Too often after somebody dies, we regret that we didn’t get to say goodbye properly or thank them for their friendship and all the contributions they made. So consider this a living tribute to a man who’s made a positive impact on auto racing as we know it for seven decades.
Bill Marvel has Stage 4 cancer and the clock is ticking, so it seems like the right time to thank him and tell him what he’s meant to USAC, IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NBA Indiana Pacers, and all the hundreds if not thousands of people he’s helped in his 92 years.
Marvel (photo above, with Mario and AJ at the 1966 Hoosier Hundred) has been a public relations dynamo, a race promoter, a general manager, a publisher, and a vital part of a program for injured racers.
He worked in the IMS press room for 30 years; started the Charger newspaper; helped get Pocono up and running; worked at the Houston Astrodome; served as GM for Texas World Speedway, and ran the USAC Benevolent Fund.
He promoted the inaugural Hoosier Grand Prix at Indianapolis Raceway Park; helped pack Pocono its first couple years; staged USAC midget racing in the AstroDome; and put on USAC sprint races around the Midwest.
He was also the Indiana Pacers’ first PR man; helped with the Indianapolis Racers for a couple seasons; and beat the PR drum for the Indiana Loves in World Team Tennis.
If you needed to get the word out about a race, a team, a driver or a sponsor, it was always wise to contact Marvel ASAP. He’s still the best PR man I’ve ever known.
I met him in 1966 on top of the tower at IRP. I was stealing a Valvoline banner and he was collecting them after the race. But, instead of busting my chops, Marvel thanked me for helping and our friendship was launched.
I spent many nights following my shift at the Indianapolis Star going to his Sports Headliners’ office to work on flyers or releases for his latest project – a great education in learning how to treat people the right way.
His energy level was off the chart. He’d work a shift at Indiana Bell and then head for the Speedway to assist Bob Laycock and Bill York. Or, he’d split his day selling ads for Charger while working for Sports Headliners.
In his Pacer days, he’d write releases following the games and, complete with the box score, would then drive around Indy to every TV and radio station and drop them off, finishing about 3:00 a.m.
He put together most of the 1969 Indianapolis starting lineup to a USAC midget show at the Houston Astrodome that drew 35,000 fans and merited a story in Sports Illustrated.
The thrash to get Pocono finished in time for its inaugural 500-miler in July of 1971 required Marvel to write press releases, take drivers to TV and radio stations, give the media tours of the track and even help put up fencing. He averaged working 18 hours a day and Sports Illustrated’s coverage of the race sported the headline: “Captain Marvel Presents” (photo above).
He suffered a heart attack not long after that, recovered and then moved on to Texas World Speedway in College Station where he planned a fourth 500-mile race for Indy cars before the fuel crisis shut it down.
Marvel dabbled in the “real” business world in the late 1970s, opening Bill’s Unclaimed Freight; but it turned out it was just a front to sponsor midgets and sprints. He was always involved with the USAC Benevolent Fund and made sure that drivers, widows and children were given financial assistance.
He had his own personal tragedy in 1983 when his oldest son, Billy, was killed in a sprint car at Putnamville. He gave him a final lap around IMS on his way to the cemetery, but never held any animosity towards racing and then watched No. 2 son Brad develop into a winning sprint driver.
Indianapolis meant everything to Bill. His dad, Clem, was a longtime USAC official and, together with York, they formed a lifetime friendship that all began in that little media center at IMS.
When the pandemic forced Roger Penske to run Indy this August with no fans, Marvel called and wondered if I could put in a good word with The Captain so he could attend his 80th consecutive Indy 500. R.P. (whose team had won that first Pocono 500 with Mark Donohue) was immediately receptive to the idea, and Bill got to see the action from the media center. You’d have thought he won the lottery.
It’s hard to believe he’s not in the USAC Hall of Fame because he should have his own wing; but my understanding is that it’s a work in progress.
York, who ran the IMS, Pacers and Colts press rooms for decades, is dealing with his own health issues, but gets a big smile when he remembers all the good old days with his pal.
“Bill Marvel was thinking 100 percent racing all of his life,” said York. “He deserves the adulation of every race fans in the country for all his contributions, and he spent his whole life helping people with the USAC Benevolent Fund. He’s been one of my best friends for 60 years, and I love him and for what he did for all of us.”