Posts tagged ‘troy ruttman’

May 22, 2008

500 AND MORE: A SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICANA, THE INDY 500 & HUMAN NATURE

by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from Volume 2 of TOP FUEL WORMHOLE)

Sam Hornish, Pole Day 2002 (photo by Cole Coonce)

1997– It’s the last days of May and in Lake Havasu, Nevada Troy Ruttman, winner of the 1952 Indy 500, lie dying. And even as death goes, this is particularly excruciating. Ruttman is suffering from lung cancer, and it is slowly, inexorably carving the vitality out of his massive, leviathan frame.


It’s kind of ironic. Because at his zenith, when showcasing his instinctual talent for evading and outrunning anything in his path, Ruttman absolutely pissed on death–not that he didn’t acknowledge it: His susceptibility to ulcers and his penchant for vomiting before climbing into his race car are well documented. Regardless, his legacy it that of the conqueror of the dusty, dirty bullrings and paved ovals across America. “Ruttman backs down for no one,” fellow ace Duane Carter once explained. But, finally, there was one thing he couldn’t outrun, one thing that he backed down from. Because cancer always wins. Eventually.

And at age 67, Ruttman took this mortal coil’s last lap on Monday, May 19, 1997–one week before the 81st Indianapolis 500 went green.

“He was an honest-to-goodness natural born talent,” recalls Chris Economaki, esteemed Editor/”Publisher Emeritus” of National Speed Sport News, who is soaking up the ambiance of his 50th 500 as a reporter. Economaki reminisces while leaning against the guardrail on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pit Row on Tuesday, May 27. Coincidentally, it is the morning of Ruttman’s funeral AND it is also half an hour before the Restart of the rained-out 81st Indianapolis 500. Both events are scheduled to transpire at 11:00 AM. Pre-race pandemonium is in full effect on Pit Row but the somewhat gnomeish yet avuncular Economaki is nonplused by the towering blitzkrieg of race teams, Beta-cam toting electronic media and celebrities. “Troy Ruttman never really knew what ability he had or where he got it,” Chris calmly reflects while somebody whisks by on a modified golf cart with a set of slicks in tow. “It was congenital, it was God-given. He was a natural in the car.”

It is overcast at the Speedway and the skies seem to be smeared with Vaseline, but Economaki’s memory is as clear as Heaven’s Harpsichord. “He blew a tire here one year, spun around, and came into the pits with a flat right rear tire. And under his yellow flag he was back out and everybody’s wondering, ‘Wh-wh-why is it yellow? Where is it? What’s wrong?’ He was in and gone.

“He was a born driver. He never got better. He was already that good.”

I ask Economaki–the only reporter in the press room this weekend who actually used a typewriter instead of a personal computer–if Ruttman’s passing signifies the passing of an era.

“Oh yes…yes,” he mutters in a pitch a few steps above “Middle C” on a piano. He is shaking his head double time, like a dime store chihuahua in the rear window of a ’66 Impala on Whittier Boulevard. “Oh yes.”

***

1905–The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is conceived during Carl G. Fisher’s trip overseas to race in the James Gordon Bennett Cup in France. Mortified by the European cars thoroughly spanking the United States models in this competition, Fisher notes that the Euro machines could “go uphill faster than the American cars can come down.” In an epiphany, Fisher flashes on a “proving ground” where American automobiles could be researched and developed–and raced.

1909–Carl Fisher writes to a friend, “The highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.” His diction not only reflects the state of the art of the deal circa 1909, but it also encapsulates the entire history of his contribution to humanity, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Fisher forms a partnership with James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler. Together this quartet coughs up $250,000 to form the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company and transform the old Pressley Farm on 10th and Georgetown into a two-and-a-half-mile oval speedway paved with crushed stone.

On 19 August, the first automobile races are contested at IMS. Philanthropically speaking, it is a dark day: Six fatalities: Three drivers, two spectators, one mechanic. Although it is promoted as a 300 mile race, in a humane gesture Fisher rip cords on his Hindenburg after only 235 miles of competition.

1910–History reveals that a scrappy, resilient daredevil like Fisher is too determined and dedicated to relegate his baby to the same fate as, say, transcontinental blimps. And after retreating to the sanctity of the proverbial drawing board, Fisher is once again inspired. He convinces Newby to pay for repaving the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound bricks.

