The month of May 1966 at Indianapolis was highlighted by my first trip to the time trials, the activities of Mario Andretti, cool weather, and one of the oddest and most frustrating races in history.
I, along with Bobby, Dad, and my girlfriend, Dixie Mohr, saw the first day of time trials on Saturday, May 14th. We went in my 1960 Chevrolet, leaving Springfield at 5:00 that morning and arriving home at 11:15 that night. It was a cool, windy day, and we struggled all day long to keep warm. As was expected, Mario Andretti won the pole position with a record four lap average of 165.899 mph.
The day was saddened somewhat by the death of driver Chuck Rodee. Chuck was on the second lap of his trial run when he lost control of his car and crashed into the outer wall on the southwest turn. He died shortly afterwards of head injuries. At 6:00, activity ended and the front row was made up of Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, and George Snider.
On the evening of May 28th, Dad gave me the bad news that he wouldn’t be able to go to the race because Mother was sick and he didn’t want to leave her here by herself when she felt that way. I couldn’t picture myself going to the race without him, and he later said he might be able to make it after all. It all depended on how Mother felt when we were ready to leave on Sunday.
On Sunday, Mother felt better, and Dad decided that he would be able to go. That really made me feel a lot better. We ate a good dinner and then put our usual large amount of supplies into the car. This was the first time that we used Dad’s 1963 Chevrolet, which he had bought just a couple weeks before. We checked to make sure we had everything we needed, and at 1:40, we started on our annual Memorial Day trip.
As always, we took Route 36 and arrived at Chrisman at 3:40. We ate at a new establishment called the Colonial Kitchen. The four of us had eaten breakfast and supper there two weeks before when we went to the time trials and were pleased with the food. This time, we had just a cup of coffee, and I had a dish of orange sherbet ice cream.
At 4:10, we started the second part of our trip. I always enjoy seeing the pretty green trees along the highway in Indiana, and this year was no exception. We stopped at the Standard Service Station at Route 36 and Lynhurst Drive and had the gas tank filled and then continued on our way. We arrived at Kramer’s at Crawfordsville Road and Fisher Street at 6:00 PM. Once again, we had made the trip over without any trouble.
We talked to Mr. Kramer for a few minutes and then decided to eat a little bit of the food we had brought. It seemed quite cool and windy, and Dad remarked that if this continued, it was going to be a cold night. His prediction was right. One of the first things I noticed was a beer party of several young couples a little to our right. They seemed to have a pretty good start on getting drunk, and I became concerned for fear of what they would be like later in the evening. All of the other people in our parking lot were quiet and well-behaved. Although we had eaten a big dinner just before we left and had a snack at Chrisman, the food still tasted real good. When we finished eating, we cleaned up and put everything away and then got ready to take a walk down by the Speedway.
The view on Crawfordsville Road was different than that of two years ago. There were no long lines of cars stretching for several blocks, although there were several cars parked in the ditches by the road. When we reached the intersection of Crawfordsville Road, 16th Street, and Georgetown Road, the traffic was quite heavy. We managed to reach the sidewalk leading to the museum. There was a long line of people but the line moved well, and before too long we had gotten inside the museum.
The contents of the museum looked about the same as usual, although I noticed a few changes. I always enjoy looking at the old cars and all the other displays. I bought a couple postcards at the sales counter. The ticket office was open, and there were several people either trying to buy or sell tickets for the race. When we left, there was still a long line of people waiting to get into the museum.
As we walked back to the car, we noticed that the crowd was becoming larger and larger, and it was looking more and more like the night before the 500. Among the scenes were the usual beer parties, musical jamborees, and high school and college students making fools of themselves.
We arrived back at the car and got ready to eat supper. Our meal consisted of baked beans, bacon, salad and dressing, bananas, potato chips, with coffee and milk to drink. It was a good meal, and it was enough to last me until breakfast the next morning. We washed the dishes, put everything away, and got ready to take a walk down by the Speedway. The Standard station, just a block from our car, was doing a good coffee business due to the cool weather.
