Indy 1966 and my father’s — and my — near demise

The 500 that almost snuffed me before conception

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From the time I was very small, the month of May has held a very special place in my heart. For the race fan and layman alike, the Indianapolis 500 and the entire month of buildup and track activity, represent something very special: the greatest spectacle in sport.

It is sorely missed in 2020 this month.

The 1966 race holds a very special place as well. Not for the confusion in timing and scoring between winner Graham Hill and runner-up Jimmy Clark. Not for Jackie Stewart lapping almost the entire field (before breaking and a DNF). But for a much more personal reason.

I would not yet be born until a year and a half later, but had events at the start of that race been just a hair different, I might not have been writing this today. My own dear old dad (wearing a much younger man’s clothes) nearly met his end from a tire and suspension from Dan Gurney’s Eagle.

My future father, T. Richard “Dick” Stahler, was fresh out of the Army, working on a masters degree at the University of Illinois, while doing an apprenticeship in Radio and Television for WILL-TV as a sports producer. He and three of his colleagues were filming “The greatest spectacle” with Bell & Howell 16mm cameras at each corner of the circuit, gathering footage for a segment. Dad was positioned at the entry to Turn One at the end of pit road, right by the creek.

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The Indy Eagle as it appeared at the Riverside International Automotive Museum | RM Sotheby’s Karissa Hosek photo

As the field roared down to the green flag, Canadian driver Billy Foster, on the outside of the fourth row, shot forward on the outside and nearly hit Gordon Johncock, who started on the outside of row 2. The Canadian lost control, hitting the outside wall and triggering a 16-car pileup. Eleven of those cars would not make the restart.

Gurney, starting on the inside of row 7, considered a favorite for the race win, was involved in the melee. On impact, his Eagle’s left front tire, wheel and part of the A-arm were launched toward my father’s filming location (8:38 on the video).

Dad explains the moment: “It happened so fast, that I couldn’t react. I don’t know how fast (the tire) was going but it went right by my head — whizzzz! Missed me by about a foot.”

Needless to say, in November of 1966 he married my mother and a year and a week later, along came Thomas Richard “Tommy” Stahler — me! Oh how that moment still gives me chills when I see the footage — like someone walking over your grave.

Chatting with them to check my facts, my mother chuckled and said, “meh, you just would have had a different daddy.” I think the two of them have been quarantined together just a tad too long.

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Many years later, circa 2012, I took dad to the Riverside International Automotive Museum — owned by my dear departed friend, Doug Magnon. One of the prized cars in the collection was that very Dan Gurney All-American Racers Eagle. That car just happened to be on a lift that day getting routine maintenance from chief mechanic Bill Losee. Dad posed with the car for a photograph. His head right next to the left front tire and suspension — and with a Cheshire Cat grin.

I couldn’t find the picture from the Riverside Museum, but here is dad and me that same week with some guy with a car collection in Burbank, California.

This video, originally aired on the original SpeedVision channel on a show hosted by Dave Despain, takes you though the important moments of this particular race — in living color!

Duck Dad! Duck!

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