By Tom Baker – Managing Editor RaceChaser Online
Grab a beverage and settle in for a while. I’d like to tell you a story. This is a story about a boy, a race and why the boy gets goosebumps just thinking about the race.
My first introduction to the sport of Auto Racing came when I was five years old. It was 1973, and the track was Oswego Speedway. Open-wheel, open cockpit style Supermodifieds (patterned after Indy cars) have grown and prospered at Oswego since the early 1960’s. Several drivers who started in Supers have raced or attempted to race at Indy in the past, including Gordon Johncock, Todd Gibson, Gary Allbritain, Bentley Warren, Doug Heveron, Joe Gosek, Doug Didero, Chuck Ciprich and Chet Fillip.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Oswego ran their big “Port City 150” doubleheader on Memorial Day Sunday. It was awesome. The Supers would share the spotlight at the fast 5/8-mile with the NASCAR-style Modifieds. For much of that period, the Indy 500 was not shown live on TV and neither was the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte.
I would go to Oswego for the big race and then come home that night to watch the tape-delayed Indy broadcast, even though I knew who won because Oswego would play the radio broadcast over the PA system between races.
It was like an all-you-could-eat motorsports buffet!
In 1982 they actually held up the start of the Supermodified feature race so we could all listen in as our Supermodified “brother” Gordon Johncock tried to hold off Rick Mears to win his second 500. When Paul Page told us Gordy won a close one, we burst out in thunderous applause.
After I graduated high school I began writing racing stories for the local paper, and I started a racing talk show on my local radio station. This was in the late 80’s to around 1991. That’s when I met Rick Nelson, a local photographer who began shooting photos for many of my stories and also became my radio c0-host and one of my closest friends. Rick is the reason I was able to go to Indy in 1987. We drove out for “Carburetion Day” on Thursday and then watched the “Little 500” Sprint Car race at Anderson Speedway on Saturday night.
But we didn’t go to Indy on Sunday.
Why, you ask? We (I mean Rick!) drove all night back to N.Y. for the Port City Race at Oswego. We had work to do!
That is, until 1989. Rick, his lovely wife Kathy and I went to Indy together. We did the usual routine until Sunday. At about 5am on Sunday morning, we awoke in our respective hotel rooms and went about the business of preparing for the day at the Brickyard. Rick and Kathy had been there before. I, however, had my rookie stripe.
I don’t think anyone can truly understand what separates Indy from all other races unless you experience it. We got to the track just after 6am. The city was rubbing its eyes in the early morning half-light but the electricity around the track was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I was sitting in the infield grandstands with Kathy that day while Rick went off to play photo-guy.
I had goosebumps before I ever walked onto the hallowed grounds.
Celebrities, car manufacturers unveiling their latest models, pomp and circumstance, tradition. Fast cars, brave drivers, genius race strategists and enough color and pageantry to make even the least race-k attendee walk away breathless. This is not a race. This is a yearly world-stopping event where a race just happens to take place as a bonus.
The goosebumps got bigger.
The cars are rolled out onto the grid. The anticipation is already killing me! The pre-race traditions get underway. There’s one tradition that brings me to tears every year, and I know it’s about to happen…
Jim Nabors is introduced. The music begins, and he sings “Back Home Again In Indiana” with all the passion of someone who truly lives the song’s lyrics. My water works begin to flow.
It’s almost time! The Goosebumps got bigger.
The most famous words in racing are spoken…”Gentlemen, start your engines!”
The roar of 33 of the most intricate and breathtaking machines adds another layer of electricity to the warm, sunny air. I’ve been up since 5am and my body is in overdrive – a mix of fatigue and indescribable levels of adrenaline that almost overwhelm the senses.
The cars leave the grid and head out onto the track. They go through the pace laps, trying to settle themselves down and focus their thoughts on the task at hand. They will live the next 3 hours or so of their lives on the razor’s edge. Most had been there before. Some were, as I was, experiencing this incredible high for the very first time.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a driver or a fan or a crew member. We are all one on that day – living in the moment and way overstimulated!
One to go! Everyone I can see all around the facility is standing. The crowd roars…the green flag flies…there they go!
Believe it or not, my fatigue finally caught up with me just about halfway and I FELL ASLEEP in my seat for probably 10 or 15 minutes. You can laugh at me if you want to but I’m telling you that only reinforces how incredible the whole experience of the day was for me – I was so amped up for so much of the day that once the pre-race anticipation gave way to the rhythm and flow of the race itself I was so relaxed and contented that I just dozed off.
I woke up and guess what came back? Yup. The goosebumps. I was at INDY! This was the 500! The greatest spectacle in racing! I had a thought that made me smile. “How lucky am I to be experiencing this?”
Thank you, Rick Nelson!
For those who just need to know, Emerson Fittipaldi won his first 500 that year after he and “little” Al Unser came together and Unser ended up in the wall. They were my two favorite drivers at that time. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that I had just experienced my first Indy 500!
Over 20 years later, there are two races every year that still give me goosebumps. The Indy 500 and the International Classic Supermodified 200 at Oswego.
At Indy, almost everything you see or buy is expensive. The goosebumps are free.
Photo Credits: Geoff Bodine Supermodified – jalopyjournal.com IndyCar Photo – IndyCar.com