Indy journal: 1968

Historic Indy 500 journals — By on June 15, 2008 3:00 pm
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Record qualification runs by two turbine cars, a large amount of rain, fine showings by several rookies, and a three-way battle for the race lead were among the highlights of this year’s activity at the Speedway.

On Saturday, May 18th, Bobby, Dad, wife Dixie, and I drove over in our 1967 Chevrolet to see the first day of the time trials. It was somewhat different from the two previous times we had gone. The crowd was the largest ever for a qualifying day, and as a result, we had a hard time finding seats, as did many other people. After much walking, we finally sat in Grandstand C. It was a warm, sunny day, and we were in the open, whereas the other two years it was cold and windy and we were under a roof.

We sat down just as the practice period ended, and we were hardly settled when Graham Hill went out in the No. 70 turbine car and set a new qualifying record of 171.208. He was also the first driver to ever turn a lap over 170 mph. Several other drivers qualified, and then Joe Leonard went out in the No. 60 turbine car and broke Hill’s record with a four-lap average of 171.559 and a one-lap average of 171.953. Art Pollard qualified the other turbine car at 166.297 to make the day a memorable one for Andy Granatelli and his crew. Fifteen cars qualified for the race, and at 6:00, the gun sounded and track activity was completed for the day.

The heavy traffic made it difficult to get going, but we finally made it. We stopped at Chrisman for a good supper and arrived home shortly after 11:00 to complete a day that had begun at 3:30 that morning for me.

The morning of Wednesday, May 29th was dark, windy, and cool with rain threatening to come down at any moment. It was about 11:45 when I arrived to pick up Dad and Bobby. I ate a quick dinner while Dad and Bobby got everything packed into the car.

We just barely got away from the house when rain drops started falling. I stopped at the Lincoln Center to buy film for the camera, and then we were on our way. The rain was coming harder and harder, and after going through Dawson, we were forced to slow down because of poor visibility. It didn’t rain in Decatur but started again a couple miles out of town. It rained lightly off and on until we stopped at Chrisman. The large amount of land under water along the way was an indication of what the weather had been like. At Chrisman, we had a sweet roll and a cup of coffee, used the restroom, and then resumed our trip. We ran into an occasional shower in Indiana but nothing real heavy.

We stopped at the filling station for gas and arrived at Kramer’s at 4:30. The traffic on Lynhurst Drive had been quite heavy. We talked with Mr. Kramer for a few minutes and then walked down to the Speedway Museum and went through it. There was a long line of people, but it moved pretty well. There are always a few changes in the displays, and this year was no exception. It’s always interesting to see the old race cars.

There was plenty of food for supper, and we were full when we finished. Our meal included hamburgers, potato chips, bananas, salad, sweet rolls, and other goodies. As we were eating, we noticed that some of the people around us were eating, too, and that the crowd was getting larger.

When we finished eating, we cleaned up our mess and then read some of the newspapers we had. I wanted to go take a walk down 16th Street to see what was happening, but Dad and Bobby remained at the car. They thought it would be too wet and cool for walking around.

Many people were wrapped up in blankets trying to keep warm while others kept warm by bonfires. The dirt sidewalk along 16th Street was wet and muddy, and that left little room for walking.

The high school and college students were making big fools of themselves as they always do with their drinking and reckless driving. It’s an unpleasant situation that mars a good time for other people. I walked down to the Firestone Building and crossed the street. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and the sound of squealing tires was quite common due to the sudden stops caused by the traffic. There were a couple rear-end collisions, but they were minor.

I shopped around in the drug store at 16th and Main Streets for some newspapers and something to take home to Dixie, but I didn’t have much luck. I tried a couple other drug stores, but they didn’t have much, either.

I lived dangerously and managed to get back across Crawfordsville Road and onto Georgetown Road. Because the traffic was so bad and there was so much mud and water, I walked only a short distance and turned around and started back to the car.

As I neared a filling station, I heard pleasant organ music coming from somewhere. I looked around and saw it was coming from the service area of the filling station. They had set up an organ there, and a young girl was doing a good job of playing it. There were a dozen or so onlookers, and as she played, they sang the words. Everyone had a good time, and I stayed there about half an hour, when the girl quit playing. Then I walked on back to the car.

