5/2/2011 - Indy In The 1950s
by David Colman
Who knew back then that the drivers and cars wouldn't last forever but their memories would? Certainly not I, a pudgy kid from New England, who was lucky enough to attend every Indy 500 from 1955 to 1961. It all started around September of 54, when a sore throat made my dad keep me home on Saturday night when we were supposed to watch the Bomber Stocks race at Westboro Speedway, a gritty dirt track near Worcester, Massachusetts. The grim look on my face must have communicated my utter desolation at having to miss a chapter in the evolution of racing at Westboro. When dad said, "I'll tell you what, son. I know how much missing this race means to you, so well make it up by going to Indianapolis next year," prospects for the future of this budding race fan brightened geometrically.
It's a long way from Westboro to Indy. We droned for hours aboard a vibrating TWA Constellation, then transferred to a shabby New York Central commuter train which took us direct to the track. Nothing can prepare a little kid beforehand for the stupendous size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It stretches for miles in every direction. The four infamously difficult turns are so far apart that you can't see them all from any one spot. The physical plant is so dauntingly cavernous that it will seat 300,000 people effortlessly. And when the mechanics and crew members roll those 33 lucky starters onto the front stretch before the flag falls, no event in racing can match the pageantry and tension of Indy.
Two-time winner and defending 500 champ Bill Vukovich died the day I attended my first 500. Vuky, the world's fastest Fresno farmer, got tangled up with Rodger Ward on the backstretch and catapulted over the uselessly low retaining wall to immortality. Bob Sweikert went on to win the race, but the crowd that left Indy that day was hushed and contemplative. I could tell from my dad's demeanor that something was wrong, but I wasn't sure just what it was. In those days, Indy was as much a driver's date with death as with glory. It was a lesson I would learn over and over as the Roadster years at the track claimed one hero after another. If the crash didn't do you in, the subsequent fire would. Fuel tanks contained gasoline, not slow burning methanol like today.
The bladderless fuel tanks were mounted right next to the driver, where they collapsed and exploded in the event of contact with a retaining wall. The walls were solid concrete, not resilient Safer Barriers like today. The Roadsters either had no rollover bars, or else primitive ones that were ineffective in a collision. And the drivers wore short sleeved T-shirts instead of fire protective gear. It's no wonder so many vacant seats opened up on the teams in those days.
The next year, 1956, dad and I were better prepared about what to expect. We attended not just the race, but the last weekend of qualifying as well. The final Sunday scrap to make the race was an unparalleled spectacle called Bump Day. All the ne'er-do-wells, up-and-comers and luckless regulars took their best shot at making the field of 33. What a circus! In those days, you didn't need to spend $2 or $3 million to make the show like you do today. Granted, it was costly even then, but $50,000 would cover team expenses for the month, plus buy a top car, engine and driver. Indy equipment was so low key that cars arrived in Gasoline Alley on open, single-axle trailers.
The relative financial democracy of taking a shot at the race ensured that there was never a shortage of entrants vying for those 33 spots. On Bump Day, at least a dozen cars would be eliminated before the gun fired Sunday at 6 p.m. signaling the end of qualifications. Knowledgeable fans back then were called Railbirds because they spent their days assimilating information while clinging to the fence posts that lined the track. Dad and I weren't quite Railbirds, but we were close. Before we even left for Indy, we had been getting the daily Indianapolis Star delivered by mail to our home in Massachusetts for the entire month of May. That way we were in the know before we ever showed up to claim our suite at the Marrot Hotel.
