Join insider Nathan Brown and Matt Glenesk May 24 from 12-1:30pm. Special guests include Simon Pagenaud, Roger Penske, Alexander Rossi and more. Indianapolis Star
Lawrence Cunningham will be there May 24. Standing, wandering, reminiscing. Probably crying, too, outside the gates of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Ever since his dad hoisted a five-year-old Cunningham onto his shoulders and carried the boy a couple blocks 真人百家家乐官网网站home from that first Indy 500 in 1969, the current Greenfield resident has stood in the bleachers every Memorial Day weekend at IMS. This one, he plans to be just outside the gates – as close as he can get to the hallowed grounds that first shaped his childhood and now controls a large chunk of his free time as an adult.
He’s seen every Brickyard 400. Every IndyCar Grand Prix. All the MotoGPs, Red Bull air races, IndyLights, NASCAR Xfinitys, IROCs and Formula 1 events (except one) that crossed (or flew) over the yard of bricks.
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles stays optimistic and is focused on July and August races. Indianapolis Star
But the Indy 500, it’s different. Maybe he could hear Parnelli Jones’ Offenhauser engine roar across the line in 1963 from his mother’s womb before he was born in July. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first lifelong racing fan embarking on his “first” trip to IMS before birth.
Cunningham can’t put a finger on it, but there’s something about it all – the pageantry, the history, the competition, the danger, the regality – that captivated him long ago. And it’s drawing him in again this weekend, back to where it all began.
But all he’ll find is silence.
“It’s kinda surreal. I’m just so used to being there,” he said. “I haven’t been there since the Lights at the Brickyard back in December, and I’m kinda missing it. I used to go about every month to walk around the IMS Museum. (Sunday), I’ll probably still go, just to hang outside, just to be there.
“I’ll probably be crying 'cause I miss it. It’ll be an emptiness, kinda. But I don’t know. … I think I might be happy, too, 'cause I’ll be there. It’s not the race, but there’s just something about being at the track.”
In spirit, he’ll be joined by tens of thousands of others who, just before the coronavirus pandemic put the 2020 IndyCar series at a standstill, walked out to the mailbox in early March to see that all-too-familiar blue envelope waiting for them.
Inside, a shimmering photo of Simon Pagenaud taking a swig of cold milk just above their section, row and seat numbers for this year’s race. Tickets for a race they may not get to attend and may not run at all.
Those circumstances changing drastically in a matter of days pulled at the heartstrings of fans young and old across the state, country and world who, whether for the first or 93rd time, had their sights set on the town of Speedway come May.
Some have still hung their checkered flags atop their porches to whip in the springtime wind. Others can’t bear the sight, still too painful and raw, an emotion that only cuts deeper as Sunday inches closer.
“It’s hard to put into words what this means, what these traditions mean, and it’s not just about the race. It’s about the time you get to come together with people – people that come into town just once a year,” said Zionsville resident Gabi Youran, who is waiting to attend her 31st-straight 500. “My dad’s college roommate comes into town since they graduated in ’65, and it’s just weird to not have that to look forward to and to miss out on those connections with people and that time.
“May 1st came, and I was sad, weird. Gosh, I’ve been pretty even-keeled and kept stuff together though most of this (pandemic), but that day came, and I just had this overwhelming feeling of sadness about everything and all the stuff we’re losing and missing out on this year. Honestly, I don’t see how they’re going to run a race this year, at least with fans.”
No matter what August looks like at IMS, the sentiment is clear across a wide swath of fans, both local and out-of-state, young and old:
It just doesn’t feel like May.
'The Yellow Submarine'
It started with a picnic, then an out-of-the-blue obsession from his uncle. Knowing his uncle was at the 1983 Indy 500 pressed Joe Bowling to listen to the broadcast of Tom Sneva’s lone win a little more intently, while the rest of his family ate nonchalantly around the radio at their traditional Memorial Day weekend gathering.
Bowling’s uncle came back days later with photos of a victorious Sneva on the final lap. When Bowling watched the cars parade around the 2.5-mile oval for the first time in ’84, he was rooting for Sneva to repeat so he could see the sight in-person.
But gradually, he gravitated to cars, not drivers. While he counted down the days until he’d get to see the race again, he couldn’t shake Team Penske’s Pennzoil “yellow submarine,” driven by Rick Mears, then Sam Hornish Jr. with Panther racing and resurrected just a few years ago by Helio Castroneves.
