Missouri’s greatest racer

NASCAR took the Easter weekend off so let’s talk about Missouri’s greatest racer.

It’s always dangerous to crown someone as “the greatest who ever…,” especially someone who is not nationally-known.  But when nationally-famous people in the business say a person back home was the best there ever was, the credentials start to look pretty solid. Such is the case with Larry Phillips, “The roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest, and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed into a race car.”  

Former NASCAR Cup series crew chief James Ince also remembered Larry Phillips “as tough as they come (some would say dirty), smart and does everything at 100%.”

Fan voting has started for the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction class of 2018. Larry Phillips is on the list. Again.   Five people from the list of twenty finalists will be chosen May 24th by a Hall of Fame voting panel.

Fans can vote as many as FIFTY times a day for as many as five drivers.  The final choice will be made by a 54-member voting panel.  The top five people favored by fans will be considered the choice of an equivalent 55th panelist. The panel will meet on May 24th and the five new members of the Hall will be announced during the Memorial Day events at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The most ardent supporters of Larry Phillips probably would prefer voters cast fifty votes each day for Phillips and forget about voting for another four.  The vote for Phillips thus has a bigger impact.

It’s been sixteen years since Phillips drove the last race of a forty-year career, long enough for a new generation of fans to be unfamiliar with the name.  They might recognize the names of Ken Schrader, Rusty and Kenny Wallace, Mark Martin, and Jamie McMurray—all of whom cut their teeth on Missouri tracks.  But Larry Phillips?

Larry Philips taught those guys a lot about being racing drivers.  Two of them, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, are Hall of Famers now.  And they think Larry Phillips should be with them.

Phillips was from Springfield and nobody knows how many races he won.  Maybe as many as two-thousand says Ince.  He drove only one race in NASCAR’s top series, starting 24th and finishing 13th in the 1976 California 500.  Martin thinks he could have done well at that level; Ince agrees but told RacinToday.com’s Jim Pedley that Phillips wouldn’t put up with the Cup Series’ B.S.

He started racing about 1960 and ran hundreds of races, mostly at short tracks in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Even he didn’t know how many races he ran or won.  He told the Springfield Leader & Press in 1982, “I’ll race anytime, anywhere.”

In a 1975 race at Fort Smith, Arkansas, he rear-ended another car and both cars caught fire, leaving him with burns on seventy-percent of his body.  Doctors didn’t think he’d race for two years, if ever.  He was winning again a year later.

Phillips said a combination of things made him the winner he was, telling the newspaper, “Phillips the driver and Phillips the car builder both play important parts. Anybody can drive a car like I have and do well. But being able to adjust the racer to the track conditions whether it be tires, weight, adjustment of the chassis, whatever, that is where Phillips the builder is a big factor.”

Phillips dominated what is now the Whelen All-American Series, racing at NASCAR-sanctioned short-tracks in cars he built and maintained, often against drivers in other cars he had built.  He’s the only person to win the All-American Series national championship five times.  He won five regional championships and thirteen track titles (six at Bolivar Speedway, five at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, and two more at Kansas City’s Lakeside Speedway).

And here’s something that might raise an eyebrow or two:  He did not win his first national championship until 1989 when he was 47.  He became the first driver to win back-to-back championships in 1991-92 and duplicated that performance in 1995-96.

One of his local championships was at Lebanon in ’94.  He was interviewed after winning the title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE8mTlxRnfE

Right at the beginning of that clip, you might notice Phillips drop a cigarette.  He had a lighter in his car so he could smoke during caution laps.

In 1992, the fifty-year old Phillips won thirty-two of forty races, beating 22-year old Greg Biffle for the national title.   In his thirteen seasons in the series, Phillips won 226 of the 308 feature races he ran.  He finished in the top five in thirty-seven races he didn’t win.  In thirteen years competing in that series, he was outside the top ten only thirty-three times.