The car was locked, so I had to wake Bobby so that she could give me the keys. I got the cot out of the trunk and then returned the keys and locked the car. I put one blanket under me and two on top of me, enough to protect me from the cool weather, cover my head, and shut out a little noise. I slept behind the car.

To our right, there were some men having a beer party, and the noise they made made sleeping a hard job. In addition to that noise, I couldn’t go to sleep also because of my night before the 500 excitement. The fact that I was trying to sleep made no difference to the men.

I lay for a long time with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t shut out the noise. A couple times, the men quieted down for a minute or so, but then they would start over again. Somehow I managed to get two to three hours of sleep, but that was all. I looked at my watch and it read 4:30, so I knew my sleep was probably over for the night. I sat up and looked around a little bit. There were people sleeping in cars and on the ground, and there were also those who were very much awake and were letting everybody know it. At 5:00, the opening bomb from the Speedway went off, ending our sleep for the night and opening the gates of the Speedway to the thousands of cars and fans.

The bomb awoke Bobby and Dad, and when that happened, I joined them in the car. We turned the radio on to hear the weather prediction and any reports there might be from the Speedway. Good weather was predicted for the race, but we had our doubts.

The traffic on Crawfordsville Road was bumper-to-bumper past us, and it was several minutes before it started moving. A popular form of transportation this year was buses. Because of the muddy infield, many people who usually drive into the infield did not do so and took a bus instead to the Speedway.

About 5:30, Bobby and I walked down to the Speedway to watch the cars go through Gate 6 onto the infield. It also gave Bobby a chance to stop at a filling station and use the restroom. We watched the long line until about 6:30 and then went back to the car.

Breakfast was the next order of business, so we got the food and equipment out. When Dad got the oven ready for use, Bobby put the eggs and bacon on to fry. The sound and smell of food cooking on a cool morning made me hungrier than I had been. Bobby had brought quite a bit of food, and when we finished eating, we were full. I think it also woke us up a little and made us feel better. As we ate, we listened to the radio, and a large portion of the news was concerned with the race. This included helicopter reports, weather information, and other reports concerned with the day’s activities. We also read the newspapers and commented to each other about interesting articles we read.

Little by little, the people around us were waking up, getting themselves cleaned up, eating breakfast, and leaving for the race. Some of them cooked their breakfasts just as we did.

We got our breakfast mess cleaned up, straightened up the interior of the car, made sure we had everything we needed, checked again, locked the car, and started for the Speedway. We stopped at the filling station and were disappointed to find out the people were not selling coffee as they had always done. We were looking forward to drinking a cup of coffee to warm us up, and we were unhappy at being unable to get some. Bobby used the restroom, and then we continued on our way. The Disabled Veterans were selling their poppies, and as we neared the main gate, we were approached by other vendors trying to sell us something.

The huge crowd waiting outside the main gate to get in thinned out quite a bit when it got past the ticket-takers as they spread out in several directions. I bought three souvenir programs, and then Dad and I used the restroom for the last time until the race was over.

The further we walked, the heavier the traffic became, and by the time we reached the passageway to the underground tunnel, we were being crushed on all sides. The walk through the tunnel was slow, but it kept moving and didn’t stop once. At last, we reached the end and saw daylight again. We kept walking until we came to the underpass for the north end of the track. There was water in the underpass, but we got by okay. We walked up the steps and then turned left to go to our seats.

The entrance on the north end of the Tower Terrace was our entrance, so we gave the ticket-taker our tickets and walked on in. I stepped up to the retaining fence, and a big smile spread across my face as I looked up and down the track and saw the crowd and heard the cars being fired up. It was a wonderful feeling. We found section 43 and walked up to row J and over to seats 5, 6, and 7. It took a few seconds to get ourselves and our equipment situated, but we managed.

