This article was first published in February of 1987
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR (You might wind up racing at Indy)
Is there hope for an under funded team to make the 500? Well maybe not, but at least they can get to Indy, get on the track, and make the newspapers back home.
By Larrie Ervin
There’s a lot of talk about how it takes two or three million dollars to enter a car in the Indianapolis 500. The big buck is only if you want to win. I’m here to tell you that it can be done for pocket change. We didn’t get in the race, but we were entered, got a garage, and we got on the track. We even caused a couple of yellow lights. More on that later.
The 500 is an invitational race. That means you can’t just enter your old MG TD or Nash Ambassador. There are enough nuts out there who would enter their old sled just to say, “I had a car entered in the 500”. And a line like that will get you free drinks in any bar north of Charlotte. Because the garage space is limited they will accept only cars that are capable of the nearly 200 miles peer hour needed to get in the race.
Now I’ll explain how we did it. A log time friend, Dean Vetrock had an old Indy Eagle chassis. This thing was so old it should have had a serial number with one digit. If cars could get senile this one was. Dean had run some SCCA sports car races, some sprint cars and the 1981 Pocono Indycar race. In ’81 the USAC and CART series were at war and USAC was desperate fo! r cars at Pocono. We were told if we showed up with our car we’d be guaranteed a starting spot. So we showed up. There were even dirt track cars in this race. So we looked good. At least our engine was at the right end, even if it was a Chevy. Dean stayed out of everyone’s way. Our chief mechanic pulled the car out of the race after pit stops, to save the engine. We called ever body “Sir”. We were told to get a better car and we would be welcome at the Speedway in May. With the 5 G’s we won at Pocono burning a hole in Deans pocket, he bought a newer old car and we were in Fat City. The car was real pretty. It would have made a hulluva planter. Only nobody wanted to sponsor us. Here we were all dress up and nowhere to go.
As entry time drew near I made a decision to borrow some money and enter the car for Dean. I figured I co! uld sleep in the Speedway garage at night, mooch food at the Speedway Cafeteria from fans and get by on a few (make that two hundred) dollars for the month of May. When I told Sue about my planes she had a few questions. Had I forgotten that the kids were about to enter college? Did I realize that I knew nothing about these cars? And could I sleep in those garages year round? She finally said that I could go. She never did say anything about coming back.
Fortunately Dean’s chief mechanic, Chuck Keller, knew a lot about racecars. Chuck had spent many years working on Ferraris and had been chief mechanic on other Indy teams. He knew more about Indy than any of us and he didn’t want to go. I’m sure he was a little embarrassed to be seen with us.
Dean was working at the Case tractor plant making gears. As luck would have it by the time May came around Dean had been laid off. That made getting off to go to Indy a lot easier.
We were dead broke by May. I had borrowed money for the entry fee and my Assistant Chief Mechanic license. Dean was cashing unemployment checks and Bob didn’t have the window to throw a pot out of. Chuck just kept saying that a Chief Mechanic shouldn’t have to pay his own way. So Chuck and I split the hotel bill. By the Way, the $19.95 Motel at the corner of I-65 and Crawfordsville Road never knew it, but it was ! the home of a famous Indy racing team. I should add that on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road was a nice little White Castle hamburger stand that sold gut bombs by the bag. That’s what we lived on. The fans weren’t coming through at the Cafeteria.
The first day of practice arrived and so did we. Somehow I expected a better welcome. No one knew we were there. No one cared that we were there. No one wanted us there.
The garage assigned to us was one of three that A J Foyt always got. He’d enter three cars. Two for the race and another garage for his spare parts. But this year garage space was tight so they were going only to real racecars. Foyt didn’t even know us and already he hates us because we stole his supply room. The fluorescent lights that had been left in the garage were Foyt’s. Some body in a red and white checked shirt came by, “Did we care to buy those lights?” “Not really.” “Fine, we’ll be over to pick them up!” They never did come back, which was fine because those old garages had no windows and it wasn’t in our budget to by lights, Foyt’s or anybody else’s.
