Wake Up The Echoes

The line “wake up the echoes”, as almost everyone from the northern part of Indiana would recall, is a lyric from the Notre Dame Victory March. The line is set within a stanza implores one to recall and revive the glories past;

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, 

Wake up the echoes cheering her name, 

Send a volley cheer on high, 
Shake down the thunder from the sky.

Growing up where I did, Notre Dame football and the Indianapolis 500 once held an unparalleled significance in both long-standing tradition and celebration on an annual basis. I still see similarities with this sentiment and the opening day at IMS.

Opening day of 500 practice reminds us of a few things that acknowledge time and place; another year has ticked by, we have indeed survived another winter (which for Northern Indiana tends to be a bleak and oppressive 4 months), the optimism of spring is well and truly beset around us, the greening of the landscape signals the onset of more comfortable climes, and the quickening of pace to all things Indiana, especially the cars at Indy. My recent visit to the Indycar Grand Prix followed by this opening day also has awoken my restful desire to write here again. 


After being at IMS this past weekend, I appreciate how I find something special each visit there. Whether recalling specific visits or events past, or how the physical grounds and surroundings change over the years, or a mixture of people, time, and place, each visit seems unique and never repetitive. This past weekend I was not only engrossed with the racing, but also noticing what’s new around the track and in the museum.

Of special note to me was the A.J. Foyt exhibit in the museum and the demolished Lola tub on display that had been saved from his horrific crash at Road America in 1990. It takes very little imagination to see what damage was done to his body in that crash.

While presented as a testament to his incredible toughness and desire to return to racing following that crash, I am also reminded of how incredibly dangerous this endeavor is, despite the ongoing improvements to safety. Maybe it’s my steadily advancing age, or the fact that I’ll be attending my 30th Indy 500 this year, or that I’ve been following the sport for around 40 of my 49 years, but the fragility of life in the profession of Indycar racing seems all the more apparent now. In light of the length of my Speedway history, Hinchcliffe’s crash still seems like yesterday to me.

There is that dark and rarely officially discussed thread of mayhem and death woven into the history of the Speedway and while there is no need to glorify it, I also feel it quite important and well overdue to more suitably, publicly, and solemnly honor, via a permanent museum place or exterior monument, all those (fans included) who have given their lives from the events within the confines of the Speedway.

There really needs to be no shame in doing so, I feel. The drivers all eagerly acknowledge this risk in trade for thrills, riches, and glory. To publicly exhibit some condolence to those who were far less fortunate seems a fitting and necessary counter-balance to the weight of glory.

Many acknowledge a ‘spirit of the Speedway’ that they experience when visiting. While difficult to substantiate in a logical way, I’ve felt it as well nearly every visit. I don’t think it a stretch to consider that something well beyond our understanding may be ‘touching’ our psyche in those moments and to me, it feels as if it is from those who are gone.

Hokey-sounding perhaps, but I can assure you something I’ve experienced, and not imagined. 

So before I succumb to the annual rites of celebration and ‘shaking down of the thunder’ that arrive with my annual trip to the Speedway for the Indy 500 weekend, I’m feeling the need to take a moment today, this opening day at IMS, in solemn reflection of those whose lives were forever altered or mortally concluded at the Speedway. 

If nothing else, I’ll take those moments when they come (much like today) to consider the lives lost at the speedway and extend into the sky/universe a solemn acknowledgement of their sacrifice.

 

Alternate Realities, Part II

Back again folks. 

During the in-between days where the luster of the Indy 500 becomes patina and the pomp of season culmination not quite here, I dare to fill that space with something that most other outlets do not – rewrite the amazing and rich history of Indycar’s biggest event, The Indy 500.

Knowing that between the fates, Racing Gods, and free will, something amazing can and often does happen. I find it refreshing to not simply rehash and parse history, but to ponder “what might have been”.  


Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate’s final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events, that nine times out of ten would turn out differently and more predictably, yet didn’t, forever changed the future course of the race itself. 

From time-to-time, I’m going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history. I hope you enjoy this installment of Alternate Realities:




1967 – Something We’ve Never Seen Before:
The 51st Running of the Indy 500 set for Tuesday, May 30th, 1967 was one of the most historic before any race laps were ever turned. A wildly innovative car was brought by Andy Granatelli to the speedway in 1967 – the STP Paxton turbine. Utilizing a helicopter jet engine and four-wheel drive, the totally purpose-built car incited as much fear as curiosity in the racing community and beyond. While I was not present to observe this car and the reactions of those around, it is generally noted that the reactions centered around one of two – disapproval for how it could affect the integrity of the Indy 500, or wide-eyed curiosity for what it could mean for the future of racing and production automobiles. 


The end-result however was one of heartbreak and disappointment for Granatelli, STP, and all those who developed and supported it. With just under four laps to go, after leading 170 of the 196 laps, an inexpensive but invaluable part failed in the transmission line sending the disturbingly quiet turbine car to an even-more-shockingly silent end and A.J. Foyt into victory lane for his third time, tying Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose for most Indy 500 wins.

