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Lap 41

 

I think our trip to Road Atlanta really piqued Ericís interest in racing. The next Memorial Day, he sat with me and watched the Indy 500 on TV. Johnny Rutherford won the race from the pole position in Jim Hallís Chaparral. This was Rutherfordís third win at the Brickyard and he instantly became Ericís favorite driver. It was a couple years later, in 1982, when we actually met Johnny Rutherford.

It happened in the paddock at Road America. We were there for the CART race. Bunky, Jimmy and I were walking through the paddock with 7-year old Eric in tow, checking out all the cars.

Eric checks out Rick Mearsí ride.

The Indy cars were just about to go out to practice, when I saw Rutherford walking towards the pit lane, helmet in hand. I called out to him and said, "Johnny, youíre my sonís favorite driver. Do you have time to let me take his picture with you?" I would not have been surprised if he had turned me down because I could hear cars leaving the pit lane for practice. Instead, he stopped and said, "Of course! Come here, son."

Eric went up and stood next to his hero. Johnny put his arm around Ericís shoulder and asked, "What is your name?" Eric stared up at him wide-eyed and said quietly "Eric". I took the picture and said, "Thanks, Johnny!" and he said, "Why donít you take another one just in case." I heard more cars leave the pit lane as I quickly snapped another photo. Johnny gave Ericís shoulder a squeeze and said, "Nice to meet you, Eric." and then he walked off to go to work.

I have to tell you that Johnny Rutherfordís stock went way up in my estimation. He did not have to take the time to do that, especially with his practice just starting. Eric appeared unimpressed and said nothing about the encounter as we headed back to corner five where we had parked. When we got about 50 yards away from our Mobile Traveler, Eric saw Liz standing at the fence, watching the practice. Eric burst away from us and went running to her yelling, "Mom! Mom! Guess what? I got my picture taken with Johnny Rutherford!"

Eric and Johnny Rutherford

That weekend, I took several pictures of Rutherford in his yellow Pennzoil-sponsored Chaparral. The pictures all turned out well, especially the two of Johnny and Eric together. I had an eight by ten made of one of those, and carried that with me to the CART races for the next three years with the intention of getting Johnny to autograph it. To my regret, I never saw him in person again.

Lonestar JR in the Pennzoil Chaparral at Road America Corner five
with our Mobile Traveler and Jimmyís van in the background.

Jimmy, as I have said before, was a commercial artist. He was working for a company that made decals for trucking companies and rail cars and such. The Forsythe racing team based in Wheeling, Illinois, contacted Jimmyís company and asked if they could make decals for the graphics on their racecar. The company told them they did not do such low volume work, but they had an artist on staff who was a racing fan and might be willing to do it as a side job.

Jimmy was delighted with the opportunity. They invited him up to their shop in Wheeling and talked to him about doing the graphics for their Champ car. They asked him how much he was going to charge. Jimmy said, "Nothing - just give me tickets for myself and a couple friends for any race I can make it to." They happily agreed, thinking they had a real deal. They did, because Jimmy was a very talented artist and the graphics he provided were excellent. They gave him a place in the shop to work and Jimmy spent many evenings and weekends there, making the decals and applying them to the car they were going to campaign in the CART series. They even had him make decals for their transporter.

This was in 1982, and was the first year that CART would appear at Road America. Jimmy got in for free, and was even invited into the Forsythe Racing hospitality tent. We all trooped up into the paddock to get a look at the Forsythe car and transporter and Jimmyís handy work. I must admit I was impressed, as the car was beautiful. It was primarily black with red and orange trim. The transporter was done up the same way and really looked sharp. Jimmy had outdone himself.

The driver for Forsythe was ex-Formula One driver Hector Rebaque, and we naturally decided to root for him because he was driving what we referred to as "Jimmyís car". Rebaque had qualified fifth on the grid, which was respectable, but none of us expected much from him. Imagine our surprise and delight when he managed to win the race! He inherited the lead and the victory when Al Unserí s Longhorn ran out of gas a couple of miles from the finish. Funny thing was, Rebaque never drove the car again.