1911–Under the authority of the American Automobile Association, the Brickyard hosts its first five hundred mile race on Memorial Day. The record books state that Ray Harroun, a local Indiana boy who came out of retirement just to do this race, took the victory driving an Indianapolis-made Marmon Wasp, at an average speed of 74.59 miles per hour.

Or did he? Confusion, controversy, and calamity confounds the conclusion of the Inaugural 500: Panic strikes halfway through the race when a driver named Joe Jagersberger begins weaving pell mell back and forth across the front straightaway. At the mercy of a broken steering knuckle, Jagersberger thwacks the judges stand. The scoring and timing officials scatter like buckshot and curl into fetal positions in the nearest ditch while Jagersberger ricochets down pit row, careens back onto the track, and ejects his hapless riding mechanic on the bricks.

And then the domino effect really kicks in: Harry Knight swerves to miss Jagersberger’s mechanic and nearly takes out pit row. Knight and his riding mechanic are dumpstered from their Westcott when it hits the parked Apperson of Herbert Lytle, overturning the Apperson which caroms into Eddie Hearne’s Fiat. It is utter slapstick.

And with nobody minding the timing tower, accurate scoring becomes farcical. Suffice it to say, after this melee, some historians argue that the lap board is as dubious as fat-free Twinkies because California boy Ralph Mulford took the finish flag alone first, followed by local hero Harroun. And then history really gets tweaked: In the mother of all blunders, Mulford’s pit bosses order him to orbit the Speedway for 3 more “safety” laps, to ensure they complete the proper distance. Big mistake. Harroun does not take these precautionary laps. Mulford cruises into victory lane only to see Harroun basking in glory as the Winner of the Inaugural Indianapolis 500.

Regardless of who really won, this highly debatable decision is a harbinger of a few murky, questionable decisions that would cloud the integrity of what is already considered “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing;” this would not be last instance of a local luminary triumphing over an outsider under shadowy circumstances here…

(And, uhh, please be advised that this would not be the last time the ramifications of some flag-waving Yanks’ offended sensibilities would shuffle the deck at Indianapolis…cf. “1963.”)

1927–On November 1, just as Henry Ford is retooling to bang out up to 9,000 Model As a day in Detroit, Edward Vernon Rickenbacker assumes control of the Speedway from Fisher and his gang. In some ways, his timing is as bad as a phone call from a telemarketer, as the Indy 500 entry list during Rickenbacker’s occupancy is comprised of machines that, for once, didn’t have the glamorous, opulent backing of the manufacturers, who are reeling from a flurry of blows such as Hoover Economics, the Wall Street Sinkhole of ’29 and Henry Ford’s establishing of the Mass Production Paradigm.

But kidney punches aside, Eddie is a chin-up kind of guy: Between turning laps at the Brickyard as a teenager, dusting 26 enemy aircraft in WWI and guiding Eastern Airlines into a hand-over-fist windfall, rescuing the Indy 500 from oblivion seems like just another blip on his radar.

Yes, this is the “Guts, Determination and Dedication” period, a time that could only be defined by a heroic man like Rickenbacker. Following suit, the scrappy racers turned the 500 into a mano-a-mano dogfight not unlike the combat “Captain Eddie” conquered earlier during his tour of the European skies. The 500’s reputation as a showroom having vaporized, the Speedway mutates into a “proving ground” not so much for the State of the Motorcar, but for the scope of the Human Spirit–and its casualties. Between 1931 and 1935 alone, nine drivers and six riding mechanics turned in their timeslips at the Brickyard, for the most part in mongrel machines hammered together out of parts from the junkyard and then driven out to the track.

1930–One of the more outrageous demonstrations of the “Guts, Determination and Dedication” ethic transpires when Peter DePaolo, winner of the 1925 500, is hauling ass out to the Speedway with his new “Top Gun” driver Bill Cummings in the race car’s riding mechanic’s seat. Their goal is to qualify before the 6 PM curfew, and the sun is well into its descent into the western skyline. En route, just a few paces from the train tracks at the Speedway’s eastern border, DePaolo suddenly slams on his brakes and spins out twice before coming to rest on the left side of the road with the rear wheels sitting in a ditch. An oncoming train roars by approximately six or seven paces from the race car’s radiator. After the train passes, our heroes motor out of the ditch and Cummings shoes the car into a Row Two starting position.