Those who knew him well say he cared about racing and winning, plain and simple.  Money?  Trophies?  Fame?  Phillips looked at his trophies as clutter.  He told Ince he hauled them off to a dump one day.  It’s not known how many trophies there were but Ince remembered they filled half a forty-foot trailer “floor to ceiling.”  Ince says Phillips was interested in checks, not trophies.

Mark Martin was just a kid from Batesville, Arkansas when he went to work in Phillips’ shop in Springfield.   On weekends they would race each other.

“Anybody who raced against him will remember him,” Martin (right) told Pedley. “He was unique. He was fast, won lots of races and beat a lot of people with slower cars…Larry would try every trick in the books.”  And Rusty Wallace called him “the best driver I’ve ever seen.”   He was first nominated to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014.  But the guys who ran in the big-time are the ones who get most of the attention at voting time.

Jamie McMurray’s first year running late models was 1997.  He told a Springfield News-Leader reporter a couple of years ago, “I had watched him for those years that I ran my modified and he won every single night, it seemed like.”

 

McMurray won the track championship at Lebanon in 1997.  Larry Phillips was second. Just five years later he was running in NASCAR’s top series where he won his second time out.  In 2010, he won the Daytona 500.  But by then, Larry Phillips was gone.

Phillips was diagnosed with lung cancer in May, 2000 and began chemotherapy a month later—and still went out weekend after weekend and won races.  He ran his last race in April, 2001 in Lebanon and led for a good part of it.  But his cancer treatments had sapped his endurance and he finished second.  Finishing second was not what Larry Phillips was about.  He took the car, went home, and never raced again.  He died September 21, 2004.

He has some stiff competition in the voting from a lot of nationally-recognized names.  But a lot of folks who saw him race or raced against him think he could have whipped ‘em all at Lebanon. Or Bolivar. Or just about anywhere.

If you have the time and inclination to vote fifty times a day for Missouri’s greatest racer, you can do it at: http://www.nascarhall.com/inductees/fan-vote.

(Photo credits: hometracks.nascar.com; missourilegends.com; Midwest racing archive; racintoday.com)

(This entry also was posted on The Missourinet sports page)

Notes from a quiet street  2017-I

(Miscellaneous musings of more than 140 characters, usually, but not enough words to be fully blogicious.)

We found ourselves wandering through an otherwise unoccupied mind one recent day when ice or the threat of ice was limiting more fruitful occupations or ambitions.

An observation after two years of retirement:  If you put on slippers instead of shoes when you get dressed in the morning, the chances are above average that you will not step outside your house more than three times during the day and you will stay outside no more than two minutes each time.  One of the trips will be to get the morning paper. Another will be to get the mail.

We are reminded of the closing lines of the movie “Patton,” a quote from the general read by George C. Scott:  “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

NASCAR sent us a note the other day that now is the time to load up on 2017 driver merchandise—everything from baby clothes to pull-along coolers with your favorite driver’s colors and numbers.  We thought it would be interesting to look at Carl Edwards’ stuff, which went from merchandise to memorabilia pretty fast.  Hats and t-shirts are about ten to twenty dollars off.  Jackets are forty dollars off.  And so it went with other items that became examples of the truth of Patton’s remark that “all glory is fleeting.”  Superstar today, clearance table tomorrow.  Such is life.

We were headed to Nevada, in southwest Missouri, a few weeks ago to deliver a couple of copies of our Capitol art book to Cavender’s Book Store when we came upon a large crowd of black birds somewhere near Preston clearing the road of remnants of an unfortunate creature, bite by bite.  As we neared them, the birds all took frantic flight—except for one, a much bigger bird that seemed to just spread its wings and gracefully elevate. As he lifted off, I spotted the large fan of white tail feathers and then a white head.  I swear he looked back over his shoulder, perhaps to see if my car did any damage to his snack. It’s kind of a gruesome story, I suppose.  But I’ll remember the Eagle I saw a few days before Christmas long after I’ve forgotten the rest of the long trip on a chilly, rainy, December day or even Christmas itself.

