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May 23, 2003
HEAT, SPEED, AND THE JOHNNY LIGHTNING SPECIALBy Greyhawk
And everyone had a favored driver who had to be the one to do it! Mario Andretti, Peter Revson, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Mark Donahue, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock; the Texans! - Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby, and The Legend, The Man, A.J.Foyt. The names to me just sound right for the type of guy who would strap himself into an open wheeled rocket and launch himself into four hard lefts, two short chutes, and two long straightaways 200 times at close quarters with 32 other like minded steel-nerved maniacs.
I liked 'em all. My heroes, larger then life, some missing fingers, some with permanently twisted limbs and some doomed to die all too soon doing what they loved. I saw Foyt win in '67, the first race I remember. Little more then a toddler, hearing the unbelievably loud roar. Ear splitting? Too weak a description. The white noise of pure speed, man's quest to develop better technology embodied in these chariots of fire and steel. The same attitude that led to the Moon shot was "driving" this sport. Advances made here would trickle down into the passenger cars of tomorrow. But so what? It was all about the speed! The sound and fury signifying man's quest to be better, stronger, faster...
Andretti won in '69 and became my first driving hero. The rest of his career would be a quest for the elusive repeat. And that career may not be over, though amazingly, this happened to him just a couple months ago at age 63!
By 1970 any member of Cub Scout pack 288 could tell you that when it came to yellow track gravity-fueled racing, matchbox cars were lame, hot wheels were okay, but Johnny Lightnings were the best. I mean, look here at Al Unser's entry for the 500 that year, The Johnny Lightning Special. Wanna drive it? Who wouldn't, to this day. It's the epitome, the zenith, the nadir of open wheeled racing.
And there I sat in the stands high above, in the good seats at the start/finish line (seats were first come, first served for qualifications), with my dad, with my brother, and a cooler full of Kentucky Fried Chicken, cold drinks, and more. (Yes, the Indy 500 was Bring-your-Own! How cool was that?) Getting the first sunburn of the year. (if you live in Indy, you get your first sunburn at the track. Kids who missed school in May and returned the next day sun-burned had a hard time explaining to the dean.) Watching him ride and clutching that stop watch in finger lickin' good hand, hoping beyond hope that Al could do it...Look at it! Painted like that how could it go slower then 200mph? And when he did it, I would be the one to prove it, and say "I was there!"
Now read this. What has changed? Blame NASCAR? Sure, that's a small part. Blame an individual? Yes, there's one who shares some fault. But in a strange way, I think America has lost something. That same something that led us to the moon.
The quest for 200 began in 1911 and ended on May 14, 1977 when Tom Sneva turned a qualifying lap at 200.535 mph. Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 that same year. But A.J. Foyt won, becoming the first four-time winner.
And I was there for it all, watching the race with my brothers. The noise of the cheers for Foyt was greater then the scream of the engines. Speak your mind about anyone or anything you want to in Indianapolis, but God help you if you disparage A.J. Foyt. Guthrie, in the meantime, putted around the inside of the track slowly, staying out of the way of the real drivers and finishing respectably, if one considers only place as a measure of respectability. What an historic race! But the times were a' changin...
For high school kids The Track was all about skipping school. Anyone who thinks the Indy 500 is a one-day event is mistaken. The Track is open all month in May. Practice, practice, practice; open to the public, bring your own. Skip school a couple times during the month, go, have fun, come back to school sun burned and note that most of your classmates are too. Dude, were you in the snakepit? I didn't even see you there!
Then the weekends and qualifications. The first day of qualifications, when the pole position is determined, is the second largest sporting event in the world. Numbers never publicly released. Probably incalculable. 250,000? And general admission, open seating, and once again, bring your own. That's the day when the stopwatches are out and records are broken. One car on the track for a few warm up laps then four for real. When Sneva broke 200 no one needed Tom Carnegie, the track announcer forever, to make it official. If you didn't have a stopwatch you were near someone who did. But when Tom announced the unofficial results they became "official" and the crowd went wild.
Then race day. Sometimes in the stands in good seats. You pay for your seats on race day. Other times in the infield. If you line up early enough (the day before) you could drive into the track infield and right up to the edge. The inside first turn, void of stands, was the legendary "snake pit." (Don't ask, if you have to ask, you just wouldn't understand.) A few years later, they would build stands there to put an end to it (and make a couple more bucks) but one glorious year I was home on leave and my best friends in the world and I were there with my buddies El Camino serving as the perfect method of transportation for the iced down full keg of beer we brought along. (That's what I meant by "bring-your-own".) Glory days...
But now this. What happened? (Not the economy, stupid. Nice try by the idiotarian headline writer though.)
Self destruction - yes, a bit of that. Detailed in this timeline. Note that the all-time track record for single (237.498) and four-lap (236.986) average were set in 1996; 1997 was the first year the IRL cars were used. The seven years since represent the longest period without a track speed record set in the modern (post WWII) racing era.
Look at the list of speed records, you can see the quest for 200. There it is, from 1970 to '77. Look at the phenomenal jumps. Look at the gap caused by the response to the tragic '73 race. But you can also see they were way too close to 200 to stay slow for more then the minimum amount of time needed to show some sense of respect. The events of '73 delayed the satisfaction of 200 until '77; Sneva's accomplishment was all the more exquisite for that.
Then look at the numbers beyond that, 210, 220, 230, approaching 240! Is that it? It may be possible that we've seen the fastest speeds a human can take. G-force in the high-banked turns of the new Texas Motor Speedway were said to be sufficient to render drivers nearly unconscious.
Bah! This is America! We'll come up with something to reduce the G-force, right? Right? I mean we put a man on the moon! We can do anything! Right? Anybody?
Because I'm not sure.
I think one of the things that made the Indy 500 what it once was (the Greatest Spectacle in Racing!) was the guys with the slide rules, then the calculators; the Mechanical Engineers, the Drawing Board guys. America used to lead the world in production of these guys. Couple the Mechanical Engineers with the Mechanics, the guys who could take a car apart and put it back together in 10 minutes blindfolded. Add a driver who laughs at death (haha!) and there you have it! The same teams that put a man on the moon; scientist, engineers, extraordinary technicians and fearless operators. That used to drive every industry in America.
Does it still exist? We last walked on the moon in 1972. Is that a bad thing? Not completely, there probably are better ways to spend that money. But the end of the Apollo program, begun one could claim, with John Kennedy's immortal challenge issued May 25 1961, ended with a whimper.
Forty-two years later to the day, Brazil's own Gil de Ferran flew his Honda across the fabled yard of bricks that marks the finish line at Indy, the checkered flags waving, hailing the conqueror. Congratulations to him! A well earned victory.
Where were you when we landed on the moon? I wonder if we'll ever accomplish something of that magnitude again?
Posted by Greyhawk / May 23, 2003 11:53 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com