How did they feel about several of the drivers in this year’s race — who really shouldn’t be out there? Specifically, regular Indy Lights driver Carlos Munoz, former Indy Lights driver Pippa Mann and last-place starter Katherine Legge.
As you would expect of the two Canadians (both of whom are bona-fide Indy car stars, by the way), they were most gracious with their non-answers because that’s the way it is in big-league auto racing in 2013, where seldom (if ever) is heard a discouraging word.
What I’d hoped they would say goes something like this:
“They should ask Munoz, who qualified second, to drop to the back of the field for the start. He doesn’t have enough experience at the Speedway to be in front of about 30 other veteran drivers who will all be charging to get into Turn One first.
“And let Mann and Legge run some laps and then find an excuse to black flag them because they just aren't good enough to be out there. This is, after all, the Indianapolis 500, the fastest race in the world featuring the 33 best drivers in the world.
“Or it’s supposed to be.”
Fat chance of hearing that, of course. But once upon a time? You bet.
Do you think, for one second, that Jimmy Bryan, Don Branson, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford or A.J. Foyt in his prime would have allowed people who couldn’t carry their lunch to actually go out and try to race against them?
In somebody’s dreams.
The great Eddie Sachs, a sprint car driver of note who was said to be braver than Dick Tracy, got into Gasoline Alley early in his career and went from garage to garage, trying to talk his way into a car. When the powers of the AAA heard about that (yes, the American Automobile Association ran racing in those days), they called security and had Sachs thrown out.
In the words of the wonderful American auto racing author John Sawyer, this is how great Eddie Sachs was (and yet, as illustrated, he got no respect because the AAA didn’t think he was good enough to even be inside the gates!):
“Swoosh!” wrote Sawyer about Sachs.
“There goes ‘Fast Eddie.’ Correction: there went ‘Fast Eddie.’ Past tense. He’s gone.
“You know what? That starboard hoof must have been nuclear-powered. Ultrabionic. Nitro injected. Laser laced. The heaviest of all feet, it kept pedal against metal until the steel screamed for mercy.”
You think anybody’s going to write words like that about Katherine Legge? Or Pippa Mann? Or Carlos Munoz?
I get emotional thinking about those days.
A Mississauga gentleman, Dan Doyle, sent me some clippings he’d saved since 1965, the year Billy Foster, a supermodified driver from Victoria, B.C., qualified for Big Indy.
There was a fuss made over Foster that year. Everybody, including all the wire services — AP, CP, UPI — and even Canada’s Weekend Magazine, thought he was the first Canadian to qualify for the 500. (He wasn’t, as it turned out, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?)
Among the clippings is a beautiful colour picture of the B.C. racer being strapped into his Bryant Heating and Cooling Special by two crew members (in those days, all the cars at Indy were called “Specials” because they were usually built especially for the 500 and then taken to race elsewhere afterward).
The story that went with the photo was written by the late Don Hunt, and there’s a picture of him sitting with Foster, who’s smoking a cigarette, in the infield grandstand near the start/finish line.
That Foster — a 27-year-old who came from a racing family in Victoria — was cocksure, let there be no doubt. He qualified on the outside of the second row for that ‘65 race and he turned the fastest speed of all the cars running an Offenhauser engine. Interviewed on the PA system after his run, Billy said:
“I’m a slow qualifier. Just wait till race day!”
As it turned out, he was eliminated after 90 laps (of 200) with a broken water line.
His best friend, Mario Andretti, qualified two places to the left on the inside of the second row and went on to finish third in the race, which earned him rookie-of-the-year honours.
Among the clippings is a page from the long-gone, Toronto-area weekly Wheelspin News, advertising the “Toronto 500, 110 Offy Midget Auto Race” at the CNE Grandstand oval on Wed., June 9, 1965 – a little over a week after that Indy 500.
“Top Indianapolis Drivers,” the ad tumpeted.
“International Championship Race.”
Foster didn’t race midget cars, so didn’t come to Toronto. But Andretti did, only to suffer the indignity of not qualifying through the heats for the feature. As most of Little Italy had shown up to see this budding cultural icon in action, the promoters added him to the rear of the field — 19th and last — where he finished.
Clippings from the following year, 1966, show how quickly you can go — or could go, in those days — from hero to zero. Foster was fingered for triggering a massive first-lap pileup that eliminated eleven of the 33 cars that started.
Although he was later exonerated, the damage was done and there are people to this day who will tell you that Foster (who was to die early in 1967 in a NASCAR qualifying crash at Riverside, Calif.) was the culprit.
Among the drivers whose race lasted about 100 yards that year — the only injury was suffered by Foyt, who gashed a finger while climbing over a fence on the main straight to get out of the way — were guys at the back of the pack but they were household-name stars of the times like perennial midget car champion Bobby Grim, sprint car star Larry Dickson (he was half, with fellow Indy car driver Gary Bettenhausen, of the “Larry and Gary Show” along the USAC sprint car championship trail) and Ronnie Duman, who’d survived the crash at Indy in 1964 that killed Dave MacDonald and — you knew his name would come up again — Eddie Sachs.
Duman — who, incidentally, won that 1965 midget race at the CNE that Andretti nearly didn’t get to start — must have wondered if someone was trying to send him a message. Of his eight cracks at the 500, he failed to qualify twice (it happened a lot in those days, because the competition was so fierce) and crashed three other times. In 1968, his last at Indy, he finished sixth and a week later was killed at Milwaukee.
The 500-Mile International Sweepstakes, held since 1911 at the place they call the Brickyard, once had big risks, hard luck, heartbreak and consequences.
Not like today, when a big cheque and less than 50 laps around the Speedway, as happened last Sunday, can get you into the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.