Our state has a new chemistry set in an old box.  About one-fourth of the members of the Missouri House are brand new.  The governor, as we have noted several times, is fresh to the world of political office-holding.  Five of our six top state officeholders are new to those offices.  The chemistry in our Capitol is entirely different.  It’s going to be interesting to see how the elements mix.

More than a dozen years ago, someone suggested the Missourinet start using Twitter.  The example of Twitter that was given to us was a series of twits, tweets, toots—whatever they are (perhaps depending on the sender)—from a former colleague who was telling the world he was at an airport, then that he was waiting to board his plane, then that he was in his seat, then that he was waiting to take off.  We all thought Twitter was silly and superficial, an attitude borne out a few weeks later when another friend send a message that she was on her way home from work but had to stop at a store to get a sump pump.  Your observer started calling Twitter, “The Theatre of the Inane.”

Well——?

—-

We are reminded by all the discussion about punitive tariffs on American-company vehicles made in and imported from other countries of a talk we had a long time ago with Kenneth Rothman, a two-term Speaker of the House who was Missouri’s first Jewish statewide elected official, Lieutenant Governor, 1981-1985.  He bought a little farm near Jefferson City during those years and wanted to get a little American-made pickup truck to use out there.  But he learned Ford’s compact pickup was made by Mazda; Chevrolet’s little truck was made by Isuzu, and Dodge’s compact truck was made by Mitsubishi.  He finally found an American-made small pickup truck that was manufactured in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania.  A Volkswagen.

We have friends who flee to Arizona and Florida during these months. We pity them for the loss of their sense of adventure.

121 characters.  Including spaces.

 

Grace

In a year that will not be remembered for its examples of grace, especially public grace, the sports world provided one at a time when anger and giant disappointment could have produced an example of ugliness.

Columbia racing driver Carl Edwards showed us a prime example of grace in this graceless year. For those who do not follow automobile racing as we do, here’s some background. .

Carl has been competing at NASCAR’s highest level for a dozen years.  He has finished second twice in the championship standings.  He is one of four extremely talented drivers who compete at this level for Joe Gibbs, the former NFL coach whose teams won three Super Bowls.

NASCAR determines is champion each year by taking the top sixteen drivers in points after the first twenty-six races and putting them through a series of elimination rounds until four drivers remain in the last race of the season to compete for the championship.  Carl Edwards made it to the final four by winning a race in the semifinal round at a time when he was on the verge of elimination because an earlier crash had left him far out of contention.

One of his competitors in the last race was teammate Kyle Busch, who had won the championship in a miracle season last year after missing the first eleven races with injuries.  Another competitor was Jimmie Johnson, who was hoping to win the championship for a record-tying seventh time.   The other competitor was Joey Logano, a young driver who has matured and succeeded driving for Roger Penske, one of the biggest names in motorsports competition.  Now, let’s set the scene:

The championship is within Carl’s grasp with just ten laps left after the racers have been slowed under a caution flag caused by an incident with another car.  He is on the inside of the front row, a prime place to reassert his leadership when the green flag is waved to go racing again.   If he can get a good jump, he’ll be running in clean air—a critical factor in cars designed to take advantage of aerodynamics—and headed for that elusive title.

Logano knows he has one shot at getting past him on that restart.  He dives low going into the first turn. Very low.  Carl knows his only hope is to drop low in the track to block Logano.   The front of Logano’s car touches the rear bumper of Edwards’ car, sending Edwards into the inside wall, then bouncing back across the track through traffic where he is hit from behind with such force by another driver that his car goes up on the other car’s hood before spinning off into the outside wall.  All hope of the championship is gone after what he called “the race of my life up to then.”

Few of us ever know the pressures of competing for anything at this level. And the intensity of “this level” is hard for any of us to imagine.  There are no halftimes, no timeouts, no free throws where you can catch your breath.  There are no shift changes as in hockey.  There are no innings that are split into two parts.  This is three or four hours in a fire-protective suit, sitting in a metal oven at temperatures of one-hundred-thirty degrees, travelling at frightening speeds (to you and me) surrounded by thirty-nine other people seeking the same thing you are seeking. And you are doing it at three times the speed limit with no rumble stripes to remind you that you have one of your wheels an inch from where it should be.

