Saturday, January 26, 2008

Indy 500 1986: Rain, Rain & Racin' on my Birthday

The 500 has had remarkable luck through the years with weather. 2007 was wet of course, but they got the race in (or most of it). 1986 was one of the marathon years, longer even than 1973, since the race had to be postponed a week after the slated date was washed out, and the following day it rained non-stop. I didn't even go to the track the second day as I recall. This photo is from the scheduled date and gives an idea of things fans used to do in the infield to kill time. You can bet alcohol was involved. There's another pic in the attached album showing another popular infield pastime, but this is a family blog so I won't go into details here. I tell people they postponed the race to my birthday in '86 and it was nice that they threw the biggest party in the world for me at 16th & Georgetown that year.

But getting the race run was a monumental effort. Back then, USAC ran the 500 under its rules, and CART ran all the other Indy-style races. The Speedway didn't want to run the 500 on a regular work day after the Memorial Day weekend (original race day Sunday, rain date Monday Memorial Day), as I am sure they were worried about a drop off in attendance. But CART had a race scheduled at Milwaukee the next weekend, so the Speedway and CART had to work together and Milwaukee got rescheduled so the 500 could be run on Saturday May 31, plus still have Sunday June 1 for an additional rain date if needed. Given the state of open wheel racing today with the IRL and Champ Car still at odds, the kind of cooperation demonstrated in 1986 is almost unbelievable in hindsight. But the powers that be made it work somehow. If only cooler heads could prevail today and get Indy racing unified again...

The 1986 500 was my third year working as a credentialed photographer at Indy for UPI. I was in the south short chute in '84, Turn 4 in '85 and Turn 3 for 1986. Turn 3 was a long way from everything back then with only one small section of stands across the track from my shooting position. Infield parking was a free-for-all and the police presence was virtually non-existent. The attitude seemed to be as long as no one got hurt, anything was OK, and just about anything could be seen at the track then. After all, the Speedway became the second largest city in Indiana every year on race day, so anything that happens in a city could (and would often) happen on race day. It was a human zoo.

That race was remarkable not only for the week's delay, but for the way it ended. We got paid off handsomely for waiting a week as Bobby Rahal charged past Kevin Cogan on a restart with a couple laps to go to win. Rick Mears finished third in the closest 1-2-3 finish at Indy up to that time. Sneva, Mario, AJ, Unser, Rutherford and all the historic big names were still racing, and the driver mix was eclectic as usual: Guerrero, Geoff Brabham, Roberto Moreno, Ongais. One of the more poignant elements of that year was the fact that Rahal's car owner, Jim Trueman, was dying with cancer but few people knew about it. I remember walking pit lane one day during practice and seeing him with the team and I barely recognized him. He was always so fit and tan in prior years, but it was clear that he wasn't his usual self that year. Not long after the 500, he passed away, leaving a legacy at Indy and at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course which he owned. God bless people like Jim Trueman for what they do (or have done) for racing.

It's hard to believe the changes that have occurred at the 500 since then. But I guess that just means I'm "experienced". Youth challenged. An old fart. Whatever. My pictures will outlive me and I've been blessed with the opportunity to be involved.

Indy 500 1986

Monday, January 21, 2008

Indy 500 Memories - 1982

Arguably one of the greatest Indy 500's ever took place in 1982 when Rick Mears chased down Gordon Johncock over the final 11 laps, knocking a second per lap off of "Wee Gordie's" lead and challenging him in Turn 1 on the white flag lap. Gordie's chop job was classic although Mears still almost pulled it off. At the time, it was the closest finish in 500 history.

My vantage point was above Victory Lane that year with the ladies of the Indy 500 Festival, the Queen and her Court, one of whom I was fortunate to be dating. I had borrowed a camera from a friend of mine to take to the race - no motor drive, maybe a 135 mm lens, and I was just beginning to learn how to shoot. The day began with no sleep after a party at the house I was sharing lasted into the early hours of race day. My date and her Festival sponsor picked me up in the Camaro pace car around 6 a.m. and we started off with a breakfast reception at the former Indiana National Bank Tower, then followed a police escort caravan of all the Festival pace cars to the track. We were part of the pre-race ceremonies where the ladies sat on the roof of the cars on a lap around the track. I was squeezed into the tiny back seat trying to take pictures as we circled the oval. When that was over, we went to the reserved seating area above Victory Lane for the race itself.

