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Sunday, May 15, 2011

MY INDY HISTORY

In two weeks, God willing, I'll be attending my 35th Indianapolis 500. I've been there to see the Greatest Spectacle in six different decades, first as a fan, then as a journalist, then as a sanctioning body official, then as a team/sponsor/driver publicist, and now again as a journo. I explain that so you'll better appreciate why the 100th anniversary running is of more than casual interest to me, personally.

I've told these two stories before, but they are worth repeating now, because they well illustrated my own history with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its people.

Back in 1975, I was on-site covering for the Philadelphia Daily News. A.J. Foyt was on the pole and in quest of a record-breaking fourth victory. In those days there were no organized press conferences (I was one, along with the late AARWBA President Dave Overpeck, who got those going in the early 1980s), so the practice was for reporters to stand outside a driver's garage, and hope to get a few minutes. Getting an interview with Foyt was a must for any writer seriously trying to do the job.

I was one of about eight who gathered in front of Foyt's garage late morning Wednesday of race week. The doors were open and A.J. knew we were out there. Finally, after about a half-hour, he waved us in. This was one of those years when Gasoline Alley rumor had it that Foyt was cheating on horsepower. Those of us with some experience figured we'd ask him about that, but not until after we had gotten enough quotes to write a proper story. Unfortunately, just a couple of minutes into our session, some guy -- I think he was a Chicago columnist -- blurted out a question on cheating. Sure enough, A.J. blew up and told us all to "get the hell out of here."

A few evenings before the previous year's Daytona 500, somehow I had been seated next to IMS owner Tony Hulman at a corporate dinner. It was a very pleasant experience. And that connection was about to pay off big time for me.

Our media group exited Foyt's garage and scattered in different directions. As I went around the corner toward the main Gasoline Alley entrance, who happened to be coming toward me but Mr. Hulman. He smiled and we shook hands and he said, "Welcome back to Indianapolis." Mr. Hulman asked me how I was and I told him what just had happened. "Come with me," he said, and we walked back toward Foyt's car. When we got in front of the garage, Mr. H said to me, "Wait here a minute." He went inside and I watched as he had a few words with A.J. Just that quickly Tony came back out and said, "Go on in!" and I looked up to see Foyt waving me in. Thanks to Mr. Hulman, I got an exclusive.

Fast forward to September 2001. I was at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course representing Valvoline, title sponsor of the SCCA national championships, the Valvoline Runoffs. One of the Friday events included Kyle Krisiloff, grandson of Mari Hulman. Mari was there to watch along with daughter Josie, Kyle's mom. Happily for the Hulman-George family, Kyle won, and became an SCCA national champion.

One of my responsibilities was to represent Valvoline in victory lane. As Kyle was going through the trophy presentation ceremonies, I noticed Mari and Josie outside the winner's circle entrance. An SCCA official, who obviously was pro-Champ Car, denied them entry. That happy family moment was not the appropriate time for racing politics, so I went over and re-introduced myself to Mari and Josie and brought them in, much to the unhappiness of the SCCA woman. It so happened Josie's camera wasn't working, so I had my photographer put in a new roll of film (no digital yet) and take a full series of Kyle and Mari and Josie with his national championship awards. When they had everything they wanted, I had the photog take the film out and I gave it to Josie.

At that moment, I felt like I had repaid Mr. Hulman's kind gesture of almost a quarter-century earlier.

The sad thing is, today, there is no one in an executive or staff position at IMS who would ever even think of helping the way Tony Hulman did. It was the result of having established an old-fashioned one-on-one relationship. Too bad that's a Speedway "tradition" that didn't endure while another -- arrogance -- did.

Which is why I'll now tell a story I've never before revealed.

On a practice day in 1989, I double-parked my Porsche in front of the Newman/Haas motorcoach for less than five minutes, so two guys could help me unload and carry inside a large and heavy wooden crate. For the record, no people or vehicles were blocked or impeded by my action. Just as we were about to put the box down at the back of the motorcoach area, I heard someone call out my name. I was surprised by the loud and harsh tone. I turned around to see an arrogant and out-of-control-with-power IMS vice president standing next to my car and yelling, "Come over here!" Understand, this Speedway VP had known me for years. I walked over, outside the canopy, where it was just the two of us, and was berated and cursed at and physically threatened if I didn't immediately move my car. I drove off without a word. (I'll wait to reveal this person's name in another forum.) To this day, I regret that I didn't file a police report, which would have been justified given the threatening words and gestures made at me. If I could go back and do it over again, that's exactly what I would have done. And then papered the media center with copies of the police report.

So, two weeks before the 100th anniversary Indy 500, that's what I'm remembering. I am certain Tony Hulman would have wished otherwise.


Here's two weeks advance notice of something I hope you'll read: Mark Armijo and I have teamed-up to write a long history of Arizona racers in the Indy 500 that is scheduled to run in the Arizona Republic on the day of the 100th anniversary event, Sunday, May 29. At over 1,800 words, it will be the longest racing story of any kind in the paper since at least 2005. There will be a main story recounting some key people and moments, including 1958 winner Jimmy Bryan, and then four sidebars with the four living AZ winners -- Arie Luyendyk, Tom Sneva, Eddie Cheever and Buddy Rice -- remembering their big days. I believe even knowledgable fans will learn something they didn't know. If you aren't in Arizona to buy the paper, look for this at http://www.azcentral.com/ .


And here's a linkto my May "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. It's 10 Q&As with Paul Page:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/17612-drags-dollars-a-sense-getting-to-know-paul-page


And here's another heads-up: There's more than one way to report on the 100th anniversary Indy 500. I'll have two stories on CompetitionPlus.com in the next two weeks from a drag racing perspective. Later this week look for my story on Kenny Bernstein remembering Roberto Guerrero qualifying his car on the pole in 1992. I think you might be surprised, as I was, at Bernstein's comments. Then, next week, look for my story on one of the most successful people ever at Indy whose racing roots were planted on the quarter-mile. It's a little known fact.

[ more next Monday . . . ]