You are so close to being the very best in this sport that you can touch it.  And then in two seconds you are sitting in your stopped, wadded-up, smoking car knowing that everything you have worked for during the last nine months is now impossible.  One of your competitors has wrecked your car and your hopes.

NASCAR requires drivers whose cars crash out of a race to go to an infield care hospital to be checked for injuries, including concussions.  Track workers escort the driver from the wreckage of their car to an ambulance which whisks them away.  But that didn’t happen with Carl Edwards, who watched a replay of the crash on a big video screen that tracks have, and then walked with his NASCAR escort through the pits to Joey Logano’s pit.

That is not normally a good sign.  Angry words are often exchanged or shouted.  We’ve seen punches thrown.

Carl Edwards climbed to the top of a stand where Logano’s crew chief and others were sitting.  And he told them the crash was entirely his fault, that he wished Logano well, and shook hands with the guys on Logano’s pit box. “That’s just racing,” he told them. “Good luck to you guys.”

In an interview after getting checked at the infield hospital, he said, “I pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there…I couldn’t go to bed tonight and think that I gave him that lane.” Logano finished second in the race behind Johnson, who dodged the crash and led the last two laps for become champion for the seventh time.

“We were racing for the championship and that’s the race,” said Logano afterwards.  And he echoed Carl Edwards, “That’s just racing.”

After the roar of the race, after the take-no-prisoners competition for their sport’s highest honor the neither achieved—

there was grace,

a reminder in this graceless time that the quality still is within us.  And it is not demeaning to show it.

The Mysterious 4

We’re making our traditional May trip east this week, a trip we’ve made almost every year since 1954.   Thirty-three people who were a long ways from being born then will be racing to see who wins the 100th Indianapolis 500.

If you’re looking for some of the usual political analysis that usually occupies this space, forget it today.  If you don’t care about humankind’s eternal quest to be faster than someone else, move along.  As Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad fame used to say, “There’s nothing to see here.” There’s more to life than politics.  One of those things is racin’.

We’re always looking for Missouri story angles when we cover the 500 for the Missourinet.  This is the story of a Missouri angle and a Speedway mystery.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is America’s oldest track built for the racing of automobiles.  People were racing cars a decade or more before the first race track in the world to be called a Speedway held its first races in 1909.  But those races were held on roads and streets or on tracks originally intended for racing horses.

The first Indianapolis 500 was in 1911, a time when Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp was considered the height of high-tech racing because he installed a rear-view mirror so he wouldn’t have to carry the weight of a riding mechanic who would tell him who was behind him, and because it had a tapered aerodynamic tail with a little fin on the back.

Races weren’t held in 1918 and 1942-45 because of wars.  Otherwise, a 500-mile race has been part of Memorial Day for generations of Americans.

One of the cars in the Speedway museum is Jim Rathmann’s winning Ken-Paul Special from 1960.  At least that’s what the sign in front of it says.

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It’s a design referred to as a roadster, a car with an engine that’s offset with the driveline running alongside the driver on the left side, not beneath him.  It let the cars corner better and have a lower center of gravity than the designs of 1911 that extended into the early 1950s. It was built by A. J. Watson, one of the wizards of race-car construction in that era.   It carries the number 4.

But is this really the car that won what has been called “the greatest two-man duel in 500 history?”

The 1960 race saw the lead change 29 times, mostly in the second half of the 200-lap race.  That record stood until modern aerodynamics and uniform chassis design led to 34 lead changes in 2012, and  broken in 2013 when there were 68.

Rodger Ward, the 1959 winner, led twenty of the first 95 laps. Rathmann led 33.  Pole-winner Eddie Sachs, 1952 champion Troy Ruttman, and Johnny Thompson split the other 42.  But from the time Rathmann moved back into the lead on the 96th lap, it was just him and Ward.

