Lessons learned that first day at Indy
There they stood in Gasoline Alley, the old one, the storied one, with its little garages made of cinder blocks and wood.
There were the Unsers. Both of them. Bobby, who had won in 1968, and Al, who'd won in '70 and '71. Just the two of them, chatting.
That made them easy targets for a rookie motorsports writer, early on his first day of covering the Indianapolis 500.
This was Wednesday of race week in 1975. Track silent. Grounds quiet. The day before Carburetion Day, which was run on Thursdays then.
And this, it seemed at that moment, was going to be easy -- just as easy as covering NASCAR, where I fancied myself a veteran with almost one year's experience.
At this moment, those "Keep Out" signs on A.J. Foyt's padlocked garage doors -- I'd been told the signs especially meant media -- didn't seem so ominous. I was scared of Foyt in those days. As was everybody else.
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But now I had the Unsers cornered, and that would do just fine for my very first story out of Indy.
So I just sauntered right on up to the brothers, introduced myself, and told them I'd like to do a story on both of them. Right there. On the spot.
Bobby Unser didn't even grant me so much as a look of annoyance. It was just a sideways glance as he said, "Haven't you got something else to do?"
Al said nothing at all. I don't recall whether he even glanced at me.
Nothing, short of Foyt walking up and bloodying my nose, could have taken me more aback. I walked on, rattled, mortified.
Except for Foyt, when he ventured south to run NASCAR.
I'd had one conversation with the man I'd come to fear upon reading an unvarnished story about him in Playboy, as preparation for my new job covering auto racing.
The conversation, at his Daytona garage stall, had gone like this:
"A.J., are you busy?" probably asked in quavering voice.
"Yeah. Real busy."
End of interview. Foyt stomped back into his garage and stayed there.
Now, summarily sent for a hike by the Unsers, I began to wonder whether all these guys -- the ones with more scars and steelier eyes than the NASCAR drivers -- were like this.
Then, relief. Here came Johnny Rutherford. Good ol' Johnny Rutherford, the defending Indy 500 champion, walking alone. This first day was going to work out just fine, after all.
Rutherford had talked to me plenty, leading into my first NASCAR race, the Firecracker 400 in 1974. (What I hadn't realized was that of course he talked to me. He was getting paid appearance money, as the '74 Indy champion, to drive in the July race.)
I happily approached him. Immediately he looked at his watch.
"I'm late for a function," he said. "I've got to go."
"Just a few minutes?"
"I gotta go, right now. I'm late."
Welcome to the biggest race in the world, kid. I don't think we're in NASCAR anymore.
Now I was panicked, perplexed and pissed. If this were Daytona, I'd have quotes for half a dozen stories in my notebook by now. Here I had nothing. And I was supposed to file a story that afternoon to the Sentinel Star, my employer at the time, now known as the Orlando Sentinel.
I found Bill Brodrick, the chief racing publicist for Union Oil Co., then branded Union 76, the company that supplied all the gasoline and motor oil for NASCAR. (You might remember him from countless photos and telecasts as the huge, red-headed guy who was in charge of victory lanes in NASCAR for decades.)
Brodrick wielded enormous clout down there. I figured he must here, too.
I went whining to Brodrick: Both Unsers just blew me off, and not even Rutherford would talk to me. Rutherford didn't even seem like the same guy I'd met at Daytona.
And Bill Brodrick, Mr. Fix Anything in NASCAR ...
Laughed out loud.
"Hey, pal, this ain't Daytona. This is Big Casino. This is for it all."
This race could change a driver's life. Or end it.
"So they're ALL uptight," Brodrick said. "Of course they ain't gonna talk to some rookie writer from Florida."
Turned out Brodrick was there on special assignment, a sort of commando raid onto the foreign, sovereign soil of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which fancied itself so far above stock car racing that once NASCAR founder and czar Bill France Sr. had been ejected from the grounds.
Going into the Indy 500 in 1975, car owner Dan Gurney had ticked off Ashland Oil Co., which, with its Valvoline brand of motor oil, ruled Indy. Ashland also supplied all the methanol fuel for the race, and wouldn't give Gurney a drop.
Stymied, fearing he might not even be able to field his cars in the race, Gurney phoned Brodrick. Turned out all the methanol in the U.S. came out of one little refinery in Texas, and it was just a matter of branding. Brodrick, through Union 76, secured several barrels of methanol. And he shipped Gurney several cases of Union oil.
Out of gratitude, Gurney and his lead driver, Bobby Unser, agreed that Unser's uniform would carry a Union 76 logo on the upper-left chest -- right where the Valvoline patch was supposed to go.
Indy officials, totally beholden to Ashland and Valvoline, said no.
And Bobby Unser informed them that if he couldn't wear the Union logo, he would not race. Indy officials did something unheard of at the time. They gave in.
That's what he and Al had been talking about when I encountered them. That's why they had no time for some punk writer from Florida. That's where I didn't understand just how big this Big Casino was. Photos of Unser would go worldwide if he won, and the Union patch was placed so that there was virtually no way cameras could avoid it.
The tiny media room at Indy would have been just as intimidating, except that next to me sat Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who was pretty much the A.J. Foyt of sports columnists, simply the best in the English language.
But the Foyt of sportswriters turned out to be the opposite of the driver in personality. James Patrick Murray was, in 1975, and to his death in 1998, the nicest sportswriter I've ever known, the most unassuming of all titans of his profession.
Murray wasn't always so kind on his little portable typewriter. I took his immediate befriending as license to glance over at what he was writing.
"If the Kentucky Derby is the Run for the Roses," he happened to be typing at that moment, "then this is the Run for the Lilies."
