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By Bill Marvel
The Casey County News
At the 100th running of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29th this year, some 350,000 fans watched as Rookie Alexander Rossi won the gamble at the end by slowing down. As his competitors tried to catch him, they sped up requiring a refuel late in the event and lost ground. This allowed Rossi to capture the Indy 500.
This last week approximately 15,000 people were on the five hundred acres of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grounds on 16th Street in Speedway, Ind.
Nearly 500 of them were entrants who were driving legendary racecars from years past. Thirty-three veterans of the famed 500 mile classic were paired with vintage car owners as co-drivers for the Indy Legends Charity Vintage Pro/Am event held Saturday, which highlighted the week’s activities.
This marked the third year that the Sports Car Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) has taken over the confines of two-and-a-half mile oval race track and it looks like it will become a tradition, just like the milk being drunk by the driver who is fortunate enough to pull into the Indy 500 Victory Circle.
Tony Parella, president and CEO of the SVRA who chose the Father’s day weekend for the event to celebrate fatherhood said, “SVRA is proud to be back at Indy and a part of the yearlong celebration of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. This is our third year at the Brickyard and our event has evolved into a Festival where several opportunities can be experienced at this celebration of motorsports.”
The fans could buy single-day admissions or a bargain four-day ticket ($60) with children admitted free. This has to be one of the best kept secrets in racing. Fans enjoyed freedom throughout the facility and were allowed to go about any place on the grounds and stands including Gasoline Alley, garage and paddock areas where many of the entrants had set up shop.
On Saturday, thousands of fans circulated around the 34 race car line-up area during pre-Pro-Am race ceremonies, walking through and visiting with the drivers and taking selfie pictures. Many took time to give the Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, and Cobras a close “once over,” snapping pictures with their cell phones.
Many of the participants had traveled a long way to attend and be able to say that they had raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The participants were outgoing and welcoming their visits with fans, like long lost friends. Smiles, hugs, hand shakes and selfies were the order of the day.
SVRA visits fifteen other sites throughout the nation, Sebring and Amelia Island Fla., Portland, Ore., Watkins Glen, Ny., 4 sites in California (San Diego, Sonoma, Willow Springs and Fontana), Spring Mountain in Az., Road America of Wis., Mid-Ohio, Virginia International Raceway, Circuit of the America in Texas, and New Orleans. The schedule lasts from March through November.
Entrants (both ladies and gentlemen) challenged Indy’s 2.430 mile road course driving cars worth as much as several million dollars, or just several thousand. This proves that old saying, “The difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”
In this case their toys were Austin Healy Sprints, Mini Coopers, Pegas, MG Midgets, Coopers, Mercedes Benz, Lotus, Brabham, Tiga, Formula Ford, Croissle Formula Ford, Citation, Nike, Swift, Van Diemen, Titan, Winkelmann and the list goes on and on, some familiar, others not so much so.
For those who call themselves car enthusiasts, sports car buffs, grease-monkeys or gear-heads, there was something to interest them all. Cars were assembled in a total of 13 groups according to several qualifications such as engine sizes, etc.
One group, Pre-War Cars, included a Stutz Blackhawk, Bugatti, Lagonda, 1911 National Speedway Roadster, 1911 National 40 (both Nationals ran in the early 500 mile races), 1930 Plymouth Indy Car, 1934 Chevrolet Big Car, 1937 Delahaye (European Grand Prix participant), 1936 Winfield Ford and 1928 Model A Ford Racer. They ran ovals only.
The cars entered for driving on the historic oval were allowed to do run-up-to-speed where the drivers were comfortable, but not to race (wink). All drivers were interested in getting recognized for their abilities at the hallowed Victory Circle.
Most interesting to those that follow IndyCar racing and the Indy 500 cars over many years remember witnessing the competition at Indy of the front engine era.
Several of these cars were there. These roadsters were built by such famous names as Schroeder, Watson, Kurtis, Gurney, and Miller. Other cars that appeared were the Cooper Climax Car which started the rear engine era and was brought to Indy by Jack Brabham and the STP Lotus turbine. Cars that competed on dirt tracks were included in the Historic Oval Exhibition runs.
Another experience each day for those in attendance was the opportunity to drive both a very high dollar Jaguar F Model ($60,000 to $70,000) on the temporary auto cross or a Land Rover over a temporary hilly dirt course. I can personally attest that was great fun.
Also available were ride-along instructors with familiar names like Roberto Guerrero, Davey Hamilton and Robby Unser (all former Indy drivers). The women seemed to really enjoy this.
On Saturday there were two other attractions. Three Dog Night, American Rock Band, gave a concert as part of the general admission price.
In the Plaza, there was a multi-million dollar car auction. One car was auctioned with the proceeds going to the Ray Everham Family’s Racing Foundation, Autism Society of North Carolina’s “IGNITE” program. Another item auctioned was a 2009 Racing Innovations Motorcycle (Al Unser Special No.1) with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Unser Discovery Campus, Inc. (an educational non-profit 501c3).
72 consecutive races
On a npersonal note, due to my age — I was 86 on June 21 — I qualify as “vintage”. I have been to 72 consecutive Indianapolis 500 mile races. I especially enjoyed watching and hearing 25 of the professional Indy drivers that I have worked with in the press room, sit together and exchange their memories, sharing stories and laughs about their racing careers. They all expressed their genuine gratitude for another opportunity to drive fast at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One driver said some of these drivers he had never met, since they were from another era.
Included in the mix were two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser, Jr. and 2002 Brickyard 400 Champion Bill Elliott; also such racers as Paul Tracy, Roberto Guerrero, Larry and A.J. Foyt IV, Davy Jones, Dick Simon, Geoff Brabham, Willy T. Ribbs, Jacques Lazier and his father Bob, Max Papis, Richie Hearn, Scott Harrington, Johnny and Robby Unser. The 33 drivers had started a total of 180 Indy 500 Mile Races.
Seven-time Indianapolis 500 qualifier Lyn St. James said of her participation in the Vintage Racing Invitational, “It brings back us to life, whatever life that may be.”
The oldest driver attending was Dick Simon at 82.
“At this age and thinking that I am back in a race car and trying to act like I know what I am doing, it’s really fun,” he said.
There were moments of expressions of heartfelt feelings that the drivers have for each other. You say the way they greeted one another. There may have even been some damp eyes when they expressed their love and regard to the speedway. Bill Elliott spoke of the first time he came to test tires, “As I drove through the tunnel I suddenly realized, this is Indy!”
President Parella added a 34th car to the mix; he usually has 33 starters in the Pro-Am, as a salute to the 33 that start the 500.
“This year, to keep every one honest I have added NASCAR star Bill Elliott, a former winner of the Brickyard to the mix, and his co- driver, legendary crew chief, Ray Everham,” said Parella.
Everham said that he regarded Indy as a special place.
“I always wanted to race the 500 but it didn’t work out.”
The Robby Unser and Paul Tracy teams took top honors for the Indy Legends Charity Vintage Race. The two divisions, heavy block and small block, ran for a total of 25 laps (about 45 minutes) with a mandatory 5 minute pit stop. Unser and co-driver Andre Ahrle won the heavy block division in Ahrle’s 1965 Cobra Comp R. Tracy and co-driver Gary Moore took top honors in the small block division driving Moore’s 1965 Ford Mustang GT350.
All shared swigs of milk, with the pros each receiving a ring for their efforts.
All 68 drivers were still smiling at the end. A gigantic fireworks display ended the evening.
After all, it is Indy.