Q: Just got done reading your article on the RACER website about the ’70s and the various headlines of that decade. Great job! Very interesting facts, some I had never heard. Any chance you could do the same for the ’60s? I don’t know if you were at the Indianapolis Star then — probably not — but that decade was pretty interesting too.
Joe Weiss, Spooner, WI
RM: Thanks Joe. I started at The Star in the winter of 1968 and covered the 1969 Indy 500, but I attended USAC midgets, sprints, stocks and Champ Car races from 1964 on, so I paid attention. My plan is to do a review of the 1960s and 1980s in the near future.
Q: Forever reader, eternal fan, first-time writer. Your ’70s piece really brought things back, so thank you! My first Indy experience was actually Time Trials in ’69, (six years old, hooked, you know the rest…), but it wasn’t until 1976 that I finally went to the Indy 500 to see J.R. win in a McLaren. I saw Anthony Joseph win his fourth, saw Big Al win in ’78, and we had Paddock seats for the ’82 Johncock/Mears finish. I’m a lifelong fan because of the ’70s, and your piece cemented this. It was the absolute coolness of the ’70s, however, that hooked me for life. In said life, it’s been an honor to shake hands with Mario, Mears and Unser Sr.,(all ’70s heroes), and I’ve spent so much on collectibles/artwork from The Motorsport Collector that I should be on Paul Zimmerman’s Christmas card list for eternity.
Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that my family’s open-wheel passion has remained unchanged through all of the changes in IndyCar for the past 100 years, and we have zero complaints about any of it. Zero. Just being able to attend a race is a gift, just like your ’70s article and your endlessly entertaining Mailbag. Ever considered writing a book on the 1970s?
Jim W., McHenry, IL
RM: I haven’t thought about a book but that would be the decade I chose if I did, because I was around for all of it and right in the middle — writing 52 columns a year on USAC, working on Indy 500 crews and competing in USAC midgets while living in Larry Rice’s YMCA with Chuck Gurney, Larry McCoy, Mark Alderson and a few AMA flat-trackers. I just feel like the ’70s was the decade that changed the face of American motorsports — at least in open-wheel.
Q: I just got done reading “1970s – a Decade in Headlines”, and although I wasn’t born until 1980, this article was fascinating to read. Kind of makes me wish I was born earlier so I could witness some of these events first-hand. We have come a long way in safety in motorsport, and some of these stories and the courage of these drivers at that time were insane. It was a different time for sure, but when a driver was killed or critically injured in an accident, how was it portrayed by the media and public at that time? Did it just come with the territory, and was accepted as one of the risks that was part of racing? Thanks again Robin, maybe a sequel about the 1980s?
Hutch, Cabot, PA
RM: Good question. A newspaper like The Indianapolis Star always treated racers with great respect in life and death because it was a major beat, Indy was the epicenter of open-wheel racing and famous drivers had the same status back then as NFL, NBA and baseball players have today. They were eulogized in print and on television, and we made a lot of trips to Conkle’s Funeral Home in the 1960s and ’70s. It did become the accepted reality of the business. But it was always The Washington Post or National Geographic that was calling for the end of auto racing following a fatality because they either didn’t accept the mentality, or just needed a platform that particular day. I pointed out to a stick & ball writer once that more kids died playing high school and college football than in race cars throughout the years, but he didn’t want to hear it. Look for the 1980s in January.
Q: While going back and learning about a lot of drivers from the past, Ed Elisian keeps popping up as having been involved with several fatal crashes before his own. I admittedly know little of him other than this. It seems at some point guys would be looking at him a little sideways or hesitant to get on track with him. Have any drivers from that era ever spoken to you about him and about having issues with his driving?
RM: Elisian was before my time, but he’s blamed for the first-lap carnage in 1958 that killed Pat O’Connor, and was involved in a sprint car crash the next month at New Bremen that killed Jim Davis but was cleared of any wrongdoing. He was also accused of tangling with Bob Sweikert at Salem in the 1956 sprint car accident that claimed the life of the 1955 Indy winner, but it wasn’t true. He received a sportsmanship award for stopping his car and rushing to the aid of Bill Vukovich on the backstretch in the 1955 race that killed Vuky, who was one of his few friends. My dad’s first job at Indiana Bell was to collect on back payments, and he went to Elisian’s house and got the door slammed in his face. Angry Ed passed bad checks, ran with gamblers and died a fiery death at Milwaukee in a life that was always on the edge.
