I remember it well. My 10th birthday, May 23, 1969. My beloved mother presented me with a new Schwinn three-speed Stingray, with a banana seat and cool extended handlebars. What a mount indeed, and it retailed for $90, which was a fortune to a two-paycheck, working class family. I proudly rode it through the neighborhood and it was the envy of every kid in my subdivision.
I always made a point to wipe it clean every night before I secured it in our garage. It was my baby, and no one else could ride it.
Just one week after receiving such an awesome birthday present, my father surprised me with tickets to the Indianapolis 500, and the best time of my young life unfolded at 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
I had listened to my uncle talk about the race many a time, and I was counting the hours until we finally loaded up a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas in that big old Chrysler we owned, and embarked on what would turn out to be one of the most interesting days of my young life. Before we left, I asked if we could take my bike to the track. After all, the car had a trunk big enough to put a piano in, so surely my bike could be transported easily to the track.
My father quickly squelched the request, and I recall pouting in the back seat all the way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As we settled in to our front stretch seat at the track, l quickly forgot about my bike when I saw the first race car I would fall madly in love with.
There it was, the Brawner Hawk in all of its glory. Stylish, powerful, and when it roared like a lion when it flew by, I was hooked on Indy Car racing. It was driven by a man I had heard my uncle boast about, the “guy” he said that won the 1967 Daytona 500 a couple of years ago, you know, Mario Andretti. While I thought the driver had a cool name as well, I was fixated on the car and didn’t think as much about him, as I did his superb looking race car. As everyone knows, Andretti drove to a convincing win that day, and the car he drove to victory now sits in the Smithsonian Institute. He went on to win multiple Indy Car titles, a Formula One Championship, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and numerous endurance and sports car events as well. After dominating for several decades and obliterating the Indy Car record books along the way, he became known in racing circles as arguably the greatest driver ever, and certainly the most versatile one in the history of motorsports. However, back to that fateful day at the 1969 Indy 500, one that would change my life in a profound way.
When we returned home, I could not wait to read the morning paper the next day, and see a picture of his car. With all due respect to Batman, this Andretti guy was my new hero. Then it came to me, why couldn’t my bike be just like his race car? All I would need to do is paint it STP red orange, and then I would have the coolest looking bike on the planet. I quickly took the money in my piggy bank and rode my trusty steed down to the hardware store and requested a can of spray paint that matched Mario’s car and l was in business.
I gave it a good bathing of paint and while it wasn’t professional, it looked more like the Brawner Hawk than a bicycle, and that was good enough for me. That is until my mother saw it and started yelling something about how many hours she worked at L.S. Ayres department store to pay for the bike, and she was going to tan my hide (which she did) before my father arrived home and did it again.
Needless to say, it was a short lived color change, and with the help of a family friend who ran a body shop, the beloved STP colors were removed and yours truly was grounded and forbidden to ride his bike for an extended period of time. The dream had become a nightmare, and I was left pondering at night in my bunk bed about what could have been. Would this kill my quest to become the next Mario Andretti? Yeah, I guess it did, but I still had my dreams in tact.
Fast forward some 30 years, and by the good fortune of various associations with television production, print media and radio, I finally met Mario at the famed one-mile oval track in Milwaukee. He was, as he is today, polite and extremely accessible to all in the media. He’s given me a multitude of interview opportunities, and always greeted me with a smile, despite my Jimmy Olsen wannabe status. I’ve never shared the tale of my bike with him, but this year as IMS pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of his epic victory, I feel it’s time that I shared my story, as after all, it’s my 50th too, and I’m reminded by the salad days of my youth to tell him, and hope he enjoys hearing it. Perhaps a 60-year-old kid who never grew up can make his milestone anniversary just a little more meaningful.
Thanks, Mario, for all you’ve given the sport, and for everything you’ve done for race fans all over the globe, I’ve always loved Indy Car racing and you started it all for me. Paying tribute to you with the spray painting of my bike wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it sure seemed like the right thing to do. Fifty years later, it still does.
Notes: Qualifications for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 will be conducted this weekend. If you cannot attend, you can follow it on NBC Sports and their cable network, NBCSN.
The month of May kicked off this past weekend with Simon Pagenaud wheeling his Chevrolet through the rain to capture his third Indy Grand Prix title. Defending Indy Car Series champion Scott Dixon, powered by Honda finished second, and Jack Harvey rounded out the podium finishing third. Pagenaud was simply superb in rainy conditions, coming from behind, passing Dixon late for the win in what was undoubtedly the best race in the history of the event.
That aside, Harvey’s run for the underfunded Michael Shank Racing entry proves to the naysayers that this young man can flat out drive.
Tickets for the Indianapolis 500 are still available and can be purchased online at ims.com or by visiting the box office located inside the administrative building at 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
Danny Bridges, who just might check his objectivity at the media center door on race day and quietly root for Marco Andretti to win the Indy 500 on his legendary grandfather’s 50th anniversary, can be reached at (317) 370-8447 or at Bridgeshd@aol.com.