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The Indianapolis 500: Some Personal Memories

by Frank Santoroski         @seveng1967

16C_5731-1-3When I arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week and I saw the new gate, the new suites and seats, and the 100th running signage all over town, I got a little verklempt.  Now, that’s not entirely unusual, but generally I don’t get that feeling until race day when Back Home Again in Indiana starts to play and the balloons are released. I’m sure that many of you can relate to this feeling.

Walking about the grounds, I found my mind flooded with memories of Indy 500s past and I thought that I might share some of those with you.

I was first introduced to auto racing through my Uncle, Hugh Maloney, in the late 1970s. It wasn’t long before I became a road-racing snob, not truly understanding the concept of oval racing. Sports cars, Can-Am and Formula One were my preference over NASCAR or USAC. I was certainly aware of the 500, but the thought of racing round and round in a circle somehow did not appeal to me.

In 1979, Hugh arrived at our house in New Jersey on Memorial Day Weekend. The plan was to leave out early Monday morning to watch the IMSA cars at Lime Rock Park. On Sunday evening, we tuned the TV to the Indy 500. It was the first time I had watched the race. In the early going, I felt like Al Unser had it locked up, but my Uncle boldly predicted that this young guy named Rick Mears was going to win.

Indy 500 1979 Coundown Race 63 Auto RacingWhen Mears pulled off the win, I thought that Hughie must be the most amazing prognosticator in all of auto racing. I realized later that because the race was shown tape-delayed, Hugh already knew the result, but he sure had me fooled.

I wasn’t instantly sold on IndyCar racing, but later that year, Hugh took me to the Glen to see the CART race. We were both very interested in seeing the support race, the SCCA Trans Am, as our friend, Mike Olyear, would be competing in the event.

As it turned out, I was actually very impressed with the CART cars. They looked like F1 cars, especially the Jim Hall Chaparral, and they got around the road course just fine. I was even more impressed with the access. Having attended the Formula One race during the season prior, our paddock passes did not get us close to a single driver. At the CART race, I was able to meet both Unsers, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and several other drivers.

At that point, I was hooked on CART and proceeded to follow the series with great interest, and fell in love with the Indy 500 in the process.

1981243361I vividly remember being at a campground in 1981, trying to watch the 500 on a small black-and-white TV that seemed to produce more static than actual picture. When ABC went off the air, commentators Jackie Stewart and Jim McKay felt that the finish would be disputed. I begged my Dad to drive us into town first thing in the morning, so that I could get a newspaper. To my delight, the headline announced that Mario Andretti was declared the winner. Months later the decision was reversed.

It was the tape-delay that bit me in 1982. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the back seat of the station wagon while my Mom was driving to the grocery store. Without warning, the radio news announcer gleefully announced that Gordon Johncock had won the 500. Watching the race that evening, as Mears and Jochncock put on a battle for the ages, I just felt robbed, already knowing the outcome.

My parents were married on Memorial Day weekend, and the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary fell on the day before the 500 in 1990. They had a big party, and a ceremony where they renewed their vows on Saturday. On Sunday, my grandmother’s house was still overflowing with friends and family members.

ARIE LUYENDYKI came up with the idea of throwing 33 names in that hat, and asking for three bucks to get in on the pool. With 99 dollars available to the winner, I sold all the names. My Aunt Agnes reached into the hat and drew a name out.

“Arie Luyendyk?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that guy, I guess that was a waste of three bucks”

By the end of the day, everyone knew exactly who Arie Luyendyk was. Agnes, sensing an opportunity to get out of cooking for the masses still gathered at the house, utilized her winnings to buy pizza for everyone.

It might have been fitting if it was Domino’s Pizza, but those of us from the North-East know that there is no substitute for the local Italian eatery.

1994When Mario Andretti announced that the 1994 race would be his last, I just knew I had to get there somehow. Utilizing a mail-order third party ticket seller, I procured four tickets for $75.00 each. Because he had taken me to so many races when I was young, I invited my Uncle Hugh along to attend our first live Indy 500 together.

