The more Indy changes, the more it slips away

John Gilbert

Once the Indy press box moved to the infield, I could shoot the winners, like Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Once the Indy press box moved to the infield, I could shoot the winners, like Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Juan Montoya was congratulated, and team owner Chip Ganassi took a milk break. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Juan Montoya was congratulated, and team owner Chip Ganassi took a milk break. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Helio Castroneves won the 2001 Indy 500 in a Penske car unadorned by sponsors names. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Helio Castroneves won the 2001 Indy 500 in a Penske car unadorned by sponsors names. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Our lives have changed greatly since 1969, when it was a much simpler time. As a young reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune I felt amazingly lucky to be on the cutting edge of pretty much everything in sports that my family thought was important.
Having moved from the Duluth News Tribune to the Minneapolis Tribune two years earlier, I fell into overload coverage opportunities in hockey, with the pros, colleges and high schools. In my first summer there, I wrote a couple of features on local stock car racers, and the guys on the sports staff were happier than I was about my interest in racing, because none of them had any.

About then, they built Donnybrooke Speedway, and I covered every event there throughout that first summer. The executives liked my work — always a positive sign — and encouraged the sports editor to send me out to do more. In fact, when the Can-Am ultimate road-racing scene came to Donnybrooke, the first two years of its visit to Minnesota were for the Tribune Can-Am.

But it was in 1969 that sports editor Larry Batson asked if I’d like to go to the Indianapolis 500. I was on an adrenaline high from that moment until I got to the race, wrote several stories, including the main one, about Mario Andretti, a promising young driver from Nazareth, Pa., who was driving for Andy Granatelli. They had car troubles, so Granatelli rolled out a year-old car, which didn’t look anywhere near as neat as the new models, and Andretti went to work — and won the race. The legendary spinoff was the photo of a thrilled Granatelli grabbing Andretti before he could get out of his car and planting a large smooch on his cheek. Andretti grimaced. But we all thought that would be the first of a half-dozen 500 victories for Andretti, and he never again won the race.

So it got to be a routine month of May for me to attend Indy, and since the 500 was the largest sports event in the country with about 300,000 fans buying tickets and shbowing up, the popularity of the race meant that two weeks before the race the single-file qualifying runs became the second-biggest sports event in the U.S. with probably 100,000 gathering to watch the cars go out one at a time for 4-lap bids for the pole.

Prices at all the hotels in the area had more than quadrupled for race weekend, and they were getting bad for qualifying, too. In fact, I hunted around and found a twin-towers apartment complex that had decided to make one of the towers into a hotel. That meant the rooms were two-bedrooms with a full kitchen, and I coiuld rent one for the entire month for less money than race weekend alone would cost in any of the hotels within 50 miles. I would go down to qualifying and write stories about it, then come home and write a half-dozen features on top contenders that would be strung out to run throughout the final pre-race week.

Every race was spectacular. If you’ve ever attended, you know what I mean. I saw some fantastic races, some tragedies, and some incredible gamesmanship, and it was a privilege to get the opportunity to write the personalities, the technical expertise, the aerodynamic design advantages, and try to capture the immense color of the event.

I covered Indy every year but one between 1969 and the year when Indy owner Tony Geirge took on the new and superior Championship Auto Racing Teams and their fancy top gun, Roger Penske. The CART guys wanted the fastest cars, but first and foremost they wanted the safest cars. Tony George thought he’d pull a fast one and declared that only the existing cars from the previous year would be eligible — no new cars. It was a smoke screen to sound like he could keep costs down, but realistically he wanted to gain the upper hand for USAC/Indy Cars over the CART hotshots.

CART called his bluff and organized its own series, daring to run its own 500-mile race at Michigan International Speedway on the same day as Indy. The Indy Cars promised to be competitive, but the CART guys had all the hottest most high-tech cars, and all the best drivers, except for A.J. Foyt, who stayed at Indy.

Unfortunately for CART, a couple drivers got too eager on the first lap and while running side by side they locked wheels and spun off into a crash that collected half the field. It was a disaster of incalculable dimensions. I had been given my choice, and I chose to go to Indy for qualifying, write a few features, and go to Michigan for the CART U.S. 500. So I got to write about the horrible misfortune.

