Lessons learned that first day at Indy


There they stood in Gasoline Alley, the old one, the storied one, with its little garages made of cinder blocks and wood.

There were the Unsers. Both of them. Bobby, who had won in 1968, and Al, who'd won in '70 and '71. Just the two of them, chatting.

That made them easy targets for a rookie motorsports writer, early on his first day of covering the Indianapolis 500.

This was Wednesday of race week in 1975. Track silent. Grounds quiet. The day before Carburetion Day, which was run on Thursdays then.

And this, it seemed at that moment, was going to be easy -- just as easy as covering NASCAR, where I fancied myself a veteran with almost one year's experience.

At this moment, those "Keep Out" signs on A.J. Foyt's padlocked garage doors -- I'd been told the signs especially meant media -- didn't seem so ominous. I was scared of Foyt in those days. As was everybody else.

But now I had the Unsers cornered, and that would do just fine for my very first story out of Indy.

So I just sauntered right on up to the brothers, introduced myself, and told them I'd like to do a story on both of them. Right there. On the spot.

Bobby Unser didn't even grant me so much as a look of annoyance. It was just a sideways glance as he said, "Haven't you got something else to do?"

Al said nothing at all. I don't recall whether he even glanced at me.

Nothing, short of Foyt walking up and bloodying my nose, could have taken me more aback. I walked on, rattled, mortified.

I hadn't experienced anything like this in NASCAR, where you could walk right up to Richard Petty or Cale Yarborough or Bobby Allison and just start asking questions. They nearly always accommodated.

Except for Foyt, when he ventured south to run NASCAR.

I'd had one conversation with the man I'd come to fear upon reading an unvarnished story about him in Playboy, as preparation for my new job covering auto racing.

The conversation, at his Daytona garage stall, had gone like this:

"A.J., are you busy?" probably asked in quavering voice.

"Yeah. Real busy."

End of interview. Foyt stomped back into his garage and stayed there.

Now, summarily sent for a hike by the Unsers, I began to wonder whether all these guys -- the ones with more scars and steelier eyes than the NASCAR drivers -- were like this.

Then, relief. Here came Johnny Rutherford. Good ol' Johnny Rutherford, the defending Indy 500 champion, walking alone. This first day was going to work out just fine, after all.

Rutherford had talked to me plenty, leading into my first NASCAR race, the Firecracker 400 in 1974. (What I hadn't realized was that of course he talked to me. He was getting paid appearance money, as the '74 Indy champion, to drive in the July race.)

I happily approached him. Immediately he looked at his watch.

"I'm late for a function," he said. "I've got to go."

"Just a few minutes?"

"I gotta go, right now. I'm late."

Welcome to the biggest race in the world, kid. I don't think we're in NASCAR anymore.

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