Tuesday, May 31, 2016

So long, Indy, it's been good to know you

The media room begins to fill up on race day.
When I first started coming to the Indianapolis 500 in 1966, I thought, someday, I'd like to work in that place, meaning the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Al Bloemker was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Director of Publicity when I became director of communications at the United States Auto Club, just up the street from the Speedway. We were only blocks apart in distance but far apart in many ways.

Al was all Indianapolis 500, 12 month of every year. He didn't have to contend with NASCAR's Brickyard 400, or IndyCar's Grand Prix of Indianapolis, or an Indy Lights race two days before the Greatest Spectacle in Racing or all the other events that now fill the annual calendar at IMS. 

He had been at IMS 33 years before I got to USAC in the summer of 1978, and I figured that if he decided to retire (he was already 72), I'd apply for his job. 

The red carpet.
When I left USAC to become Morning Call sports editor in October of 1980, Bloemker was still plugging along. He stayed until 1987, largely because he got some assistance from guys like Bob Laycock and Bill York, who were always out front while Al spent most of his time in his office. Bloemker died in 1996 and the room from which journalists work today has been named the Albert Bloemker Media Center in his memory.

I never knew, when I accepted my first collect call to The Call's sports department from Eddie Sachs on a Sunday night in 1960 or 1961 or when I checked into the old Hotel Warren in downtown Indianapolis in  May of 1966 for my first Indianapolis race covering local driver Mario Andretti, how much this place would mean to me a half century later.

As I sat in the media room Saturday and could hear the sound of Mario Andretti giving two-seater thrill rides at probably 180 miles per hour and prepared for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, I couldn't help but think this could well be my final event in Indiana.

The gates open at 6 a.m. on race day.
After all, how do you top the 100th? The best way, of course, would have been with a Marco Andretti or Sage Karam victory. That didn't happen. Michael Andretti was in Victory Lane for the fourth time as a car owner, and that was nice. But I can't believe it compares to what it might have felt like to win in 1991 or 1992. 

Bring the party back to the Lehigh Valley and wave goodbye to "my Indiana home," as they sing in the traditional "Back Home Again in Indiana."

That didn't happen. Karam was super quick again but was victimized by another crash, and for a guy who's hoping to get a second chance at a full-time road, accidents of any kind are not the best references. 

Yes, the week was about the race and to a pair of talented young Lehigh Valley born-and-bred drivers who are intent on putting their likenesses on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Yes, this day is certainly about the 100th race. The crowds we saw begining on Carb Day on Friday were amazing. I don't know if there's been anything akin to this since the golden days of Indy cars in the 1970s.

Sage Karam signs autographs.
The racing, with 54 lead changes and the drama at the end that resulted in the longest of longshots sipping the ceremonial milk and tight battle for the runnerup spot were a fitting finish. 

But for me, who witnessed all but one of Mario Andretti's Indy races and all but two of Michael's, this year is about more than any flashy program the promotions and entertainment people can present. It's about the people in Indy.

It's about people like Chuck, the physically and mentally challenged now 63-year-old "paper boy" who came through the media center again every day over the weekend calling out, "Pa-per! Pa-per!"

He used to ride up to the old media room on his three-wheeled bicycle with a pile of Indianapolis Star papers in a basket on the back, and now he's been at it  43 years. Thirty-eight years at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. He told me he wants to make it to 50.

Everybody knew Chuck, if only to toss him a dollar when the paper was selling for half that. I gave him $3 on Saturday for a paper that cost $1.50, but I didn't blink. I don't think Chuck knows my name, but he recognizes me and many others like me.

It's about people like Bill Marvel. I met him here in the '60s; he was involved at Pocono Raceway as general manager for three years in the track's infancy; he worked with me at USAC. At 86, he's still going strong and keeping busy. He is a great-great-grandfather now and he has a 15-year-old great-grandson who is racing sprint cars. Bill has no plan to drift off into retirement.

It's about people like Bill York, who helped me get through the 1979 and 1980 Indianapolis 500s because he knew more media people than I did around the Speedway. He's slowed and using a walker now, but he was there on race day. We talked and laughed -- and Bill broke down when he shared with me his wife's struggle with Alzheimer's. 

Or Dick Mittman, who was the lead Indy-car writer for the Indianapolis News, the Star's afternoon counterpart. He's 83 and still publishes the newsletter (he says it's more of a newspaper) for the IMS Old-timers.

It's about Mike Harris, who I got to know best after he took over for another racing pal, the late Bloys Britt, as the motor racing writer for the Associated Press -- another job I coveted at one time.

Dan  Luginbuhl with Paul Page.
It's about Dan Luginbuhl, who was the face of Roger Penske Racing or Team Penske to media from all part of the country for many years and who knew how to throw a party at the old St. Elmo's Restaurant in Indianapolis, where the night always started with the shrimp cocktail with cocktail sauce that was heavy on the horseradish and which often ended (for the drinkers in the group) with champagne -- in plastic cups.

He's supposed to be retired, but he showed up today in his old Penske "uniform" with white shirt and all to receive the Bob Russo Founders Award for his years of dedication to the sport of racing. No one deserved it more than Dan.

It's about Charlie Baron and John LeFere and Sue Ovitt and Peggy Swalls, with whom I've had lots of laughs through the years. I still have the tie Charlie gave me in 1977 to honor Tom Sneva's USAC championship in the Norton Spirit. Peggy was always my No. 1 contact at IMS; Sue and her boss, Jim Cook, took good care of me several times in the suite. Special bunch, those Straight Arrows. 

It's about Paul Page, the radio and television personality who reminded me that he was almost on the small airplane on which eight USAC officials were killed in 1978, opening the door for me to move out there. I think he call of the nstart of the race on the radio may have been his last. Good guy. Good friend. 

It's about a lot of other people like Michael Knight and Gordon Kirby and Robin Miller and Lewis Franck and Tim Tuttle and Susan Bradshaw and Tom Blattler and Rick Shaffer and the gang from Milwaukee and others I know I'm neglecting to mention. All are still part of the scene in one way or another. I even talked to former director of racing for Goodyear Leo Mehl in the garage area -- as a spectator.

And it's about people who AREN'T here, like the Eastern contingent including the late Bill Simmons or Nick Nagurny or Bill Fleischman or Chuck Givler or Sandy McKee or Pat Singer or Speedway supermen like York or Laycock or Bob Clidinst. Some have retired, others have died. Without them, it's not the Indianapolis 500 I initially fell in love with.

A number of people told me over the weekend that they might not be back next year. The media room seems to be inundated these days with the Internet writers. 

I won't say absolutely that this was my Indianapolis swan song, but Marco will be 30 when the next '500' rolls around. Michael will still be owning cars; Karam will still be trying to find a way to be more relevant in the series. And I'm thinking Mario will still be hitting it at 180 in that two-seater.

But if I had to make the decision today, I'd say I'll be watching the 2017 race from my family room. As they used to say in newspapers:


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