Indy 500 In My Blood

The Indy 500 is part of the cultural backdrop for anyone born and raised, as I was, in Indianapolis. The bru-ha-ha goes quiet for most of the year for those of us peons not directly involved in the production of the race or any of its auxiliary events, but starting around March things begin to ramp up. Names of this year’s driving competitors and owners start to be heard over the news and radio while ambitious young women are vying to be part of the parade queen’s court, if not to be the queen herself, which my high school classmate, Chelsea Tucker, was one year.

The house I grew up in was about 15 miles northeast of the racetrack, which was far enough to distance us from traffic jams, hawkers, bookies, vendors and parking nightmares, but close enough that through the spring, every once in a while when the air currents were just right, from our back yard we could hear the “zoom” of the cars during their practice rounds. I mean, oblongs. I’ll never forget that sound coming like a loud whisper from 15 miles away: “veeyumm!” “veeyumm!”

My family didn’t have the means to attend the actual race, as even in the 60’s tickets were expensive and not a priority for our family of five. Every few years dad might take us to the track for part of a day of the qualifying rounds, which he always insisted were more fun than the race anyway. Smaller crowds and more access behind the scenes, as back then anyone could actually stroll through the infield and look into the garages and even interact with some of the pit crew if they weren’t too busy, plus there was no entrance fee.

A. J. Foyt was a multiple-year winner of the Indy 500 and I remember one year when I was maybe nine years old watching on TV as he went into the winner’s circle and someone handed him a glass bottle of milk, of which he took a swig and poured the rest over his head. This made no sense to me at all. I turned to my dad and asked him, “Why is he drinking milk? If I’d just driven that race and I was really thirsty at the end of it I wouldn’t want to drink milk! I’d want a Coke!”

My dad’s reply? “I don’t know, why don’t you ask him?” This was a typically irritating response from my dad who, when I just wanted him to answer my questions, would insist that I figure out my own answers. So, I sat down and wrote a letter to A. J. Foyt, who wrote me back a few weeks later and explained that there was milk in the winners’ circle because the Dairy Farmers of America were one of the sponsors of the race. No idea where that letter is now, unfortunately, because it’d be worth about as much as the prize money he got that day, no doubt!

Of course, the 500 festivities included lots of other events, honoraria, and so forth, mostly open to people in Indianapolis who had a lot more money and important connections than my folks did. We enjoyed going to the Indy 500 parade, though, and having attended it so many times is part of the reason that even though 2024 marks my 20th year in Louisiana, I’ve never been to a single Mardi Gras parade. We went to the 500 Festival Parade nearly every year, including the year when Martin Landau was one of the special celebrity guests greeting the onlookers from a float. For anyone out there too young to remember who Martin Landau was, “Mission Impossible” started out as a TV show that ran from 1966-1973 and he was one of the stars of the show. I had a mission impossible crush on the guy and practically wept when I watched him go by on a parade float. Be still my heart! When I wrote to A. J. Foyt, and later on when I saw Martin Landau IN PERSON it never occurred to me that one day, I’d actually get to ride a float in the 500 parade myself, but that happened too!

After graduating high school early in 1973 I worked for a while as a waitress at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, which was owned by the Marriott Corporation and whose founder, “Uncle Bob” Farrell, even came to our restaurant one time to meet with the employees. In the spring of that year our restaurant held a contest to see who could sell the most meals that included both ice cream – – in any form – – and French fries. This was when I learned to ask that question of the ages, “Would you like some French fries with your meal?” and the answer was yes often enough that I won the contest. I was also voted Waitress of the Quarter by my fellow employees.

As my reward for these two wins I got both a $25 savings bond and the chance to ride the Farrell’s Ice Cream float in the Indy 500 parade, which was naturally much more exciting than some stupid old savings bond.  On the float I wore my waitress uniform: a fluffy, high-collared, long-sleeved white blouse on the top and a teeny-tiny black pleated miniskirt on the bottom, plus my fake straw hat with the red, white and blue ribbon around it. I gave the crowds my very best teen queen wave as the float went by – – so there, Queen Chelsea!

Our float was supposed to be the largest ice cream sundae in the world but of course it wasn’t really made of ice cream, but a bunch of cardboard boxes all stacked up and covered with cotton and paint to look like a chocolate sundae with a cherry on top. The best part of it all, though, was at the end of the parade route, where Farrell’s had set up a long row of tables, each supplied with tubs of real vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, sugar cones, cherries and ice scream scoopers. When we got off the parade float we and other staff who were waiting there spent the next two hours dishing up ice cream cones for the crowd until the ice cream ran out.

Life was sweet that day in more ways than one!

Photo courtesy of Chris Robert on Unsplash

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