Until 1983 I knew the Race—THE Race, the Indianapolis 500—only through radio. We lived on a farm a few miles west of Kokomo. The 500 was not broadcast "live" until 1986, according to one report I read on the internet, on network TV. It was available, on what was called "closed circuit TV" for a fee, across the country. Our area was "blacked out" for TV coverage even after the 500 went on TV. the air.
My first recollection of a specific Indianapolis 500 was of the 1963 race. Jimmy Clark had finished second to Parnelli Jones. The transistor radio was on a table on our front porch. Sid Collins’s voice introduced the Greatest Spectacle in Motor Racing®.
Each year I listened to Tony Hulman say "those immortal words": "Gentlemen, start your engines." Collins, and later, Paul Page, would describe—in excited tones—the cars pulling away. Inevitably one driver (usually Dick Simon) would have problems starting the engine of his car. The announcers around the track—"we go to Turn Two and Howdy Bell!"—would describe each car in one or two rows as the cars passed by on the warm-up, then parade laps. Finally came the pace lap. The pace car would pull into the pits and the noise from the radio signaled the start of the Indianapolis 500®.
I listened to the 1964 race—the first black-flagged due to the horrible crash, coming out of Turn Four, that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald—the 1965 race (Rookie of the Year? Mario Andretti), the 1966 race (in which Jimmy Clark started to pull into Victory Lane because he thought he had won), the years of the turbines (1967 and 1968), the 1969 race (Marion won in a back-up car). Each year I knew the pageantry—maybe a hackneyed phrase, but accurate—of the Indianapolis 500® only through the descriptions of the announcers.
People from Kokomo would return from the 500 and describe themselves, or others, as having passed out and enduring sunburns. My parents said people only went to watch the crashes.
When I lived in Chicago, we were going out to Clarendon Hills for a Memorial Day cookout. I asked if there would be a radio there on which we could listen to the Race. As the end of the Race neared, I commented that it was too bad the Race was not broadcast on TV. I received odd looks from our hosts. One said, "You can watch it on TV in the living room."
I was surprised. IMS sells out every year. Why would the Race not be televised "live" here?
When I moved back to Indiana, I promised myself: I would attend the Indianapolis 500®. I had a lousy seat (inside Turn One), and was disappointed. The next two years I sat on top of a van in the infield inside Turn Three.
I attended a few practices. In 1989, the day before Time Trials, 100,000, people were at the track for the last day of practice. That blew me away.
Then, in 1988, I had tickets in the Paddock. I got to watch the cars line up on the grid. The track was crowded with cars and crews. Jim Nabors sang. The cars started their engines. (I think Dick Simon had trouble getting his started.) Still—I had headphones and a Walkman®. I was damn well going to listen to the Race®, as I always had. There is nothing quite like the few moments between seeing the pace car pull into the pits and the first row fly out of Turn Four, headed to the green flag, the finish line, and the start of the Race. One year Michael and Marion jockeyed around Eddie Cheever going into Turn One and took the lead.
Sarah and I got the Race down to a science. I fixed garlic chicken on the grill the night before. We had coolers of dimensions officially acceptable. (They would fit under our seats.) Into those coolers we could fit a total of six pieces of chicken (on the bottom) and 16 beers. Bob, our cabbie, would pick us up and get waved through the other traffic to drop us off on Main Street in Speedway. We would walk into IMS, find our seats, and pull out some chicken. (I was pretty heavy with the garlic.) About 10 would come the first beer.
In 1994 I was diagnosed with MS. Heat and fatigue are two aspects of MS that made attendance of the Race impractical. For several years we went out of town to watch the Race "live." Each time I had access to a radio—to hear "live" descriptions of the Race from the track announcers.
I was born in Kokomo and raised on a farm a short distance outside that town. The 500 was a annual event that shaped part of who I am. I know I will listen to the Race this year on the radio. I have too much work to travel and watch it elsewhere. The battle between Tony George and Roger Penske screwed up the Race in the mid-1990s. It has begun to return to what it once was, the "Greatest Spectacle in Motor Racing."(r)