1935–Henry Ford is operating on an axis antithetical to the Speedway and the esprite de corps of its Dustbowl Era junkyard thrashers. But his boy Edsel, who is in concert with renowned, profligate free-thinkers Preston Tucker and Harry Miller, continues to tug on Henry’s shirttail and the Ford Motor Company officially throws its hat into the ring at Indy–against the Old Man’s better judgment. This consortium fields ten (!) entries into the 500, but due to insufficient preparation and general hubris, only four of these seriously over-budget machines make the traditional cut of 33 race cars. The highest finisher? Ted Horn, in the 16th position. In its debut, FoMoCo stunk up the joint. Henry Ford has the Miller-Fords impounded. Yes, impounded…

1939–More outrageous theater: Louis Meyer is in hot pursuit of Wilbur Shaw in the final laps. Meyer smells victory, a win that would make him the Speedway’s first four-time champ. On his 198th lap, however, Meyer’s locally-sponsored Bowes Seal Fast Special gets loose then perpendicular before shattering the inside guardrail, splintering lumber in every direction. Meyer is ejected on impact and eats brick, skidding along the track on his hands and knees. After he brushes himself off while simultaneously contemplating retirement, he strolls toward the infield hospital, barefoot. His wife asks him what had happened to his shoes. He shrugs. Back in the garage, his mechanics find his footwear is still on the floor of the cockpit, exactly where it had been when he was catapulted onto the track.

It is this kind of provocative bravado that summed up the mettle of the American Experience. This mettle would soon be showcased on another stage, however. World War II is imminent.

1941– And as no stranger to sacrifices shouldered in life during wartime, Eddie Rickenbacker locks the Speedway gates and the Brickyard lay dormant for the duration.

During the war, 3-time 500 winner Wilbur Shaw is tire testing at the Speedway and is chagrined to find that, due to neglect, his hallowed Hoosier battlefield had fallen from grace.

1945–War is over and Shaw persuades Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., the Clabber Girl baking soda baron, to purchase what is, in essence, a ghost town.

Indeed, under the good ol’ AAA sanction Hulman resurrects the Brickyard and became its savior. But it is hardly all peace, love and methanol…

Duke Nalon

1947–“We had 17 cars qualified for the race five days before the race,” said Dennis “Duke” Nalon, competitor since ’38 and secretary-treasurer of the American Society of Professional Automobile Racing, in reference to the first boycott of the Speedway. “On the morning of the race, they were qualifying cars out there.”

It is labor versus management, and the drivers are boycotting the 500. When the sports editor of the Indianapolis News is brought in as a mediator between ASPAR and Hulman, the Speedway purse doubled from $75,000 to $150,000. 30 cars compete.

“That’s what we were holding out for,” Nalon said. “We wanted more prize money. Wilbur Shaw would not talk to us.”

1949–The keen eye of one J.C. Agajanian, an Armenian heir to a fortune built on garbage collection and pig farming, is fixated on the prowess of a bare-knuckled a young hot shot making laps in the Ray W. Carter entry, a 4 cylinder Offenhauser-powered roadster.

The object of Aggie’s fixation: a 220 lb., buff-as-Burt-Lancaster teenager named Troy Ruttman, who catches a ride here after hoodwinking the AAA tech daddies with his older cousin’s birth certificate, telling them “Troy” is just his nickname, thus the discrepancy. Agajanian is hip to this whole gag, but buttons his lip, biding his time.

1952–Ruttman is piloting “Ol’ 98” for Agajanian. Ruttman is absolutely tearing it up, showcasing his divine chops in supreme fashion and ultimately takes the victory for Aggie. He is 22 years old–to this day the youngest champion of the Indy 500.

1955–Another epochal moment transpires, a moment with aftershocks that reverberate even now. The American Automobile Association says sayonara to motorsports. It is just getting too sketchy. It seems that the fork in the road that the automotive industry hit in ’27 when Ol’ Henry began squirting out his cars with the frequency of the Third World birth rate had now widened into a chasm. AAA is migrating toward the Dinah-Shore-“See-The-USA-In-Your-Chevrolet” sensibility and divorcing itself from the increasingly macabre skirmishes of auto racing.

