The 1961 500-mile race was a little different than the other seven races I had seen for several reasons. 1) The race was on a Tuesday, the first time I’d ever seen a race on that day. I have now seen a race on every day of the week, excluding Sunday, of course. 2) This was the first year we went to the race in our 1957 Chevrolet. 3) My Aunt Bobby went with Dad and me this year. She had gone with us once before in 1956 but not since then. 4) It was the 50th anniversary of the 500-mile race. It wasn’t the 50th race, but the first race was held on May 30th, 1911. 5) There were two new sections of seats this year. All of Grandstand C had been torn down, and a new Paddock C of steel and concrete had taken its place. The new seats don’t have any roof above them, whereas Grandstand C had a roof over it. There was also a new paddock of steel and concrete immediately south of Paddock C.
We received our tickets on April 22nd, the latest we’ve ever gotten them. They were in the Tower Terrace section 42, row F, seats 7-9. For the first time since 1957, we traveled in the afternoon. After eating dinner, getting everything packed into the car, and double-checking everything, the three of us, with me driving, dad in the front seat and Bobby in the back, left at 12:54 PM. We went up to North Grand Avenue and east on Sangamon.
We ran into slow traffic between Springfield and Decatur and didn’t get to Decatur until almost 2:00. This was the first year of the new Route 36 going into Decatur. A four-lane highway now leads into the city coming from the west. It certainly is an improvement over the old entrance. Traffic was rather heavy all through the city until we got a little past Lake Decatur. From then on until we stopped at Chrisman, the traffic wasn’t so bad.
We arrived at Chrisman at 2:59 and stopped at our usual place and rested for a couple of minutes. It felt good to get out of the car and stretch a little bit. Dad and Bobby had a cup of coffee and I had a glass of milk. After eating, we used the restroom and then left at 3:16. A few minutes later, we were in Indiana. The farther we went, the closer we knew we were getting to Indianapolis. A couple of towns had large banners overhead advertising the big race.
We had a little trouble when we got there. We got confused on our streets and turned off onto what we thought was Lynhurst Drive. We stopped at the first filling station, and an attendant told us we were off our course. We drove on east a few more blocks until we reached Lynhurst Drive and then stopped at the Standard Station on the corner and had the gasoline tank filled and the windows washed. From there, we drove north on Lynhurst Drive to Crawfordsville Road. We turned right and drove until we reached Fisher Avenue. At last, we were “home.”
Mrs. Kramer was on hand to greet us at 5:09. After Dad paid our $1.00 fee, we told Mrs. Kramer we had come over early so that we could see the 500 Festival Parade at night in downtown Indianapolis. She chuckled a little and told us we were too late. The parade had been held on Saturday, the 27th. We didn’t know what to do then. Our plans were really shot. We decided to take our initial walk down to the Speedway and see what was going on. The area was a beehive of activity. Our plans of going through the museum were stifled when we saw the long line way past the door waiting to get inside. After talking for a couple of minutes, we decided to go back to the car and eat supper.
We had brought potato chips, deviled eggs, oranges, bananas, and sandwiches to eat, and milk, coffee, and water to drink. Bobby and Dad sat in the back seat, and I sat in the front seat. While we were eating, the couple next to us and their three children asked us if we would like to eat some of the food they had cooked on their charcoal grill. We were delighted at the invitation but felt we had enough food, so we declined it.
When we finished eating, we decided that since we had the whole night to ourselves, we’d go downtown anyway as we had originally planned. We went back to Lynhurst Drive and caught our bus. It was a long ride from there to downtown. We went through a section of Speedway, which was quite attractive and quiet. It was quite different from the area around the Speedway. It looked like it probably did every other night of the year. We came to 16th Street and turned east. After going a few blocks, I knew we were back in familiar territory. The traffic was becoming heavier and heavier. In a couple of minutes, we were in the famous traffic that extends for several blocks in either direction of the Speedway.
What I saw there on 16th Street was really something. The cars were lined up in two or three rows all the way back to Indianapolis. There were hundreds of people all along the way. It’s a sight that’s hard to believe. The people are having the time of their lives — singing, playing musical instruments, drinking, eating, laughing, and in general “living it up.”
After fighting blocks and blocks of heavy traffic, we at last arrived inside the Indianapolis city limits. It was pretty quiet in the city. We got off the bus right across from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. All the stores were closed, so there wasn’t much activity going on. We walked a few blocks until we came to the bus station, where we went in and used the restrooms. It was really a dirty, old, smelly building. When we got back into fresh air again, we walked around downtown. We saw the state capitol and many other downtown buildings. If one were walking downtown, it wouldn’t be hard to tell it was 500-mile race time. Many store windows had pictures of the Speedway, various drivers, cars, mechanics, etc. On both sides of one street, there were pictures of every winner of the race since 1911.
