Oh, for the olden days of yesteryear during the lovely month of May.
By yesteryear, I only have to look back at 2019 and all the glorious Mays of the last 75 years.
May always meant the arrival of spring growing up in the Midwest. The first Saturday in May always meant the Kentucky Derby, the famous horse race steeped in well over a century of history. I remember watching the great Big Red—Secretariat—and thinking to myself as a teenager that I was watching the greatest horse of all-time.
I remember sitting in a watering hole in Fredericksburg a few years ago on Derby day. There were a number of gentlemen sitting at the bar across the street from the Admiral Nimitz Museum and the race was just about to start.
I inquired of my good-natured fellow Texans if any of them would like to put a small wager on the Kentucky Derby. The 10 or 11 souls who were watching the pre-race all agreed, and everyone got to pick up a horse after putting a dollar bill in the pot. Since I was last to pick, I chose the obvious horse that was still left: Admiral Nimitz. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in Fredericksburg close to the Nimitz Museum and no one had picked the local favorite.
Lucky me. When the race was over, no one had picked the winner and I had grabbed Admiral Nimitz. I gathered up the $11 bucks in the betting pool and settled my tab. As I was preparing to leave, one of the gents who had been sitting there all day hollered “Hey, you have to buy us all a beer since you won.”
I laughed, explained it was not wise to go bankrupt buying the bar a round when I had only won $11, then started for the door. As I was leaving, the catcalls, heckling and vituperative comments permeated the drinking emporium. All I could think of was the word’s to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Give Me Three Steps. They weren’t going to see me no more and I skedaddled.
The month of May has also meant Memorial Day weekend and the Indianapolis 500. Ever since my swaddling days, my daddy listened to the Indy 500. When I was young, it was the golden voice of Sid Collins, calling the race. As I got older, it became a family tradition to hang with my dad and listen—or watch—the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It was one of the bonds I had with my dad, and it was something I would never miss and we would talk about the race for hours on end.
Ironically, my dad would also gripe about the great A.J. Foyt. Why, I don’t know. He would just sit and gripe and complain about A.J. every year during the 500 and it got to be ridiculous.
Later, after I had grown into a man and started my own racing publication in the Midwest, I was able to take my dad to Indy during tire testing at the track. He had always wanted to race at Indy, and it was one of the thrills of my life to be able to take him to the Mecca of racing.
While we were at Indy, I introduced him to Dick Simon of Dick Simon Racing. He had two guys driving for him that year, Arie Luyendyke and Scott Brayton. Luyendyke would go on to win two Indy 500’s and Brayton would win back-to-back poles at the Brickyard before tragically dying in a crash while practicing.
That night we had dinner with the team at the world-famous St. Elmo’s steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis. We got to sit with the drivers in a huge back room and my dad was pretty excited. As we sat down, in walked Roger Penske and his drivers: Big Al Unser, Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan. My dad’s jaw dropped (as did mine).
We were both very impressed at the august company in our presence. A few minutes later in walked A.J. Foyt and his team. I thought my dad was going to soil himself he was so excited. He got to meet A.J. and they started talking. Much to my surprise it turned out my dad had raced against A.J., Duke Nalon, Big Al and his brother Bobby in the southwest before he got married.
It was a night of surprises, and one I’ll never forget. We had dinner with men who would win a combined 15 Indy 500’s between them. On the way back to the hotel my dad kept saying what a great driver A.J. was and how he was the greatest racer of all-time. Given all the venom I heard from dad over the years about A.J., I confronted him on his sudden change of heart. Here is what he told me.
“I was mad at him,” he said. “In ‘55 or ‘56 we were racing in Arizona and I was leading the field when that SOB bumped me and spun me out. He went on to win the race, and I’ve been mad ever since.
“But son, let me tell you something: A.J. Foyt is the best that ever was, is and ever will be. I should have beaten him that night, which means I would have been the best.”
As I looked at him, he just smiled, and showed me the autograph A.J. had given him on the St. Elmo’s napkin. It was a May moment I will never forget.