Now let’s engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path…


The $6 transmission bearing survives another 240 seconds of use and the incredibly wild, incredibly brightly-painted and futuristic STP Turbine, becomes the latest in a rapid progression of innovative cars to win the Indy 500. Rufus Parnelli Jones joins Milton, Vuky, Ward and Foyt as two-time winners of the 500. With the incredible and dominant win, USAC’s attempts to shutter (outlaw) the turbine are met with surprising push-back from manufacturers and fans alike who are excited and ready for jet propulsion as the future of production vehicles. Chrysler, GM, and Ford all rush to begin turbine-powered factory racing programs.  The internal combustion engine soldiers on for another seven years, winning only once more (via the venerable Offy), before going the way of the front-engined chassis at Indy. 

Parnelli goes repeats his wins with two more Indy 500s (in 1968 with the turbine motor and again in 1970, after being recruited by a rival team, ironically recording the Offy’s final win) becoming the first person to win four 500s.  Parnelli subsequently retires from racing in Victory Lane only to join STP Granatelli Racing in 1971 as a team partner and overseeing the Chrysler factory NASCAR jet-engine racing program. 

By the mid-1970s, all major forms of motorsport employ various configurations of smaller turbine motors while production vehicle sales for the first turbine passenger cars off the assembly line are staggering. With surprising initial reliability, multiple fuel options, and quick public acceptance, the ‘jet-age’ is ushered in.  All manner of styling is affected, from clothing to appliances to architecture.

The internal combustion engine soldiers on in rapidly-decreasing numbers in passenger cars but still with primary use in farm and heavy equipment. Never again is the internal combustion engine seen as being near the forefront of propulsion technology.



End of Season Thoughts, Part 1.


Following the conclusion of the IZOD Indycar Championship celebration, as viewed on Versus last night, I was left with several lingering thoughts, some positive, some negative, but all with the future of Indycar in mind:

1. Dario Franchitti has left no question on his status as Indycar legend. His two Indy 500 wins and three Indycar Championships are just the starting point.  He has proven over the course of the last 7 years that he excels with astounding consistency on ovals and road/street courses.  As cursory review of his career accomplishments will quite easily support this and his  latest Championship title shows him the best current example of all-around driver.  Certainly being on one a top-level (if not the best) team in the Indycar series throughout his career hasn’t hurt, but his delivering the goods in the best equipment is what keeps him in the best seats in the business.  He is deserving of every comparison to existing Indycar legends with names such as Meyer, Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Rahal, Mears.


2.The sparse crowds as seen (if seen) on the second-tier television broadcasts are horribly damaging to the image of the Indycar Series, and cannot continue beyond this season. The perception to a worldwide televison audience that ‘nobody cares’ instantly discounts and cements Indycar as a ‘strange and curious’ little niche sport at best. The great difficulty I see is that the action as seen in person is vastly better than the on TV product.  Having seen both, the only thing on TV that has given me those eye-popping moments experienced in person is the action captured by the panning in-car cameras. On TV, one often misses the scale and speed of full action, sound, and smells of these wonderful machines and drivers, traded for intrusive graphics, lacking coverage of on-track stories, and questionable vignettes.  Hopefully the venues and Indycar can begin work immediately on vastly improving attendance next year and TV will provide a more immersive and less distracted experience for it’s viewers.

More thoughts to come…

Grounded Effects – Not so brief synopsis, Part I

This blog’s title in no subtle way references the racing car feature known as ‘ground effects’, whose significant debut at Indy coincides with my first attended race (1979), but I must back up a notch or two to the beginning of my love affair with Indy.

My first appearance at the old Speedway was not at a race, but in the spring of 1977 on a school field trip to Indianapolis.  In addition to the Children’s Museum tour, we were taken into the old speedway and shuffled through Gasoline Alley (in the month of May, no less).

I had seen a few highlights of the Indy 500 on TV, listened to the race every May on the radio, and scanned with wide eyes my father’s race programs from a few races prior.  It did nothing but fuel this young boy’s desire to see the phenomenon in person.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to see those fabled race cars (with the exception of A. J. Foyt and maybe Bobby Unser, I wouldn’t have known any of the drivers’ faces from a hot dog vendor).  

I touched Lloyd Ruby’s tire as the car was being wheeled out for practice.  He later crashed in the race and subsequently announced his retirement.  I remember wondering if there was some force in the universe that connected my touch to his crash and subsequent retirement.  Sorry, Mr. Ruby, I never meant for this to happen.  

As the bus pulled out of the Speedway that day (much too soon for my liking), I couldn’t stop looking out the back for one last look at the cars. Seconds before pulling onto 16th Street, the brightest, fastest red flash I’d ever seen in person went by with a barely recognizable 20 on the nose… Gordon Johncock. I had immediately deemed it a sign that the first car I’d ever seen at race speed would be the driver I cheered for. Gordy.  

When watching the race replay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I thought The Fates had conspired to favor Gordy (and myself) as he lead much of the race with his bright red machine.  Nearing the end, Gordy’s crankshaft let go coming down the front straight and a bluish-white plume of smoke erupted from his car signaling the end of his race.  I was deflated.  Here was a car and driver whose victory was all but sealed, only to have circumstances intervene and history’s path set in a different direction.  The legend that was A. J. Foyt became the first driver to win his fourth Indy 500 that day.  Again, I wondered about the relationship between my choices and misfortune toward a racer.  I determined then that events transpire more organically than to be swayed by one insignificant kid’s hopes (the near-misses, however, would be a recurring theme for the teams and athletes I would later cast favor upon). 

(Part II of Grounded Effects to follow)