Another race Jimmy got tickets for was the CART race at Michigan International Speedway in 1983. They had two tickets available for Jimmy, and he asked me to join him. We left Chicago early on race day and headed for Michigan. Once there, we were very impressed with the seats we had been given. They were near the top of the main grand stand and under the press box, so we were in shade for most of the race. We could see the entire 2-mile track from our seats. It was my first trip to a super speedway and it was awesome.

I had seen Champ cars on an oval before - at the Milwaukee Mile, but they were much faster on this track. Standing at the bottom of the grandstands next to the fence gave you a real impression of the speed of the cars. They would flash by so quickly that all you could recognize was the color of the car.

The next year, Forsythe had a new sponsor and Jimmy dressed up the Skoal Bandit to be driven by Teo Fabi. In payment, Forsythe gave Jimmy six tickets for the 1984 Indy 500 and Jimmy was kind enough to include me in the group.

Eric was now 8 years old and a big racing fan. The poor kid had no real choice, since Liz and I practically raised him at the racetrack. The year before, I had not told him that Jimmy and I were going to Michigan for the race because we had no ticket for him, and he was too young to understand that he could not go. All the races he had been to did not have reserved seating. Rather than trying to explain it to him, I just did not tell him where we were going. I was sure I could not get away with that for the 500, so I asked Jimmy if I could bring Eric with us. I told him I would pay a full share of the expenses for gas, food, camping etc. for Eric, which was only fair. I said if any of the other guys going objected to Eric coming along, then I would not go either.

The group agreed to allow Eric to join us. The six of us included Jimmy, Eric and me, along with Bunky, Tom and Mike. We piled into Bunkyís motor home and headed south. Bunky announced shortly after we left that we were not allowed to use the bathroom in the motor home on the way down to Indy. He was concerned that the six of us might quickly fill the holding tank. We were all drinking beer, except for Bunky, who was driving and Eric, who was a bit too young. Soon, there came a collective need to pee. Even Eric, who had consumed a couple of soft drinks, announced he had to go, too.

With no rest area near and the prohibition on using the john in the motor home, we made Bunky stop right along the highway. Five of us piled out to pee in the ditch along I-65 in the middle of the day. We lined up and began to pee and decided to make a contest out of it.

Eric won the distance contest. We were amazed at the pressure that little kid could bring to play. Jimmy won the endurance test, which did not surprise us, as Jimmyís bladder capacity was legendary. The rest of us were all back in the motor home yelling at him, "Damn it, Jimmy, hurry up! We would like to get to Indy before the race!!"

As we rolled off of I-465 onto Crawfordsville Road in Indy, Bunky uttered the most memorable quote of his life. Remember, we were only blocks away from probably the most famous racetrack in the world, home of the world-renowned Indy 500, the day before the race. Bunky innocently asked, "Do you think there will be any official souvenir stands?"

That was over 20 years ago and, to this day, Bunky never has had to look for an "official souvenir stand." Everyone quickly points them out to him no matter where we go. "Look Bunky, there is an official souvenir stand!!" Even his three kids do it, although I think Mary Ann spares him.

It was not long after he uttered those immortal words that we passed the first couple of official souvenir stands. Crawfordsville Road was lined with them. There were also several young ladies along the street flashing their boobs at the passing traffic. This unexpected development caught Jimmy off guard and he nearly broke his neck rushing to get his camera out.

We found a parking lot for a strip mall just across the street from the Brickyard that allowed camping. Well, they allowed it for $60 a night. Bunky almost choked when they told him the price. The rest of us were more than happy to pay this and, of course, I paid Ericís share of it too. We liked the fact that we could be so close to the track, and there was even a bar in the strip mall.

We bought something to eat from one of the many "official" food stands for dinner. After that, we wandered around looking at all the "Official Souvenir" stands. Later, the rest of the guys went to the bar to party, but I stayed with Eric in the motor home. I certainly was not going to leave him alone in the motor home, and he was not allowed to go into the bar - even with his father. It did not matter, as it was only a couple of hours before Tom came back to go to bed early, as usual. He said he would stay with Eric, who was already asleep anyway, so I did get to join the other guys in the bar and party a bit.

