By Steven Capwell
The Andrettis are just one of many families for whom the Indianapolis 500 is a tradition.
Back in 1967, my family started a Memorial Day ritual that still endures. I was in my early teens and nuts for auto racing. My hero, Jim Clark, had won the race two years earlier and finished second the next year, and I was convinced he was capable of another trip to Victory Circle. I was willing to back up my faith with cash, but no one I knew seemed willing or interested in taking me on. My grandfather, who I think was interested in anything that his grandkids were involved in, came up with an interesting proposition. “Anyone can bet on the favorites.” he said. “So let’s do this. Let’s each pick someone who qualified in the back of the field and see who finishes the race in the highest position. It will make following the race more interesting.”
Thirty-three cars start the Indianapolis 500 in eleven rows of three cars. Ideally the fastest car starts on the inside of Row 1 (the Pole Position) and the slowest on the outside of Row 11. I say ideally because the qualifying system at Indy used to be more Byzantine than Constantinople. Qualifying was a four-day event stretched over the two weekends before the race. The first Saturday was Pole Day. Often 200,000 fans would come out to see the fastest cars fight it out for the Pole. The qualifiers that weekend filled as many rows as needed. Here is where it starts getting weird. After that first weekend, no matter how fast you went, you lined up on the starting grid behind everyone who had qualified in the first two days. You could even be faster than the car on the pole. It wouldn’t matter. This meant that the back half of the field was a mix of fast and slow cars, veterans and rookies, and a lot of low-budget efforts that barely squeaked into the race.
That year, my grandfather decided to pick a car owned and operated by A.J. Foyt and driven by a fellow Texan, George Snider. He figured that a team mate of a two-time winner was driving a superior car. What he did not figure on was the bad luck of Snider at the Speedway. He picked Snider every year, and never won the pool. In fact, one year, Snider hit the wall on the Parade Lap and never even started the race. Every year since my grandfather’s passing in 1972, one of us has picked the eligible Foyt-owned car.
It’s always the same. One dollar is the wager. We’ve had as few as six and as many as a dozen participants. If, like my mother, you know nothing about racing, we will pick someone for you. Some in the family handicap the field and make an informed decision. Others pick a favorite driver, team, number or whim. My sister, Amy, seems to have picked the most winners. Only once has the winning bet also been the winner of the race—Al Unser, Sr. in 1987.
We will do it again this year. Everyone will clip the line up out of the paper and put it on the refrigerator. Whether listening on radio, watching on TV or in person at the Brickyard, we will all be as focused on the back of the field as well as the leaders. Afterwards, dollars will be exchanged. A ritual completed. Until next May.
Steven Capwell firmly believes in braking before turns and accelerating through them. (You have been warned.) He was raised in Catasauqua, went to school in Allentown, lives in Bethlehem, and has recently come to discover and enjoy Easton.
Photo is Mario Andretti on the May 29, 1967 cover of Newsweek, the same weekend the Capwell family tradition was started.