structure stocked with the latest technology replaces a nostalgic Oriental tower that dates to another age — a time when Eastern influences were more romantic than economic.

Initially, and for many years thereafter, the race was held ON Memorial Day. It didn’t matter what day of the week, the race was on — and broadcast on Armed Forces Radio around the world. Who know how many servicemen and women listened attentively to those seminal words, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” That quip was amended with Janet Guthrie’s entrance as a distaff driver. Followed by Lynn St. James and a bevy of others, the race is no longer a sport for men only.

Gone are the simple little garages with their green doors. Gone also is the ban from women in the pits. Yes, there was a time when women were not allowed in the pit area. Oh, you could glimpse comings and goings from outside the fence, but if you were a woman, you could not enter.

Today, classy, well-lit garages line the pit area. The only remnant of the old days is the GASOLINE ALLEY sign leading from the track area to the infield and the famous “yard of bricks” that survives from the original two-and-a-half mile’s racing surface. Traditionalists may complain a bit; but, as is true with so many long-standing venues, changes are inevitable.

Among the latest, and highest priced, additions are the sumptuous straightaway suites, undoubtedly spawned by older ones located just north of the second turn and just steps from the Speedway Motel.

If you don’t have the talent or money to drive an Indy car, then why not drive a golf ball at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course. You may not break any speed records, but you can tread sod made famous by the oval that frames it as a truly unique venue.

After decades of packing up a picnic basket and cooler and heading to the track for both INDY and NASCAR, we gave up our tickets. It wasn’t that our enthusiasm had waned for the event, but other interests beckoned.

Travel and camping replaced our annual “trek to the track”, yet the memory of introducing out-of-state friends to “Indy” remains warm in our hearts. For us, it was pure magic to see a first-timer’s reaction to walking in to the stands and seeing the sheer size of the crowd, the impressive opening ceremonies and flyover, and that first lap under the green flag. In truth, nothing eclipses that feeling when the 33 fly by you and begin the quest for the Borg Warner Trophy.

Yet, there are several things about Indy of long ago that I WILL miss. One, I am confident, will not return — the noise. What noise, you ask? The cars are loud. Well, that may be, but nothing compared to the ones we heard years ago. I refer to the sound of those grand old Novi engines as they roared around the two-and-a-half-mile oval. Yes, they may be gone, but they are not forgotten.

I can remember when higher speeds ruled the day. Every time a driver broke what was thought to be an unbreakable speed barrier, the new record was eclipsed within a year or two. The voice of Tom Carnegie as he trilled, “…he’s ON it!” Like Fred Heckman of WIBC, he was part of my life that will never die. I can still hear both their voices. Such are childhood memories. They last.

I suppose the most disappointing change in Indy has been the abandoning of a two-weekend qualification period and the newer rules. The old saying: “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” certainly applies. The system worked beautifully for decades. I can’t fathom why they shortened the qualification process to two days. What’s even more frustrating? The highly valued “Pole Position” — once won — is no longer secure. Where the top speed guaranteed the driver the inside of Row One, now it must be defended at the close of the first qualification day against the other eight drivers among the top nine.

Listening to Saturday’s qualifications, I found that someone else feels the same way. His name is A.J. Foyt. Pretty good company, eh?

What’s with earning the pole position twice to sit on it once? True, Tagliani won it and then held on to it this year, but it is very possible that the Pole Sitter could not only lose the position but could also wreck and lose competing in the race at all. I wonder if this is just an extension of the attitude held by many in generation X who don’t want to see anyone lose and refuse to keep score at children’s games.

In the end, I don’t have to worry about the nuances among the rules and regulations of the racetrack anymore; but as a long-time fan, I lament that the newcomers to the track don’t get the real taste of Indy that we had 50 years ago.

Yes, time marches (or in this case, races) on, but not all changes are for the best. Remember what happened to Indiana high school basketball. I hope that the inception of these changes and this year’s low advance ticket sales for The Brickyard don’t bode ill. Time will tell. It would be a shame to see an event reach its Centennial one year only to begin to fade in the next.

Happy 100th Birthday, Indy! You’ve given many of us priceless memories.

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