Unlike finances, roll bars and drivers suits, some things have not changed at Indy. The run-up to the race was and still is a spell-binding extravaganza of Americana. In the late ’50s, the city of Indianapolis organized a downtown parade to celebrate the event. All 33 drivers were participants, each greeting the crowd from the backseat of a typical ’50s American convertible. With drivers names writ large on the side of these replica pace cars, it was not difficult for a curious kid to divine who was who. This talent would prove very handy when I started collecting autographs at the track. Based on visual information gleaned from the parade, I knew just who to pursue and who to ignore. There was also a bank of green and white phone booths located just inside the entrance to Gasoline Alley that were constantly used by drivers, team owners and mechanics. Because the recipients of long distance calls were announced on the track's PA system, you always knew who to expect before they showed up to take their call. When they were done talking, you pounced on them. I never had a single driver refuse my request for an autograph. Now that I look at all those precious signatures, I realize that most of them never survived past the Roadster era at Indy.
Because dad had enough juice to score a press pass every year that we went to the 500, he gained sacred admittance to Gasoline Alley as well as the hot pit lane. He made maximum use of the opportunity to go backstage by shooting reel after reel of 16mm color film on his Bolex motion picture camera. That lovely Swiss device had a triple turret lens platform which allowed him to make seamless transitions from close-up to telephoto. He was an ace photographer who brought home movie theater-quality results while most everyone else was shooting 8mm black and white with a shaky hand.
But the movie business had its downside for me. Invariably, the first day at the track would see us park our rental Impala in the vast infield lot near the garage area. From that vantage point, you couldn't see any part of the track at all, but your ears were split by the ferocious crescendo of the Offy exhaust as it reverberated off a hundred thousand track bricks and empty seats. Imagine a squadron of Spad biplanes running full tilt inside a hangar and you've got the sound check about right. I couldn't wait to scramble over to the nearest fence to see what was going on, who was dicing with whom, what the cars looked like this year.
But like the characters in Waiting for Godot, we failed to move. My father would spend an excruciating 15 minutes or more making sure all his camera apparatus was just so. Was the Bolex loaded? Did he have enough extra film? What about a carrying case? Should he take it or leave it in the car? Should he carry the tripod? Did it have the custom-fabricated ball socket mounted? On and on went the checklist while my internal frustration meter peaked at scream level. His preferred response to my obvious angst was "Just a minute, just a minute."
Things were better at the drugstore in downtown Indy. A stop at the Owl Drug on North Meridian Street was mandatory in order to collect the latest King Size or Giant Post Cards of the Indy drivers. These were 6 x 9 beauties rendered in Genuine Natural Color. They cost a whole dime apiece, and every May, the Dexter Press of West Nyack, N.Y. would issue a bevy of new ones to go with the old stand-bys you'd bought or missed the previous year. These postcards were identical to the classic official qualification photos taken by the Speedway photographers, O'Dell and Shields. They carried the imprimatur of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, and today they constitute as thorough a visual record of the Roadster era as you'll find anywhere. Owl Drugs also carried copies of Floyd Clymer's Indianapolis Race Official Yearbook. These informative pictorial recaps cost just $1.50, and later $2.00, and it was always a challenge to see if you could find issues from past years still for sale. Now youd be lucky to find any Clymer yearbook for less than $100. The postcards occasionally surface today on Ebay for $20 apiece and up.
What you'll never realize about Indy in the 50's is that, just like those postcards, it was all about color. Its a hard concept to understand for those conditioned to seeing grainy black and white footage of race starts from that period. Watch enough of those old sequences and you start to think that racing really was black and white when the tires were skinny and the drivers were fat. Not so. Without question Indy of the 50's was the most colorful spectacle you could imagine in your wildest dream. Every day-glo color in the world graced the Indy palette. And there was a coherence to the design of the paint schemes that doesn't exist in today's sponsor-first graphics. The color combinations were meant to shock, especially the pink John Zinc Specials of Sweikert and Flaherty that won in '55 and '56, and the even pinker Racing Associates Special that Johnny Thompson put on the pole in 1959. No one who saw Eddie Sachs' Lava Red and Silverflake Schmidt Special in 1959, or Jim Hurtubise's Pearl Pink/Candy Purple/Orchid Travelon Trailer Special in 1960 will ever think of the 50's as the monotone decade. Remember that fact every time they release those thousand balloons before the start of the 500. Indy is, and always was, all about color.