Pit crews were busy making final checks on their cars as photographers, reporters, USAC officials, and hundreds of other people observed the action. The pit area was a busy place as the zero hour neared. The Purdue University and some other bands were putting on a fine show as they paraded on the front straightaway. The sound of the music and the many pretty colors of the band uniforms were big hits with the audience. The three of us made comments to each other about the cars, drivers, officials, celebrities, and other activities taking place. The temperature had risen considerably, and we took off our jackets to be more comfortable. The sun hadn’t appeared yet.

Some of the pit crews within our view included Larry Dickson, George Snider, Bobby Grim, Bill Vukovich II, and Gary Bettenhausen. At 10:00, the Purdue Band played On the Banks of the Wabash, and then Chief Steward Harlan Fengler told the pit crews to push their cars to their starting positions on the track. Only one hour remained. When the cars were on the track, the parade of 500 Festival Princesses and entertainment celebrities got under way. They were driven around the track in Ford Torino official cars.

Between 10:00 and 11:00, many drivers, former drivers, officials, and celebrities were interviewed over the PA system. About 10:30, USAC officials made their track inspection as the tension increased with each passing minute.

At 10:40, the huge crowd stood for the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner, and at 10:45, a moment of silence was observed as Taps was played in keeping with the meaning of Memorial Day.

The track had been cleared of all but essential personnel, and then suddenly the sun broke through the clouds, bringing a big cheer from the crowd. The mood went from one of solemnity to one of gaiety and tenseness as the final song, Back Home Again in Indiana, was played. The tension was peaking. Only a minute or so remained until the big moment.

The PA announcer introduced Speedway president Tony Hulman, and Tony distinctly announced those four electrifying words, “GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES!”

Within seconds, the air was filled with the roar of racing engines and the loud cheers of the crowd. Pit crews fanned away the gas fumes from the exhausts while the chief mechanic held up one hand to indicate his car was ready to go. A few seconds later, the pace car started moving, and one by one, the cars were pushed away. All cars got away okay, and that brought a cheer from everybody.

Everybody was standing and listening to the field tour the track and also looking at the fourth turn to see them. It seemed like a long time, but pretty soon the Ford Torino pace car appeared and, one by one, the rows behind it. The sound and color of the cars coming down the straightaway was beautiful, and they were well-applauded as they went by.

Now, the official pace lap was under way, and once again we followed the sound around the track and watched the fourth turn. The noise increased as the field moved into the turn and picked up speed for the start. William Ford drove the pace car into the pit area, Pat Vidan waved the green flag, and the race was on!

Pole man Joe Leonard in the No. 60 turbine car was the first one into the turn, followed by Bobby Unser, Andretti, Ruby, Al Unser, and Graham Hill. As the first lap was completed, Andretti and Unser had changed positions.

A big groan came from the crowd on the next lap as Andretti pulled into his pit area. His car was smoking and was out of the race. It was a bad break for one of the Speedway’s most popular drivers.

Jocken Rindt, George Snider, and Jim Hurtubise soon joined Andretti on the sidelines. Hurtubise was driving the only roadster in the race, and both it and Hurtubise were big favorites of the fans.

Leonard was still leading but not by as much as he was expected to. Bobby Unser and Ruby were close behind him. After 20 laps, Unser moved to the front to the delight of the crowd. Roger McCluskey, Larry Dickson, and Gordon Johncock were the next three drivers out of the race. With one-eighth of the race completed, seven cars were out. Mario Andretti tried to get Dickson’s car back into the race, but he had rotten luck also.

The standings now were Bobby Unser, Leonard, Ruby, and Hill. On the 41st lap, the yellow flag came out for the first time when Al Unser lost his right front tire and hit the wall in the first turn. Al was unhurt, but parts of his car were thrown on the track and Arnie Knepper, running along behind, ran over a tire and wheel and this caused him to leave the race. Another part of Unser’s car cut Gary Bettenhausen’s foot, and he was forced to retire for the day.

As the laps went by, pit stops became more numerous. Ruby worked his way into the lead by the 90th lap. Unser moved to the front and stayed there until lap 113 when Leonard took over again. At the 100-lap mark, Jerry Grant, Jim Malloy, Ronnie Bucknam, and three-time winner A.J. Foyt were also out of the race.

One the 111th lap, Graham Hill, in the No. 70 turbine car, crashed in the south straightaway. The car hadn’t been running right and was never in the fight for the lead.

