Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 26, 2018

45 Years At The Indianapolis 500

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Those thrilling days of yesteryear at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS

The first Indianapolis 500 that I ever personally attended was the 1973 running of it – the infamous “Fire and Rain” race that took three days to complete. I was covering the race for The Associated Press and was stationed near the pit exit where Salt Walther crashed in flames. I walked quickly away from that blaze, and was narrowly by missed the fire truck going the wrong way up pit road that ran over and killed a guy. Later, I stationed myself at the entrance to the pits, where Swede Savage had one of the worst crashes in speedway history. He died weeks later in the hospital. Another driver, Art Pollard, had been killed in practice; I had flown over that one in my one-and-only ride in the Goodyear blimp.

After that, I wondered if my first 500 would be my last. Yes, it had lived up to its name as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but what a bloody spectacle it was.

But I did go back; it’s been 45 years now, and this year – the 102nd running of the event – I’m reporting it again for The New York Times.

In some ways, the race has changed surprisingly little since 1973. The cars all have their engines mounted at the rear, gumball tires and aerodynamic wings. In the 45 years prior to my arrival, the cars had evolved from the most primitive, earliest forms of automotive transport – with skinny tall tires, enormous engines in front, and cockpits where the drivers sat upright. For a few years, drivers had been accompanied by riding mechanics.

In the early days here, the drivers sometimes raced in street clothes, brogans and cloth or leather helmets. Many didn’t even wear gloves. In this era, of course, racing drivers are kitted up like spacemen in fireproof suits, and strapped in place (laying on their backs inside coffin-like cockpits) with multi-point harnesses.

In days of yore, as they say, drivers eschewed wearing seat belts at all, believing – erroneously – that it was better to be thrown clear of a wreck.

Driver protection has now evolved beyond once-unimaginable, unachievable levels. Not only are the cars now designed to handle impacts without inflicting injuries, so are the walls – the so-called impact-tolerant SAFER barriers – they plow into. Fatalities are rare.

The 1973 race resulted in many of the most significant improvements in crash safety in the history of auto racing: breakaway fuel fittings and puncture-proof fuel cells (drivers had actually sat between unprotected tanks holding up to 80 gallons of fuel), and energy-absorbing or crushable structures. So, that 1973 race probably ranks as a turning point.

Up until 1973, about 40 percent of Indy car drivers could be expected to be killed at some point in their careers. Perhaps 70 percent or more suffered crippling injuries – particularly burns. One of the sport’s longest-tenured drivers, A.J. Foyt, had his career threatened multiple times with burns, internal injuries and a broken bones; even after 40 years behind the wheel, he refused to retire despite shattered legs that were barely saved from amputation.

For a time in the 1990s, foot and leg injuries threatened to sideline an entire generation of Indy car drivers. But that vulnerability prompted another round of safety innovations that ultimately all but eliminated that danger.

The biggest change that I have seen in 45 years at Indy is among the drivers. Of course, all the drivers of that era have long since retired, although Mario Andretti still gives hair-raising rides to folks in an Indy car two-seater.

Andretti was in his heyday back in the 1970s – winning the 500 a second time (and then losing it in a court battle with Bobby Unser), winning a Formula 1 World Championship and capturing multiple checkered flags. But as Andretti’s time has come and long gone, so has the career of his son Michael, now a successful team owner. Now a third generation of the Andretti family is racing, with Marco, well into his career. Maybe one day a fourth generation will come along.

Now that will make you feel old!

Jerry Garrett

May 26, 2018

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