When we had seen everything we wanted to see, we boarded the West 16th Street bus and started back. There were only a couple of persons on the bus when we got on, but the farther we went, the more crowded it became. Somewhere along the route, some inebriate boarded the bus. As it turned out, he was the center of attention all the way back to the Speedway. Being drunk, he wasn’t quite sure if he was on the right bus, sitting down, standing up, had paid his fee, or where he was going. He had the three of us laughing to such an extent that we were in pain. It was worth the bus fare just to have him along.
We got off on Fisher Street, two blocks south of Crawfordsville Road. It was about 11:00 now, and everything was in full swing. When we got to the car, Bobby and Dad decided to try and get some sleep, but I thought it was too early for that and took a walk down by the Speedway. I went in the drugstore at 16th and Main Street and bought a couple newspapers. Then I walked west on 16th Street a few blocks. The circus, carnival, or whatever one might call it, was going full blast. There were three rows of cars lined up farther back than I could see. On 16th Street, beside the drugstore, there was a large group of youths about my age dancing and singing to records playing through a loud speaker on top of the drugstore. In addition to singing and dancing, they were also consuming beer at a high rate and showing signs of it, too. I was so attracted by it all, I just stopped and watched the show for a few minutes. Then I crossed over to the north side of the street and walked back towards the Speedway. Across the street from the drugstore, some men were showing a colored film of the 1960 race. It was an excellent film and was attracting a large crowd.
About 12:45, I went back to the car. I tried to get into the car without waking Bobby or Dad, but I didn’t. They wanted to know where I’d been and what I’d been doing. I took off my shoes and put them and the newspapers on the floor, lay down on the pillow with my head on the right side of the front seat, pulled a blanket over me, and tried to go to sleep. Excitement and noise, however, prevented me from getting much sleep. Another reason I couldn’t sleep was that I couldn’t get into a comfortable position. First I was lying on my back and then on my side. I changed back and forth all night long. My legs were giving me trouble also. Of course, I couldn’t stretch them out as I wanted to, and I had the steering wheel to contend with, too. Most of the night, I just lay there and listened to all the noises around me. Occasionally, I would sit up and look out the windows to see what was going on. I don’t think Bobby or Dad got hardly any sleep, either.
At 5:00, the traditional opening bomb went up. Race day was officially here now. The three of us opened our eyes to see what was going on. Slowly, all the people in the cars parked on Crawfordsville Road began to awake. The Speedway City Police, Indianapolis Police, Marion County Sheriff’s Department, and Indiana State Police began directing the thousands of cars into the Speedway. I went out to see how far back the cars were lined up, but it was farther than I could see. About 5:30, we decided to go down on Georgetown Road and watch all the cars going into Gate 6. On our way there, we stopped at the Standard Service Station. All three of us were in need of a restroom. When we got there, we discovered that we had to wait our turn in a long line. After waiting for a long time, we found relief at last. Feeling much better as we left, we then went inside and had us some coffee and doughnuts. The station was really doing a business. In addition to having to pay for the coffee and doughnuts, we also had to pay for the use of the restroom. When we finished our pre-breakfast snack, we moved on down to the Speedway.
As usual, we had to watch our step in getting to Gate 6. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper all the way, and the pedestrian traffic was heavy, too. After walking for what seemed to be blocks and blocks, we finally got there. The Indiana State Police were directing the hundreds and hundreds of cars under the track and onto the infield. We stood off the road by a police car and watched all the cars go under the track. I think there were cars from every state in the country. The cars were of all ages, as were their passengers. We stood there about 45 minutes and watched the hundreds of cars and people go into the infield.
When the line began to thin out just a little, we decided to go back to the car and eat breakfast. Before we got to Crawfordsville Road, however, we ran into Arch Compton, a longtime friend of ours from church, and his brother. It surely was a surprise because we had no idea he was there. We stopped and talked a few minutes about the weather, the traffic, and a few other things, and then started back once again. A couple minutes later, before we got to Georgetown Road, we heard somebody call our name. We turned around, and there in that heavy traffic we saw Stuart Vose, Ray Johnson, Duey Springer, and one of Stuart’s brothers waiving at us. Of course, this surprised us, too. Except for Stuart’s brother, all of these men were from our church also.
We got back to the car about 7:00. Our breakfast consisted of milk, coffee, water, oranges, bananas, potato salad, baked beans, and a few other things. It wasn’t what one might call a well-balanced meal, but the food was good and it was enough to keep us full for a while. When we finished eating, we sat in the car and read some of the newspapers I had bought. All of the papers had devoted a large portion of their space to the big race. There were just a few pages for other news events. After we read what we wanted of the newspapers, we sat and talked for a couple minutes.