The battle for the lead continued, and at 120 laps, Unser was leading again. Ruby passed Unser, but then Lloyd had to make an unscheduled pit stop which in the end prevented him from winning.

Johnny Rutherford, Wally Dallenbach, and Bud Tingelstad were the next three drivers out of competition, leaving fifteen cars in the race.

One the 164th lap, Carl Williams crashed on the back straightaway and then brought out the yellow flag for a long time. Jim McElreath retired after 179 laps because of front-end damage caused by hitting another car.

When Ruby made his unscheduled pit stop, Leonard took the lead and Bobby Unser moved into second. The yellow light was on, and it looked like a sure victory for Leonard and his unlucky car owner, Andy Granatelli, as cars are required to maintain their positions during caution periods.

The fans were getting irritated at the long caution period and were anxious to see the green flag again. Finally, on the 191st lap, just as Leonard reached the starting line, Pat Vidan waved the green flag as a loud cheer came from the crowd.

I had my eyes on Leonard’s car as the green flag was displayed and, like all the other fans, could hardly believe what I saw. Leonard was pulling off the track alongside the inner retaining wall. Everybody was going wild. I grabbed Dad’s arm and screamed in his face, “Leonard’s out of the race!” He looked at me in disbelief and immediately turned on the radio. Leonard’s crew ran to his car, but they were too late. The engine was dead, and the car was through for the day. While the front straightaway fans were watching Leonard, those on the backstretch were watching the same misfortune occur to Art Pollard in the remaining turbine. It seemed unbelievable, but it was true.

Everybody was wild with elation as Bobby Unser took charge again. If Lady Luck was present, there was no way he could lose. I was one of those happy fans, and each time Bobby completed another lap, a big smile came across my face as victory came closer and closer. As Bobby completed his 200th lap to win the race, he received an ovation from the crowd and made a safety lap around the track. As he came slowly down the straightaway and into the pit area on his way to Victory Lane, he was given a standing ovation. He was a popular winner, and he had just won the biggest race in his life.

Dan Gurney, always a favorite with the fans, drove his finest race and finished second. Dan is one of the best drivers in the world, but only once before had he been able to finish in the first 10 at Indy.

Mel Kenyon also drove a fine race and finished third. He has only one hand, but in his three Indy races, he has a fifth and a third.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year, Dennis Hulme, finished fourth again this year.

Despite his unfortunate pit stop, Lloyd Ruby finished fifth. Lloyd certainly drove one of his best Indy races ever and, with just a little bit more good luck, could have won the big money. He has been in the first 10 several times and certainly deserves to win.

Ronnie Duman has had real bad luck every year he’s been at the Speedway, but this year the luck finally changed and he took sixth place.

Seventh place went to Bill Vukovich II, a rookie this year and son of a former Speedway immortal, the 1953 and 1954 winner, Bill Vukovich. Bill gave the fans some uneasy moments about halfway through the race when he spun in the fourth turn. Johnny Rutherford and Mike Mosley also spun, but fortunately, there were no bad results. Bill’s pit area was right in front of us, and it was pleasing to see him do so well in the race. His crew gave him a warm welcome when he pulled in after he finished the race.

Rookies Mike Mosley and Sam Sessions finished eighth and ninth. Sessions came all the way up from the 31st starting position.

Veteran Bobby Grim, whose pit was also within our view, finished 10th. Bobby drove a good steady race, and only the red flag stopped him from going the 200 laps.

When the last car pulled off the track, everybody began the big job of getting out of the Speedway. We remained in our seats a few minutes to hear the drivers on the PA system and get our paraphernalia together, and then we started our long walk back to the car.

We followed the same route we took in getting to our seats. The traffic through the tunnel moved very slowly, and it was good to see light again. Instead of walking behind the grandstand, we walked down Georgetown Road, and I was sorry we did. There was only a small gate to the street, and it took a long time to get through it. There was a little more room on the street, but soon we came upon more trouble. All the buses going to the Speedway in the morning were trying to leave. With horns blasting and motors racing, they moved out. They had no regard for the thousands of persons around them. They didn’t wait for the traffic to thin out, and if anybody got in their way, it was too bad. The noise of the engines and the smell of the exhaust made everybody quite angry.