When we reached the Speedway, we continued walking east of the north side of 16th Street. The drunkards, rowdies, and other undesirables were out in full force now. The Speedway Motel looked as if it was doing a good business. We went under the viaduct, stopped at the stop light, and then crossed over to the south side of the street. As we started walking the other way, I noticed that the traffic was bumper-to-bumper in every lane and that many of the people in the cars were behaving just as badly as many of those on foot. Firecrackers were going off all over, and beer bottles and cans were being thrown everywhere. The sober pedestrians had to be real careful about where they were walking and be constantly on the lookout for pickpockets, etc.
As we approached the Holiday Inn, I noticed a large amount of white smoke rising in the air. A car had stopped at a filling station, and it was overheated and losing its water. The huge amount of smoke had attracted a large crowd, and the car was so hot that the crowd had to stand several feet away to avoid the heat.
As we continued walking, we observed the many concession standing selling cold drinks, hot dogs, hamburgers, hats, sweaters, toy race cars, and several other items. One item which we couldn’t remember from previous years was the outdoor toilets. It was necessary for me to use one, and while I did get a feeling of relief, they left much to be desired in the way of cleanliness and smell.
When we reached Crawfordsville Road, Dad and Bobby decided to return to the car and went their separate way while I took a walk down Georgetown Road. After I walked quite a while, I decided I’d seen enough of the drunkards and walked back. I walked west to Main Street, which I crossed, and then went into the drugstore on the corner.
I wanted to buy Dixie Mohr some souvenirs and thought this would be a good place to find some. I bought a change and cosmetic purse, a head scarf, and a yellow pennant, all with pictures of race cars, drivers, the Speedway, and the state of Indiana on them.
I walked a short distance down Main Street but there was nothing going on, so I headed back to where I started. I walked west on 16th Street, but there wasn’t much activity there, either. When I reached Crawfordsville Road, I decided to return to the car.
It was rather quiet in the area of the car, but the noise from a short distance away was plainly audible. I didn’t want to wake Dad and Bobby, but the noise of the door opening and the bright light did wake them. I took off my shoes, put one blanket under me and one around me, and tried to go to sleep. In addition to the noise and the cramped quarters, we had the cold weather to contend with in trying to sleep.
I slept off and on until 4:00 when I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. I made the best of the uncomfortable situation, but I just couldn’t sleep. At 5:00, with the brighter part of the day just beginning, the opening bomb went off and the Speedway officially opened for race day. In a couple minutes, Bobby and Dad ended their brief sleep as well.
I got out of the car to loosen up a bit and noticed that the cold weather was still with us. Most of the people around us were still trying to sleep and looked just as cold as we were. I had bought several newspapers, so we turned on the radio to hear what was going on in the world and read the newspapers at the same time. A majority of the news in the newspapers pertained to the race, and the radio stations were giving periodic reports of traffic conditions at the Speedway.
About 5:30, Bobby and I decided to take our walk down to Gate 6 and watch the cars go into the infield parking lot. Dad wanted to get some more sleep, so he didn’t go with us. We stopped at the Standard Station so that Bobby could use the restroom. While she was in there, I had a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Every year, the station sells coffee, and with the cold weather this year, the coffee business was real good. By the time Bobby got out of the restroom, I was ready for my second cup, so I bought two cups and we drank them as we continued walking toward the Speedway. We turned onto Georgetown Road and walked the long distance to Gate 6. The same policeman was directing the traffic into the infield as had been doing it for the past several years. At one time, the traffic got held up quite a ways back, and the policeman, unhappy with the proceedings, took a walk to find the cause of trouble. For several minutes, the traffic didn’t move, but we didn’t know why. After a long time, the trooper returned, and the traffic moved again. By 7:00, the biggest rush was over and the traffic thinned out a little. When this happened, we walked back to the car and got ready for breakfast.
Dad and I helped set up the outdoor oven while Bobby selected the food we were to eat. The smell of eggs and bacon cooking on an outdoor grill increased my appetite and made the food more enjoyable. In addition to the eggs and bacon, we had coffee, bananas, potato chips, salad, sweet rolls, and a couple other items. The cold weather must have made us hungrier than usual because we ate everything we cooked and quite a bit of the other food. When we felt we had had enough, we cleaned up our mess. Bobby had brought some liquid soap, so she used that plus water from the faucet on the side of the house to wash the dishes. It was a little confusing trying to arrange the oven, blankets, cots, pillows, and picnic baskets neatly, but we managed to do so and have room for everything.
