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)