1975 was a different time at Indy

By Ed Hinton
May 2005

Drivers didn't come to the media center to talk in those days. They came to fight.

A.J. Foyt's garage door was padlocked, and a sign said, "Keep Out."

When you walked down Gasoline Alley you needn't know the faces to differentiate between the regular Indy drivers and the invaders from NASCAR or Formula One.

All you needed to see were the burn scars. The unmarked guys were the outsiders.

This was the Indianapolis 500 as I first covered it, 30 years ago this month. v Sponsorships were small, and odd: SugaRipe prunes, Silver Floss sauerkraut, Olsenite toilet bowls, Genessee beer -- "gimme a Genny."

The great Jim Murray would sip one -- just one -- Genny as he tapped out his column for the Los Angeles Times on a little Olivetti portable typewriter. Sometimes, sitting beside him, you just had to sneak a glance.

"Gentlemen, start your coffins," he wrote. Or, "If the Kentucky Derby is the Run for the Roses, then this is the Run for the Lilies."

His black humor was hardly exaggerated. Death at its most gruesome was no stranger to these grounds.

But the most consistently dangerous area of Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn't the track or the pits, it was the Snakepit -- a vast, infamous mud hole full of rowdies in the infield off the first turn. If a reporter even got near it, the denizens would throw whiskey bottles and lighted cigarettes at you.

Four hundred thousand people -- of virtually every status and viewpoint in life -- showed up on race day, by the best estimates of the Indiana State Police.

Always by sundown Friday, the sprawling intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road was literally repaved, solid, with flattened beer cans.

(Just the other day here, a veteran of the wars at 16th and Georgetown told of how a police car once got trapped in the bedlam, was rolled over for fun, the officer knocked cold, while his German shepherd police dog "was hiding in the back seat.")

On Sunday you had to rise at 4 a.m. just to get into the seas upon seas of traffic, creeping from all directions into central Indiana.

Tens of thousands of people slept near the gates to the most mammoth grandstands on the face of the earth. They slept -- or passed out -- in the streets, in parking lots, on lawns, even precariously on bridge railings, wrapped in sleeping bags and tattered quilts.

What served as a media center was a cinder-block hut, and half of that was taken up with poker tables.

Drivers didn't go in there unless they wanted to be deemed sissies by their peers -- or unless they had issues, such as when Bobby Unser came in "to ask if I wanted to step outside," as the retired L.A. writer Deke Houlgate recently reminisced.

Foyt didn't take the time to go in there hunting writers -- he just smacked them where he found them. He once went upside the head of Indianapolis columnist Robin Miller on the pit lane, in full view of the grandstands. Right in Gasoline Alley, I think it was '77, Foyt set upon a radio reporter with intent to thrash and throttle, until Dick Mittman of the Indianapolis Star pulled him off .

I've always thought Mittman deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor for an act of bravery unrivaled in all the lore of Indy. Drivers didn't come to the media center to talk in those days. They came to fight.

When first I came here, drivers couldn't spell CEO, let alone define it. Jim Gilmore, the Michigan broadcasting magnate who sponsored Foyt, approached him just as cautiously as we did.

Danica Patrick, the current rookie driving sensation, couldn't have even gotten past the "Yellow Shirts," the guards of Gasoline Alley.

It wouldn't have even gotten to the point of her being female as an issue. She looks so young they'd just have eyeballed her and said, "Get out of here, kid!" and no amount of ID she showed them, proving she's 23, would have mattered. "Go! Go! Out! Out!"

VIPs were a dime a thousand. In '76 a Saudi sheik, with grandiose entourage, paraded up and down the pit lane. Someone asked Tony Hulman, the grand old owner of the Speedway, who this foreign dignitary might be.

Hulman glanced over, shrugged, said, "darned if I know," and kept walking. His grandson, Tony George, would provide luxury transportation and a sheriff's honor guard to such a visitor today.

You had to have five different credentials to get through the gates and into the pits on race day. If you lost any one of them, you were done-for -- no admission -- didn't matter who you were.

There were no TV monitors, no race progress reports, certainly no transcripts of driver quotes. There was one old teletype machine clacking in a corner of the media hut, giving race standings as of 20 laps ago.

Reporters would watch the start from inside the first turn, the cars screaming by you 30 feet away, the whiskey bottles from the Snakepit whistling by your ears.

As the race wore on, the only quotes you got were by risking your own death or maiming from the terrifying, invisible fires of methanol fuel in the pits. If you escaped that, you still risked wrenches being thrown at you by drivers or mechanics furious at having fallen out of the race.

Back then we called it the boot camp for all sports writers. If you could cover the Indy 500, anything else -- the Olympics, Super Bowl, heavyweight fights -- was a piece of cake.

And now the electronic scoring monitors blink at every seat in a media center the size of a football field, and there are two or three different TV instant replay angles, and you get inundated with paper -- race progress, driver quotes, VIP quotes -- so that you can hardly find your own laptop underneath the piles, and you can't hear yourself think for all the interviews being piped in over the P.A. system.

The pits and paddock of the Speedway are now one sprawling pleasure palace, with all sorts of cocktails, food, and big-name rock bands pounding relentlessly in the plaza.

All this. And yet, covering the Indy 500 is not one-tenth the fun, the challenge, the raging battle, the risk of life, the absolutely titanic event it was, that May of '75.

Bobby Unser won that year. The race was shortened by a rainstorm that blew in from Terre Haute.

The very raindrops were enormous, left spots on your clothes the size of quarters, as you stood there in the pits thinking at first that they were splashes of spilling methanol, about to engulf you in invisible fire.

Different time. Different race.

Ed Hinton can be reached at ehinton@orlandosentinel.com.

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