Each year in May many of us who grew up around Indianapolis have our own kinds of flashbacks. What do you think about when you look back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 500-mile Race festivities? These individual memories may not be of each year’s winner, the speeds for qualifications or a certain crash. Some have flashbacks that tend more toward activities of family, friends and neighbors on race day. I’m sure there are race fans everywhere who have thoughts of everyone sitting around a radio, having a beer and eating hot dogs grilled in the back yard.
My Indianapolis 500 memories are varied, changing as I got older. Some are a child’s scattered pieces. When I was growing up on the south side of Indy we listened to the race on the radio, from “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” to the checkered flag. Of course, when I was a kid the race took most of the day since the speeds were much slower. I’m sure I wasn’t paying attention for all those hours.
My Dad, Frank Niehaus, absolutely loved the entire spectacle. He even listened to recordings of Indy race cars on his stereo, zooming around the room. He could be found at practice or qualifications or the race itself over the years. He talked about Andy Granatelli and the Novis and A. J. Foyt, Jim Hurtibuise, Billy Vukovich, Eddie Sachs, etc. I recall my dad taking me to qualifications with him. It was probably just one year but the recollection sticks with me. My most vivid memory of going with my dad is being in line early in the morning on 16th Street so we could get inside to get a good spot to see who would be in the 33-car lineup. I was fascinated by the crowd, which is definitely a part of this experience. And the sound of the engines passing by is still thrilling, no matter how old I am.
Later in my years, I remember going with friends for practice or qualifications and sometimes I was there on race day. As an adult I went one year with my best friend the night before the 500 to hang out and watch people, a tradition that continues for some. We had tickets and watched the race; but again, the year and the final results are a blur. Also, I was fortunate to get a pass over a period of years to a suite on the main straight-of-way to watch practice and tour the garage and the pits, up close and personal. Just as prominent are race days when I invited friends to hang out at my house, listening to “Back Home Again In Indiana”, then that roar when all the cars fire up! We would visit and eat and drink, all while keeping track (somewhat) on the radio of who’s still in the race using the newspaper’s 33-car lineup. Yes, there was some friendly wagering as well.
Not many photographs from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are still with me. Although the ones I do have span the 1940s to the 1960s. They tell many stories, but mostly of my Dad’s times at The Track. Dad’s in the photo on the right with his sun-shading hat, keeping his bald head from burning. He is about 30-35 years old here. The infield photo above shows fans sitting on top of their cars, possibly inside the fourth turn. Judging from the cars, this is the late 1940s or early 1950s. Below are two photos of the 1941 fire in the garage area that occurred as they were preparing to begin the race. One shows the billowing smoke from across the infield. Another is a striking photo of the aftermath in the garage area. I believe my parents took these photos. For a bit of the story about the tragedy that day is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
“On the morning of the race a fire broke out in the garage area. George Barringer's revolutionary rear-engined car was destroyed. At the time, the car was being refueled (with gasoline). In a nearby garage, another car which was owned by Joel Thorne was being worked on with a welder. The fumes caught fire from the sparks of the welding, and a huge fire broke out which burned down about a third of the southern bank of garages. The start of the race was delayed by a couple hours, and fire fighters had trouble getting to the Speedway to put out the blaze due to the heavy race day traffic. Barringer's car was withdrawn, and he was credited with 32nd finishing position. With Sam Hanks and Barringer out, the race lined up with only 31 cars.”
I’m continuing through the years with a photo that looks like it’s taken from the grandstands across from the starting line. In this one we can see the old pagoda, the 1956 DeSoto pace car and, if you look carefully, you’ll see the #29 Novi lined up to get underway. Driver Paul Russo in #29 led the race for the first 21 laps before a blown tire threw the car out of the race.
The last 500 photo I'm posting is of Andy Granatelli and Parnelli Jones, car owner and driver. This is most likely from the late 1960s when they were running the turbine-powered cars. I’m not sure how my dad came to have this candid photo. The quality tells me it was purchased and maybe was given to him as a gift.
I believe it’s appropo that I post these snipits of memories on May 29, 2016, during the running of the 100th Indianapolis 500. Today is historic, but there’s a new twist. It has been announced (as I’m writing this on Wednesday before the Sunday race) that for the first time since 1950 the Indianapolis 500 will be shown live on TV in Indianapolis. I’m not sure how I feel about that since traditions are traditions, you know. There was that special listening-on-the- radio ingredient. Maybe I’ll sit on the deck and listen for a while. But don’t get me wrong….we’ll definitely be tuning in for the live spectacle on TV. Then later we’ll get a few of the inside details from Krissy and Caroline and Ben who are at the track today.
I hope everyone has a safe and memorable Memorial Day Weekend. Thanks for spending a little of your time at Hurley Travels.
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