Bowling received tickets as a high school graduation gift years ago and he’s gradually upgraded them year after year. Now, with his younger cousin, his seats are on the front stretch just across from the pits and almost even with the scoring pylon. This was his ultimate goal; he's a man fascinated with numbers who leaps at a chance to buy a program immediately after he passes through the gates.
But years of watching the parade of old cars roll by their seats, nose-deep in the program to further his quest of memorizing all 103 race-winners, took on a new form in 2019. After being introduced to the spectacle at practices and Carb Days, nine-year-old twin daughters Julie and Emily took in the race for the first time, with donuts from Long's Bakery in hand, followed by a series of snow cones.
The year before, the trio had bumped into IMS president Doug Boles at Carb Day, and he sparked the twins’ fascination with the race.
“He stopped and chatted with us for a couple minutes, and he handed each of them a Speedway pin that had his name on it, and one or the other wore it pretty much continuously the next two months,” Bowling said. “They thought it was the coolest thing and couldn’t wait to go back.”
Bowling admitted he was nervous how that maiden voyage would go — hence the donuts and snow cones — but each girl quickly latched onto their own favorite. One rooter for Pippa Mann. ("'Cause she had to root for the girl.")
And the other? Well, years before, Bowling tried buying them some IndyCar love by taking them to the gift shop after a practice day. There, one of his girls found her favorite immediately: the golden Pennzoil Penske Chevy of Castroneves.
Bowling watching silently and grinned.
“When they were there, I wasn’t sure they were having a good time, and then we were walking back to the car, and they were acting totally exhausted,” he remembers. “And then I turn the car on and they asked, ‘Can we go back next year?’
“I read those programs, and it always has the ‘war’ years on there, but it always came back.
"It’ll be back.”
John Hetrick yearns for those moments with his own son. His grandpa attended those 500s immediately following World War II, starting in 1946, but over the years, young boys and girls in the Hetrick family had to wait to experience the family lore until they were 8.
So to prove himself, he sat with his grandma in 1996 and wouldn’t budge from the TV until Buddy Lazier took the checkered flag in the first year of The Split. He’s now attends every race, part of a group of 25 that blossomed over the decades from his grandpa’s own curiosity.
As a family contingent of diehard A.J. Foyt Racing fans, it’s been a tough couple decades, but Hetrick defines what he knows about “true happiness” in race day terms.
“The happiest I’ve ever seen my mom was in ’99 when Kenny Brack won, but my dad says ’77 was the happiest she’s ever been (Foyt's fourth title),” he said.
Notice this happiness includes no exception for weddings, births or birthdays.
“My wife’s a big Ryan Hunter-Reay fan," said Hetrick, "so my wife was her happiest in 2014.”
And in the three-year-old son he and his wife adopted from Korea, Hetrick can already see that energy only his family knows, that only truly peaks with cars on a track.
“He just loves cars, loves cars. He’s always got a car with him,” he said. “We adopted him in January, so everyone jokes, ‘He fits perfectly into your family,’ and he’ll love it when we can take him to the racetrack. It’ll blow him away.”
After Hetrick's grandpa died two years ago, missing his last few 500s because of the long day, heat and climb to their seats in the Turn 1 penthouse, Hetrick’s already weighing breaking his family rule. An Indy 500 held in August may never happen again, he said, and he wants his boy to be present for history – just like his grandpa was in ’46.
“Do I take him to this race and try and corral a three-year-old so he can say he was there? We’ll see. Maybe grandma can bring him 真人百家家乐官网网站home if he’s restless,” he said. “In the meantime, it’s going to be really rough without (the 500). But I think of it this way: The Monday after, I’m always bummed because I’ve got to wait a whole 'nother year for the next go-round.
“This time (in August), we’ll only have to wait nine more months for the next checkered flag.”
'I have to be there'
Russ Van Treese doesn’t know if he can wait that long, though. Heck, the last 24 months have felt like an eternity for the 97-year-old, who can nearly age himself with every Indy 500 he’s attended; 92 in all.
But in the spring of last year, the lifelong race fan fell over backwards, hurt his back and was resigned to watching Simon Pagenaud’s thrilling duel with Alexander Rossi from a TV in Chicago.
“It really tore me apart, but that’s the way it was,” he said. “I really missed that last race, and hopefully I’m still here for the next one, and I’ll be there for it. You bet.”
