Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Deadly reasons for not watching Indy 500

WHEN POLE-SITTER Scott Dixon leads the field around the Great American Cow Pasture on Sunday, May 25th, I won't be one of 200,000 to 300,000 watching the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 in person or one of the countless millions viewing it on TV.
This isn't a recent promise, but one that I made to myself some 35 years ago in May 1973.
And there's a definite reason for passing up the touted auto-racing extravaganza, which I've written about a number of times in the past.
Gordon Johncock won the 57th running of the 500 that mid-week afternoon, however, when his brilliant red STP Eagle crossed the finish line in front of 100,000 fans after only 133 laps or 332.5 miles, it was anti-climatic to the incredible events which preceded it.
It was difficult to believe that two deaths and, more than 15 injuries, added up to any kind of a victory celebration.
Rain had prevented its start on Sunday, and then it was postponed to Monday and as rain spitted all over the huge playpen the flag finally was dropped by Pat Vidan
Then young Salt Walther tried to make a hasty exit through a wire fence along the front straightaway. He missed and as a result, the modish bachelor wound up in the Downtown Methodist Hospital covered in burns to most of his body.
In the aftermath of the devastation, 13 or more spectators were burned, two teen-age girls seriously, along with minor injuries to two drivers -- Mike Hiss and John Martin. The race was then halted.
Rains again wiped out Tuesday's plans. So it wasn't until Wednesday at 2:07 before the track was dry enough to start.
The 32-car field roared off with the gleaming white Eagle of Bobby Unser charging around the first turn, and it appeared as if the difficulties of the previous few days would be forgotten by some brilliant driving.
The pattern appeared familiar as Bobby U. spread his wings in front of such dominant personalities as Mark Donohue, Swede Savage, pole-sitter Johnny Rutherford and Gary Bettenhausen.
But then the speeds, which had reached a tick of the clock away from 200 during qualifications, started to take their expected toll. First Mario Andretti, wheeling a Parnelli Turbo-Offy, went for lunch on the third lap.
Machines and drivers wheeled in and out of pit lane for the first 30 laps as Bobby Unser doggedly held onto the lead for the first 75 miles.
But, then during a pit stop, Johncock took the lead and by the 40th lap, or 100 miles, he had a safe margin over young Billy Vukovich and Savage with brothers Al and Boby Unser moving up steadily.
But any belief that this race was going to be accident-free were quickly dashed when Savage, only 26, and driving another STP machine for owner Andy Granatelli, spun on some oil on the 58th lap as he headed down the north end of the straightaway, turned sideways and slammed into the wall front first.
Alternate driver John Mahler, who was standing near the pit entrance, rushed towards the scene along with six firemen carrying extinguishers and managed to tear the aluminum away from Savage's frame and carried him to a waiting ambulance.
Swede, who had survived a near fatal crash at Ontario, Calif., in 1971 and had a memory lapse for almost six months, was taken to hospital with compound fractures to both his legs, internal injuries and burns. He would die later.
In the ensuing confusion surrounding the accident, a pit crew member for another STP team driver, Graham McRae, was fatally injured.
As I wrote on that fateful day, Armando Teran never saw death coming towards him, but thousands in the stands did.
Did you ever see a man die a violent death? I wanted to walk out of the Speedway and never return.
Armando came to Indianapolis to work on one of the STP pit crews, a chance to get away from his job as a truck driver in Culver City, Cali. He was 23, a bachelor, who didn't expect to die in the 500. He wasn't a race driver.
It was 3:10 p.m. when No. 40 -- Swede Savage -- hit an oil slick and slammed into the wall, exploding immediately and spewing fire across the track, just at the entrance of pit lane.
Armando was standing behind the wall near the starter's podium, talking with other members of McRae's pit crew.
As ambulances and fire trucks started roaring towards the accident scene, Armando leaped over the wall, started to cross the paved pit lane towards the narrow median of grass and race along with dozens of others.
Just then a fire truck, speeding at more than 60 mph, and also going in the wrong direction, blasted through the pit area and Armando was a pedestrian who wasn't looking/
.The truck struck Armando with a tremendous thud, sending the young mechanic flying through the air some 50 feet. He rolled over and over again -- like a child rolling through snow.
The crowd screamed as they lifted his body into an ambulance. The fire truck's radiator was spewing steam and a huge dent was showing on its passenger side.
It was more than an hour later the press learned of Armando's death. The crowd was never told.
When Johncock finally crossed the finish line that fateful afternoon, there was no joy in the STP camp.
For Granatelli, the usually life-of-the-party owner, it was a very bitter-sweet victory. "It's not a great day for me because Swede's in the hospital and a crew member of ours has been lost." He wiped a tear away.
Later, on the victory podium, the announcer for the festival of beer and dirt tried to engender some enthusiasm from Andy, but he turned his head toward the rain-pregnant skies and it appeared he might be thinking, "Why me, God, why did something like this happen to me?"
As for this rain-drenched road warrior, I vowed never to return to the Indianapolis 500.
I have kept that promise.


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