Indy memories profane and profound


My most memorable moments from covering the Indianapolis 500 since 1975 aren't all pretty.

The profoundest are profane. So rate this column R, for real race-driver language.

My last 500-Mile Race will be May 25, if it doesn't rain. What I'll miss most, I've already been missing for some years anyway.

The no-nonsense guys are long gone.

The most no-nonsense driver of them all was Arie Luyendyk. It wasn't even close. I don't recall so much as a trace of B.S. in anything he ever said.

Take that morning the week before the '96 race, soon after pole sitter Scott Brayton had been killed during practice.

Luyendyk said this only to my old friend and colleague Robin Miller and me. We asked him his first thought upon learning of Brayton's death.

"I didn't think, 'He died doing what he loved to do,'" Luyendyk said, in his dour Dutch way mocking the platitudes of racing death. "I didn't think, 'He would want us to go on,' and I didn't think, 'He's in a better place.'

"I thought, 'God damn it!'"

For nine years running, the biggest story going into the race had been whether A.J. Foyt would become the first driver to win four Indy 500s. His third had come in 1967.

Finally, for Foyt's 10th try at a fourth, he was overshadowed going in. Tom Sneva had become the first driver to crack 200 mph in winning the pole. Janet Guthrie had become the first woman to qualify for the race.

Even as the race unfolded, Foyt remained in the background. Gordon Johncock dominated until only 16 of the 200 laps remained. Then Johncock's engine blew.

Foyt took the lead by a comfortable margin over Sneva, and set sail on 15 easy, historic laps under the thunder of a crowd the Indiana State Police estimated in those days at 400,000.

His helmet off in the winner's circle, Foyt's face at age 42 wore a little boy's bashful smile.

A little while later, he stomped, like the big old bull he was in those days, into the little media room, snatched up a microphone in a paw and said:

"Gaahhddamn! We did it!"

A gaggle of sportswriters straggled in from the pits just seconds after Foyt spoke. So he made sure this one was on the record for everybody.

"Some of you boys might not have caught what I said. I said, 'Gaahhddamn! We did it!'"

Then the little boy in Foyt reappeared, head bowed.

"I ought not take the Lord's name in vain," he said. "He's been awful good to me today."

I don't recall the year, just the moment I heard this joke. Sometime in the 1970s.

A young driver gets killed in the Indy 500. St. Peter greets him and offers to take him out to heaven's track. When they arrive, a race is going on.

"WheeeeeYOW!" The leader flashes by. The car is red, numbered 14.

The kid can't believe his eyes. Could this be --

Next time by, "WheeeeeYOW!" Sure enough, the helmet is red and there's a Valvoline logo just above the visor.

"Geez," says the kid. "I didn't know he was here!"

"Of course he is," St. Peter says.

"But when I left Indy just a few minutes ago, he was leading the race down there. What happened?"


"Oh, no, you don't understand," St. Peter says. "That's God. He just thinks he's A.J. Foyt."

My first Indy, 1975. Carburetion Day. Morning. Here comes a huge entourage down through Gasoline Alley. What the ...

It's camera crews, led by one from ABC Sports, following Mario Andretti as he walks. Must be something big going on, so I fall in at the tail of the line and follow.

Mario keeps glancing back at all of us, with a puzzled look on his face. The crews persist, operating on the assumption that Mario's every step is newsworthy.

He makes a hard left and keeps walking. The entourage makes a hard left, like West Point cadets marching, right behind him, and he glances back again, with a scowl.

Suddenly the entourage stops as Mario walks through a door.

The door is marked:


This moment came the week before the 2006 race, but didn't cement in my mind until the final lap.

Marco Andretti, Mario's 19-year-old grandson, would start ninth, highest among rookies. And Marco had been flying in the final practices.

I asked Nonno Mario, Italian for Grandpa Mario, whether a kid like that could actually win this race.

Marco's Nonno looked me dead in the eye.

"You're damn right," he said. And he repeated it over and over, making it a refrain. "You're damn right. ... You're damn right. ... You're damn right."

