It’s the 6th of May, 1968 and I’ve managed to flunk out of Ball State Teacher’s College in only two quarters. I squandered an opportunity my parents of the Great Depression never had, but was oblivious at the time because all I cared about was the Indianapolis 500.
Practice was three weeks back then, and I was perched by the fence at the rear of Gasoline Alley when my hero came walking past. I’d been cheering for Jim Hurtubise since he shattered the IMS track record in 1960. So I started following him to Terre Haute, Eldora, Milwaukee, DuQuoin and the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
After those races I would seek him out, and a few times I stole a beer from any cooler nearby and gave it to him, hoping he might recognize me some day.
So he’s sauntering past me and I yell, “Herk” – and then my life changes. He stops, and after a couple minutes of me explaining why I was his biggest fan, suddenly asks if I would be interested in helping him for the next couple days until his full-time crew gets to town.
He says he can’t pay me anything but he’d get me a silver badge, and then asks how old I was. Eighteen, I replied, but I looked 14 and you had to be 21 to get into the pits back then. He goes into his garage and comes back with a Goodyear jacket and hat, which he pulls down over my eyes as far as possible, and tucks a Mechanic’s Laundry rag in my back pocket.
We walk into Gasoline Alley together and past a couple Yellow Shirts, who amazingly don’t interrogate Theodore Cleaver.
Thus began the greatest, and saddest, week of my life.
Herk had no idea what a mechanical moron I am, and he already had another stooge lined up, a college sophomore from Michigan named Skip, who actually had some toolbox aptitude.
Now, if not having a real crew wasn’t a big enough handicap, Herk was also driving his beloved Mallard that year. He’d missed the show for the first time ever in 1967, but was determined to combat the rear-engine revolution with the front-engine roadster that he and brother Pete had built in their garage in the winter of 1966.
Our assignments were as follows: Skip strapped Herk into the car and ran the starter while I was in charge of getting Jim’s helmet on, fastening the bodywork with a Dzus wrench, running the pit board and helping push the car out of the pits.
His helmet became somewhat of an adventure. He’d left his back in North Tonawanda, N.Y. so he borrowed one from Joe Leonard. Of course it was two sizes too large, so I was instructed to take a few Mechanic’s Laundry rags and stuff them into his helmet so it wouldn’t slide around at speed. Then I had to tape his goggles onto his helmet.
On May 8th his Offy engine blew up in about five laps, and we went back to the garage. Herk and Skip pulled the motor while I handed them tools. A few hours later my hero asked me to go over to a box in the corner and bring him a couple gaskets. All I found were a bunch of paper cutouts, which I dumped on the floor, and I told him there weren’t any. (I assumed a gasket was made out of metal). Jim barked: “What in the hell do you think you just threw on the floor?”
That was Strike 1.
He worked alone most of the night and several hours into the next day installing a new shooter: Herk wanted to get out on the track. It was 5:45pm, and we pushed the Mallard out to the pits as fast as possible. I was rushing through the helmet drill but fumbling a bit, and Jim yelled to hurry up. A shock of his hair was sticking out, but I panicked and just taped his goggles and hair onto the helmet.
After two laps, the engine expired going down the backstretch. He was fuming when he climbed out of the car, but even madder a couple seconds later when he ripped off his goggles and that lump of hair went with it. Sorry.
While another engine was installed, I polished everything in the garage and avoided making eye contact with Jim. It rained out May 11, thankfully, so I had no chance to do anything stupid. But May 12 became my personal Armageddon.
Herk had scored a sponsorship with Pepsi and Frito-Lay. They had this bitchin’ paint job with a Pepsi bottle cap, and a couple of the guys that put the deal together were coming to the track to watch practice. Pete had shown up with a couple other mechanics, and everyone was excited to get going.
Because the Mallard was so long, the entire bodywork was one big piece, and it was held in place by several Dzus buttons. A Dzus button can only be fastened with a Dzus wrench. As I was trying to button up the last couple, I slipped and put a gash all the way across the nose and right through the Pepsi bottle cap.
Herk screamed a couple of obscenities, called me an idiot and fired me on the spot. I was devastated. I had failed my hero. I had to give back my badge, and I’d blown my chance to be Jim’s friend.
The rest of the month didn’t get any easier, as Herk blew something like 12 engines and was still outside looking in when qualifying had to be extended to Monday because of rain.
There weren’t many people in the grandstands on May 27, 1968, but I sat behind his pit and cheered like a banshee when he qualified. I ran down to the fence as he was taking his qualifying photos and got up the courage to yell his name. He waved me over and I hopped the fence and gave him a hug, apologizing for my ineptitude. He let me stand in the back row as the last photos were taken, but I didn’t make the official IMS shot. That didn’t matter, because my hero had forgiven me and he’d qualified the last front-engine car to ever run at Indianapolis.
I joined The Indianapolis Star that summer and became fast friends with Herk during the next 20 years. I flew in his Seabee with his faithful dog, Prince, went to lunch with him periodically, and wrote a glowing tribute to the “Rebel without A Pause” one Christmas Day.
And every now and then, usually when he was holding court in his muffler shop on 16th Street, he’d get that grin and point to me and tell the boys: “Back in 1968, Robin was my chief mechanic. For about 20 minutes.”