About 8:15, we decided to get everything ready and leave for the Speedway. We cleaned up the mess we had made eating breakfast, folded our sheets, blankets and pillows and put them in some kind of order, straightened up the newspapers, made sure we had our tickets, and then rechecked everything before we got out, closed all the windows, and locked all the doors. Now we were headed for a day at the Speedway. We also had our field glasses, camera, sunglasses, and caps with us. A lot of people also had coolers full of cold drinks and lunches with them. Many people were set for their holiday picnic.
About 8:30, we stepped through the main gate. As usual, as soon as I got inside the gate, I bought an official souvenir program of the race for 50¢. We then walked slowly toward the pedestrian viaduct under the start-finish line and observed everything around us as we were walking. After a long walk, we finally reached the viaduct. We turned right, took the dark walk under the track, and came out on the infield. For a few minutes, we walked around and saw some of the garages, cars, mechanics, spectators, concession stands, and other items that are typical of the Speedway on Memorial Day morning. Dad and Bobby decided they’d seen everything they wanted to see and went to their seats while I looked around a little more. I took a couple pictures while I was by myself. About 9:45, I thought I’d better get to my seat so that I wouldn’t miss anything happening on the track. I didn’t have any trouble finding my seat, and in a couple of minutes, I sat down and was ready to take in everything.
At 10:00, pit crews began pushing their respective cars to their starting positions on the track. The tension and excitement were beginning to mount. While this was going on, the Purdue University band played On the Banks of the Wabash. The Purdue band and marching team were doing their usual outstanding job of parading up and down the main straightaway prior to the race.
About 10:15, all the celebrities present from the entertainment world started touring the track in official Ford Thunderbird cars. Among those present were John Provost, Connie Stevens, Diane McBain, and several others. In addition to these, the Queen of the 500 Festival also rode in a car.
Between 10:15 and 10:30, some of the old Speedway race cars toured the track and were driven by the same men who used to drive them in the 500 mile race. One of the cars was the Marmon Special with Ray Harroun the driver, which won the first 500 mile race held on May 30th, 1911. While all of this was going on, the PA system was being used to interview various drivers, mechanics, officials, and celebrities.
At 10:40, the huge crowd of 200,000 or more rose to its feet as the Star-Spangled Banner was played. Everyone was really getting excited now with the big moment only a few minutes away. At 10:45, the band played Taps as everybody paid homage to those men who lost their lives in racing. At 10:50, the familiar Back Home Again in Indiana was sung and played. This is always the last song before the race. Just seconds after this, thousands of multicolored balloons were released into the sky from behind the Tower Terrace. A couple of seconds later, the announcer said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, here is that moment you’ve all been waiting for – Mr. Tony Hulman, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.” Tony reached over to the microphone and repeated those four famous words, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
A couple seconds later, the 33 engines started roaring. There was so much noise now, all of it pleasant of course, that you could hardly hear the person next to you talking. Everybody was standing on their feet now trying to see the cars.
About one minute later, the pace car started moving slowly. Sam Hanks was the driver, and Tony Hulman sat on the right side of the front seat. One by one, the big cars were pushed away by their crews. About two minutes later, the Thunderbird pace car came onto the front straightaway with the eleven rows of cars behind it. The perfect formation of the field as it come down the straightaway made a beautiful sight, and the crowd showed its happiness by cheering and waving and many of the drivers responded by waving their hands and arms and smiling at the spectators.
One more time around and the race would start. People were shouting, biting their fingernails, standing on their seats, and waiting out those long seconds before they see the pace car again, and a few seconds later it appeared. Another cheer came from the crowd. The pace car was traveling quite fast, and the 33 starters were still in perfect formation as they picked up speed quickly for the flying start. The pace car pulled into the pit area, Bill Vandewater displayed the green flag, and the race was on.
Eddie Sachs, starting on the pole position, was the first driver into the turn, only slightly ahead of Jim Hurtubise. Going down the back straightaway, Hurtubise passed Sachs. At the end of lap one, Hurtubise and Sachs were still running one and two. Hurtubise led for about the next 20 laps.
With only three laps gone, Don Branson, second-place starter, pulled into the pits and was through for the day with valve trouble. The lead changed hands several times after Hurtubise relinquished it. Among the leaders were Jim Rathman and Troy Ruttman.