With that big job done, we started on the next job of rounding up everything we were taking to the Speedway. Our equipment included the camera, film for the camera, field glasses, sunglasses, a Thermos jug of coffee, a few sandwiches, and most important of all — the tickets. We wore our head gear and jackets. We double-checked to make sure we had everything, then locked the car and started walking to the Speedway.
If we thought we were loaded down with equipment, it was almost nothing compared to what many of the people had with them. Some of them would not be hungry or thirsty for a long time. As we got closer to the three-way intersection, there seemed to be a larger number of people trying to sell and buy tickets than any year I could remember. We got into the crushing mob of people, presented our tickets to the gateman, and walked inside the Speedway grounds.
I bought three Speedway souvenir programs, and then we resumed our walking. Dad and Bobby used the first restroom we came to while I watched our equipment, and when they finished, we switched jobs. Because of the cold weather, the many concession stands along the way were doing a good coffee business and a poor cold drink business. As I observed the thousands of people along the way, I wondered how those who were wearing shorts could wear them on such a cold day. At the end of our long walk, we reached the viaduct, turned right, and walked underneath the track to the infield. The traffic moving through the viaduct moved right along, which it hadn’t always done in previous years. We walked up into daylight again and turned left to go to our seats.
It was at this time that Dad made a horrible discovery. He reached in his back pocket for his billfold and discovered it wasn’t there. He checked the ground in the immediate vicinity but didn’t find anything. Neither Bobby nor I had it, and Dad thought maybe he had left it in the car, although he knew of no reason why he would do so. He told us to go on to our seats and he would try to find somebody who could help him. He talked to a Speedway patrolman who in turn gave Dad’s name and address to the Speedway office. They told Dad they would notify him if they learned anything about his billfold, but that was the last he heard about it.
While Dad went to report his billfold, Bobby and I found our seats in the Tower Terrace Extension, section 1, row R, seats 11, 12, and 13. They were the last three seats on the left end of our row. The weather was still uncertain. It was still cool and windy, and the sun broke through only occasionally.
Pit crews were busy working on their cars as the time slowly ran out. Some of the engines were being run. Some of the drivers who had pits near us included Eddie Johnson, Larry Dickson, Bobby Unser, Jim Hurtubise, and Mel Kenyon. A look up and down the main straightaway presented a panorama of humanity, beauty, and sights unmatched anywhere. Many high school and college bands were parading on the straightaway.
At 10:00, the Purdue University band played On the Banks of the Wabash. This was an indication that there was only one hour left before the start of the race and the time had come for the cars to be lined up. As the cars were pushed back through the pit area entrance and forward to their starting positions, a big smile came across my face as it does every year at this time.
While all of this was happening, the many entertainment celebrities were being driven around the track in official Mercury cars. Among the famous people were astronaut Frank Borman, newscaster Walter Cronkite, Miss U.S.A. Susan Downey, 500 Festival Queen Suzi Harrison, singer Ed Ames, and TV actress Barbara Eden.
At 10:30, chief steward Harlan Fengler and other USAC officials made their final inspection trip of the track. The band played The Star-Spangled Banner at 10:40, and at 10:45, the purpose of Memorial Day was remembered as the band played the solemn Taps. At the end of Taps, the Speedway announcer paid tribute to those past 500-mile race winners who had died while racing. The enormous crowd of 300,000 persons rose to its feet again at 10:50 as the band played Back Home Again in Indiana.
As the band finished playing, the tension reached its peak as everybody knew it was only a matter of seconds until the big roar. The first series of balloons was released from a tent behind the tower as the Speedway announcer announced that it was time for Speedway president Tony Hulman to say those four famous words. Tony pulled the mike to his mouth and said loud and clear, “GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES!”
A huge roar came from the crowd as the 33 engines came to life. The smell of gasoline and the roar of the engines filled the air with excitement. The drivers continued to rev up their engines, and then the Mercury Comet pace car, with Benson Ford driving and Tony Hulman accompanying him, slowly started moving.
One by one, the cars moved out until only one was left. That one was rookie Carl Williams, whose car wouldn’t start. His crew borrowed a starter from another car, and within seconds his engine had turned over. When he was pushed away, he received a big ovation from the crowd and then had to hurry to get into his 25th starting position.
