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A guy to cheer for…

My intentions at the beginning of May were to have blog posts of my days spent this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Well, after about the first day, I figured there wouldn’t be much interest in letting everyoen know that I arrived at the track, hung out in the garage, got some autographs, sat in the stands for a while, went back to the garage, and then went home. Come back the next day, repeat cycle.

Instead, the idea popped into my head last night to blog on one of my favorite drivers, John Andretti. In a sport where egos can run amuck, John first impressed me in the late 1980’s when he first appeared on the Indycar scene. He always seemed to a mild mannered guy who always had a smile. As a fan, John was an easy choice to gravitate to.

Even though John’s Indycar career started in 1987, he was no stranger to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Having been born into racing, John’s father Aldo (twin brother of Mario Andretti) had him at the track at an early age. This photo taken at IMS in 1967 shows (left to right) brother Mark, cousin Michael, John, and cousin Jeff.

John’s career has fluctuated over the past 20 years. After his Indycar options withered in the early 1990’s, John turned his attention to racing stock cars, where he has had a solid career since making his debut there in 1993. In recent years, John’s career has come in fits & starts since being released by Petty Enterprises in 2003, where he drove the famed 43 car for Richard Petty starting in 1998.

Since 2003, John’s been in & out of varies stock car series, but one good thing that came out of his semi-employment was the opportunity to return to the Indianapolis 500. Prior to 2007, John’s last run in the 500 occurred in 1994. But in ’07, he had the time and brokered a deal to run the Camping World car in that year’s 500.

Returning to the 500 again in 2008, John was already looking ahead to 2009. He convinced his now stock car sponsor, Window World, and his former boss Richard Petty to help him put together a team for the 500 with the assistance of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. To date, it’s not been the best of months, on and off the track. John’s dad Aldo has had some health issues and John’s car wasn’t getting up to speed in the first weekend of qualifications. That was compounded on May 10 when John smacked the Turn 1 wall, setting the team back even further. Right now I’d like to say that John’s safely in the field for the May 24th 500, but he’s yet to qualify. With 11 spots left open and upwards of 15 cars likely making qualification attempts, John and the team have their work cut out for them…and it showed Friday afternoon in their garage.

But despite all of the pressure this month has brought for John, he still has time for the fans. I was standing in the seats next to the entrance to Gasoline Alley watching the crews haul the cars back off pit road for the night. All the drivers either rode or walked back to Gasoline Alley. John’s crew pulled his car back, but John chose to walk and he was one of the last drivers to come through.

There were fans lined up on the north side of the entrance to Gasoline Alley waiting for any of the drivers to give them even a waive, as there were two fence rows separating them from the entrance. None of the drivers did…until John strolled upon the scene. He went down the line…at least 30 people long…and signed every item anyone had. There were a group of kids at the end of the row who I’m sure will remember the rest of their lives how John took the time to acknowledge them…just like how I remember in the late 1970’s when John Martin acknowledged a couple of us kids there on a 5th grade field trip.

It was a cool sight to see the 30 or so people along that fence and the 10 or so up in the stands next to it cheer and applaud John when he signed for the last person in line. When it comes to the fans, John gets it. He’s a guy you want to cheer for. 

 

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel: 1963-2009

This week, demolition crews will knock down the final wall of the 96 room Brickyard Crossing Inn, originally dubbed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel, which was abruptly closed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in December.

(courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway, circa 1966)

Opened in 1963 outside of Turn 2, the IMS Motel was never an architectural masterpiece, but it had plenty of memorable guests during its 45 year tenure on West 16th Street. Many celebrities throughout the years attended the Indianapoolis 500 and most of them stayed at the IMS Motel, given the fact today’s upscale hotels in Indianapolis didn’t exist in the 1960’s. Names like James Garner, Jim Nabors, and Paul Newman  made it their home while in town for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Many a driver stayed there during the entire month of May, most notably 4-time Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt, who typically passed on the luxury motor homes for a comfortable room at the motel.

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Newman’s roots with the speedway and the motel run deeper than his celebrity. He filmed many scenes from the 1969 movie “Winning” at the speedway and the motel, co-starring Robert Wagner and his on-screen and off-screen wife Joanne Woodward. Probably the most memorable scene from the movie was when Newman’s character, Frank Capua, returned to the motel after leaving Gasoline Alley and caught Woodward and Wagner (his team mate in the movie) “in the act” in Room 212.

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When I found out the motel was going to be leveled, I was hoping to be able to get access to the room so Jennifer & I could get current day photos of the room and do some side-by-side shots from the movie, much like we do on our Road Trip Memories blog. I went straight to the top and wrote a letter to IMS president Joie Chitwood, but to no avail. I got a nice “Sorry Charlie” e-mail from the IMS public relations department a few weeks later. Hey, I tried! Hopefully Joie enjoyed the issue of American Road magazine that I sent him along with my letter. 😉  The last photos I took from there during demolition, Room 212 was still hanging on….although gutted and broken.

Newman was a fixture at the speedway for decades and became a car owner in the 1980’s for Mario Andretti. He made his final appearance at the speedway during qualifications for the 2008 Indianapolis 500, just four months before losing his battle with cancer to watch his rookie driver, 19 year old Graham Rahal, qualify for his first 500.

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The other more notable guests to stay at the motel were none other than The Beatles during their 1964 tour. Legend has it that during their stay in Indianapolis, fans were tipped off they were staying downtown at the Essex House Hotel. Their manager then put all four in one room at the IMS Motel.

Thus ends a piece of the history of the century old Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The adjoining Brickyard Restaurant and Flag Room Pub remain open for business with no plans of closing. The future of lodging at the speedway is uncertain. With the Town of Speedway undergoing a major redevelopment plan coupled with a struggling economy, it might be a while before anything transpires, but early indications are there’ll be a more upscale hotel and conference center sprouting up near the site of the former IMS Motel. But whatever replaces the IMS Motel, it’ll have a hard time matching the history and lore of what stood before it.

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