Right behind the fence coming out of turn two

An essay written for a college creative writing class about what is among my favorite and most talked about memories

My dad preparing one of the meals we cooked at the track during the day. My younger brother, Mike is leaning against the fence.

My annual trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first week of qualifying still remain special memories for me. I was only eight years old the first of nine times that my dad and I went to The Brickyard. I remember getting into the car that Friday afternoon that first year with Dr. Gasper and his two boys. I thought we were going to see some horses in another state. Well, thanks to my grandfather, at that age I only associated racing with horses. The beautiful city of Indianapolis was seven hours from my hometown of Painesville, Ohio. Four if my dad was driving.

Since he owned the Country Squire station wagon, he drove every year. I always enjoyed the fact that the car was half full of people and half full of food, beer, and pop. We always broke out mom’s pizza even before we got to the freeway. We always got out of school early for these trips, so we hadn’t eaten in nearly two hours.

The drive was filled with the telling of army stories. By the tallness of his tales my dad would have made a cartoon-like mess sergeant, even though he served during the peace of the late fifties. My two brothers started going with us in later years. About the third year of these trips, my Uncle Bob and a couple of my cousins started making the trek with us. My uncle’s sense of humor led to some unforgettable impromptu comedy routines with my dad; like the time they had the clerk at a Hardee’s convinced that there might be something wrong with the $20 bill my dad was using. He had admonished my uncle for not oiling the machine, “Hey …all these bills have the same serial number on them,” my dad said. “Ahhh … no one will notice,” my uncle responded. Of course the manager made sure to check them very carefully.

My mom was also a big Indy car fan. Her favorite driver was Mario Andretti…of course.

Also joining us were three girls and their father who started riding up with Dr. Gasper and his two boys. So much for it being only a father/son trip. But they were cool. The last few years we stopped in Toledo to pick up even more people. I thought a lot of people had made the journey from Lake County that first year.

I can’t even remember the name of that first hotel, located seven miles from the speedway. The final count was fifteen people in that hotel room. Four on each bed laying sideways, a couple of kids in the bathtub, and everyone else finding space on the floor after pulling the top two mattresses off the beds. Except for me. Being the shortest of the kids, I had to sleep on the dresser; my father dutifully snoring beneath me on the floor, just in case I rolled off in the middle of the night. How could I possibly sleep with fifteen people in one hotel room built for two? Especially when I had never met ten of them.

I eventually learned that it was like this all over Indianapolis. The population of the city rises about several thousand people for this weekend, and every room is booked a year in advance.

The fathers started waking everyone up about 5:00 a.m. We wanted to be at the track and cooking breakfast by 8. The good spots were first come, first serve and we had to get to our favorite spot on the infield grass; right behind the fence coming out of turn two. That’s where the drivers would power up for top speed needed on the backstretch. Now, top speed was needed for us to load up the cars and merge with the incredible traffic heading into the speedway.

The dads had a great system for this traffic. The lead car would “open” up a spot and let the rest of the pack in. It was even common for an adult to jump out of the lead car, stop traffic for our group, then jump back in the last car in the line. One year my dad even followed a taxi cab down the center island. And I wonder why I have a problem with traffic laws.

Once at the track, we set up the cars in a line with all of the cooking equipment and coolers readily available for use throughout the day. Breakfast usually consisted of French toast, kielbasa, and coffee.

The coffee was filtered by the same white sock every year. The adults usually opened up the first of many bottles of wine at this time.

The track didn’t open for practice until 10:00, so we usually trotted off to the museum for a quick tour. On the way back we walked past the garage area that makes up part of Gasoline Alley, wondering if we’d ever get the guts to get into something moving that fast that close to the ground. We gathered many autographs over the years, developing favorite drivers and favorite teams. We watched the complete chaos in the garage area as the mechanical maestros made music from those highly tuned, powerful machines.

In just a couple of hours we’d be watching my favorite driver, A.J. Foyt, attempting to win the pole position once again. And we’d have to hear Dr. Gasper and his yearly shout for “Paaaaanchoooo” Carter.

Watching the time trials is very different from watching the race. The strategies are different. We were there to watch these cars reach speeds they don’t usually reach in the race. That’s why the first day of time trials was the most fun during the month of qualifying. It was the most important day. Only on this day could a driver earn that all important pole position. The best drivers were going for the fastest speeds. We saw them for about two seconds each lap.

This banner from the first I went with my father to the time trials now hangs in my brother Tony’s garage.

I spent many first weekends in May at that speedway during my youth. My respect and love for my father was growing because of the many wonderful things he did for us on these trips. We still have that banner from the first year hanging in the basement. (Edited- It is now hanging in a brother’s garage.) You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man, 6ft, 250bs, shimmy up a pole with a knife in his mouth to get a “Welcome Race Fans” banner from the Texaco station.

We watched triumphant racing feats as the speeds increased steadily from year to year. We needed binoculars to watch the streakers putting on a show a couple of grandstands away. We didn’t need binoculars the day the emergency crew removed the charred remains of Art Pollard’s body from his crumpled car. It had exploded into flames after hitting the wall in front of us.

Some of my more vivid memories include the fact that it used to rain every other year. Or the time I gave the mumps to all of the other kids in the group. My dad still talks about the afternoon when fifteen of us kids sang the McDonald’s theme song at the top of our lungs in the lobby. We had practiced the jingle in the park across the street before we invaded. We wanted to make sure we had the wrong lyrics down perfectly; the satiric version that was making the rounds on the playgrounds, not the official jingle. We earned free French fries for our effort.

The facility also went through numerous changes during our years as spectators. I remember when they built the hotel just across the track from our traditional vantage point. We were star-struck, watching for celebrities as they gathered on the balconies overlooking the track. The mid 1970s was also when the speedway built the new Indy car museum on the infield. The old museum was nothing more than a large trailer filled with memorabilia that took about five minutes to tour. The new state-of-the-art facility was huge and touring took about an hour.

I attended that Saturday tradition for nine years straight, creating a new and wonderful experience every time I went. Even in later years, when I’ve sat in the stands at Michigan International Speedway or on the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport for the Cleveland Grand Prix, I reminisce about the uniqueness that makes the Indianapolis 500 the grandaddy of them all.

Written for:
English 30065
Dr. Claudia Greenwood
May 5,1995