Rathmann and Ward swapped the lead fifteen times before Ward had to slow down with three laps left because he saw that he had worn his tires down to the cord.  He finished second, about thirteen seconds back. Ward won the race a second time in 1962 and remains one of three drivers in 500 history who finished in the top three six races in a row.

That was an era when the saying, “There are old race drivers and there are bold race drivers but there are no old, bold race drivers” as all too true.  Before that year was out, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Bryan, and Al Herman—all starters in the race—were killed in racing crashes.  Tony Bettenhausen died in a practice crash at the Speedway not quite a year later.  Shorty Templeman was killed in 1962.  Don Branson was killed in 1966. And Eddie Sachs was killed with rookie Dave McDonald in the horrendous first-lap crash of 1964.

And 1964 brings us to the second part of the story.

St. Louis was celebrating its bicentennial that year and one of the cars in the race was Wally Weir’s Mobilgas Special driven to eighth place by Bob Harkey.

Harkey 1964

The car is now owned by race car collector Bob McConnell of Urbana, Ohio, who has restored it to its 1964 appearance, complete with the “St. Louis Bicentennial 1764-1964” logo on the right side of the engine cover.

He claims this is the car Jim Rathmann drove to victory in that epic duel with Rodger Ward.  Rathman drove the same car in 1961 and practiced with an inverted airfoil mounted over the cockpit in an early experiment to increase downforce.

Rathmann wing 1961

But the wing proved impractical and was discarded for the race. Rathmann also had it in the 1962 race.  Webster Groves (Mo.) driver Paul Russo couldn’t get it up to speed in 1963.  Harkey’s drive in it in 1964 was the last year it made the 500.

By then the roadster era was fading away as rear-engine cars took over.  Many of the roadsters were heavily modified to race as supermodified cars in the northeast at places like Sandusky, Ohio and Oswego, New York.   Eventually those designs became outmoded and many of the old roadsters were junked.  Several, however, have been put back together and restored.  And that’s the case with the Watson roadster that McConnell had at the Speedway last year.   He says the Speedway museum knows about his car and his claim of its lineage.

He was looking for Harkey to drop by to visit the car when we dropped by first.

A couple of things to note:  The tires on this car are not the kind of tires used in the races in the 1960s.  Those tires had little or no tread and they changed a great deal from this car’s first race in 1960 until its last race in 1964.

It might seem extremely dangerous to have the fuel filler cap so close to the exhaust pipe on the left side.  It was and that’s why one of the duties of a member of the pit crew as to slide an insulated cover over the exhaust pipe before the fuel hose was plugged in.  This car ran on methanol, a fuel that burns invisibly, so that insulated cover over the exhaust pipe was critical to safety.

The 1964 race is remembered as the last race in which gasoline-powered cars competed.  That was the year that McDonald’s gasoline-powered car crashed coming out of the fourth turn on the first lap and caught fire.  It bounced into the path of Eddie Sachs’ gasoline-fueled car and the collision caused a second, larger explosion.  Both drivers were killed. The race was stopped for the first time in its history.  Several other cars were damaged beyond repair and some of the other drivers suffered burns as they drove through the wreck site.  Parnelli Jones, who had won the race in 1963, bailed out of his methanol-fueled car later on pit road after a pit stop because it had caught fire. Methanol became the fuel of choice for this kind of racing after that tragic 500.  Racers now run on pure ethanol.

We talked to Speedway Historian Donald Davidson about the 4s—McConnell’s St. Louis Bicentennial car and the Speedway Museum’s Ken-Paul Special.  It’s a difficult issue, he told us, without coming down on either side.   It’s been a half-century since this Speedway devotee watched Jim Rathmann and Bob Harkey drive Watson roadsters with the number 4 on their noses.   A lot can happen to cars in those years.