Everybody was standing and nervously waiting for the field to come out of the fourth turn and down the straightaway. As usual, it seemed like ages until it did, and when the pace car appeared, a big cheer went up from the crowd. Within a few seconds, the eleven rows of three each were moving by us and starting the official pace lap. The chatter of the crowd increased as the last row went by. The field disappeared into the first turn and then the announcer followed them around the track.
About two minutes later, the pace car sped out of the fourth turn and headed for the pit area. The roar of both the crowd and the cars increased as the field approached the starting line. As the first few rows zoomed by us, starter Pat Vidan waved the green flag and the race was on.
Mario Andretti took the lead but had hardly reached the first turn when one of the biggest pileups in the history of the Speedway occurred. We could see smoke, fire, tires flying through the air, and many cars spinning wildly. The yellow flag came out immediately, and about a minute or so later, the red flag was displayed. For the second time in three years, the race was stopped before it had hardly started. Early reports said the mess started when Billy Foster’s car made contact with that of Gordon Johncock. Foster may have been trying to advance too quickly.
The drivers eliminated from the race by the pileup included A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Billy Foster, Arnold Knepper, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Grim, Al Miller, Larry Dickson, Don Branson, Ronnie Duman, and Gary Congdon. Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, Carl Williams, Bud Tingelstad, and Mel Kenyon had their cars damaged but not enough to be eliminated from the race. They returned to their pits and had their cars repaired. Al Miller’s car caught on fire, but he was already out of it. Foyt’s car hit the outside wall, but he was out of it before it stopped and jumped into a front-row grandstand seat for protection. Miraculously, he was the only driver injured, and that included only a cut finger and bruised knee.
The track maintenance crew went to work immediately and spread lime over the area of the mishap. It was a horrible sight to see, and I was frightened by the thought of what could have happened. Andretti was the first one out of the fourth turn and had his left arm raised high to indicate he was aware of what had happened. He stopped at the starting line, turned the engine off, and got out of the car. Those drivers behind him did likewise.
The race had gotten off to a horrible start, and the reaction of the crowd was a mixture of fright, frustration, and restlessness. The restlessness was caused by not having anything to do during the hour and fifteen minutes it took to clean up the track. At 12:07, USAC officials took an inspection tour of the track, and at 12:17, the remaining cars were started. They were lined up in single file, and the race was restarted after one pace lap under the yellow flag.
The yellow flag remained out until the fire-fighting powder had settled. When the officials were convinced that everything was alright, the green flag came out.
On his first lap under the green flag, Johnny Boyd slid in the first turn, hit the outside wall, lost two wheels, and was out of the race.
Following Boyd’s accident, Jim Hurtubise was black-flagged, and Bud Tingelstad left the race with radiator trouble. Hurtubise left his pit but returned later and left the race after 27 laps.
The race had hardly restarted when smoke started coming out of the rear of Andretti’s car. He was in the lead but dropped to second behind Jim Clark and left the race after 27 laps. It was a big disappointment to the fans. He had put on a one-man show all month long but had failed when it counted the most.
Before Andretti left the race, Chuck Hulse and George Snider tangled with each other in the southeast corner, and both of them were out of the race.
At the end of 40 laps, 100 miles, the first ten were Clark, Ruby, Jones, McElreath, Ward, McCluskey, Grant, Hill, Kenyon, and Stewart.
Clark came into the pits on the 64th lap, and Lloyd Ruby became the leader. Ruby pitted on the 74th lap, and Clark regained the lead. A few laps later, Ruby took the lead from Clark, and at the halfway mark, it was Ruby, Clark, Stewart, McCluskey, McElreath, Al Unser, Hill, Eddie Johnson, Kenyon, and Johncock.
After 150 laps, Carl Williams, Rodger Ward, Parnelli Jones, and Roger McCluskey had left the race with mechanical problems, and only 12 cars were left. Any driver whose car held up was certain to finish high in the standings.
Gordon Johncock and Al Unser had been running side-by-side for a good part of the race, but near the end of the race, Unser crashed into the outer wall as he was coming down the main straightaway and was out of the race. He lost a tire, and it started rolling down the track. A couple drivers hit the tire and almost lost control of their cars. Luckily, the tire landed up against the outer wall and didn’t cause any more trouble.
