Having grew up in west central Indiana, the month of May has always been a special time of year for me. Not only did it mean the end of school, it also meant a time that racing was the lead story on the local news. Every Indianapolis TV station had "Trackside" segments on their newscasts before there was a channel named Speed.
I remember my first grade teacher summoning me to the door one day in May. I looked and it was my parents. They said since the weather was nice, we were going to Indianapolis to watch practice for the race. "ALL RIGHT," I thought. I'm going to the track. No trip to Indy wasn't official unless you made a stop at the White Castle Hamburger joint at the corner of 16th & Georgetown Road located right across the track. You know White Castles. The little hamburgers with onions that was advertised as "Buy'em by the sack full." A snack was a half dozen of them and they cost about 15 or 20 cents.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the race wasn't televised live in central Indiana. Tony Hulman, IMS Owner, thought that attendance would drop if the race were shown live. The local ABC affiliate had to wait to July 4th weekend to show the race and then it was shown after the 11 PM news. That was the way til IMS changed their views sometime in the 1990's I believe.
What made the race special in the time before live local TV was that every town that had a radio station, broadcast the race. I got up on race day morning, checked out the special race day insert in the Indianapolis Star newspaper and listened to WIBC AM 1070 radio for pre race programming (starting at 7 AM) that included traffic reports, interview with drivers, owners and a few celebrities. The paper always had a scoring chart in there that allowed you to chart each drivers success or failures every 50 laps. Bob Jenkins and Paul Page, former lead announcers for the IMS Radio Network, would always use the tag line, "Let's go to Howdy Bell for a full race rundown." The Radio Network did a fantastic job of describing the action. It seemed like there was something exciting going on in every turn of every lap.
My first impression of what Memorial Day was all about was due to the Indianapolis 500. I would listen to the pre race ceremonies. The invocation from some priest from the local Catholic diocese. The playing of taps from the Purdue Marching Band. It was through the race broadcast that I truly thought of veterans dying on foreign soil, fighting wars. I felt anguish for what they endured and for the sense of loss and sadness their famalies had at the time of their deaths. Since my dad served in occupied Japan at the end of World War II and all my uncles served in various branches of the military during that same time, I thought of them and what they went through fighting for our freedom. It wasn't until I was at the race in person did I not realize how loud 300,000 people could be in their silent tribute during that short but important part of the pre race. You can hear traffic on Georgetown Road that parralels the front straightaway. You can hear people coughing. I was awe struck. And last but not least, PA Announcer Tom Carnegie would bellow out "And now please welcome Jim Nabors as he performs, 'Back Home Again In Indiana.'" You could hear the crowd began to yell wildly just as Tom would say the name Jim and the cheers would only get louder.
We would spend the afternoon listening to the race as we sat in the living room or side yard, weather permitting. As a young kid, I would sometimes put a playing card in the spokes of my bike to get that rumble sound that a race car would make, pretending to be A. J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., or Lone Star JR (Johnny Rutherford).
Here it as we're in the middle of another Memorial Day weekend. The 500 now starts early afternoon instead of that former tradition of 11 AM. The race is now shown live locally and Indianapolis TV stations now have local pre race shows. No matter how old I get, there seems to always be a part of me that wishes I could be back home again in Indiana this weekend.