Well, the seats were shitty, and using the word shitty is actually a bit of an understatement. With a $25.00 face value, they were located in the Turn Two Terrace in a set of wooden bleachers inside the turn. They provided a view of Turn Two and nothing else.

But, hell, we didn’t care. It was the Indy 500, and we were there! It was an amazing feeling just to be a part of the crowd at this massive facility.

At that time, I promised myself that I would get back to the 500 every year, no matter what it took. Then, in 1996, something derailed my plans.The IRL was formed, and the open-wheel split began.

To this day, I can’t remember if I’ve ever watched the 1996 Indy 500 in its entirety. Certainly, I’ve seen the highlight reel, but on that day, I was in Michigan at CART’s US 500. I was very much a CART loyalist, and I turned my back on the Indianapolis 500 for a time.

It was around this time that I began covering open-wheel racing for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports. I also did some freelance writing, and worked on some web design for a couple of up-and-coming drivers. Getting press credentials was a bit hit-or-miss at the time, as internet reporting was still somewhat regarded as non-traditional journalism.

Bruno9559766_nVancouver, Road America and Mid Ohio approved our requests with no problems, but at places like Nazareth or Chicago, I had to be a little more crafty. I had to buy pit passes and fight harder for access. I was doing some writing for the Fernandez Racing web page, and with the help of their PR team, I was able to sneak into the bullpen on occasion.

These were fun times, but the split was the biggest story of the era. The early IRL was indeed laughable, and I’m probably responsible for writing as many scathing articles about the IRL, and CART’s own mismanagement, as Robin Miller.

In 2001, I was granted an interview with Tim Cindric, and invited to tour the old Penske shop in Reading, PA. At the time, Penske was preparing to enter the 500 for the first time since the split. Cindric offered me a close-up comparison of both the CART and IRL chassis, that were sitting side-by-side in the shop.

As the lure of Indy brought the Penske and Ganassi teams back to Indy, I found myself back at the Speedway in 2002. I had relocated to Kentucky, and with the Speedway just a few hours up the road, I drove up on a practice day on a chilly morning.

Entering the grounds, I was immediately overcome with the same feeling I had when I first went there in 1994. “This is the greatest place on earth,” I thought. “How could I have turned my back on it for all those years?”

I filled out the 2003 ticket application in the program, and was granted tickets right away, a possibility that didn’t exist in prior to the split.

I had gotten away from motorsports reporting at that time, as I focused my talents on graphic design and Motion Picture marketing. I was back at Indy as a fan in 2003, as I watched Gil deFerran give Roger Penske a third consecutive win. I promised myself, once again, that I would never miss the Indy 500.

20041_1463431643124_38366584_ver1.0_640_480As it turned out, I missed most of the race again in 2004. I was at the Speedway with my good friend, J.C. when the rain came down bringing out a red flag on lap 28. The radar did not look good and we were certain that the whole day would be washed out. We trudged through the rain back to the car, and started driving home.

We were about 30 miles South of Indy when we heard on the radio that track drying had begun. I thought about turning around, but with the torrential rain that we were still driving in, and the ominous looking radar, I thought that there was no way that they would get the race in.

I kept driving through some of the worst conditions imaginable. Somehow, it continued to storm like crazy everywhere in the area, except over the Speedway. Racing resumed as the rest of Indiana and Kentucky battened down the hatches with Tornado warnings everywhere.

Driving home eventually seemed like sheer folly, as I spotted a funnel cloud far in the horizon. We caught the end of the race sitting at the bar at Max and Erma’s in Louisville.

I got married late in 2004, and brought my new bride, Laura, to her first 500 in 2005. It was a good one too. The atmosphere was electric largely due to a young rookie named Danica Patrick that grabbed the lead during the late stages of the race. Laura became instantly hooked and she’s been going with me ever since.