On his 166th lap, Ruby joined those who had to leave the race. Lloyd led several laps of the race but was unable to go all the way.
Later on, Joe Leonard and Eddie Johnson departed from the activity with faulty running cars. Eddie’s car had been running badly for several laps, but he couldn’t go any further.
As the 190th lap approached, it looked as if the first three finishers were going to be foreigners. Rookie Jackie Stewart was leading with Graham Hill and Jimmy Clark in second and third places. Then, it was noticed that Stewart was late in completing his next lap. A few seconds later, he coasted to a stop in the northwest turn, got out of the car, and walked down the straightaway to his pit. It was a tough break, but he had made an excellent showing in his first 500-mile race.
Graham Hill took the lead and was able to stay ahead of Jim Clark for 10 laps to win the race. When Hill received the checkered flag, it did not end the confusion of the race. Clark thought he was the winner, and upon receiving the checkered flag, he drove down the pit apron to Victory Lane. It was, of course, already occupied, so his pit crew pushed him back to his pit.
By this time, Jim McElreath had finished third and Gordon Johncock fourth. Hill, Clark, McElreath, and Johncock were the only drivers to go the complete 500 miles. Mel Kenyon was fifth but did not get to run his last two laps. Bobby Unser and Jerry Grant were the only other drivers still running, but they were too far behind to complete the 200 laps and were given the red flag. Jackie Stewart was awarded sixth place, Eddie Johnson seventh, Bobby Unser eighth, Joe Leonard ninth, and Jerry Grant tenth.
By the time the last car pulled off the track, many of the fans were already leaving. Dad went to check on his billfold again and Bobby left for the car, but I stayed a few minutes longer. We agreed to meet at the car.
When the Victory Lane ceremony was finished, Graham Hill was driven around the Speedway in the Mercury Comet pace car for the acclamation of the fans. By the time he returned to the pit area, the other cars were being pushed to the garage area, so I gathered up my belongings, looked up and down the straightaway, and said goodbye to the track for another year.
I left the Speedway the same way I entered it. I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the traffic moved through the viaduct. My joy ended when I left the viaduct and arrived behind the grandstands. For some reason, the crowd stopped moving, and it became a crushing mass of humanity. For some reason, nobody moved at all. Already tired, upset, and frustrated by the race, several people lost their patience and profanity became prevalent. I, too, was becoming impatient and was wondering if Dad and Bobby were worrying about me. The exodus from the race is always bad, but this was the first time I could remember the people not being able to move for such a long time. A few climbed over the fence that parallels Georgetown Road. The long, frustrating wait finally ended, and the crowd started moving again. I don’t know what the bottleneck was, but I was real happy when it was removed and I could walk again.
From this point on, the traffic moved real well. Before leaving the Speedway grounds, I bought a copy of The Indianapolis News. It was the latest edition and had the story of Graham Hill’s victory in addition to several other good stories about the race. I fought the usual battle with the auto traffic on Crawfordsville Road and finally managed to get back to the car.
The first thing I did was explain to Dad and Bobby why I was so late. Then I took off my shoes and relaxed my hot, tired feet. We read some of our newspapers, listened to the radio, and ate some of the food we had left. I hadn’t eaten much since breakfast, and it really tasted good. We were waiting for bumper-to-bumper traffic to thin out so that we could get started home, but it wasn’t doing so. Usually, by this time after the race, the traffic has let up, but not this year. We finally decided we’d have to get going and just inch our way through it if necessary.
We made sure we hadn’t left anything behind, locked all the doors, and then I started the car. The traffic on Fisher Street was also real heavy, so my first job was getting into it. Inch by inch, I finally got into it and then had a hard time getting onto Crawfordsville Road. The policemen were directing the traffic going west but were ignoring the cars trying to get onto the main road. Several minutes passed until I got into the westbound traffic. Then, somehow, I had to get into the left-hand lane so that I could turn. One driver was courteous and let me in, but then I made a mistake and turned too soon. I realized what I had done, but it was too late to turn back, so I just kept going. We were going in the right direction, and the traffic moved real well. When we reached 10th Street, I turned right and went back to Lynhurst Drive. I turned left, and we were on the right road again. The traffic the rest of the way to Route 36 was bad but no worse than it usually is. At the intersection, we turned right and were on the road home.