I think it was a year earlier that he'd written his notorious line, "Gentlemen, start your coffins."
Upon learning that I mainly covered NASCAR, Murray said, "Good. NASCAR is safe. Not like this s---."
And so, as my first day at Indy went on, it hit me full force just how big, and how deadly, Big Casino was.
Murray loathed the danger, what he deemed the borderline suicide, of the Indy 500. And at this point, I wasn't exactly falling in love with the damn thing either.
Mario Andretti had missed the first weekend of qualifying at Indy to race in the Grand Prix of Monaco. He would have to start back in the pack. His annoyance and frustration would save my first day at Indy.
Bill Brodrick had helped me get a backup interview, with Vern Schuppan of Australia. Mainly a road racer in sports cars, Schuppan had signed onto the Gurney team for this 500 as Bobby Unser's teammate.
Schuppan was very pleasant, talking about how Australians would be up in the middle of the night watching the faraway American race on television. But this story was nothing like what the Sentinel Star expected. It would be hard to get readers in and around Orlando interested in an obscure driver from Booleroo Centre, South Australia, on the other side of the planet.
Then I heard Jim Murray say he was going out to trackside. Media people were invited to drive an Indy car -- actually it was powered by a tiny Chevrolet Vega engine, to keep the sportswriters' speeds slow and safe.
I considered it a publicity stunt -- Viceroy was sponsoring Parnelli Jones' team (Parnelli had retired as a driver and was now a full-time car owner), and the cigarette company's New York marketing staff had set up the media drives.
But if the greatest sportswriter in the world was going to participate, then who was I to ignore the event? I followed Murray out there.
Mario Andretti, as Parnelli's lead driver that year, showed up at the function. He helped media people adjust to the car's seat and tighten the belts.
We stood in line for our turns driving. Murray was just ahead of me. Mario helped him strap in, and off Murray went. He was by no means a gearhead. He was used to driving the L.A. freeways, and his posh neighborhood of Bel Air, in his personal car, with an automatic transmission.
And so, after he had shifted from first to second gear, Murray apparently didn't see any need to shift further. A little Chevy engine, even running 70 mph, couldn't withstand a lap at Indy, all the way around, in second gear.
As the car came to a stop at the start-finish line, there was a terrible smell of burning, and the engine, turned off, continued to make a ticking noise.
Parnelli's mechanics lifted off the engine cover. As they worked, and I stood at the head of the line, I realized how outgoing Andretti was. Nothing like the others. Totally comfortable, even chatty.
Parnelli shook his head. "Must be a main bearing," he said. The little engine was done. No more sportswriters driving.
Disappointed yet again that day -- like Murray, I'd planned to write a column about driving -- I found myself standing one-on-one with Andretti, who suddenly didn't have anything to do for the next little while. All the other writers had walked away when the car was shut down.
My line of questioning was reflexive. The guy had just come from Monaco. Long before coming to Indy, I'd been disappointed that Formula One drivers rarely raced in the 500 anymore, as they had a decade earlier, when Jim Clark won in '65 and Graham Hill in '66.
It simply made sense that Indy should be for the best drivers in the world. The whole world. Including NASCAR drivers, who couldn't come anymore because of the scheduling conflict with Charlotte.
That point was right in Mario's wheelhouse. We were motor racing soul mates from that moment.
Of the F1 stars of the time -- Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter et al -- Mario said, "Those guys know how to go fast too."
But Indy required a driver's presence for most if not all of the month of May, and in some years Memorial Day weekend conflicted directly with Monaco, which ran the Sunday of Ascension Day weekend, a major holiday in Europe. Andretti himself had to scramble back and forth across the Atlantic.
Mario had been to FIA meetings and seen that "Old Tom Binford [then chief steward at Indy] just stands around and chomps on his cee-gar and doesn't say anything."
Binford, next to Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Anton Hulman, was the most powerful man in town -- an industrialist, a philanthropist, a power broker who had the clout to woo the FIA and adjust the race dates for Indy and Monaco.
But Indy was too aloof, too isolationist, too stuffy to bother. Mario Andretti called it like he saw it.
I had a far better story than anything I'd have gotten from the Unsers, or Rutherford, or from driving a little show car around the track.
And from this, my Day 1 at Indy, I learned that iconoclasm not only is allowed, it can be good. That the truth is foremost. That you call 'em like you see 'em.
Bobby Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1975. He was leading on the 174th lap of a scheduled 200 when raindrops the size of quarters began to hit the pit wall where I was standing. Within moments came a deluge. The race was stopped, for keeps.
Photos of Unser, Union 76 patch and all, went worldwide. But that wasn't the end of the embarrassment to Indy and Valvoline.
The Valvoline billboards were already up, all around town. They were traditional. They read:
"No. 1 at Indy.
Then the winning driver's name.
All that was left was to place the name on all the billboards. That, previously, had been easy -- everybody in the field ran Valvoline. All the names had been pre-painted on placards that would be added.
Overnight, the guy in charge of the signs faced a crisis. There was but one name missing from the stacks of pre-painted names: Bobby Unser.
He had an idea. He did have "Al Unser" and "Bobby Olivero." So he sawed the placards in half and switched them around to read "Bobby Unser."
At dawn on Monday, driving to the airport, Brodrick saw one of the billboards, then another. He phoned the mighty Indy officials.
"Take 'em down. All of 'em. Now."
The signs came down.
Indy is hallowed. But not omnipotent. Not infallible.
What I learned that week from Mario Andretti, Bill Brodrick, Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser, I have applied ever since.
That has caused me a lot of trouble, but no regrets, at Indy all these decades.