The provenance of restored racing cars is not always easy to track.  By the time they’re available for restoration, they’ve been wrecked, modified, stuck on tops of buildings as advertising, left to gather dust in a shed—you name it.  They are basket cases sometimes—and the basket is missing a lot of parts, as Bob McConnell explained in his interview. Restoration sometimes means fabricating new pieces or finding parts from other wrecks that once were on a car like the one you’re restoring.   Both claims to the Rathmann car might have some legitimacy. And we join Donald not taking sides.

It’s good to be able to go into the museum and see so many of the cars we remember when they were the hottest, fastest things flashing past us with great roars, driven by legends and heroes.   But it’s also kind of melancholy because of those memories and the quietness of race cars on display. Not to get overly-dramatic about it, but it’s kind of the difference between seeing a living lion and standing next to a stuffed one.

Then there are people like Bob McConnell who not only restore racers such as Harkey’s St. Louis Bicentennial car, but run them.  Part of the celebration of the Speedway’s centennial era has been its invitation to people like McConnell to bring their restored racers back to the track, not only to display them, but to fire them up and get them back on the oval—and perhaps running in triple digits again—as you heard, he doesn’t know how fast they go because there’s no speedometer, but they don’t just cruise around.  They’re back for 2016. Unfortunately, Harkey won’t be.  He died last January.

We understand the Speedway is going to fire up the Marmon Wasp for the 100th race and have it bellow its way around the track again.  Neither it nor any of those old cars will ever push the limits of mechanical operation and human mortality as they once did.  But to see them, to hear them on the race track within hours of when today’s cars do push the limits does quicken the heart.

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Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp averaged about 74.6 miles an hour in 1911.  Look at some pictures of the cars people drove on the streets in 1911 and with a straight face say you’d be glad to drive one of those down a road at 75 mph today for even a couple of minutes, let alone for almost seven hours at an AVERAGE of 75.  On 1911 tires.

In 1954, when these eyes watched cars at Indianapolis for the first time, they beheld the first official lap run at 140 miles an hour on pole day.  One lap on the two-and-a-half-mile track by Jack McGrath at 141.033 (we remember things like that). Bill Vukovich won the race that year at 130.840.    Three years ago these same eyes, with bifocals now, watched Tony Kanaan go 500 miles at 187.433, the current record.   Whatever you might think about automobile racing, what the men and women on that track in this era are doing is astonishing, as astonishing as what their predecessors did.

Each era is filled with those astonishing performances.  We’re going back this week to savor the history and the history that will be made.

This year’s car with the number 4 is driven by Buddy Lazier who won the race twenty years ago.  His 1996 car is in the museum, too.

It will take about as long to travel from Jefferson City to Indianapolis as it took Ray Harroun to win the first 500.   And then on race day, somebody will cover the distance between a western suburb of Kansas City to Indianapolis is less than three hours.

Astonishing.

(photo credits: Bob Priddy; Indianapolis Motor Speedway; thisdayinmotorsportshistory.blogspot.com; Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

Imagine a sporting event—

We’ll be returning to the usual topics we normally address later this week.  But for now, imagine a sporting event, professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey—any of the big-time sports like that. Imagine thousands of people being allowed on the playing field before the big game, looking at the equipment, visiting with team personnel, team owners and managers, maybe spotting a celebrity or two. Then imagine the players being introduced and walking among the crowd to their positions before the crowd goes to their seats and the game begins.

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That’s part of the crowd on the main straightaway at Indianapolis late Sunday morning. Not everybody who had a ticket could be there but thousands of people had obtained passes through various channels for this experience that doesn’t happen in stick-and-ball (or stick and puck) sports.

Imagine any of the stick-and-ball sports that have members of the competing teams seated at tables before the event and thousands of fans without passes lining up to get their autographs or their pictures taken with the athletes. Imagine retired players being assembled to give fans a chance to do the same with them.

Imagine a crowd of 200,000 or more watching the event on-scene and imagine that they generally quietly tolerate the traffic jams getting to the arena and leaving it afterwards.