Thegang1_4857833_nWe continued to go each year, and with the renewable nature of 500 seats, became good friends with all of the folks that sit near us, despite the fact that we all only saw each another once a year. Initially we would go up to Indy for the day on Sunday, but over the years we extended our trip adding Saturday, and then Friday and then Thursday night.

Each race holds its own memory. In 2006, I thought Marco won and was cheering loudly until I looked at the jumbo-tron. We toured the museum in 2007 during the rain delay, but one of the neatest memories I have came in 2011.

For the Centennial Indianapolis 500, hundreds of past drivers were invited for Legends Day. I was darting back and forth around the Pagoda Plaza like a madman, trying to catch a few words with some of my racing heroes. Laura, rather that try and keep up with me, took a seat in the shade to relax a bit.

Now, my wife has this unique ability to strike up conversations with total strangers. It’s a gift that I do not possess, and cannot explain, but for her, it just comes naturally. When I checked on her, she was chatting it up with a couple and an elderly gentleman.

“Frank,” she calls out. “I have someone I would like you to meet.”

Harroun0_1610771_oIt was Dick Harroun, son of the first 500 winner Ray. Dick was 96 years old at the time, and while he never ran the 500, he had a racing career of his own. As we engaged one another in conversation, I could see the old man’s eyes light up as he shared stories with me about racing on wood-planked tracks in the 30s and 40s.

We probably talked about racing for a good fifteen minutes before his granddaughter reminded him of an interview commitment. It was a moment in time that I will never forget. I was saddened to hear the news later in the year that Mr. Harroun had passed away.

It was late 2012 when an old friend of mine, Candice Smith, asked me if I was interested in joining her team at Drafting the Circuits.The site, and the radio show, was heavy on NASCAR content and she was looking for someone to cover IndyCar. I happily obliged, and I have been writing and doing the radio show ever since.

I returned to IMS in 2013 as a member if the Media. It was a routine that I was quite familiar with, but this was the first time at the Indianapolis 500. It definitely took on a new significance.

In order to cover the public drivers meeting and the presentation of the starters rings, I found a nice spot in the area reserved for Media. As the yellow-shirts were moving people around, I kind of got shuffled out of my spot and pushed into the VIP area.

923339_10201127018675093_1708941741_nSeated to my right were several familiar faces, NFL Coach Jim Harbaugh was engaged in conversation with Jim Nabors.Tony George was chatting up Parnelli Jones and Bobby Unser. Two young children were standing behind me. I allowed them to move in front of me so that they could have a better view.

“Thank you so much, that’s our Dad up there,” the boy said, pointing to the drivers seated on the stage, “Townsend Bell.” I looked behind me, and I complimented Mrs. Bell for having such polite and well-behaved children.

I looked back at the photographers in the Media area, and I thought, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.’

Bob Varsha was standing next to me. I smiled at Bob, and he gave me a little thumbs-up. To this day, I am unsure if Varsha was telling me everything was cool, or of he was just saying hello. Well, I figured that the worst case scenario was that I would be moved back over the wall. That didn’t happen and I enjoyed the presentations from this vantage point.

When the event had concluded, I engaged Florence Henderson in a brief conversation. When we were done talking, I said “Thanks Carol.”

“Well, damn,” I thought, “That just came right out of my mouth before I could stop it.”

After an awkward pause, Ms. Henderson smiled and laughed at me. I’m sure I’m not the first person to refer to her as the TV character that made her famous.

Kimball327563552_n2016 will mark my fourth year attending the Speedway as a member of the press. In order to balance the work I need to accomplish, and truly enjoy the race, I have gotten my routine down to a science.

It involves a lot of moving around, but allows ample time for writing in the Media Center, bumming around Gasoline Alley, grabbing sound bites and photos, spending some time in the Grandstands with our dear friends, and collecting many Indianapolis 500 memories to share in the coming years.

I wouldn’t have it any other way..

The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil will take place May 29, 2016 with television coverage provided by ABC-TV.

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