Those old garages were more like phone booths with a built in sauna. If it was 90 degrees at the Speedway, it was 110 in the garages. Of course the better teams had some form of air conditioning. These stalls were so small that with the car inside you had to go outside to change your mind. The mice were all humpbacked. At least we had! a garage. Some of the good teams were working under a tarp.
Although we arrived at the Speedway on Saturday morning it was Tuesday afternoon before I ever saw a car on the track! By now many of the teams had their cars up to 195 or even 200 mile an hour. We were still in the garage. Dean was walking around pretending to be a race driver. Chuck was pretending he didn’t know us. Bob was pretending he still had money. And I was pretending to be happy.
By Tuesday afternoon we had passed Tech inspection and we would now be allowed on the track. We had one of those little garden tractors loaned to us, free tires, free oil, and free alcohol, and free pizza from Domino’s, free beer after the track closed and free nuts and bolt… free everything. It! ’s funny you spend two million getting to Indy, after that everything is given to you! Every time I looked up Dean was signing another endorsement. If we win we’ll be worth millions. Well, at least someone was asking for Deans autograph.
Finally we got out on the track. I pulled the car out onto pit road with our little garden tractor. We unloaded our tools. I wanted Dean to know that the wheels were on tight so I had him bounce on the long handled lug wrench we were using. We would have to borrow air tools if we made the race. We strapped Dean in. Chuck told him to go out for a few laps. Heat everything up and some back in to check the oil, tires, etc.
As we stood out there on that little strip of grass by the track, one thing kept going threw my mind! . I didn’t belong here. All my life I had loved auto racing. I had been at the Speedway many times as a fan. Sue and I spent our honeymoon there in ’64. I grew up idolizing Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, and Bill Vukovich, Anybody that ever strapped them selves into a racecar. I had been to every big track in the country. Now I was finally here but I was fat, forty, and tired. A we watched Dean come down that front stretch I knew exactly how he felt. But I wasn’t sure how I felt.
After a couple minutes the yellow light came on. Chuck said, “Good, now we can come in and check things over.” A USAC tech inspector came over and said Dean had just lost a wheel and spun in turn 3. USAC fines a team if their car was a wheel come loose. Chuck looked at me and said we might as! well start packing; we didn’t have $500 for the fine. However the inspector remembered that I had Dean check to wheels before he went out. Further investigation showed that we were not at fault. I only hoped that word of this didn’t get back to Wisconsin. Everyone knew who was putting those wheels on.
The next morning’s paper showed pictures of Dean spinning and the tire flying off behind him. Another picture showed Dean jumping from the three legged car. Milwaukee saw the photos before we did.
We worked through the next day and cleaned up the car well enough to go back out on the track that afternoon. Thank heavens nothing had broken…spare parts you know. Well, back on my little tractor, back to pit lane. I start the e! ngine and Dean pulls out down pit lane. Back to my little patch of grass. The yellow is out already. Dean was sitting down in turn 1…with no power. When the car arrived on a hook there was oil, water and alcohol all coming out of the same hole in the pan. A rod bolt had gone looking for daylight. Now, I could go home.
Dean kept the car there a few more days cleaning up our stuff. On his way home the open trailer he had broke down coming through Chicago.
We loaned crew the use of our garage for the rest of the month. The Speedway doesn’t like that, but at least now A J was glad we had come.
On race day when Kevin Cogan ran into Foyt and Ma! rio Andretti on the pace lap I was watching TV and the announcer said Foyt’s crew was running back to his garage to get spare parts to fix his car. Only a few people knew where his spare parts were. And I was one of them.
Dean Still hopes to make it in the big time. I haven’t been back to Indy since. I still love racing and drive a modified at our local Wisconsin tracks. Bob is still at the auto parts store. Chuck is an insurance adjuster in Chicago.
You’ve heard this quote before and only laughed, but I know what it means. Be careful what you wish for… it might come true.
Again remember this article was written in 1986 about the Indy 500 of 1982