That’s what happens each Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first race track to call itself a “speedway.” The climate and culture were similar at Charlotte, North Carolina that night where NASCAR held its longest race of the year—won by a Missourian this time, Carl Edwards of Columbia.

The past, the present, and the future—

All came together in one face Sunday at Indianapolis.

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Your reporter was, maybe, ten feet from Juan Pablo Montoya when he turned to talk to Ryan Hunter-Ray and Graham Rahal, two men moments from trying to beat him to the end of the race that they and thirty others would run at speeds upward of 220 mph most of the time.

Montoya will be 40 in September. That’s starting to get up there for athletes at this level of competition (the oldest driver in the race Sunday was 42). He was 24 when he won the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt in 2000.

To his right, dressed in the yellow uniform, was Ryan Hunter-Reay, 34, who had won the great race last year in a wild closing-lap dogfight with three-time champion Helio Castroneves. And to Hunter-Reay’s right was Graham Rahal, who is 26, the son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal. His dad is the Rahal of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, the team for which Graham drives. Sunday was already his eighth 500 and a lot of folks are hoping that he or Marco Andretti (whose grandfather won in 1969) will someday win the 500.

Hunter-Reay, who was never a factor, finished 15th. Rahal was fifth. Montoya took home a $2.4-million paycheck for winning the race for the second time. Hunter-Reay is a representative of Indycar’s present. Rahal is clearly representative of the sport’s future. And Montoya has one foot in the past, is very much one of the dominating figures of the sport’s present, and don’t think he doesn’t believe he’s very much part of its future, too.

And speaking of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing:

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Tolja he’d be there

David Letterman was in that crowd on the grid before the race. The biggest difference between him and others there is that he had a police escort and when his presence became known, photographers flocked around him. He was unruffled by the attention, chatting with keepers and tenders as he sat on the pit wall. Unfortunately, he later wound up with his face smashed against the wall on the main straightaway.

All of the team cars carried “Thanks Dave” messages on their rear fins but Oriol Servia’s car went further.

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Unfortunately Servia and last year’s pole winner, Ed Carpenter tangled coming onto the main straightaway on the 113th lap and Servia’s car went side-first into the outer wall, giving Letterman a couple of interesting souvenirs of the race if he wants them—the side pod that scraped the wall or the one that didn’t. Regardless, he could have a couple of interesting wall-hangings for the den he might spend some of his new free time decorating.

Now, some of you who regularly check this scribe’s entries normally expect to read pithy things about politics, government, public policy, social commentary, history, and other things that stimulate the mind (we hope). But every now and then there are things that stimulate the soul, that render all that other stuff emotionally meaningless.   Sports are those things. Your correspondent has been to World Series games, All-Star baseball games, NFL games in four Missouri stadia that have played host to three different teams, an NBA game (one is enough), a hockey game (worth another look someday), races at Churchill Downs (sorry, but something that only goes one lap and lasts for maybe a minute and a half, max, does not make this observer’s blood run faster). I’ve seen soccer and cricket and don’t know enough about either to develop the sophistication to appreciate them. Bowling is okay as a participant. We’ve watched arm-wrestling in Petaluma, cliff-diving from somewhere, curling during the Olympics (something about ice shuffleboard with big stones holds the attention, surprisingly), and bocce ball matches at a local restaurant.

But nothing does more for the pulse rate than the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (Wimbledon, by the way, is not something many would stay away from church to watch). Diehard NASCAR fans undoubtedly think the same way about the Charlotte 600-miler that runs the night after the 500—and NASCAR has its own noisy  charm as we know from experience.

So let’s leave it at this: Get some earplugs. Get some tickets (there were plenty of available seats Sunday). Get to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend. Get to the track and to your seats. Soak up the pre-race atmosphere and then hang on and watch amazing things happen in front of you when the engines roar.

Beats the hell out watching the things that happened in front me while I was at the Senate press table all those years, I can guarantee you that.