The traffic from here on moved faster than it normally does. It had thinned out considerably, and we were hitting most of the green lights at stop lights. We were pleasantly surprised at how well the traffic moved all through Indiana. We crossed the state line shortly after 7:15 and about 10 minutes later arrived at the Colonial Kitchen.
It felt good to walk around a little bit, sit in an air-conditioned building, and eat a good supper. We went through the serving line and picked out as much as we thought we could eat and then sat down. There were several other people there who had been to the race, too. They were easy to identify. The food was real good, and we ate until we couldn’t eat anymore. Before we left, we used the restrooms, and then we decided to be on our way. It was between 7:55 and 8:00 when we left.
As we continued on Route 36, we saw some of the same sights we see every year coming home — a few farmers still working in their fields, children playing among themselves, and some people sitting on their porches or in their yards watching the traffic go by. The traffic became heavier and the lights brighter as we approached Decatur. We arrived in the city shortly after 9:00. There is always much activity there. The traffic moved well, and within a few minutes we left the city and were on the last stretch of the drive home. We covered the distance in 30-45 minutes and arrived at the back door to our house at precisely 10:00. It took us two hours to get from Chrisman to Springfield, which is several minutes less than it usually takes.
We didn’t feel like unpacking everything right then, so since it was unnecessary, we left everything in the car and unpacked it the next day. We came on in the house, and Bobby and Dad talked to Mother and Susie about the activity of the last two days, and I got washed up and prepared to go see Dixie Mohr. The big event was finished for another year.
The 1966 500-mile race is history now, but many events happened this year which will cause it to be remembered for a long time. Two drivers, Mario Andretti and Graham Hill, were the big names this year. From the day the track opened until race day, Andretti dominated the scene. His speed was consistently higher than anybody else’s, and his record qualifying speed labeled him the man to win the race on Memorial Day. Unfortunately, Lady Luck was absent when Mario needed her the most, and he finished a disappointing 18th. Whether he would have done better if the first lap pile-up hadn’t occurred is a debatable subject.
Graham Hill made big news, not only because he won the race but also because he was a foreign driver and was the first rookie to win the race since 1927. He led only 10 laps of the race, but he was in front on the important 200th lap. If Jackie Stewart had remained in the race, the first three finished would have been foreigners.
The first-lap pile-up is the most talked about feature of this year’s race. At first, Billy Foster was blamed for it, but now there seems to be the opinion that no one driver was responsible. Graham Hill suggested that a new method of starting the race might help. I don’t think that is necessary. They have used this kind of start in every other race, and I think they can continue to do so.
Another disappointing feature of the race was the large number of cars forced to leave the race because of mechanical trouble. There are always some cars that break down, but this year it was irritating to see one car after another drop out.
On the personal side, there were reasons that made this year one to remember. The possibility of Dad not going to the race put a damper on everything before we even started packing. It was hard for me to picture myself going to the race without Dad. On my dates with Dixie Mohr on Saturday night and Sunday morning, that unpleasant thought was hanging over me, and it was with great relief that I came home Sunday afternoon and found Dad packing some of his belongings into the car. I was so relieved that I called Dixie and gave her the good news.
The weather was another factor that made us uneasy this year. The threat of rain existed from the time we left home through the end of the race. The cool air and the steady breeze made it a cool trip. I put my jacket on when I got out of the car upon arriving at Kramer’s and didn’t take it off until we left for home. I slept in it and wore it through the entire race. The sun was in and out of the clouds all day Monday, and I kept hoping that if it was going to rain it would wait until the race was finished.
The loss of Dad’s billfold was another unpleasant feature of this year’s trip. I think from now on he will follow my practice of keeping his billfold in one of his front pockets.
Despite the several unpleasant events that occurred this year, I’m still glad we went. The unpleasantries weren’t great enough to prevent us from having a good time as we always do. The 500-mile race still has a unique atmosphere of beauty and excitement that causes thousands of persons to return to it year after year. It is an atmosphere unlike anything else in the world, and I am one of those thousands of persons who return year after year. I plan to continue doing so.
Pace Car — Mercury Comet
500 Festival Queen — Suzy Harrison