We eagerly made our way to our seats on race day, which was an easy walk across the street and into the track. Our seats were in corner one, right at the south end of the track, and they were great seats, too. We could see up the front straight and had a great view of corner one, the short shoot and most of corner two.

It was my first Indy 500 and I was very impressed by the size of the Speedway. Sure, Road America covers more acreage, but it has only a fraction of the grandstands. The sight of those grandstands stretching away down the front straight and filled with tens of thousands of fans was amazing. I heard there were over 400,000 of us packed into the Brickyard that day.

I had been at races with close to 60,000 people and big races, I thought, like the U. S. Grand prix, but 400,000 was unbelievable to me. Those races had been at road courses and while it seemed crowded sometimes, it was nothing like this. The atmosphere with all those race fans and the greatest race in the world about to take place was electric. I was there with my best friends and my son to take it all in. I was in heaven.

Tom Sneva was on the pole and joined on the front row by Howdy Holmes and Rick Mears, who was driving for Roger Penske. All were equipped with the March chassis and Cosworth engines. All but five starters had the same combination of chassis and engine. Michael Andretti, in his first Indy 500, had out-qualified his father and was on the inside of the second row. Gordon Johncock split the father and son duo, with Mario on the outside of row two, having qualified just .338 seconds slower than his son.

Teo Fabi, driving the Skoal Bandit car with graphics hand-crafted and applied by Jimmy, was 14th on the grid, and I had to admit the car was sharp looking. Other notable starters in the race were Al Unser (Senior and Junior), Tony Bettenhausen, A. J. Foyt Jr., Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford, Danny Sullivan, Dick Simon and Chip Ganassi. Also in the race were Geoff Brabham, the son of the great world champion "Black" Jack Brabham and a "rookie" named Emerson Fittipaldi.

The pre-race ceremonies were great... I had seen and heard them on TV and radio before, but to be there and hear "Back Home Again in Indiana" sung by Jim Nabors, in person, with the hundreds of balloons rising in the air, was incredible. In all the races I had been to, I never felt the excitement as much as I did that day. When the command of, "Gentlemen, start your engines" was given, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I think the tradition and magnitude of this race had a lot to do with it. Letís face it, in those days the Indy 500 was THE RACE.

We were all on our feet as the green flag dropped and those 33 cars swept through corner one for the first time. What a fantastic sight it was, framed by the front straight grandstands and all those people. The cheering nearly drowned out the sound of the engines. Sneva was in the lead from the pole. He held the lead for 31 laps before Mears took the lead. The first half of the race was pretty exciting as both Sneva and Mario Andretti challenged Mears.

Because our seats were courtesy of Forsythe racing, we were all rooting for Teo Fabi in "Jimmyís car". Our support did not help since he dropped out of the race with a fuel system problem after completing 104 laps. Marioís challenge ended when he dropped out on lap 155.

Teo Fabi in the Skoal Bandit at Road America
Graphics by Jimmy

Late in the race, Mears was four seconds ahead of Sneva when the caution light came on. On the re-start, Sneva was only three car lengths behind Mears. We were excited by the possibility of a real battle to the finish between the two. Then Sneva rolled to a stop on the 168th lap with a broken constant velocity joint. Mears coasted on to the win. After the race Mears said, "Itís too bad Sneva dropped out because I think it would have been one helluva shootout between us." Of course, Mears knew about shootouts, having lost one to Gordon Johncock in 1982 by a car length.

We, too, were sorry to see Sneva drop out, but thatís racing - just ask the Andrettiís. Rick Mears led a total of 119 laps and won in convincing fashion by two laps over rookie Roberto Guerrero. He erased a 12-year old record for average race speed in the process. Mears averaged 163.612 mph, eclipsing Mark Donahueís record set in 1972. This was Mearsí second 500 victory, with his first win coming in 1979.

Al Unser finished third, followed by rookies Al Holbert and Michael Andretti. This was a rare thing indeed to have three rookies, Guerreo, Holbert and Andretti finish their first Indy 500 in the top five.

Rick Mears celebrates taking the checker at the 1984 Indy 500

In those days, tickets for the 500 were very hard to get so the 1984 event was the only 500 I ever saw. I did not make it back to the Brickyard again until it hosted the U. S Grand Prix for the first time in 2000. I had to agree that, at least back before the CART/IRL split, the Indy 500 truly was "the Greatest Spectacle in Racing."