And it has been unbearably gruesome: Speedway Hero after Speedway Hero now drank his milk in the Great Victory Lane in the Sky after incidents on the AAA circuit in the 1950s. The powerful, growling front wheel drive hammerhead sharks known as “Kurtis/Novis” permanently revoked the licenses of talented and popular aces like Ralph Hepburn and Chet “Dean of the Speedway” Miller, and maimed ol’ ASPAR rabble rouser Dennis Nalon, the “Duke of the Novis”; additionally, Indy 500 stalwarts such as Ted Horn, Rex Mays and Bob Sweikert all punch the clock during this decade. But the heartbreak and the negative p.r. seemed insurmountable with the fate of the Bill “the Mad Russian” Vukovich. In his Offy-powered Kurtis, Vukie claimed successive thrones in ’53 and ’54…but in ’55 the Kingdom claims him.

VUKIE

When Bill Vukovich is killed, the AAA began its retreat. Two weeks later, when 80 spectators perished at LeMans, the AAA cut bait.

1956–In the vacuum created in the wake of AAA’s hasty exodus from motorsports sanctioning, The United States Auto Club is hatched. USAC absorbed the bulk of not only AAA’s itinerary, but also its braintrust. With Duane Carter shedding his firesuit for the monkey suit expected of a USAC Director of Competition, the 500 itself never misses a beat.

Pat Flaherty drives his Offy-powered Watson into Victory Lane wearing a T-shirt. This is the last time an Indy 500 champ rode his racehorse bareback.

1958–The horrific entropy of 1909 and 1911 reappears at the Brickyard: An opening lap melee ensues when the front row tangles up in Turn 3, jumpstarting a chain reaction that involves fifteen race cars. Pole-sitter Dick Rathman’s roadster is cut in two; Jerry Unser’s ride is caught in the swirling maelstrom and catapults over the wall. Pat O’Connor flips end over end as fire swept into the cockpit. Incredibly, he is the only casualty that day.

1959–Unfortunately, herr Grim Reaper has a hangover…After escaping his wrath the year before, Jerry Unser is killed.

But the final casualty of the Eisenhower Era and the transition from AAA to USAC is not actually human…it is an ideal–it is the regime of feisty “mud-in-yer eye” buckaroos like Ruttman, Flaherty and “the Duke.” This time the paradigm shift is a two-headed menace, a demon that feeds the phobias of American even today: Technology and foreign imperialism. Or more specifically, rear-engined race cars, jet engines, turbochargers and genteel British playboys.

Not that the Indy Establishment didn’t go down fighting against the paradigm shift…it did…

1963–Marked by perhaps the sketchiest and most dubious finale to a 500 since local boy Ray Harroun cut in front of a Californian on the way to Victory Lane in 1911, this is the year that J.C. Agajanian single-handedly stamps British F1 ace Jim Clark’s visa to Victory Lane “DENIED.”

For several laps during the late stages of the race, Aggie’s driver, Parnelli Jones, holds first place, with Clark gaining in second in one of them newfangled Lotus 29s. Eddie Sachs maintains third place.

Oil begins seeping from the “Agajanian Willard Battery Special” (aka “Ol’ Calhoun”) and it splatters Clark. The oil bath continues as USAC chief steward Harlan Fengler reaches for his black flag (to disqualify Jones), when the cagey mustachioed Armenian in the Cowboy Hat known as “Aggie” challenges Fengler’s wisdom and authority. As Jones, Clark and Sachs continued to circle the Speedway, Fengler relinquishes his grip on the black flag, demurring to Aggie’s rationale that: a) maybe the leaking has stopped; b) Parnelli is faced with negotiating the same slippery surface as everyone else and c) blowby or no blowby, this is bigger than the both of us; this isn’t about the debasement of Carl Fisher’s dream–this is about the threat to American sovereignty.

And with the track as slippery as Aggie’s petroleum-based hair products, Parnelli takes the checkered, with Clark trailing as runner-up. In the interim, Eddie Sachs spins out in some sticky stuff in turn one, recovers momentarily until a wheel came off and he slams into the north-end outer wall. It is still being argued whether that is the hardest hit Sachs suffered that Memorial Day Weekend…

The next morning at the local Holiday Inn banquet room, Sachs and Jones settle their score. Fed up with Sachs’ relentless dissing at an awards ceremony, Parnelli decks him. Down but not out, Sachs poses for photographers by lying down on his back, taking a tiny black flag from a table centerpiece and clenching it between his teeth as blood dribbles out of the corner of his mouth.

