My first dreams of Indy and the Indianapolis 500 came from creating images in my mind based upon the radio calls of the 500 in the mid-1970s. As a 7 or 8-year-old, I can remember being at my Grandparent’s house in Gresham, Oregon for the annual Memorial Day picnics that they either held or attended with friends.
My Grandfather always had the race on, either front and center or in the background. We would pause to listen in for the ten lap rundowns or when a crash or big event had occurred. The voices of Sid Collins and Paul Page became etched into my mind and for that matter my, soul.
During this period, the race was televised on TV via a same-day tape delay. So we would listen until 10 or 15 laps left to go and then turn off the radio so that we could watch the TV broadcast later that evening and sit in suspense as we wonder who would end up winning and tasting the milk. Thankfully we did not have to worry about Twitter or Facebook or the Bottom Line ticker spoiling the results for us.
I say dreams because this type of exposure to the race caused me to imagine. What did the cars actually look like? From everything with design and color. The track itself, when you would see it on TV, looked more like Disneyland or a National Park. Not a race track.
After seeing the Dreams come to life on TV after a couple of years than certain things stuck in my mind. The A.J Foyt distinctive red and the radical front wing of the Coyote. The piercing yellow of the Pennzoil Chaparral and the glimpses of Lone Star JR’s – Johnny Rutherford’s Helmet. The Pagoda, the Timing Tower, the Balloons, the Water Tower in Turn Two & Back Home Again in Indiana. It all was exposure to a wonderful world, and I was hooked. It was only in my dreams that I ever thought I would have an opportunity to be anywhere near the Speedway, let alone attend 20 Straight 500’s.
Racing in the Pacific Northwest
As I stated. I am not from Indiana or anywhere near it. I was born in Oregon along the Lewis & Clark trail and was raised in Washington State.
I should point out that the original racing fan in our family was my brother, Matt. During middle school, my family moved from the Seattle area to the farming community of Yakima, Washington, located in Central Washington.
As a 14-year-old, I could still remember when the TV ad comes on for the local speedway, and my 8-year-old brother came to life. “Race Cars” he exclaimed with all of the excitement and enthusiasm that was 10 Christmas mornings rolled into one. My brother somehow got my father to take us to the Saturday night races at Yakima Speedway. We were hooked.
After the races, as many local tracks do, we were allowed to go into the pits. We got to see the cars and drivers up close. The colors and smells and characters were as vibrant as my dreams of far away Indy. My father knew one of the car owners. Within weeks, my father was helping out with the car in the pits as my brother, and I attended the weekly races. By the end of that season, I was also working on the car in the pits. I was granted an underage waiver that allowed me access to pit lane. Years later, and again this season, my brother is working on a car at Everett Speedway. You see, he is the true master mechanic. I myself just love racing.
I admit that I am not a mechanic. I grew my role in the team from just being a gopher to actually helping the team get better and better. Keep me out of the engine or transmission. What I was good at was tires, radios, toolboxes, lap times, checklist and set up and tear down of the pits. The driver of the car, Bob Lesh, became one of my mentors and taught me more about life than anyone else. I worked for Bob during the summers, mowing lawns and doing work at his businesses. And every day around 3 pm, never before that time, I was allowed to start working on the car. We ran a weekly schedule that saw us centered in Yakima but traveling to Portland, Everett, Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Victoria. We raced against Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond when they came to Yakima. We competed weekly with the 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope and occasionally with young Chad Little from Spokane.
As you can imagine, if a race team had a teenager on the team, it was one that was pulled together and not a “professional” operation by any means. But we were a team. We worked together, ate together before the races and after and took on us vs. the world attitude when we took to the track.
Twenty Straight – 2000-2019
Countless people that have attended more Indy 500 than me. Many that live in the Indiana area. Others that have been involved in the sport. I marvel at them. My 20 Straight means so much to me because I have never lived in Indiana. Nowhere close. The first 17 years I attended, I lived in Virginia. The past 3 in St. Pete / Clearwater, Florida. My brother attended the first ten straight with me and 12 total.
20 Years start to provide some perspective.
2000 – My first Indy 500 was the first race held that saw a CART team (Ganassi/Montoya) cross the split line and return to the 500. That race was the beginning of the Modern Era of IndyCar Racing.
2002 – The Back to Back Victory for Helio. Something that has not since been accomplished.
2003 – Gil de Ferrans brave pass near the end of the race to cement his place in history. During this race, Team Penske ran a Panoz chassis for de Ferran and a Dallara for Castroneves, looking for a competitive advantage in every way they could.
2004 – The tornado shortened race won by Buddy Rice for a car owned by a past Indy 500 Champion (Bobby Rahal & a former Indianapolis weatherman – David Letterman)
2005 – The brilliant drive of the young brit, Dan Wheldon – giving Michael Andretti his first of many Indy 500 winners as an owner. Just two years earlier, Wheldon had flipped his car during the 500.
This year also saw the media and fan interest surrounding Danica Patrick become justified as she held the lead with just laps to go.
2006 – The heartbreak of Rookie Marco Andretti as he was passed by Sam Hornish, Jr on the last lap during one of the hottest 500’s on record.
2007 – The rain-plagued and shortened Indy 415 that was won by Dario Franchitti.
2008 – The Dallara only race dominated by Scott Dixon who leads 115 of the 200 laps.
2009 – The 3rd victory for Spiderman – Helio Castroneves, who had just been fighting for his freedom month earlier due to a Federal tax evasion & conspiracy trial. He was acquitted of all charges and won in his emotional return to the speedway.
2010 – The validation and domination run of Dario Franchitti leading 155 or 200 laps to win the full 500.
2011 – The Centennial 500 won by Dan Wheldon. Rookie JR Hildebrand lost control of his car in the last turn of the final lap, with Wheldon emerging from the smoke to take the victory. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Dan at the speedway.
2012 – The last lap challenge of Takuma Sato held off masterfully by Dario Franchitti as he joined the 3-time winners club.
2013 – The fan-favorite win of Tony Kanaan. TK overcame so much over the years to finally taste the milk.
2014 – The last laps duel between Helio and Ryan Hunter-Reay that saw Hunter-Reay win and our chance to induct a new member to the 4-time winner club dashed.
2015 – The return victory of JPM – Juan Pablo Montoya. This time it looked like he enjoyed and savored the victory after his stints in Formula One and Nascar.
2016 – The 100th Running saw a car win that was barely running at the end. Rookie Alexander Rossi and his team played the fuel strategy perfectly and won in the #98 car. Seeing the #98 car win was emotional because it was the number.
2017 – After crashing on the last lap while going for the win in 2012, Takuma Sato got redemption in 2017 with a victory, holding off Helio. Another chance at the 4-time winner club denied by an Andretti owned car.
2019 – The last laps back and forth between winner Simon Pagenaud and runner up Alexander Rossi. The results showed that Pagenaud backed by Team Penske is one of the best current drivers on the circuit as he swept the month of May (won Grand Prix, Pole and 500) and that Rossi’s win in 2016 was not a fluke.
Highlights over the years for The Earl
- 8 of 18 victories for Roger Penske
- All 5 of Andretti Autosports wins
- All 3 Ganassi Wins
- I have yet to see an Indy 500 that did not include at least one female driver. For every year but one I heard the command – “Lady or Ladies and Gentleman – Start Your Engines.” In 2018 Tony George broke the tradition by uttering Drivers. He changed back to Lady in 2019.
- I have attended more Indy 500 races than any 2019 racer has completed in – 20 versus the 19 races for Helio Castroneves, the 18 for Tony Kanaan or 16 for Ed Carpenter.