I'm counting down the days until the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. I'm not a race fan in the fanatic sense.
I've only been to the Indy 500 a handful of times. My memories center around listening to the race on the radio in the backyard while filling out the leading laps grid from the Indianapolis Star.
I do love Indianapolis, tradition, and most of all a theme! Each day I will share a memory or tidbit of history.
When I share stories of mishaps or good intentions gone wonky, it is not because I find joy in other's misfortunes. I'm muttering "there but for the grace of God go I" as I type.
The 1971 pace car story is also a great example of how home-grown the Indianapolis 500 can be. When none of the Big Three automobile manufacturers offered to supply a pace car, four Indianapolis-area Dodge car dealers stepped up.
The group, spearheaded by Eldon Palmer picked the Dodge Challenger 383-4V (heck yes, it's a Hemi!) and supplied a fleet for the month of May. They chose Eldon to drive the official pace car at the start of the race.
The day before the 500, while practicing for the race, as the story goes, Eldon set up an orange flag (or an orange traffic cone, depending on which version of the events you're reading) in the pit lane to give himself with a reference point on when to start braking. During the parade and pace lap, Tony Hulman, ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel, and John Glenn rode as passengers in the car.
As the field came down the mainstretch for the start, Eldon pulled into the pits and accelerated down pit land. He continued to accelerate, under the impression he was required to cross the start/finish line in the pit area prior to the race cars doing so out on the track. His reference flag (or cone) had been removed and he missed his planned braking spot. Moving upwards of 125 mph, Eldon realized he was going too fast, and chose to stand on the brakes, rather than dangerously veering back on to the track, and into the traffic of the 33 cars.
He lost control of the car and it swerved and skidded to the end of the pit area and into a temporary stand full of photographers.
The stand collapsed, injuring 29 (or 22 or more or less, depending on the story) people. Thankfully, no one was killed. Tony Hulman suffered a sprained ankle, and a shaken Chris Schenkel sat out the remainder of the ABC broadcast.
This ushered the era of the pace car drivers selected from the pool of former Indy drivers or people with racing experience.