Q: So maybe 10 years ago, I’m at the kart track in New Castle practicing. I go out and there is a shifter kart out there. I’m in a TaG so the shifter should be much faster than me. I keep catching it in the corners, but then it leaves me on the straights. Their lines are all over the place — not even close. Ran me off the track a few times. I drive through the pits to get away from it and within a couple laps, same thing. Running into me in the turns, never taking the same line, etc. It was like they’d never driven a kart and someone threw them in a shifter. So I pull in and go to the track manager in a rage, and I’m like, “Who the hell is that out there in the shifter? They’re going to kill someone! They can’t drive at all! You’ve got to get them off the track!’’ By this time, the manager, Mike, (Dismore’s son-in-law) is on the ground laughing. He finally stopped laughing enough to tell me that it was Milka… Now, after that I did crew for her at the RoboPong and she’s super-sweet (my ex-wife was pissed because she liked to flirt a little), but she was as bad in a kart as in a car. And I don’t think you were one of her favorites?
RM: God, that’s perfect. Reminds me of when she ran Ryan Hunter-Reay off the track in three consecutive corners at Watkins Glen during practice and he confronted her only to hear: “I was just holding my line and I never saw you.” She despised me, but her presence in the Indy 500 starting line-up remains as one of the biggest jokes on record.
Q: Wintertime. Pandemic. Bleak and dreary (at least here). No racing on the tube. Silly season is fun, but no on-track action to discuss in the Mailbag. So here’s a technical question for you. We see (or hear) that in IndyCar and NASCAR, when a car is not handling properly, one of the actions taken during a pit stop is to install tires that have different pressures than the preceding ones. In my Formula Ford days I learned that varying the tire’s initial pressure did indeed affect the car’s handling (at least, if I took a big enough swing at it). And it wasn’t necessary to know why, just that it did. So can you lateral this question to one of your technical boffins and ask why? Is it the tire’s spring rate? Effect on ride height? Changed contact patch area? Combination of those? Other?
Rick in Lisle, IL
RM: Firestone’s technical whiz Kara Adams was kind enough to respond: “My answer is yes, yes, and yes. Clearly your reader has done their homework. When teams make a “tire pressure adjustment” by changing the cold pressures of the tires from the set that went on the car last, there are many reasons they could be doing so. When lowering pressure, a tire loses stiffness, and deflects more in the sidewall. Think of a basketball with not enough air. Sure, there’s more contact area, which can add grip, but that takes away stiffness. And more grip isn’t always better if the car, or one end of the car, is bound up. Tire pressure is one of the quickest and most effective tuning tools an engineer has at his or her disposal. Changing pressures can affect the amount of grip and the handling of the car. Teams may just raise or lower the front or rear pressures, or sometimes only one position. If the balance is off, this can be a quick aid to car handling.”
Q: Indiana is a great basketball state, and was just wondering if any outstanding players ever ended up in the cockpit of a race car or found their way into auto racing in another capacity?
Mike Edwards, Maryville, TN
RM: The only one I can think of is John Mengelt, a hard-nosed all-state guard from Elwood who went to Auburn and then played 10 years in the NBA. He spent a brief time working for Champ Car in the 2000s, and that’s the only big name I can recall that dabbled in auto racing. The late, great Jimmy Rayl loved Kokomo Speedway and his Shelby Mustang and I think he wanted to try driving, but wisely opted to remain a fan. (Note: the writer of this letter, Mike Edwards, was Indiana’s leading scorer for Greenfield High School in 1969, averaging 36 ppg, and a high school All-American who went on to play at Tennessee and then professionally in Mexico).
Q: I grew up on Falcon Lane, which runs parallel to 38th Street, not far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the ’60s and ’70s. Our house was directly in the landing path of the old Bob Shank Airport just to the north. Plane traffic was always heavy during May, especially on race day. Any good old stories around the IndyCar racing community about flying in or out of that airport? Do you know if car owner Michael Shank is any relation to the pioneering pilot Bob Shank?
Jay Hertz, Midway, Kentucky
RM: I don’t think the Shanks are any relation, but one of the scariest stories came in 1966 and it could have been Shank’s Airport. Lloyd Ruby took off downwind in his Beech Bonanza and flipped into a cornfield and broke his back, taking him out of his Ford factory ride at Le Mans. It also injured his chief mechanic, Dave Laycock, and fellow racer Bill Cheesbourg.