Indy 500 Magic Survives Human Blunders

John Gilbert

The 100th Indianapolis 500-mile motor race will be run Sunday, and my guess is that it will be very exciting. Maybe even riveting, for those who take the time to watch it unfold. There are a lot of great storylines, as they say, starting with James Hinchcliffe, a Canadian driver who won the pole position and enthralling all his rivals for coming back from a near-death practice crash last year at Indy.
But the biggest comeback in Indy history might be that the 500 has survived all manner of mismanagement and blunders by organizers over the years – nearly disappearing entirely back when the Indy Cars split from the powerful teams that formed the rival CART outfit.
The Indy 500 is not back to the status it enjoyed through the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s. And my guess is it never will regain that stature. But it is pretty good right now, and that’s amazing.
The first Indy 500 I had the pleasure to cover was in 1969, when I worked for the Minneapolis Tribune. Tribune editors knew they had slighted auto racing and not covered its meteoric rise to elite status at all levels. I was the right man in the right place to start writing about racing back in the mid-1960s, and later added an automotive column that still exists on Newcarpicks.com and on my John Gilbert Show, 9-11 a.m. on KDAL radio in Duluth.
By 1969, Tribune editors decided that the paper had reached the point where coverage of the Indianapolis 500 was demanded, and I got to go. In those days, Cosworth Ford engines fought stock-block Buick powerplants, and as I watched the new cars – ultra sleek in their aerodynamic designs  and incredibly swift with their Honda and Chevrolet engines – blur their way around the 2.5-mile Speedway in single qualifying runs last weekend on satellite TV, I couldn’t help but compare.
In 1969, walking through Gasoline Alley was a fascinating study in down-home racing. A.J. Foyt’s garage was efficient, if only to him. Lloyd Ruby, a couple of Bettenhausens, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, Al and Bobby Unser, and dozens of other colorful characters filled each of the wooden garages lines up side by side. Dirt floors and all, the mechanics were magical in their skill.
A young hotshot named Mario Andretti got a chance to drive, but had to settle for a year-old car that had little chance to do any better than Andretti. In an incredible twist, Mario Andretti won that  1969 race and dramatically was the recipient of a kiss on the cheek from car-owner Andy Granatelli – the man responsible for having the race car painted a day-glo red-orange.
A year later, Al Unser Sr. won the race, and the following year, 1971, he won it again. I missed the 1971 race, but the Tribune sent me to cover qualifying as well as the race for every year after that, right up until the war between the sanctioning bodies broke out.
Among the more significant developments at Indy was the arrival of Team McLaren, the British race team run by Bruce McLaren, who had dominated Can-Am road racing and then took on Indy. Tragically, he died in a race track crash in England testing his Formula 1 car. But the team carried on and today remains a stalwart in Formula 1. Roger Penske came to Indy, matched the sterile preparation of Team McLaren by tiling the floors of their garage and bringing in bright lights. I used to enjoy hanging around past midnight in Gasoline Alley, listening to fascinating stories from some of the old-timers there.
There was the horrible 1973 race attempts, where heavy rain left the race to a stuttering, three-day event that included several tragic crashes, including one that claimed the life of Swede Savage, and outstanding young road-racer from Trans-Am racing and Indy. I was sitting in the press row, hanging from the roof of the main grandstand, and I heard an odd noise that caused me to glance left – just in time to see a race car come somersaulting down the main straightaway in a ball of fire.
I didn’t know it was Savage’s car, but I did watch in further horror as a safety crew member took a chance and drove his red pickup truck the wrong way up pit road to get to the scene. Various crewmen ran up the pits with the same thought in mind, and one of them veered out onto the pit lane to pass others, and was struck and killed by the pickup truck.
We stayed in a compact motorhome that year, camping in the mud for three extra days, so that I could write all the horrible information from that star-crossed race.
As the years passed, the crashes became fewer as the cars became more sophisticated, and as the design improved for safety reasons as much as aerodynamics. Engines improved too, and the speeds shot upward.
It has gotten to the point now where drivers set up their cars and their wings so that they blend aero slipperiness with downforce by personal choice. With in-car cameras, it was interesting to watch most of the drivers fight the steering wheel as they hurtled down the straights and through the four corners, using the whole track to come dangerously close to the unforgiving outer wall every turn of every lap. But Hinchcliffe, and precious few others, went lap after lap without even a twitch of their steering wheels.
A year ago, James Hinchcliffe qualified well and was set to make his mark as a comparative independent. In post-qualifying practice, his car went out of control and smacked the wall. It didn’t look horrible, but a shard of carbon fibre shattered and stabbed him in the thigh. Blood gushed freely, as workers rushed to tend him, and alert work led a safety person to stop the gushing blood. He was rushed to a hospital, and survived a couple of life-threatening days so that he could watch the race itself from his hospital bed.
One year later, always-popular Helio Castroneves made a strong bid for the pole position. He made it, but then a faster car bumped him back. Then another, and another. Hinchcliffe went out and was going 240 miles per hour and holding it over 230 for the full lap, four consecutive times. His speed held up for the pole.
It was rare to see drivers from all different teams, who had worked so hard for what Hinchcliffe had just won, come by in a steady stream to congratulate Hinchcliffe. Ryan Hunter-Reay, one of them, said that people who haven’t driven race cars probably can’t grasp the full impact of nearly losing your life at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one year, and come back and drive 240 mph down the straightaway and capture the pole the next.
Back in its biggest years, the Indy 500 drew throngs of 500,000 to the Speedway, if anyone could count the standing room types in the infield. The first day of two weekends of qualification runs drew about 200,000 in its biggest years. The word was the 500 was the largest sports event in the world, and the first day of qualifying was second.
It wasn’t anywhere near that jammed for qualifying, which now is only one weekend, and the race itself won’t be the overflow attraction it once was. Bult it will be the 100th Indy 500, and it might be one of the most exciting because of the power and the incredible technology and adhesion these cars have. I hope it is fast, exciting and safe, because the race deserves to make a comeback.


Other Races

If you’re a true race fan, you can get up early and watch live coverage on NBC-Sports of the Monaco Grand Prix at 6:30 a.m. or thereabouts. Wonderful venue, even if it’s impossible to pass. But it will get you in the mood for a late brunch, and then the Indy 500 – after which, you can tune in to Charlotte for the Coca Cola 600 NASCAR stock car race. And there’s always Proctor, or Superior if you like dirt trackers.