At the end of about 50 laps, there was a chain-reaction crash on the front straightaway involving several cars. It started when rookie Don Davis started spinning right in front of us. He hit the outside retaining wall twice and spun around in circles down to about the starting line. Several drivers, trying to avoid Davis, suddenly applied their brakes and started spinning also. A few that weren’t spinning were hit by some of those who were spinning. Jack Turner suddenly took to the air. His car flipped end over end as it went high into the air and then came down, still flipping end over end, and landed right side up. None of the drivers were hurt, but several of them were shaken up a little bit. In addition to Davis and Turner, Bill Cheesbourg, A.J. Sheppard and Roger McCluskey were also in the wreck. The yellow flag came out immediately, and track attendants started cleaning up the mess of metal, oil, gasoline, and rubber. It certainly was a relief to know none of the drivers were hurt. About 15 to 20 minutes later, the debris was cleared away and the green flag came out again.
New records were being set for almost every lap. As lap after lap became history, pit stops became more numerous. Jim Rathman’s car was retired early with mechanical trouble. About halfway through the race, Troy Ruttman retired for the day with clutch trouble. Ruttman led the race for several laps and set a new record for the fastest lap ever run during the race — 147+ mph.
At about the 150-lap mark, Eddie Johnson lost control of his car in the northwest turn. He hit the outside, then the inside retaining wall. Although Eddie wasn’t hurt at all and the car only slightly, they were both finished for the day. It also brought out the yellow flag for the second and what turned out to be the last time.
As the race went into the final laps, it became a battle between A. J. Foyt and Eddie Sachs for the lead. It was turning out to be like last year’s fight between Rodger Ward and Jim Rathman. One would lead for a couple laps and then the other one would take over for a couple laps. Also like last year, they were setting records on almost every lap. The crowd was really enjoying the battle. Some were for Foyt, some for Sachs, and many didn’t care one way or the other. I leaned toward Sachs because he had started in all the past five races, four times in the front row, but hadn’t finished the race once. This would be a good place to finish for the first time.
On the 192nd lap, Foyt had to make an unexpected stop for fuel. Something went wrong on his pit stop just before this one, and he only received about half the fuel he should have received. Sachs would be the winner now. Foyt wouldn’t be able to make up the time he lost during his pit stop. The laps were becoming fewer and fewer – 193, 194, 195, 196.
Then came lap 197. I looked up and saw the white No. 12 driven by Sachs streaking down the pit area. One of his tires had to be changed, even though he was only three laps from victory. Sachs’ crew worked frantically so that they could still get out in first place, but Foyt passed the starting line and went into the lead to stay. Once again, lady luck had gone sour on Eddie Sachs. He gave it all he had on those last three laps, but time had run out. Foyt crossed the finish line less than eight seconds ahead of Sachs. Eddie remarked after the race, “I’d rather be second than maybe dead.”
Foyt’s winning average was 139.131 mph, a new record. Rodger Ward was third and Shorty Templeton fourth. A few minutes later after he pulled into Victory Lane, Foyt and his wife were driven around the track in the pace car. The big race was over now, and for the second consecutive year, it had really been a thriller. We stayed in our seats until all the cars were off the track and all the interviews had been finished.
Now we had the big job of getting out of the place. We went out the same way we came in, except of course we went the other way. Right before we went out the main gate, I bought a flash edition of one of the Indianapolis newspapers. The headlines said Foyt won the race and there were pictures of the wreck on the front straightaway. After fighting the mammoth crowd, we at last got back to our car. We opened the windows and doors and then lay down and rested a while. I took several pictures with my camera to fill out the roll. Then I went back to the car and we all had something to eat and drink. We also read the papers a little bit and listened to the radio. We got everything back into order, and at 3:55, we bid a sad goodbye to everything and left for home.
Dad drove all the way. I sat in the front seat and Bobby in the back seat. The traffic wasn’t too bad. Soon, we hit Route 36 and turned right. We crossed the state line about 6:15 and stopped at Chrisman about 6:30. As usual, we were really hungry. We had a good, hot meal, which made us feel better. When we finished eating we used the restroom, and at 6:29 we left. It was shortly after 8:30 when we arrived home. We took everything out of the car and brought it in the house. Then we sat down and rested for a few minutes and washed up a little bit.
The big event was over for this year, and it surely had been a wonderful race. We couldn’t have asked for a much better one. The weather was wonderful. There was hardly a cloud in the sky from the time we left until we got home, and there was no rain at all the entire trip. This was the first trip we had taken that I could recall it didn’t rain at any time. It got pretty cool at night. It got down to 40°, which seemed usually cool.
For the eighth time, I had seen the Indianapolis 500 mile auto race, the world’s greatest sport spectacle and the largest single-day sporting event anywhere, and as usual, I had thoroughly enjoyed the trip to the utmost.
Pace Car — Ford Thunderbird