Then the carnage began. At the start, Kevin Cogan bounced off of AJ Foyt, (that "damn Coogan" as AJ later said over the PA system) and slid to the inside wall and collected Mario who had started on the inside of Row 2 and tried to get through a gap between the spinning Cogan and the pit wall. In the back of the pack, one of the Whittington brothers, Dale, ran over Roger Mears so four cars were out before the field even got to the yard of bricks. The Whittingtons had their own story (more on them another time) but Dale had no business being in the race. During the red flag, we could see AJ hammering on his car with a rubber mallet trying to get the car out of gear. Cogan later said he thought a CV joint broke, but I will always believe that he just lit up the tires when the turbo kicked in coming down for the green flag. And Mario - well, he seemed to be cheating up from his row mates and if he hadn't jumped the start himself, he might have been able to miss Cogan.

At any rate, Cogan's career was forever damaged by this incident, and he never took his helmet off as he walked back down pit lane, out of the race before it even began. He probably thought someone would take a swing at him. Keeping his helmet on was likely a good decision. The whole mess was really terrible for Cogan, since he was seemed very talented. Photogs still talk about people running the "Cogan line" as he could run higher in the turns that about anyone I ever saw at Indy. As I recall, he lost his ride with Penske after the 82 season. In 86, was leading the race when he got snookered by Bobby Rahal on a restart with only a couple of laps to go. I still remember Sam Posey trying to talk to Cogan on the 86 ABC telecast during that last yellow, and Cogan responding, "I'm kinda busy right now"!

During that 82 race, the Festival folks took us all up in the scoring tower just past the halfway point. It was my first time being up there and the view was spectacular. I remember bumping into TV personality Joyce DeWitt who was one of the celebrities attending that year. As the race wound down, the crowd couldn't sit down as Mears chased Gordie down and everyone realized a fantastic finish was possible. It was the only time I can recall at the 500 that the crowd noise drowned out the cars and it was impossible to be heard by the people next to you. Gordie never lifted and was a popular winner, as Mears was still a relative newcomer and his day would come. The pictures I've posted today are from film and scanned from 25 year old prints, but they are representative of my early work at Indy.

Wild start. Great finish. Victory Lane seats. Awesome day from beginning to end. Is it any wonder I haven't missed a 500 since 1976?

Indy 500 1982

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Photog History - One View of Indycars

After getting the "royal" treatment at the Indy 500 in 1982, I knew I had to get to more Indycar races. The urge to photograph what I was experiencing also was growing. My best friend and I went to Michigan in the fall of 1982 for the Detroit News Grand Prix where CART ran the feature race with support races for ASA stock cars and the super vee series. We almost got hit head-on on US 12 on the way up to the track the night before but we made it in my friend's van and got into the infield after midnight. One of many adventures getting to or from races as I look back now. Like the first time I went to Michigan in 1981 for the Norton 500. We had enjoyed a beautiful day in the holding area on Saturday only to have the race washed away the next day and I couldn't get back. 1982 found some of us in the Turn 4 infield across from where Hector Rebaque took out AJ Foyt. But I got in the pits that day with a borrowed camera and couldn't get enough.

In 1983, I went back to the infield at Indy with friends but I was growing tired of the madness. I bought my first real camera that year - a Canon A1 with a cheap Sigma zoom lens and thought I was ready to go shoot. Boy did I have a lot to learn. The picture with this post is from the Michigan 500 in 1983 with Rick Mears (1) racing Al Unser Sr. (7), Mario Andretti (3) and Bill Alsup. Several of us went up together and had seats in the pit terrace bleachers where this shot was taken from. About an hour before the race was to start, a tornado warning was issued for the area and they cleared everyone out of the stands. So we went back to my friend's pickup truck and waited out the ferocious thunderstorm that rolled through. As quickly as it came it was gone and the sun came out which dried the track in short order. An absolutely awesome race followed with John Paul Jr. passing Rick Mears going down the backstretch on the last lap for the win, and Mears crashing between Turns 3 and 4 trying to catch him.

500 miles at Michigan was a sight to behold. It's a shame they don't run that distance up there anymore. What's worse is they don't run there at all anymore. Back in the day, they usually had at least 28 cars and more often than not had a full 33 car field. I miss those days.

But I don't miss the craziness that sometimes accompanied those road trips. Maybe someday I'll tell y'all about it.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hoosier-ville Tales: Hoops & Horsepower

Just a Hoosier. That's what a friend of mine in college used to say - only he would add the f-ing word before Hoosier. He was from the Bronx so that may explain it, but I've come to love that phrase. Just a Hoosier.