CART continued to try to run opposite Indy on Memorial Day weekend, but it never attained the popularity it should have had. Meanwhile, the Indy 500 almost dissolved into its own puddle. One year, I took my two sons, Jack and Jeff, to Madison, Ill., for the CART 500 on the day before Indy, and after the race we drove to Indianapolis. We got there before midnight, and without a reservation we drove downtown to the nicest hotel and walked in — and got a room!

The Indy 500 has never been the same, and never will be. But it’s gotten better each of the last few years. Roger Penske went back to Indy, because his sponsors insisted on being there. Others followed, and the CART series evaporated.
The best measurement of how things have changed struck me on Monday. I picked up the Minneapolis paper and looked over the sports page. Back in the tiny print page, the first item was “Auto Racing.” Then listed was the Indy 500 qualifying order.
Ed Carpenter is on the pole, with Simon Pagenaud second, and Will Power third. That’s the front row. Scanning back through the field, the third row caught my eye: Danica Patrick is seventh, Helio Castroneves eighth, and Scott Dixon ninth. Now that is a row to watch!
It was then that I realized I had been busy chasing the NCAA Division III regional baseball games at Wade Stadium, and hustling to watch a couple Stanley Cup Playoff games between sessions, and a few innings of the Twins. I had completely forgotten that it was Indy qualifying weekend. It caught be completely off guard. And there weren’t any major stories in the newspapers or on TV — nothing like it used to be.

But it’s all in order now, and we can look forward to an unpredictable race of surprises. If you haven’t ever seen it, tune in and watch for maybe an hour prior to the start, and then watch the cars come around the 2.5-mile oval and come down the straightaway for the green flag. It is, guaranteed, one of the biggest and most thrilling moments in all of sports.

I’ve watched Johnny Rutherford win 500s, and Nigel Mansell coming over from England and being the best, but unappreciated by the red-neck element of Indy followers. I watched Roger Penske bring in new drivers, like Emerson Fittipaldi, Helio Castroneves, to supplant the fellow who might be the ultimate Master of Indy — Rick Mears. And I observed Chip Ganassi build his own Target empire to challenge Penske. Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, and other racers with magical names replaced the old guard I had first observed, with Lloyd Ruby, Parnelli Jones, and Mark Donohue.

One of my favorite years was 1980. That was a magical year all around, as I had covered the Winter Olympic Hockey tournament at Lake Placid when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union and won the Gold Medal. But late in May, I saw a possible conflict coming. I went to Indy and wrote about qualifyng, then I went off to cover the Stanley Cup finals.

The Philadelphia Flyers were playing the New York Islanders, who had never won the Cup, and I secretly was hoping the series might end in four or five games, because otherwise it would run into race weekend. Being greedy, I wanted to see both. Turns out, the Islanders led three games to two and Game 6 was in Nassau County Coliseum, the Islanders home. I had my credentials for Indy ready, but I figured my chances of getting there were remote. Bob Nystrom broke in with what I maintain to this day was an offside play with a bouncing puck. Nystrom went in and scored the winner in overtime, giving the Islanders their first-ever Stanley Cup. I wrote my story and sidebar, and it was nearing midnight Saturday night, May 24.

I got on the phone, made a couple of arrangements and went for it. Early Sunday morning, I caught a nonstop from New York to Indianapolis. I called ahead and reserved a rental car, because I knew that the flight from Indianaplis to Minneapolis didn’t fly on the holiday. I landed in Indianapolis, found my rental car, and stuffed my luggage into the trunk, then left the car there and took a shuttle bus to the track. I arrived, walked in, grabbed the press notes and headed across the track and up to the press box. I then wrote an extensive follow-up on the Stanley Cup’s changing of the guard from the Bobby Clarke Era and Montreal dynasty to a new gang led by Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and goaltender Billy Smith. I sent it to the Minneapolis Tribune from the press box at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then I settled in and enjoyed the race, where Johnny Rutherford won from the pole in his gleaming yellow Pennzoil racer. Wrote the race story, and a couple of features and notes pieces, then I caught the last shuttle back to the airport. Arriving, I found my Hertz car and took off up the freeway for Chicago, where I had booked a flight to Minneapolis for late.

That was one of the more remarkable days in my career.
I don’t anticipate anything quite that crazy this year, at least from my standpoint. I will be able to sit down and turn on the big-screen Sunday and enjoy the Indy 500. In fact, I’ll get up early enough to catch the 7 a.m. Formula 1 Grand Prix of Monaco.