1964–Sachs should have been so lucky as to get away with a punch in the kisser, as he succumbs to an explosive combination of untested aerodynamics and the folly of pride, elements which collide in the guise of Mickey Thompson’s low-slung, experimental Sears Allstate Special. Thompson’s machine has a chequered past–in ’63 British master Graham Hill rejected Thompson’s overture to drive a similar version of Thompson’s unstable “skate” and 180’d it back to Europe–that would turn sordid.

Indeed, despite Hill’s assessment, the problematic streamlining of this machine is not fixed but Thompson finds a driver for the 500 anyway, the rookie Dave MacDonald. And as late as Carburetion Day, MacDonald is warned by folks as astute as Clark to vacate the cockpit. Mac refuses. With the green flag barely placed in its holster, it gets ugly. Again.

It is an even fierier and more gruesome reprise of the 1958 disaster, with Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald caught in an absolute holocaust of fire. It seems like time stands still while the sickening black smoke envelopes the sky above Turn 4 like the devil’s wallpaper. When it had finally dissipated, A.J. Foyt claims the second of four Indy 500s. It is a victory more bitter than sweet and a muted last hurrah for the front-engined roadsters, the swan song of the venerable Watson/Offy.

As for Sachs and MacDonald, they are not victims of the Indy 500, in as much as they are casualties of the hubris of the engineer and the folly of human nature: To wit, Mickey Thompson’s decision to campaign a design that had no grip whatsoever; and the vulnerability of the exposed fuel cell on Sach’s Halibrand Shrike, as it is mounted perpendicular to the driver’s hip. And this is not to disgrace or indict the designers, anymore than one can damn, say, Carl Fisher for the six deaths in 1909. Yes, Sachs and MacDonald both knew what they are climbing into–but that doesn’t make their passing any less traumatic for their compatriots.

1965–Formula One hitters Colin Chapman and Jim Clark charge to victory in a Ford V-8 Lotus, striking a blow for the British Empire and extracting their revenge for the perceived xenophobic skullduggery of ’63. The times, they are a’ changin’ indeed…Ford returns to the Speedway since the ignominious, self-imposed exile of ’35…and rear-engined cars are a lot less tiring to drive than those awkward, demanding Offy roadsters…

1967–The Brits and their F1 technology, the return of Ford Motor Company, the advent of the turbocharger tacking on horsepower by forcing more air through the engine–all of this is groovy but really quite quaint in comparison to the technological and theatrical audacity of one Andy Granatelli, the self-proclaimed “Mr. 500″…Granatelli really pushes the envelope when he unleashes his radical, revolutionary four-wheel drive, turbine-powered “Silent Sam.”

His motivation for capsizing the Brickyard’s apple cart? R-e-v-e-n-g-e, baby. “Mr. 500” is plenty torqued after the conclusion of ’66 race which, according to his calculations, he and his driver, Jim Clark, won. Indeed, both Clark and Graham Hill drove into the Winner’s Circle that year. Only Hill cashed the check, however.

With Parnelli Jones now pushin’ the pedals, the bulbous helicopter-engined “Sam” qualifies on the outside of the second row, the perfect position for pouncing on the unsuspecting frontrunners. And when the green flag drops on race day, polesitter Mario Andretti, Foyt and Dan Gurney all bottleneck down low on the backstraight leaving Parnelli Jones with no choice but to go high. Jones stomps on the throttle–“turbo lag” be damned–and when all four wheels commence chewing up pavement, Jones blows by everyone like they were waiting in line for a government check.

“When I passed Mario for the lead on the first lap,” Jones later recalled, “I glanced over at him and he gave me the finger.”

And in his heart, that’s exactly the same gesture Granatelli is making to USAC for the next 196 laps, as his pride and joy couldn’t be caught. But with nothing but blue skies between Granatelli, his genius and the realization of his dreams, one of “Sam’s” two-bit gearbox bearings fails just three laps from the finish. A.J. Foyt, who is nearly two miles behind, blazes by a bemused, hapless Parnelli Jones and collects the victor’s spoils.