And what does a Hoosier do as a kid? Play basketball. Go to race tracks. If you're living in Indiana-ville in the early '60's, there wasn't much else to do. Even after moving to Indy in '68, the same could be said for this big old small town. It wasn't called Naptown for nothing.

My grandpa (and namesake) took me to the county fairgrounds racetrack in Warsaw, Indiana when I was about 4. I was hooked. Little quarter mile dirt track he helped build, according to mom. Dirt flying in my face, hanging on the fence, walking through the pits, soaking up the roar. Pretty heady stuff for a young Hoosier. My dad bought me a ring-a-bell basketball set and used to take me to the gym when he played ball when I was about the same age. Most people have probably never seen a ring-a-bell set nowadays. It had a little wire rim with a bracket for hanging it on a door and a metal tongue that would literally ring a bell when the tiny ball went through the string nets. I must have driven my folks crazy playing with that thing. That probably explains why it got nailed to a tree by the driveway after awhile.

No two things have been more constant in my life: hoops and horsepower. Since I started shooting at the Indy 500 in 1984, I've spent more than 14 months of my life at the Speedway - and I mean 14 months straight if you put all the days back to back. And I guarantee I've spent more time than that in a gym or bouncing a ball somewhere.

So I guess it's no surprise that photography started entering into it in my adult life. I went to my first 500 in 1970 and have been to every one since 1976. In 1982, I was lucky to be dating a woman who was a 500 Festival Princess and got to sit right above Victory Lane for arguably the greatest 500 ever - the Mears-Johncock duel. I stood on the photographers platform for the winner's circle shots, and the yellow shirts tried to shoo me away. I just told them I was with her and they left me alone. A gang of us used to be first in the track through Gate 9A at 25th & Georgetown to get a prime infield spot along the fence in Turn 4, but that got old as friends got married off. And the photography bug bit me about the same time. The shot with this post is of Gasoline Alley in 1981, and my last year fighting the infield crowd for space was 1983. I knew there had to be a better way. So I wrote or called people to see about credentials, and Alex Persons gave me a chance with UPI. Thank you Alex!

I have been very fortunate to see a lot of great races at the Speedway, and many historic moments, including the first NASCAR test at the Brickyard. I hope to bring back many of these moments in coming posts, and dust off some old prints to show the way things used to be. Much has changed about basketball and racing in Indiana (they ruined high school basketball with the class tournament) and the 500 and open wheel racing is still suffering from the effects of the IRL-CART split, but the love of hoops and horsepower still lives on in this Hoosier.

A bad day at the racetrack (or in the gym) is still better than a lot of good days at lots of other places. See you in the turns or on the baseline.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hello 2008! More Tales from the 'Ville to Follow!

Now it's Antiville? Yes folks, there really is a town in Indiana with that name. And since it's been so long since I've written, I thought that might be a good start to sum up my feelings about 2007: good bye and good riddance. Sounds harsh perhaps, but it was a year filled with polar opposites for me. The best part was the racing. The worst was looking for employment and scraping up a living. But it has all worked out for the best and I am truly excited about 2008.

Maybe this year, someone will actually read this thing! I had a lot of great experiences at the racetrack last year, but the one thing that seemed to plague my track luck was rain. At Indy. Then Nashville. Then Michigan. At first I was thinking I was some kind of IRL rain hex, but then Mid Ohio and Chicagoland cancelled that all out.

Then I had to (and I do mean HAD TO) find full time work so that's why I've been away for awhile. Since my last post, Helio has won Dancing with the Stars, and all the open wheel guys seem to be jumping to NASCAR. But is it just me or do none of the newer guys seem to know how to handle a loose race car? Not any of the shoes from sprint cars or midgets, but the F1 or IRL drivers like Dario, Villeneuve and Carpentier, and even my man Hornish. Could be that the ground effects brigade has become so dependent on downforce that when the slippin' and slidin' starts, these guys don't seem to know how to handle it? Not Montoya though - he can drive anything. Maybe Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon need to take these new guys to Eldora and help them learn what that seat of the pants feel is all about.

But what the heck do I know? I'm just a hoosier photog with a passion for shiny fast cars. If you feel the same, then maybe you'll enjoy a collection of my blog pix from 2007. Just click on the Michael McDowell pic which follows and he'll take you to see the rest on my newest picasa album. BTW - congrats to Michael for making it to Sprint Cup for this year. See you at the Brickyard.

And please go subscribe to American Motor Journal and Stock Car Racing Magazine. You'll see more of my stuff there this year.

IndyJay42 Blog Pix 2007