As Indy 500 prepares for its 100th start Sunday morning, a story about my father and how much he longed to be a part of just one of them.
For almost a decade starting in the late-’70s my family lived in Bakersfield. My attorney father was doing oil litigation, and my mother had grown up in the Central Valley.
My dad, a Bay Area native, never seemed to mind the heat or the small-town nature of the city. In fact, he embraced it. He was president of the Kiwanis club, a chili cook-off master and took me, every chance he got, out to Mesa Marin Raceway, a half-mile oval track on the east side of town which from 1977 till about 2005 was a stop on the Winston West Series (now the K&N Pro Series West) and for NASCAR’s Southwest Tour. Now it’s row houses priced in the mid-$200s.
Every night you were basically guaranteed some free Skoal Bandits and at least one life-altering crash.
To my father there was something alluring if not a little lurid about motorsports. Perhaps all men of a certain age start turning to cars and speed to fill a void. Or perhaps he just liked what I liked, the kicked up dirt clouds and the burning rubber and oil smell and the glow of shiny hoods in the lights underneath a hazy, moonless valley sky.
The only sporting event that was annual appointment television for him was the Indy 500. My mom would sneak out and go shopping with my sister and I would sit on the bed or the couch with him and he would tell me what he could about the cars and their owners. He stopped the sponsor conversation when I recognized Tareyton as the brand of cigarettes he kept in his glove compartment under a pile of papers.
But there was another, deeper reason for his passion. One of his clients was none other than George “Ziggy” Snider—a perennial Indy contender.
Snider was a couple years older than my dad, raced for for A.J. Foyt, who my dad spoke of with the same reverence as JFK or Billy Joel. And from 1965 to 1987, George qualified for every 500. In fact, a 22-time competitor, Snider holds the somewhat dubious distinction of having the most starts at Indy without a victory.
My father’s annual lament, starting about two weeks before the race, was that George had invited him to go stand in the pit with his race crew. I’m not sure if it was just something he said, one of those kind of fake invitations that was extended to him maybe once in passing or if it was the real deal, but on the warm-up lap, when all the drivers are zig-zagging to get traction, my father would get this far-off look and grumble something about another year gone by not being able to join 250,000 of his closest friends at the Brickyard.
Of course, I was dealing with some problems of my own at the time.
You see, there was another Indy Driver from Bakersfield by the name of Rick Mears during that era. And Rick was quickly becoming the Joe Dimaggio of IndyCar racing. With victories at Indianapolis in 1979, 1984 and 1988 (and one more to come in 1991, after we moved) Mears might as well have had his bust carved on the bluffs overlooking Oildale next to Bakersfield greats Frank Gifford, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. He was legendary and sightings of him at the Mexicali (Southwest) or Wool Growers or Green Frog or Luigi’s were oft-reported.
One day at school the week leading up to Memorial Day, I was telling my teacher that one of my dad’s clients would be racing at Indy over the weekend and I even had an autographed picture of him in my room. The class grew silent with expectation. I didn’t say who the driver was and though in the immediate wake of the incident I claimed to have not inferred that it was Mears—upon reflection, that’s exactly what I did.
The teacher called my bluff and asked if I could bring the picture in on Friday because we’d be doing a math lesson based on Indy (yes, that’s what happens when you grow up in Bakersfield, you learn math via race cars).
Well, the day came and I brought my picture of George and started talking about the man they called Ziggy.
“Wait,” the teacher stopped me. “Who’s George Snider?”
I thought this might happen, so I had my ace.
“You know. George Snider. He races for A.J. Foyt. (That’s right the A.J. Foyt) and my dad is supposed to go be in his pit crew but my mom’s making him take me down to Smth’s Bakery for doughnuts on Sunday instead.”
And then a few chuckles.
Again, from the teacher: “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were talking about Rick Mears.”
Nothing much happened after that. The class didn’t point or explode in laughter, though their disappointment was palpable. My best friend Josh told me at lunch that I had been misleading and I probably should say I was sorry. Josh was kind of right, but then again, I told him I didn’t owe anyone an apology for being a George Snider fan.
I told him that…because I’d heard my dad say that to a guy he was arguing with at the liquor store one time.
And so it went, my father and I watched the race together that Sunday. And George’s Chevy engine blew on the first lap. He finished 33rd. It was his final start. My mom came in later that day, my father watching Al Unser pounding a bunch of gross-looking milk in the winner’s circle.
“Did George lose again?”
“No,” my dad said. “He won by being there.”