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Maybe I’ll see  you at the place they call The Racing Capital of the World next year when the engulfing experience of this event happens for the 100th time.  Look for me ‘n’ Dave.                                                                       \

(pictures copyright by Bob Priddy)

On the grid with David

David Letterman has joined those of us who have left decades of the tyranny of a clock-regulated life and have started living by our own clock. He might have disappeared from my TV set but I know where he’ll be on Sunday. I’ll be there, too.

We share a great affection for the Indianapolis 500. Both of us were at the great Speedway for the first time when the fastest lap was about 140 miles an hour. Now the cars and drivers are aiming at 240. We’ve heard the great engines, from the Offy to the Novi to the Cosworth, the Fords and Buicks and the Chevvys. And the Hondas and Toyotas—even a Porsche once, an Alfa-Romeo and a Mercedes that was known as “the beast” by those who created it. We’re like tens of thousands of others who are drawn to a specific place and a specific event because it’s part of us.

We’ll be among the people in the crowd on the starting grid of the nation’s most iconic sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. I’ll be there as a reporter. He will be there as one of the owners of the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing. He’s not just a celebrity who has put some of his spare cash into a hobby. He’s serious about racing, as viewers should know from watching how much he enjoyed interviewing racing drivers on his television show.

We both were part of the crowd on the grid just before the start of the race last year.

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No, I didn’t interject myself into his personal space to say hello. But if I had, I would have told him that something he said more than a decade ago has stuck with me because I had never heard anyone who is so much a part of the sport say it—not in all the years I’ve followed and attended this great event.

The year he said it was 2004 and Buddy Rice was writing a Cinderella story for the then-Rahal-Letterman team as the race started to wind down with rain moving in.   Rice was in the car because the winner of the 1999 Indianapolis 500, Kenny Brack, had been injured in the last race of the 2003 season and wasn’t cleared to race. He had started from the pole, the first starting position, and was leading at the three-quarters mark.   A pit reporter for ABC television interviewed Letterman, who was obviously feeling the moment—the excitement, the tension, the anticipation.   Letterman told him, “It’s an unbelievable job Buddy has done all day. It’s a heroic effort.”

Later, when rain, thunder, and lightning stopped the race and forced the Speedway to move victory lane indoors so Rice could get the victory wreath, the traditional bottle of milk, and the celebration of his victory, Letterman described Rice and the rest of the team as “smart, brave, tough guys.”

In all the years of listening to or watching the race broadcasts or hearing people on the public address system during the race, I don’t think I ever heard anybody use the word “heroic” to describe the drivers’ efforts. But that’s an appropriate way to describe what these drivers are all about.

For them, dressing in their fire-resistant suit and climbing into a race car probably seems as ordinary as people like me putting on a coat and tie and going to the office.   It’s what they do. But what they do during their day in their office is so far removed from what we do or are capable of doing that is unfathomable to most of us.

It’s not the danger although danger is always present that makes them heroes. It’s the skills they demonstrate lap after lap, hour after hour, that puts them on a level far above most of us. There’s no break between rounds, quarters, or innings. There’s no halftime. For about three hours, the Buddy Rices who will climb into the cars on the grid at Indianapolis Sunday will have no breaks from the necessity of putting their tires exactly—exactly—where they have to be to go through a corner at more than triple our interstate speed limit or to pass a competitor who also wants that space. They have to do it while competing with 32 other Buddy Rices who want the same thing they want and they’re willing to live on a fine edge to get it.

To watch these drivers flash past at speeds television cannot properly convey, lap after lap, is something unique.   It is heroic.

Saying that is not a matter of hero-worship. Calling their efforts heroic accurately describes what they do. We accept mortals doing things that most of us consider super-human without thinking what an extraordinary thing they are doing.   That’s why his passionate description of what he saw unfolding in front of him is so memorable—because he captured the nature of those efforts with just the right, memorable, word eleven years ago.

We’ll both be at the first place to call itself a “speedway” watching men and women do something heroic on Sunday. We might see each other. I will know who he is. He won’t know who I am. And that’s okay because both of us know why we are there.