It’s Sunday, Memorial Day weekend and the Indianapolis 500
is racing across my television screen.
When I was a kid the Indy 500 was a big deal in my house. My Mom would make a big chart with the drivers listed on one side. Then there were columns divided into increments of 50 laps. At these intervals she would record what position each driver was in or whether he (no shes back then) was out. There were guests, beer and soda, and burgers and hotdogs on the grill. This was the late 50’s, early 60’s so the race was not televised, with the replays, closeups, stats flashing on the screen and multiple cameras showing every mile of the track. No, we listened on the radio. In those days my folks, especially my Mom, followed the Indy car races fairly close. Once the 500 was complete, the next big race was in Milwaukee and since we lived near there, my parents would drive up for that race. I went along one year but mostly my sister and I stayed home with Gramma.
Milwaukee was a smaller venue than Indianapolis so there were opportunities for the fans to walk around the pits and the track before the race and my Mom actually got to meet and talk with some of the drivers. This of course made it all the more fun, but it also made it personal. Race driver Pat O’Connor, who she met in Milwaukee in 1957, died at Indy the following year in a terrible crash. I remember her taking that pretty hard.
Naturally with my parents interest and being raised with the race on the radio every year, wherever I was on Memorial Day I would tune in to the race. In 1970, I was a Sophomore at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana which is only 3 hours from Indianapolis. I had a good friend, Kathy, whose boyfriend, Bob, was also a race fan. That year the three of us decided to go to the race. Now we didn’t have tickets but we heard if you got there at daybreak, a limited number of people were allowed into the infield. So we packed our coolers and blankets and headed to Indiana’s capitol.
Some of the details are vague in my memory but we must have left late the night before the race because it was really late when we arrived. We parked and slept in the car until close to dawn and then made our way to the race grounds. We had no idea how to get in, where to wait, who to talk to. In the dark, we just walked up to the fence surrounding the track and followed it around. Somehow we came upon an open gate so we just went in. I remember going past garages and equipment. Some areas had people in them, others were empty. No one paid any attention to us, they all looked as sleepy as we did. We kept going till we spotted the infield. Off we went in our ignorance till we got to what we estimated was the area just off the fourth turn going into the straight-away. Right up to the fence we put out our blanket, set down our cooler and waited. Remember there wasn’t anyone else set up which we did find
really unusual. Just at daybreak we found out the reason. A loud horn or siren sounded and a gate at the far end opened up. People, cars, trucks…all came rushing in to find their spots on the infield. It was dumb luck that let fools like us in a back way to find prime seats for the greatest spectacle in racing.
Just today I dug out the slides I took that day. I had a Leica single lens reflex borrowed from a good friend of my Mother who was a photographer. It was a great camera with settings for speed and aperture so I was able to get some halfway decent pictures even though my subjects were moving at really high speeds.
Al Unser won that day (and would go on to win three more in his career) but when the race ended I don’t recall how we got out of there or even the ride home. I do remember Memorial Day that year was one of the most amazing days in my life.