After the race, the ego battle between USAC and Granatelli escalates. During an emergency meeting on the “turbine issue,” a panel of 3 representatives from Ford and one turbine expert bureaucratically sandbag the four-wheel drive jets. Their verdict: Smaller tires for four wheel drive cars, and lower air inlet for the turbine engine.

1968–USAC put the kibosh on f.w.d. and turbines technologies completely.

Symbolically, this is a dark day for America…Shrewdly, Granatelli had built the better mousetrap, but is penalized for it. And to paraphrase Carl Fisher, the road to Victory Lane is indeed built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is desire or ingenuity…One needs a scorecard to keep on top of all the paradigm shifts at this juncture in Speedway history (as they are coming fast and furious), but suffice it to say, after the “turbine engine trials” the Indy 500 ceased being about who can get there first by any means necessary and, subsequently, began its term as a “proving ground” in the arena of limited performance.

And in the darkest of ironies, by dampening the onslaught of progress USAC became the entity that dampened Fisher’s dream like it was kitty litter–not the Europeans.

1969–“Mr. 500” finally earns his moniker. With Mario Andretti under his employ, Granatelli gets his trophy–with a conventional race car that is charmingly anachronistic by the standard set by “Silent Sam.”

With the prosaic “limited technology” stipulations, things are quiet until..

1972–Roger Penske bags his first win at the Speedway, with Mark Donohue shoeing in a McLaren/Offy.

1973–Another gruesome year as Swede Savage and Art Pollard are immolated and assimilated into the history of blood and soil at Indy. Eddie Rickenbacker passes on and is given a hero’s burial.

1976–Elmer George, Hulman’s son-in-law and possible heir to the Brickyard Empire, is murdered in a gunfight.

1977–Women’s suffrage is granted at the Speedway. Immediately, Janet Guthrie lays down a provisional Pole shot.

But her heroism (heroinism?) is only one subplot–as is Tom Sneva’s bursting of the 200 mph barrier in Roger Penske’s McLaren/Cosworth–for this is among the most poignant of all Indy 500s.

The denouement of ’77 unravels as Gordon Johncock hammers the competition into submission, lap after lap. He began to visualize savoring the traditional milk while tucking the Borg Warner chalice under his arm when his the taste in his mouth turns sour and dry as his mount begins slowing inexplicably on the main straight. Johncock guides ‘er close to the inside wall and turns off the track at the south end of the pits. Stopping on the infield grass next to the creek, Johncock climbs from his car, removes his helmet and headsock and plopped down wearily on the right front wheel. A.J. Foyt comes by like it is 1967 all over again, en route to an unprecedented fourth 500 win. Gordy actually waves at Foyt as he motors by. After climbing out of his race car and asking a guard to watch his helmet and goggles, Johncock steps over the inner guardrail and, still fully clothed, jumps into the creek, where he begins the difficult task of coming to terms with his crushing disappointment while splashing around in two feet of water, like a child that wants to climb back onto the womb.

On the parade lap, Foyt makes room for Tony Hulman who joins him in the back of the pace car. This moment is highly symbolic, as these two men came to embody what is noble about the Indianapolis 500 and, indeed, American Society: The blueprint for “Super Tex” Foyt’s personality and driving prowess could have been torn out of a the biographies of many Speedway heroes, for he possesses the scrappiness of Pat Flaherty, the raw talent of Parnelli Jones and Troy Ruttman as well as the nerve of Eddie Sachs; likewise, Hulman is the another ideal archetype for the Owner of IMS: Like Fisher and Rickenbacker, Hulman is a venture capitalist with a feature rare to the breed–heart. His respect for the history and tradition of the Speedway is reflected in the continued pampering and nurturing of the 500’s growth. And because of his guidance, the “Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports” flourished.

And then music died…Tony Hulman succumbs to natural causes.

1978–The USAC braintrust is killed in a plane crash…Amidst the scramble for power, the Championship Auto Racing Teams series is created with Pat Patrick elected president flanked by A.J. Foyt, Roger Penske and others on the board of directors. But despite an absolute vacuum in power, CART is unable to wrestle control of the Brickyard away from USAC so they “take it to the streets,” establishing the road circuits as an alternative to the USAC’s monopoly on the nation’s oval tracks.

