They were happy days, but some also were tragic
I like the word “nostalgia,” but it really doesn’t fit my experience as I spent a goodly part of Friday wandering around the Vintage Desert Classic paddock at (sorry ISM) Phoenix International Raceway.
My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “nostalgia” as a “state of being homesick” or a “wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Much as I like the word, neither of those definitions fit my experience.
“Blast from the past” — “a striking reminder of an earlier time,” as the dictionary puts it — might be a better way to describe my reaction at seeing the array of old Indy and other open-wheel, oval-track racing cars that were part of the show headlined by the cars and stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series (which on May 27 stages the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500).
Decades before this website launched, I was a full-time student and part-time daily newspaper sports writer who was assigned to cover the local and weekly United Auto Racing Association midget races. This was back in the day when drivers raced midgets — small, un-fendered, pure-bred racing cars powered by hopped-up four-cylinder engines — and if those drivers were good enough, they progressed into larger and faster sprint cars and, if they were even better than good enough, moved up to race at Indy.
Ah, Indy. We lived out in the country so getting into town to watch the closed-circuit telecasts wasn’t an option, but every year I’d listen to Sid Collins and the crew cover the action live on the radio. And then, in 1969, a few weeks before I graduated from college, I was at the Brickyard, with press credentials, to see Andy Granatelli plant a victory kiss on Mario Andretti’s face.
Soon thereafter I moved to another newspaper for a full-time job that included covering a variety of sports, and not only local races and racers but those competing at the brand-new Michigan International Speedway, where Larry LoPatin hired Stirling Moss to help design a road course that intertwined with Charlie Moneypenny’s 2-mile, high-banked oval, so in addition to stock cars and Indy cars there were Trans Am and Can-Am and Formula 5000 events and the original IROC races with champions from around the world driving identical Porsche Carrera RSRs.
In other words, paradise for a young motorsports reporter.
So fast forward quite a few decades and I’m at Phoenix International, oops, I mean ISM Raceway to do a story about the vintage Indy cars, and it’s like old home week, especially when I see cars with the names Gordon Johncock and Duane Glasgow on them and learn that another car, though “restored to the appearance of Lloyd Ruby’s car,” originally had been raced by Sam Sessions.
All of these memories rushed back last weekend when I saw the names Johncock and Glasgow and Patrick and Sessions, and those of others I covered back in the day.”
Johncock won Indy twice, but early in his career, he worked with Glasgow as his chief mechanic, operating out of a small shop in Hastings, Michigan, their hometown. On occasion I’d drive to the shop to do a story. I don’t recall Glasgow saying much, but he was gracious enough to let a young reporter ask questions and watch as he worked his mechanical magic.
Johncock also was quiet, but he would reluctantly answer questions as he progressed from local hero to Indy champion, winning first in 1973 and again in 1982, when he beat Rick Mears in what many of us still consider the best final laps in Indy history.
Johncock won both of those races driving for Patrick Racing, a locally based team.
While Gordie was from Hastings and Pat Patrick was from Jackson, Michigan, Sessions was from Nashville — no, not the well-known one in Tennessee but the small rural town in Michigan. Mainly known for racing sprint cars (he was the 1972 U.S. Auto Club national champion), he drove in the 500 seven times, never qualifying better than 23rd but finishing as high as fourth.
When I was a young motorsports reporter, Sam often would visit the newspaper office to share vending-machine coffee and to talk about racing. One day he brought me an autographed picture of him and the car he’d qualified at Indy. And then, in 1977, he died in a crash, not in an open-wheeled sprint car or Indy car but in a snowmobile race.
Trying to remain as objective as we can, journalists sometimes develop friendships with those they cover on a regular basis. Unlike those who cover most sports, those who cover motorsports must attend funerals of people who died too soon.
All of these memories rushed back last weekend when I saw the names Johncock and Glasgow and Patrick and Sessions, and those of others I covered back in the day.
Nostalgic? No. I’m neither homesick nor yearning to go back. But memories to cherish when triggered by some blast from the past? Absolutely.