He sat silently for a moment, pondered, then added:

"But you gotta beat Penske."

Roger Penske's cars had won Indy 13 times back then. (The total is 15 now.) Marco was driving for his father Michael's team.

Mario nailed down his caveat by repeating thusly:

"You've. Got. To. Beat. Penske."

Nice quotes for a column, but just a grandfather's doting. Right? Surely the teenager, bloodlines notwithstanding, couldn't end his rookie race in a confrontation with the mighty Penske team.

Race day, final lap, Marco leading, a red-and-white Penske car on his tail. The crowd thundered as it hadn't since the glory days of yore, before the terrible Indy car factional split of 1996.

This kid could revive the enfeebled old race single-handedly. An Andretti was at the brink of winning Indy, for all that terrible luck the family had had, all these years, with only one win to show for it, Mario's in 1969.

The motor racing world was watching, wherever there was live television coverage.

And Mario's words from a few days earlier flashed through my mind.

You're damn right.

Off Turn 2, Marco blocked, forcing the Penske driver, Sam Hornish Jr., to back off a bit. That should do it. That should be enough separation for the win.

You're damn right.

Through the north chute, between Turns 3 and 4, Marco kept the lead.

You're damn right.

But Hornish and the Penske car were relentless.

But you gotta beat Penske.

Off Turn 4, Hornish charged. By the finish line, the red-and-white car was ahead. Hornish won.

You've. Got. To. Beat. Penske.

Nice a guy as Hornish is, he hadn't the charisma, nor his name the mystique, to resuscitate the Indy 500. The old race remained on life support.

Foyt's status vis-à-vis a supreme being came up again in April of 1991, more than a month before the 500. He was there to test, driving for the first time since his feet and legs had been pulverized in a crash at Elkhart Lake, Wis., the previous year.

The test was supposed to be private, but the media found out about it and turned out by the dozens, so Foyt's PR people had to schedule a news conference at lunchtime.

The rehab had been agonizing, monumental for anyone. A Houston Oilers trainer said he'd never seen anything like it. Neither had Dr. Terry Trammell, the orthopedic surgeon who'd pieced Foyt's feet and legs together.

At the news conference, Foyt publicly thanked the Oilers for use of their facilities, the trainer who'd supervised the rehab and Trammell.

"And," said Foyt, "I guess I ought to thank the Good Lord. He's been with me every step of the way through this."

Then Foyt couldn't help adding, "But then again, He couldn't have done this without me, either."

In 1990, world war had been declared on Indy car racing by Jean-Marie Balestre, the Paris-based president of the FIA, over CART's planned invasions of Formula One turf around the world. CART would race in Australia. There was talk of racing in Brazil, even Germany.

"There will be war!" Balestre had bellowed to me, pounding his fist on a table at Phoenix, before the U.S. Grand Prix that spring.

More than a year of diplomacy would be required to defuse the situation. One of the moves was to invite Balestre to the Indianapolis 500 of 1991.

And there I found him, on his first visit there, on the pit road, moments before the command to start engines. Even now, he remained the most anti-Indy car mogul in the world. He and the background power of F1, Bernie Ecclestone, publicly considered Indy car racing nothing more than "a good domestic series," as Ecclestone put it.

"What do you think?" I asked Balestre.

He gazed out at the most mammoth grandstands on the face of the earth, at the people as far as his eyes could see, not an empty seat among the more than 300,000.

The topography of Monaco made it virtually impossible for more than about 50,000 people to view that race in person, even sitting on the cliffs above the city, and packing the hotel balconies.

The Nurburgring in Germany had been shortened from its original configuration of 14 miles around, putting a stop to the spectators who once found freebie vantage points by the hundreds of thousands in the hills.

At Le Mans, crowds had been dwindling for years as the world lost appetite for 24-hour racing. And the crowds were impossible to estimate, spread out through the forests of western France.

At Indy, people. Jammed together. As far as the eye could see.

"What can I say?" Balestre said with a resigned little smile. "This is the greatest race in the world."