I was living in Brixton, London in November 1987 when I received an invitation from Rick and Karen, two Canadian friends also living in London, to attend their wedding on May 27th 1988 in Toronto their home town.
The first thing I did after I received the invitation was to check the dates for races in the USA around the wedding date, the Winston 500 was to be run at Talledega on May 1st, the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte on May 29th as was the Indy 500.
The timing was against me getting to Talladega, a track I finally visited 21 years later, and Indianapolis seemed a lot closer to Toronto than Charlotte so I made my mind up to visit the Indy 500 something I had wanted to do since I read a book by Tommaso Tommasi called from Brands Hatch to Indianapolis in which a precise description of driving around the track is given by Peter Revson.
The weekend of the wedding I went to Avis and collected this shiny brand new Chevy Beretta, an interesting contrast to the £50 1973 Volvo 144 DL automatic I was driving around London at the time !
Early on the morning after the wedding I packed my stuff and headed around 350 miles west on the 401 which turned into Route 96/94 after I crossed the US border into Detroit and then 200 miles south on Route 69. The only difficulty I had was keeping to the 55 to 60 mph speed limits which seemed excruciatingly slow compared to the 70 mph I was used to in the UK.
Eleven hours after I had set out I arrived at a mall parking lot (Lafayette Shopping Centre ?) a mile or so north from the track having picked up a ticket for the bleachers from a vendor at face value of $15 (?) right out side the track. I felt very much at home as some lads were having a kick about with a proper round football, turned out they were telephone engineers from Manchester, England !
My plan was to spend the night in the car, I got a shock when I opened the boot/trunk of the car and found I had forgotten to pack two important items one of which was my sleeping bag. I need not have worried the weather was more than warm enough to feel comfortable sleeping on the back seat of the car wearing a T shirt and shorts.
On race day I woke up with the dawn, had a round of salami sandwiches I had packed in advance and my customary breakfast apple and headed off to the track which opened at 6am.
I bought a souvenir T-Shirt from a girl, who like me hailed from Germany, on the way in and before I knew it I was standing on the hallowed pavement of Indianapolis pit lane. I was as inspired as I had been by any other tourist sight I had seen, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and even the Pyramids, by the Indy timing tower which I had seen in countless photographs over the previous 15 years I had been a racing fan.
Pinching myself standing before the gates of Gasoline Alley, I felt a little like I was standing before the gates of heaven itself as the sun came up.
The immaculate team haulers seemed a tad quaint to be carrying 220 mph race cars, but then again a hauler never won the Indy 500.
I took a walk all around the infield while the hullaballoo that starts the days proceedings got underway prior to the 11 am start, including a look at the infamous inside of turn 3 hard partying Snake Pit. I saw ‘Supersonic’ Chuck Yeager prepare himself for duties in the pace car and took my seat in the bleachers as Grand Marshall Garfield was driven around the circuit.
At this point the fact that I had somehow overlooked packing a telephoto lens I had borrowed specially for the event became painfully obvious.
The race was dominated by Rick Mears on pole with Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Snr who locked out the front row of the grid. All three were driving the new Penske PC 17 designed by Penske new boy Nigel Bennett and all three Penske drivers would be 3 of the only 4 drivers to lead a lap of the 72nd running of the Indy 500.
’85 Spinner & Winner Danny Sullivan set a blistering early pace driving the Miller PC17, seen here chasing the #92 of Dominic Dobson, led a race high 91 laps but crashed out on lap 101 leaving Rick Mears to almost run away with the race. Sullivan would end the season as the winner of his one and only CART championship.
For 8 laps I was beside myself with excitement as Scottish born Brit Jim Crawford became the only non Penske team member to lead the ’88 500 in his year old Buick ‘stock block’ powered Lola T87/00. Jim who just two months earlier had been unable to walk as a result injuries received at Indy in 1987 became a father the following week. Jim retired to become a fishing boat captain and died of liver failure aged 54 in 2002.
Two time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi did not lead a lap but still managed to come home 2nd in his Pat Patrick run March 88C powered by the then relatively new Ilmour Chevy V8. The following year ‘Emmo’ returned to win the fist of his two Indy 500 victories.
Rick Mears ran out the deserving winner of the 1988 Indy 500 a race that ended under yellow flags thanks to a piece of body work that flew off Michael Andretti’s 4th place Kraco March with just 4 laps to go. Ricks third 500 victory marked the first for the Ilmour Chevrolet engine which would dominate at Indianapolis until 1994 when a one off Mercedes push rod engine also designed by Ilmour would take top honours.
After the race I rehydrated and slept in the car for an hour before the 11 hour 550 mile trek back to Toronto. Two weeks later I was back at one of my other favourite race tracks Le Mans, but that story will have to wait for another day.
Thanks for joining me on this Indianapolis excursion edition of
‘Gettin a lil’ psycho on tyres’, I hope you will join me again tomorrow for an Indy Ferrari Friday special. Don’t forget to come back now !