The World War II Air Force pilot is one of the few fans alive who truly remembers a May without the 500, though his experience a year ago might as well have been. Van Treese still vividly remembers just a couple Mays ago when Mario Andretti gave him his first ride in a two-seater around IMS, though he still isn't convinced they ever touched 180 mph as advertised.
The quick, spunky Van Treese said over the phone from his nursing 真人百家家乐官网网站home, “I’m not sure if that’s exactly right, but I’ll live.
“Boy there’s no feeling like going toward the outside wall in Turn 2, where the car just seems like it slips right out and drifts onto the back straight. It was amazing.”
It hearkens in contrast to what’s now his second May without wandering up to his seat in the top three rows of the Southwest Vista, where he’s sat since the stands were built. Given the pandemic conditions, he’s resigned to the potential of missing another race in August, but he’s holding out hope he doesn’t reap anymore bad luck.
“Even during the war, it just didn’t seem like May unless I was at the Speedway. That’s the way I feel,” he said. “I really love that place out there.
“I will say, I’ve lived a very long, happy life. I’ve been married almost 76 years, and we’re both happy. I owe a lot to my wife because she knows how I feel about the 500-mile race. … I have great love for the race and great love for her, but race day, it just seems like I have to be there.”
Back 真人百家家乐官网网站home again ... soon?
Butch Welsch’s annual celebration of his May pilgrimage truly begins on I-70, crammed into minivan packed to the brim, not long after leaving the St. Louis airport where he gathers his son and grandson from their flight from California.
Just past the small, unincorporated Illinois town of Weaver, and before they reach the heart of Terre Haute, they break out in song. Over the last 50 years or more, the longtime St. Louis residents have slowly transformed into honorary Hoosiers – Welsch having attended the last 72 Indy 500s. His late father had 51 to his name.
His daughter, in fact, attended DePauw for college, but those May renditions of their favorite tune rings a little differently.
“No matter where we’re going or what we’re doing, when we cross the banks of the Wabash (River) going into Indiana, we always start singing ‘(Back 真人百家家乐官网网站home Again In) Indiana’,” he said.
Welsch’s daughter and her husband come most years, too, adding to the family crew that always runs on a tight schedule each weekend, from the Hoosier Hundred on Thursday night at the Fairgrounds, to Carb Day and a Bryant dealer dinner Friday, Saturday’s drivers’ meeting, followed by the parade, a trip to the museum and an annual dinner at Rick’s Boatyard Café on Saturday night.
Though Welsch admits he’d go alone, having his son and daughter there alongside is special for the 77-year-old – particularly with how they both entered the world: due dates that landed smack-dab on those years’ Indy 500s: May 30, 1967, and May 27, 1972.
Through luck and sheer happenstance, Welsch managed to watch both races to their completion ... and be there for the birth of his children.
“In ’67, I went with my dad and two fraternity brothers, but we got there and it got rained out for the next day, and I was already in enough trouble. But I’ll preface it this way: Back in those days, fathers didn’t have anything to do while the kid was born, other than stand in the waiting room,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m not sure if I asked or told (my wife we were going back), but we decided to go the next day.”
His daughter was born June 5.
“But with my son, luckily by ’72, they were always holding the races on Sundays, and our obstetrician was an avid golfer and didn’t want his Memorial Day weekend golf game interrupted by a baby,” Welsch said. “So (my wife) was induced Thursday morning, and he was born that day, and I got to go to the race without worry.”
Having attended every race since 1948, the ever-determined Welsch not only feels out of place heading into this weekend, but he isn't confident in August’s prospects. And it takes him back to the early days of his dad’s 500 memories, recollections Welsch faintly remembers himself but never thought he’d be able to relate to.
“I remember, even though I was just a little kid, I remember my mom and dad in 1944 and ’45 and how much they missed the 500 because it was shutdown for the war,” he said. “And they were so excited when they announced it was back for ’46.
"Now, I kinda know what they’re going through.”
Missing his brick
Mike Jablo has witnessed 54 consecutive Indy 500s, but of that more than half-century of memories, none is cooler than the years he was almost part of the show.
After watching rerun versions of the 1963 and ’64 races from a movie theater in downtown Chicago, Jablo’s father arranged for a ticket order form to be sent to their 真人百家家乐官网网站home ahead of the 1965 Indy 500.
“The Tower Terrace,” he told his dad. Those seats would allow him a clear view of the pits, where the then-13-year-old car-loving Jablo could not only see the drivers more closely, but he could put a close eye on the men he may have admired even more – their crewmen.
