Most of our readers likely know by now about the exhibit of Indianapolis 500 winning cars that is now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Representing 71 victories in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, these 67 cars represent the pinnacle of achievement at the world’s greatest race course.
On paper, one can easily appreciate the splendor of this exhibit. In reality, it’s hard to even fully comprehend it.
I was one of a fortunate handful of persons invited to view the exhibit on Saturday evening before it opened to the public. For just over an hour, about 15 people roamed freely throughout the exhibit to photograph the cars and view them from literally behind the ropes without having crowds in every direction. Among those in attendance were former Indianapolis 500 champions Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Al Unser Jr., Dario Franchitti, Arie Luyendyk, and Gil de Ferran.
I had very high expectations for this exhibit as it has been played up for several months. But as it turns out, my expectations were nowhere near high enough!
The first thing I noticed immediately was the variety of colors on the winning cars, particularly bthose from pre-1991. In old Indianapolis 500 radio broadcasts, the announcers always emphasized the colors of the cars and the myriad of shades that far exceed those in a rainbow. This was immediately evident upon casting my first glance out over the assembled winners. It’s been said there has never been a red or a blue car at Indianapolis. Seeing these great machines in person makes one quickly realize why they were cherry red, or sky blue, or pearl white, or day-glow orange. To see 33 of these beautiful machines lined up together on the track must have truly been a spectacle to behold.
At some point in my time there, I found myself in the section of the museum displaying the winning cars from 1911 through 1961 (the portion of the building near the theater, for those familiar with the layout of the IMS Museum). I thought I was alone in the area but then soon noticed Bobby Unser standing about two cars away from me, admiring the 1922 winning car of Jimmy Murphy. “It’s almost too much to really absorb,” I said to him. That was all it took to get him started.
Uncle Bobby and I spent the next 20 minutes together admiring the remaining winning cars on that side of the exhibit. As he spoke about the cars, the enthusiasm and awe in his own voice was touching. Nothing went unnoticed by Bobby, and he schooled me on all the finest details of the machines — the beautiful paint on Wilbur Shaw’s Maserati, the precision required for the steering arms to activate simultaneously on both the left and right side of Johnnie Parsons’s 1950 winning Winn’s Friction Proofing Special, the advantages of the laydown engine in the 1957 and 1958 winning Belond Muffler Special versus the upright Pink Zink that won in 1955, and amazing technique required to handle the 1959 Leader Card Watson Roadster of Rodger Ward with only about five degrees of turning radius available due to the minimal lateral wheel clearance. At some point, I recall him tugging me by the arm to show me the offset drive line of AJ Foyt’s 1961 winning roadster and thinking that either Bobby’s eyesight must be going bad and he thinks I am someone else or he’s bored and, as Bobby usually does, just feels like talking a lot. Either way, it was a completely surreal experience and perhaps one of the greatest memories I’ve ever had in racing.
Apart from my time with Bobby Unser, another memorable part of my evening was spending a few minutes with a pair of Indy legends — four-time champion Rick Mears, and two-time winner (and holder of nearly every speed record at Indianapolis) Arie Luyendyk. Rick won the first race I attended at Indianapolis in 1988 and to this day is still my favorite driver to ever run at The Brickyard. Rick graciously posed with his 1988 and 1991 winning cars and was as cordial as always. Though Mears says he has always known he made the right decision to step out of the car while he could still win in 1992, seeing him walk amongst these legendary cars made me believe that he could still wheel one around the Speedway without much difficulty.
Luyendyk is as fit and trim today as he was when he stepped out of the cockpit in 2003. Unlike many drivers, particularly of the present day, Arie has an immense passion for the history of the Indianapolis 500 and is extremely knowledgeable about many of the races past. As a true fan of the race’s history myself, it was an honor and a privilege to discuss many of the cars and their races with Arie. It was evident in his speech how much he really appreciates his place in history and the fraternity of which he is a part.
For $5, I cannot fathom a better value at any museum, let alone for a race fan. If you are planning to be in Indianapolis at any point before June 1st, I cannot recommend this exhibit strongly enough. 100 years in the making, the evolution of the racing machine is fully evident with every step, and even if you are not a race fan you can easily appreciate the technology and the innovation that is on display. If you are a race fan, this one-in-a-lifetime experience should be on the top of your agenda for the next 10 weeks. As the largest collection ever assembled of winning Indianapolis 500 cars, you will not walk away disappointed.