I made my next trip to Indianapolis a few years later. This was for an SCCA race at Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) in nearby Clermont, Indiana. Greg had entered the race, and Donnie and I went along to crew for him. Greg had sold his Camaro and was driving a Corvette at this time. We towed the car down to IRP with Gregís Itasca motor home. He had bought it used and, while a bit rugged looking, it was comfortable and towed the racecar with no problem. No problem that is, until we broke down on the Bormann expressway just over the state line into Indiana. Fortunately, there was a phone booth nearby and Greg found a local garage to send someone out to help us.

It had taken us a while to get on the road, so it was around 10 pm when the wrecker from the garage showed up. While Greg and the garage mechanic worked on the motor home, Donnie and I were listening to a radio station that was taking requests. I figured, "What the heck," and walked to the phone booth to call in a request.

The timing was perfect, and just as Greg got the Itasca to start, the DJ said "Here is a request from the Aasen brothers who are broken down on the Bormann expressway". He then played Willie Nelsonís "On the Road Again" for us. Greg did not think it was funny, but Donnie and I did.

As we were about to pull out, I noticed the lights on the wrecker were getting dim and finally went out. The mechanic had left his mars lights on, but shut the engine off and now his battery was dead. Greg went and asked him if he needed any help and he said no, he would just call the garage. As we got under way again, I was not sure how reliable the motor home repairs would be since the mechanic who helped make them was now broken down.

We stopped at a rest area on I-65 and got some sleep. Before we left the rest area, I went in to use the restroom. As I walked back to the Itasca, I saw a historical marker on the west side of the parking lot. Being an old history major, I went over to read it. It said, "Twenty miles west of this spot is the first farm to be electrified in Indiana." It had a date, but I do not remember what it was. I guess if youíre in Indiana, you take what history you can find.

It was just after dawn when we pulled into Clermont. We stopped and had some breakfast and then headed to the track. At the track, we parked and went into registration. There we had our second problem when they could not find Gregís entry form. They finally found it using his car number, but the name on it was Greg Arlen. Greg was indignant that they messed up his name like that and said so. The registrar just pulled out Gregís hand-written entry form and handed it to him. Donnie and I looked at it and agreed it said Greg Arlen. After that, Donnie and I called him Deuce Arlen all weekend long. It had to be Deuce because I was Ace, and I guess that makes Donnie, Trey.

Donnie shows Greg a pit board at IRP

During the race, Greg pulled into the pits and said he thought the car had lost a couple of cylinders. Donnie and I opened the hood and, sure enough, I quickly spotted two spark plug wires were off. The problem was that to put them back on, I had to reach in between the headers, which were very, very hot. I did not have a pair of mechanics gloves with me Ė heck, I didnít even know there were such things. So I reached in with my bare hand and, as carefully as I could, tried to put the plug wire back on. I burned my hand and reflexively quickly pulled back. I tried again and was burned again.

Greg brings his Corvette down the pit lane at IRP

I figured I had better get those wires on soon or Greg would be upset. I glanced at him through the windshield and he was sitting there laughing at me. He thought watching me try to get those plug wires on was one of the funniest things he had seen. I did not find it all that amusing. I finally got them back on, Greg rejoined the race and I went to find some cold water to stick my hand in.

As fate would have it, on the way home, the Itasca broke down again on the Bormann expressway. It was about eight at night, and dark. Greg pulled over to the side of the road and said he knew what the problem was. He was sure it was a plugged fuel filter. He had had this problem before and even had a spare with us. He went out and crawled under the motor home just behind the front wheels with his legs sticking out. All of a sudden, a car went by on the right side of us.

This startled me as I thought we were on the right hand shoulder of the road. I looked around and found out we were actually parked just where an entrance ramp joined the highway. I jumped back in the motor home and got another flash light and then went out onto the entrance ramp to warn cars over to the right so they would not run over Gregís legs. Sure enough, it was the fuel filter and we were soon on the road again without anyone running over Gregís legs.

Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen

 

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