INDIANAPOLIS — April 23, 1978. Forty years ago came the night the racing died.
Amid stormy spring skies late that evening, a small plane plunged to earth some 35 miles east of Indianapolis near the small town of Arlington, Ind. Killed in the crash were the pilot and eight United States Auto Club officials.
The event had an enormous impact on the course of open-wheel racing in America and on the sanctioning body itself. Several of the officials held key leadership positions within the club, and the loss of their experience and presence was a terrific blow. As the club struggled to forge ahead, the political landscape in championship racing — already tenuous — quickly shifted and in due course the club lost control of that long-held segment of the sport.
Speaking personally, what became known as the “USAC plane crash” occurred prior to the onset of my writing career. I had long heard about the event and in 1998 authored a feature story in NSSN on the 20th anniversary of the crash. As the research for the story began, I quickly came to understand the impact the event had on the sport and what a tremendous shock it brought within the racing community.
Yes, the event had historic implications. However, time has helped me realize that the real tragedy — and the most important aspect — of the crash was the loss of nine dynamic and important people. The people they left behind — friends, colleagues, family — were left to deal with a life-changing event and a loss that was both crushing and intimate.
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Today, 40 years later, many people still grieve.
The officials were returning from the Gabriel 200 at New Jersey’s Trenton Speedway, a USAC championship event won by Gordon Johncock. They flew into bad weather and it is believed the plane crashed as the pilot was trying to maneuver around a severe thunderstorm over eastern Indiana.
Frank DelRoy, 65, was USAC’s technical director. “Frankie” was one of the most respected racing officials in the nation, with tenure in the sport that began as a riding mechanic.
Don Peabody, 54, had just recently joined USAC after a successful stint as an official with the California Racing Ass’n. Don had already had an impact on modernizing the USAC sprint car schedule.
Ray Marquette, 48, was an award-winning sportswriter with the Indianapolis Star before joining USAC as vice-president of public relations. Friendly and jovial, Ray was a popular and beloved figure in the sport.
Shim Malone, 48, was a highly regarded flagman and official in the USAC sprint car and midget divisions.
Judy Phillips, 40, was the USAC typographer, known for her ability to turn race results and stories around on quick notice.
Ross Teeguarden, 57, was DelRoy’s assistant technical director and was a part-time employee of USAC.
Stan Worley, 65, was the USAC Registrar, known to all as the guy who signed you into the pits.
Dr. Bruce White, 28, was part of the USAC medical team and was in his first year of surgical residency at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
The pilot, 54-year-old Don Mullendore, had logged more than 30,000 flight hours and was an aviation pioneer in his hometown of Franklin, Ind.
Across 40 wide years, it is still a raw and emotional loss felt by surviving family members.
The people who were lost that night are more than names on a plaque, more than a historical footnote. They were a vibrant, important group of people with a lot more living yet to do. Alas, it was not to be.
Forty years later, the unthinkable is still difficult to comprehend. Life goes on, yes; but for USAC and many people within the racing community, it was never the same.