1979–The line is drawn in the sand: USAC rejects entries for card-carrying CART members Penske Racing, Patrick Racing, Chaparral Racing, Team McLaren, Fletcher Racing and Dan Gurney. CART files suit. On May 5, U.S. District Judge James F. Noland enjoins the CART posse to suit up and go racing.

But the ego battle left the 500’s traditional itinerary and protocol completely discombobulated–perhaps its most crazed, neurotic and anarchic since the “Duke” Nalon’s 1947 sit-in. Compounding the insanity, with USAC’s attention focused on the courtroom instead of tech inspection, more shouting and pointing erupts at the Speedway amidst accusations of some folks cheating by tweaking their turbocharger’s popoff valves.

In a reactionary attempt to induce parity, USAC reduced the acceptable boost levels. Savvy participants just kinda’ bypassed the valve altogether. It was an utter cacophony of confusion, resulting in another court injunction. Ultimately, tradition is shitcanned and 35 cars eventually qualify for the race, some during an unscheduled, emergency 11th hour session.

Ultimately, Rick Mears won the first of four titles under the aegis of Roger Penske, court adjourned and a jury of racers and race fans found USAC guilty of being a negligent mother. It would only be fair to say that CART could be found as an accomplice, however.

1981–At an Indy car race at Pocono, USAC fails to attract enough race cars to start the race. The field is papered with front-engined sprint cars. Ouch. Bobby Unser wins his 3rd 500. No, actually Mario Andretti wins his 2nd 500. More court action. Finally, after all the lawyers close their briefcases Bobby Unser drinks the milk six months past its expiration date. Whatever.

1994–The trajectory of USAC and CART continue on diametrically opposed curves. USAC hunkers down into the trenches of sprint car racing and CART solidifies its status as a “franchise-based” entity.

Meanwhile back at the Speedway: Ever the opportunist, CART kahuna Penske shrewdly maneuvers through a loophole in USAC’s rules and fields three entries propelled by a Mercedes pushrod-type engine. After spending more than the GNP of most Central American nations researching and developing motors that are legal (and just barely) for the one race USAC still sanctions (yes, the Indy 500), Penske’s domination is interpreted by some of his constituents as sheer, cheeky “let-them-eat-cake” effrontery. From his vantage point in Victory Lane, Al Unser Jr. fails to see what all the hubbub is about, however.

1996–The newly formed “Indy Racing League,” the brainstorm of Hulman’s grandson Tony George, has its debutante ball. The qualifying format guarantees 25 of 33 positions to its members. CART cries foul, and epithets like “managed competition,” “slot car racing” and worse are hurled at George as he unveils his plan for the ’97 race with technology and specs that would render CART machines obsolete–at least for Indy.

In an ironic and unique twist on Duke Nalon’s “Workers of the World” boycott of ’47, some of the richest men in the universe go on strike and stage their own same day “protest” race, the US 500, at Roger Penske’s race track in Michigan. The opening lap of this race is a disaster, with a more vehicles involved in a pile up than ever at the Indy 500.

Meanwhile, back at Gasoline Alley: Buddy Lazier wins Indy–with a broken back. This after many tears were shed for polesitter Scott Brayton, who became one with the Eternal Soul of the Brickyard during a midweek practice session.

1997–En route to the IRL Phoenix 200 (which is seen by many observers as a test-and-tune for the new non-turbocharged motors), Albuquerque racer Jim Guthrie borrows $60,000 from a couple of Indian chiefs who run casinos in the Great American Southwest. He wins the event. A whole lotta cars blow up.

At Indy, the 25/8 rule is rescinded AFTER qualifying ends, pissing off a few folks who crashed their rides trying to score one of the scarce, non-“members only” positions. 35 cars enter competition. Very few cars blow up–at least compared to Phoenix. Arie “the Flying Dutchman” Luyendyk triumphs for the second time, in a tight, exciting finish. This despite a white flag lap that was simultaneously “green” and “yellow.” The speculation of the trackside pundits is that the incompetence of the last lap officiating and it’s concurrent deployment of “green” and “yellow” spells “pink slips” for USAC at the 500. (It does…)

After the race, Luyendyk shrugs at the controversial finish, “I knew exactly what to do (on the last lap, despite conflicting signals). I saw the same thing happen at a CART race on teevee.”