By 1972, a college-age Jablo was one of them himself, part of a small, ragtag group supporting Lee Brayton, the father of the late 1995 and 1996 Indy 500 polesitter Scott Brayton.
“We were a low-budget team, but for those couple years (1972-74) we had A.J. Foyt’s cars that were a few years old,” Jablo said. “We never made the race, but I got to go behind the scenes and rub elbows with all my idols – Foyt, Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser.”
With Foyt still in pursuit of his legendary fourth Indy 500 title, it still amazes Jablo to this day what “Super Tex” did for them one May afternoon in ’72.
“We had his ’69 pole-winning car, but we unfortunately crashed. We got to use his ’70 car in return, and we spent the whole week rebuilding it,” he said. “And then, (Foyt) told us to wheel it over to his garage. And he, himself, set up the chassis for us. I mean, he physically set it up, for the car we were trying to qualify, and I thought that was pretty amazing.”
When his gig with Brayton flamed out ahead of the 1975 race, Jablo returned to the stands with his college roommate. They gone nearly every year since, adding Jablo's now 23-year-old son, who saw his first race in 2010.
They left their own mark a couple years ago, buying a personalized brick around the track that says “Jablo Family Tradition Since: Mike 1966, Paul 2010.”
It’s a spot that, once in the gates at around 8 a.m. each year, the trio always makes sure to visit before soaking in the Purdue band and Jim Cornelison from their seats – still in the Tower Terrace.
It waits for their return.
For some dedicated fans, this year’s delay of the 2020 Indy 500 was an answer to a prayer. George Owen, who attended his first 500 in 1948 at the age of 9, longs for his May pilgrimage from “NASCAR country” in North Carolina to Indianapolis each year. It is a chance to be with family he wouldn’t otherwise see; his brother-in-law and nephew live in the Indy-area and attend the race with Owen each year.
This spring’s struggle for his family, however, stretched well beyond missing the race.
“My nephew, he just got out of the hospital with COVID-19, and thankfully he survived,” Owen said. “But he’s in recovery now, and I’m not sure he would have been able to go had it been on the original date this year after being on a ventilator.
“I’ll miss seeing them, but I’ll see them in the fall, just have to adapt.”
Ben and Bruce Meyer, a dedicated father-son combo – the elder saw his first in-person race in 1954 and has been to nearly every one since, and his son who's seen 38 of the 41 possible races in his lifetime – share Owen’s mixed emotions.
Ben missed his three races due to a youth baseball tournament, a high school job where he listened to the race all day to his boss’ frustration and a one-time post-college mistake of thinking the local Buffalo Wild Wings would be allowed to show it live. And the idea of missing another race, where Ben met his future wife in 2006 and they now have a group of 40 or 50 folks at their pre-race tailgate, is tough to stomach.
“I’m recuperating from hip replacement last year and complications, and up until now, I’m just finally able to get around good,” Bruce said. “I should be ready to go in August and at least get one more of them in.”
Despite it all, if given the chance in three months, they say they’ll go together.
Gabi Youran only hopes she gets to savor the same.
Her days centered around the 500 involve a charter bus, a pre-arranged police escort and more than 40 of her family’s closest friends. The morning coffee, donuts, Bloody Marys and mimosas are great, and she swears she wouldn’t know what to do without an escort to escape the traffic.
You can tell in Youran’s voice the weight this day on the calendar holds.
Forget husbands going to the race with their wives pregnant and bed-ridden. She attended “9.5 months pregnant” in 2011, and stuck it out for all of Dan Wheldon’s legendary victory.
All that family dedication and joy pushed into a day that ends with a pool party, pizza and a race re-watch may never have come without her own father’s addiction to the 500. He's only missed two races since 1955.
But Youran doesn’t know how long that streak can last. She's a child of an aging parent beginning to come to terms with mortality, a fear the pandemic has done nothing to quiet.
“It’s a little bit sad to think that he doesn’t have too many races left,” she says, fighting off tears. “Everything’s bizarre and crazy right now, but when it comes to something like this, it just feels heavier, and the impact of it all just weighs on you.
“We debated whether to put out our race flags and decorate and do the things we normally do, and we ended up not doing it, because it doesn’t feel like May. And when that day comes, I’m going to be pretty sad.
“It’s just going to be another weekend.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.