I used to listen to the Indy 500 while sitting with my ear right up next to the speaker on our tall Philco console.The announcers would yell over the roar of the engines and sometimes it would take another few laps until I could clearly hear who was leading. I would have a newspaper close by, containing all the pictures, names and numbers.
The 1952 race is the last race I listened to on the radio. It was exciting. I picked a new favorite driver that race, Bill Vukovich (Vuky). His number “14” became my favorite Indy number for many years. In later years, number “14” was A.J. Foyt’s number, and now in NASCAR it is Tony Stewart’s number. Vuky was running away with the ’52 race. He had led 150 laps with just 8 laps to go and his car broke down. Troy Ruttman won that race and is still the youngest ever to win at Indy (22).
The reason it was my last “radio” race was because the following December, on my 10th birthday, my Grandma Anna presented me with a ticket to the upcoming 1953 race. Wow! It was one of the neatest presents ever. I read everything about the upcoming May race that I could find for the next five months. I was prepared. I was rooting for Vuky to get the trophy this time.
I had been to quite a few major league baseball games by my 10th year, and they always presented the same sensual imprints that last a lifetime. The smell of the grass mixed with hot dog relish. Ears picking up the staccato crack of the bats taking hitting practice mixed with the hawkers touting programs or beer. The easy-going smiling fans in their home colors murmuring quietly before the first strains of the National Anthem… America’s pastime.
The Indy 500 had its own dynamic and every sensual imprint was baseball magnified by a thousand. Nearly 400,000 people were pushing and shoving and hurrying to their seats after hours of maddening traffic jams. I remember my nose almost burning with the acrid stench of the alcohol fuel they used in 1953. This was and is the largest sporting event in the world. I felt very small and slightly fearful. When the 33 racers all fired their engines together, I thought the whole place was blowing up, as the reverberation from the overhead high wooden ceiling rattled my brain.
The 1953 Indy 500 had the hottest temperatures ever recorded at the track; it reached 100 degrees, but the track temps were over 130 degrees. One half of the field needed relief drivers and half of the relief drivers needed relief drivers. Vuky wasn’t going to let any relief driver stop him from reaching his goal. He led 195 laps and gained his first victory; my guy won! My ten year old body had no idea it was hot outside.
Grandma always said the race is won in the pits and she wanted to be at the finish line. Our tickets were right at the finish line across from the pits. Sadly one of the drivers, Carl Scarborough came in for a relief driver and fainted after climbing out of his car; he died of heat prostration.
Grandma Anna was just as hooked on the Indy as me. We went again and watched Vuky get another win in 1954.
Actually Grandma Anna and I went to the next twenty seven straight Indy 500 races. Each one was epic and full of memories and stories.