The Second Race I Attended

If you’re currently an Indycar fan or just a fan of the Indy 500, a vast majority of us would recall with great reverence, that first race we attended and became hooked on the entire sensory experience.

How many of us recall the second race in a similar manner, however?

My second race came in 1980, one year after my first. 1979, while a fantastic experience and cementing a lifelong love of the speedway (and also strengthening my bond with my father), left me wanting in the racing department because my favorite driver (Al Unser) in what was the best car on that day (the new ground-effect Chaparral), dominated only to drop out with a minor part failure (transmission seal).

The following year I was even further disappointed to learn that Johnny Rutherford would be piloting that formidable and glorious yellow machine for 1980. Al had moved to a new team with a rather squarish, white (Longhorn) car spectacularly unadorned with sponsors and terrifically average on the speed charts all month. This was not a good sign for “my man Al”, I thought.



It was the dawn of a new decade. The newly-inaugurated president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, seemed to symbolize the promise of unity and common good needed for much of a country that was hurting from the recession years of 1978-1980. In a reflection of the times (which I continue to note to this day), the uncertainty people felt in the economy was also felt in the racing community. 

Much uncertainty existed for the USAC, fledgling upstart series CART, the cobbled-together CRL (Championship Racing League), and IMS. Tony Hulman had been gone less than three years and the power vacuum was being filled by multiple, divergent sources. 

Teams raced on though. Some preferring the traditional USAC trail which was in decline with cancelled events later in the year, and some teams joining CART and attempting to grow their own series. This was the original “split” that fewer discuss when looking at the history of open-wheel racing in the US. Despite the uncertainty, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Sweepstakes was an unquestioned titan and, for the time being, remained steadfastly on the schedule of both sanctions. 

Race Day 1980 was quite beautiful, hot, and sunny making that Pennzoil Chaparral gleam even more brightly than the previous year. I knew better who this no-name Mears guy was who’d won the race in just his second try the year before. The cast of legends were all there and fairly competitive with a myriad of chassis and engines as the dawning of ground effects seemed to inject some optimism into experimenting.  

The new decade seemed to give hope that the future in general was brighter. Around 29 eligible drivers and over 40 cars missed the field for the 1980 race which seems incredible to imagine in this age.



The domination that we were expecting of the “Yellow Submarine” in 1979 bore fruit in 1980 as Rutherford had a nearly flawless day at the lead of the race for 118 of 200 laps. Tom Sneva, who wrecked his 14th-quickest and already qualified primary Phoenix chassis in practice after qualifying, used a backup McLaren to drive from 33rd to 2nd, even leading the race twice for a total of 16 laps.

It was a day that wasn’t particularly notable for the racing, aside from Sneva’s excellent run from the back of the pack to 2nd and Rutherford gaining his third 500 crown.

While we waited to leave the infield parking location, my two friends and I left the three fathers back in the vehicle to go stretch our legs (and alleviate some of the boredom of sitting in a hot car going nowhere). Wandering about provided an education of things heretofore unforeseen by these eyes.

This would be the year that I (quite innocently) had wandered too close to the infamous Snake Pit of yore where my first-person accounts of the adult female anatomy would be made much more complete than ever before. And displayed in incredible fashion. Live and in color, the details of which aren’t exactly suitable for public discussion. Perhaps someday, if we meet and you’re truly interested, I’ll provide the event’s details.

My 12-year-old self could scarcely believe what we were seeing and I am still quite incredulous to this day. I’m quite certain that if our fathers knew what we were witnessing, they’d have preferred to keep us in the vehicle.

Also, of particular note was my first live-action brawl between adults. Only in recent years did I see a picture of this incident captured by the Indianapolis Star and posted in their annual flashbacks.  Part of me wants to discount some details of the event I saw as boyhood embellishment, but I DO have certain elements reconciled in my brain as correct based on this photo, so while sparing some of the lengthy details, I can say that I witnessed this moment of Snake Pit lore from a range of approximately 30′ which seemed far too close once all hell broke loose:


Again, perhaps someday I may regale you in person with my memories of this alcohol-fueled contretemps but safe to say, my second Indy 500 was nearly as memorable as the first, just for vastly different, non-racing-related reasons.




End of Season Thoughts, Part 2


3. Indycar is a niche sport. We fans may not like the sound of that statement but it alas, is true and until the people who run it understand this, it will continue to flail about until exhaustion and ultimately drown. Indycar has always had a small (relative to the stick and ball sports) legion of devotees but the total size of the crowd (literally until TV coverage), was based on this legion plus whatever casual observers would be intrigued. Instead of trying to ‘grow’ the sport through sheer mass exposure and hoping some come along, I contend it needs to grow by providing a means to better experience the racing product and by giving the casual observer something to be interested in. The first must be done through better television production and viewing.  The second comes from thoughts which can be summed up by Peter DeLorenzo (an example of which can be found here) on making Indycar a viable product of interest to casual viewer. By involving them more directly through Indycar returning to represent a true ‘car of tomorrow’ and incubate new technolgies on the racetrack, the general public would be clamoring to see Indycars again and thereby what may lie ahead for their next purchase in the showrooms. 

4. Indycar has one of the best hardcore fan bases of any sport. You all know who you are.  You’d know a ’67 Lotus Turbine from a ’70 Lotus Turbine in with a scant glance at the two.  You know the venerable Offy had only 4 cylinders that produced the power of many contemporary V-8s.  You know the importance of the ’61 Cooper Climax and the ’73 Eagle and the ’79 Chaparral.  You’ve seen Johncock hold off Mears, Helio climb the fence and Sandi Andretti’s hat.  Indycar is about an overwhelming combined experience of sights, sounds, smells, and what’s felt which produces indelible marks on our brains. Dearest Keepers of Indycar, please don’t forego understanding what this sport means to us. We are the few and proud devotees who just wish for a return to a product that actually means something to people. Racing used to = an experience and progress, not the inverse of that formula.

More thoughts to come…

Favorite Cars of my Indy days…

1979 – Pennzoil Chaparral

The very car from which this blog derives its name and first I saw live in an Indy 500.  While reading about this car in Sports Illustrated (I think it was), I realized this car was the ‘next wave’ of Indy cars which was the beginning of the ground effect era.

Sleek and fast and in the brightest yellow than I’d ever seen, this chassis still holds my title for ‘best looking Indycar nosecone’.  My dad was an Al Unser fan (which pretty much made me al Al Unser fan), and for Al to not win in 1979 with this superior machine was disappointing to the extreme.  That winter I made my Pinewood Derby car in it’s color and numbering treatment.  To see it one year later with the angular red 4 on that nose and some guy named Rutherford driving into victory lane was, to me, a jab that the fates could’ve done without.  That Chaparral that sits in the IMS Hall of Fame museum will always be the No. 2 Pennzoil car in my mind.