At long last, we reached Crawfordsville Road and then turned right. There were cars coming from the side streets and the parking lots, but they weren’t as bothersome as the buses were. As usual, the cars were bumper-to-bumper, and some of them were impatient to get moving. It had taken us quite a while, but we finally reached the car.

It was good to set down on a soft seat and rest a while. I took off my shoes and turned on the radio. The stations were alive with race news and traffic information. Most of the people around us were doing likewise. Looking at the traffic gave us little hope of leaving soon. I walked around in my stocking feet, and it felt good. I also took some pictures and ate a little of our food. Mrs. Kramer was on the scene and chatted about the day’s activities.

We waited quite a while for a break in the traffic, but it didn’t come. In other years it had let up a little by this time, but this time it wasn’t even moving. There was something definitely wrong somewhere, and everybody was impatiently waiting to go. The situation didn’t improve, so we decided to leave anyway. At 5:10, about an hour later then usual, we made a final check and I turned the key.

We moved a few feet to Fisher Street and then stopped. I slowly squeezed into the line and then had to do the same thing on Crawfordsville Road. Then, we sat for a long time without moving. This was about the worst we could remember it ever being. Several minutes passed before we moved, and then we had no trouble getting onto Lynhurst Drive. The traffic moved slowly but much better than it had been moving. When we got onto the highway, it moved pretty well, and that was certainly a relief.

The scenery along the highway and in the cities was the same as in other years, but I still enjoy it. Shortly before 7:00, we crossed the state line, and at 7:10, we stopped at the Colonial Kitchen.

We used the restroom first and then got ourselves a good, hot meal. Looking around at the other people and hearing them talk, we could tell a lot of them had come from the race. We took our time in eating and ate until we were full. It made us feel better to eat something and get out of the car for a while. When we finished eating, we used the restroom, paid the bill, and prepared to start the last part of our trip. It was 7:55 PM when we left, and we had stopped for 45 minutes.

Traffic was normal for Memorial Day night, and soon we reached the big chemical plant at Tuscola and commented, as we always do, about its huge size. The miles rode by as darkness descended and we talked about the race and listened to the radio. Shortly after 9:00, we drove through Decatur, the largest city on the trip, and then at almost 10:00 sharp, we arrived at Dad and Bobby’s house. They checked to see that they had everything of theirs, and then I went on home, arriving there about 10:15.

Our 1968 trip to the big race was over for another year, and once again, we arrived home safe and sound. We had seen a fine race, and there would be much to talk about for 1968 besides the race.

EPILOGUE

Each year at Indianapolis is different from every other year, and 1968 was no exception. The rain caused trouble all month long. On the second day of time trials, one car qualified, and the last day ended with the starting lineup still incomplete. It was filled the next day. Strangely enough, the first and third days were fine.

Parnelli Jones made the news when he announced he would not compete for this year’s race. He was dissatisfied with the power reduction of the turbines and felt they didn’t have a chance.

It was another bad year for the turbines. During the practice period, rookie Mike Spence was killed instantly when his turbine crashed into the wall in the first turn. Also during practice, Joe Leonard hit the wall with the No. 40 turbine that Parnelli Jones drove last year. The car was too damaged to be repaired in time, and owner Andy Granatelli announced it was being permanently retired. The excellent qualification runs of Leonard and Graham Hill renewed hope for the silent cars, but when Leonard retired with only nine laps to go in the race, the bad luck continued. The turbines have caused much controversy, and there is much doubt whether they’ll ever race again at Indy.

This was the most exciting race in several races due to the small amount of caution time and the three-way battle for the lead.

The race continues to be as popular as ever as attested to by the fact that the Speedway management continues to build more permanent seats each year and the following year every seat is filled.

Another year has come and gone, and this one had its share of frustration, disappointment, excitement, and happiness, but come May 1969, it will be repeated again in connection with the greatest single-day sports event in the world — the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

Pace Car — Ford Torino
500 Festival Queen — Marice Littlejohn

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