Parenthetical to controversy (and at Indy, controversy seems to be the one throughline that transcends any sanctioning body), the spirit of Carl Fisher returns to the Speedway. For the first time in years, hot rodders have returned to the Brickyard and they are getting their hands dirty…This is a phenomenon unheard of since “the Franchise” mentality was en vogue, which meant that motors were leased–not purchased–from, say, the Cosworth factory in the UK. Since the powerplants were not the property of the racers, they were helpless to do little more than change spark plugs. (And don’t think there isn’t a pecking order to this whole “leasing” program. There is.)

Before the race Sid Waterman, a manufacturer who supplied the fuel pumps for sprint cars, drag racers as is now the Big Daddy of fuel pumps for the IRL, sums up the current energy at Indy 500 thusly: “The difference between this and CART: In CART, if you have a faulty engine you put it in a crate and you ship it back to CART–you ship it back to England. There’s nothing done in the United States and I think that is a real shame that we let an American sport get away from us. This is an American sport.”

Waterman can build an absolutely crushing fuel pump, efficient enough to service the entire field at Indy…”If I took the pump off of John Force’s Funny Car,” he said, “which we designed–and we put it out here in the center of the Speedway, and we put 33 hoses…35 hoses out there, I could run all 35 cars off the same fuel pump. And still probably bypass something back to the tank.” But it’s like he couldn’t get arrested until Tony George changed the locks at the Brickyard.

“This is a complete turnaround from three years ago and the reception I got from the CART people,” Waterman said, debunking the notion of “managed competition” which Sid maintains is symptomatic of CART–not the IRL.

His frustration is something that any independent engineer capable of building a better mousetrap but can’t get past the rent-a-cop outside the boardroom corridors can relate to. “This is a wide open thing,” Waterman continued, “that’s the nice thing about this IRL program. My feeling is that competition is good for everybody involved, including myself. Anybody who can design and engineer a pump to make these things run should jump right in–the water’s fine.

“This year may be tough,” Sid advises, “but everybody just hang in there for a couple of years. You will see the finest racing that ever happened right here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

2001–Entries include those of Roger Penske. Chip Ganassi. Jimmy Vasser. Al Unser, Jr. Michael Andretti–all of whom balked at the Indy 500 in 1996. Other entries include the names Mears, Stewart, Luyendyk, Cheever, Salazar, Vasser, de Ferran, Hornish, et. al.

Participation lends credence to the notion that the Indy 500 is greater than the sum of its parts–but anybody who thinks they are somebody better be in the town of Speedway come the Month of May.

2037–Some smartass journalist who fancies himself as a motorsports historian ruminates on how quaint it was for Indy 500 fans of the 20th Century to feel threatened by the different philosophies of the various racing organizations over the years. His conclusion: After surviving the race of 1909, the Speedway has grown bigger than the Sum of Its Parts and therefore is way beyond anything as trivial as the Human Element and its incumbent Folly.

That year, an unknown rookie driver from Europa–one of Jupiter’s moons–wins the 500 in a production-based spaceship propelled by Element 13. Amidst the outcry to save the 500, Cobain George Hulman, Tony George’s great nephew (and president of the Intergalactic Racing League), vows something will be done to stem the influx of alien drivers at the Speedway.

Tomas Sheckter, Pole Day 2002

Tomas Sheckter, Pole Day 2002

(Portions of the research for this piece was informed and cross-referenced by the following: INDIANAPOLIS RACING MEMORIES (1961-1969) David Friedman, Motorbooks International; INDY RACING LEGENDS by Tony Sakkis, Motorbooks International, NOVI: THE LEGENDARY INDIANAPOLIS RACE CAR, VOL. 1, by George Peters and Henri Greuter, Bar Jean Enterprises.)

(Cole Coonce has finally finished Infinity Over Zero, a historical novel on the Land Speed Record. For a peek at that transcript, visit www.kerosenebomb.com/infinity/ .  Originally published in 2002, A SECRET HISTORY OF AMERICANA, THE INDY 500 & HUMAN NATURE is to be included in his collection of nitro-damaged scribblings, TOP FUEL WORMHOLE, Volume 2.)

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