Our first race was around 1972; we had heard the fun way to do it was go down the day before. We had a pickup with a topper – our camper – and we camped on Georgetown Road, which runs alongside the track. I think it was 60 bucks for parking, which was a lot of money back then. We were surprised to find how many people were already there, camped all around the 2 1/2-mile track. The grills were going and the partying was in full swing.
We had so much fun that starting the next year we went down on Friday morning. Well, we didn’t want to be late for the start of the race at noon Sunday. We had to walk clear across the street to our seats.
That first year we were camped next to six guys who were about 10 years younger than us. They were all high school buddies from California. My wife Geri and I hit it off with these guys and agreed to meet at the same place next year. This started about a 15-year run of us getting together at Indy. There were some dropouts, rookies, wives and one-timers that came out over the years, but the core group of us have been friends since that first time we met.
The Indy 500 is so much more than just another race. It lives up to its byline “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” Different happenings all month long around town and at the track include everything from charity golf events to the 500 Festival Parade featuring all the drivers, celebrities, movie stars, etc. to the Victory Awards Banquet the next night – which is televised.
The last 20 minutes before and the start of the 500 are cause for major duck bumps, cold chills and the hair standing up on your neck. Traditionally, it’s Florence Henderson singing “God Bless America,” and it’s Jim Nabors doing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Then there’s the invocation, the National Anthem, a salute to the military, a bugler blowing “Taps” and then someone from the Hulman family giving the command “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.”
Then, after a couple of warmup laps, the green flag and it’s started. As the green flag drops, they light off about 40 aerial bombs just in case you weren’t hyped up enough. Whatever transpires after that, the last 20 minutes before and the start are special.
After the whole weekend got to be too much for us, we still went down for the race a while longer; now it’s a TV event I won’t miss.
The Indy 500 has always been heavy on honoring the military, as it should be. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Another tradition is inducting a company of recruits into the U.S. Navy on opening day. There were other events: We got to see a personal hero of mine (and the country for that matter), Chuck Yeager, several times, doing flyovers in vintage aircraft and jets and riding around the track with other celebrities.
One memorable occasion is when they had two jet fighters do a flyby. You didn’t have to look up to see them. The “PA” told us where to look and what to expect. These guys buzzed the front stretch, one at a time. When you first saw them, they were just a speck. In a second, they were right in front of you, then gone. You could see the rivets on the plane and the fire coming out the back. I don’t know much about it, but I would guess they had lit off the afterburners. The noise was almost unbearable; they had to be breaking every rule in the book.
I have one regret about the Indy 500. After we had pretty much stopped going, I was on the road one year, at a motel in front of the TV, when I learned that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was hosting 90 of the living Congressional Medal Of Honor Winners. They were honored at various events around town and on race day. Back then there were a lot more living World War II vets. I would have stood in long lines to meet some of those CMH guys.