LEMASTERS: Getting Jazzed About The Indy 500

Ron Lemasters Jr.

CONCORD, N.C. — Getting jazzed for the Indianapolis 500 has never been my problem.

Back in the days when I attended the race — circa 1970 through 2000 — there was no bigger time of the year for me or my family. It began to build when the weather changed, and in central Indiana, that was a slow change indeed.

As the weather got warmer, so did the feeling that it was time for another installment of the spring classic. Better yet, it meant hours of watching, listening and just plain luxuriating in the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Everyone who has ever been to Indy, I would guess, falls in love with the history, the ambiance and the fact that there’ve been more than 100 Indy 500s run on the same ground. For me, it was the Holy Land. Thanks to my dad, who grew up within sight of 16th Street and Georgetown Road and was immersed in the lore and ceremony that it entailed, I followed in that tradition.

Like Christmas, there was an interminable wait for the doggone race to get there. Practice was cool and Pole Day was a big deal — where else can you and 250,000 of your closest friends hang out all day and watch cars turn 200-mph laps?

My favorite day was the last day of qualifying: There were so many cars and drivers trying to make it in the field that you just sort of hung on every story. Roger Rager’s valiant attempt to get in with a stock-block Chevrolet engine comes to mind. Shoestring didn’t even begin to describe that effort, but he made the field.

The story is, quite frankly, equivalent to the movie “Hoosiers,” a small-time team goes to the big dance and wins a lot of hearts before slaying the giants of the sports. It didn’t quite end that way, but it is very similar.

Back in 1980, the Minnesota open-wheel driver took advantage of USAC rules that allowed more turbo boost for stock-block engines, and his effort became quite the story.

“When USAC said we were going to run the stock block here, we had to find a motor that had been well-used …,” Rager told The Associated Press in 1996. “It all starts with the block.”

Without a big budget, Rager and his team got creative.

“My theory was if I got a block out of a truck or a heavy unit that had been hot and cold and pulled a lot of weight, that block would have already done everything it was ever going to do,” he told AP. “So we were at the junkyard, and there sat a bus, and it was a Chevrolet and it had what we wanted. We pulled two or three motors out of different vehicles, but that one looked to be in the best shape, so we used that block. After the thing was bored and line-bored and oil passages cleaned out and aligned, that was the one we felt most confident in.”

With good reason, it turned out.

Qualifying 10th at 186.374 mph, Rager was ahead of four-time winner A.J. Foyt in the field, as well as 1973 winner Gordon Johncock and the first man to top 200 mph at Indy, Tom Sneva, all in well-funded rides that had engines purpose-built for the race.

The way it went, you knew Rager was going to do something spectacular, and he did: he led two laps early in the race. That’s right … the engine block that had hauled countless tots to school on a daily basis led two laps at Indianapolis.

Alas, the Cinderella story reverted to a pumpkin 40 laps later. Jim McElreath spun and hit the wall in turn one — right in front of my family’s seats in the Southwest Vista — and Rager tried to avoid him. That sent his machine into the inside wall and out of the race with a 23rd-place finish.

That was also the day Sneva and Gary Bettenhausen, who started 33rd and 32nd in the field, finished second and third, respectively.

Stories like these, and there are thousands of them, are one of the main reasons it’s never a problem for me to get jazzed about the Indy 500 every year.