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Surviving the Indy 500 and Vortex I

This past weekend a driver named Will Power (a fitting name) won the Indy 500, and Danica Patrick called it quits for her career after crashing out early in the race.

Sorry about that DP, you’re still my favorite racer.

It was an American spectacle in a nation of spectacles.

So, I have a remembrance, a memory on Memorial Day of something that died inside of me.

I don’t know how in the hell it happened, but I was a big fan of the Indianapolis 500 when I was a kid. Maybe every kid was in those days, but in hindsight you tend to wonder why.

I must have listened to the race on the radio in the days before it was televised, and I know Sports Illustratedalways gave it full-coverage, so perhaps those were the key elements to my fascination early on.

I did love the look of the cars, and likely fantasized about driving very fast around and around an oval track. I wasn’t a gearhead by any stretch, so I know the technical stuff involving these specially-built cars wasn’t part of it.

It must have been purely the flash of speed and color, the essence of which was drawn out in those incredible SI photos that accompanied the Indy racing stories.  I also had a fondness for Formula 1 racing. That one I appreciated more because the race courses ran through certain European and South American cities. That was very appealing from a visual standpoint, which must have been part of it.  The speed and interesting architecture in combination was notable.

In 1970, after attending college in Ashland, Oregon for a year, I moved to Albany, an armpit of a town famous for its stinky industry and not much else sitting squarely in the I-5 corridor.  A new community college had just sprung up there, fashioned out of modular trailers before the campus had even broken ground. Since my mother had moved there after I finished high school in close-by Sweet Home, I commandeered her screen-enclosed front porch and moved in, transferring my shaky academic records from Ashland.

Then, as now, the community college was an outlet for the poor in funds and academics.  I was on academic probation in Ashland, having not bothered to do anything except play football and drink while following my friends to the occasional antiwar symposium or rally.

I slept on my mother’s porch and froze my butt off during the cold and rainy winter months, but when spring came around I had two more fairly solid terms of college under my belt and looked forward to transferring to the University of Oregon the next fall. I also played basketball and baseball for the first-year school, which kept me occupied as I worried about the draft that was still in effect at the time. I had a student deferment and definitely wasn’t interested in going to Vietnam, so I studied and got my grades up.

I’d bought an old beater from my brother-in-law for fifty dollars so I could transport myself out to the community college at the edge of town.  The beater’s driveline would fall out eventually, stranding the car on a short access street between two of Albany’s busier arterials near the railroad tracks, an occurrence that cost me a night in jail (another story). Until then the car served its purpose, however.

I drove it to Portland once, a risky adventure because the car wasn’t freeway-worthy, like a moped isn’t road-worthy. It spewed a little oil. It rattled and shook violently until it exceeded 60 mph, and it certainly was unsafe at any speed.  But, you see, I just had to see the closed-circuit broadcast of the 1971 Indy 500 that I’d heard would be simulcast at Memorial Coliseum, a twelve thousand-seat basketball and hockey arena.  It’s where the Trail Blazers played before the Rose Garden, now the Moda Center, was built in the 1990s.

I remember being excited about the trip, despite its risks. I was determined to see the race for the first time start to finish, but I soon found myself disappointed—for a number of reasons.

The crowd was extremely sparse, just a few morons hanging out. Somehow I’d pictured a full house of diehard racing fans.  The grainy picture on a thirty-foot wide screen viewed from the back end of the seating area was in black and white.  From where I sat, the screen seemed tiny. Hell, I could barely see it. I must have projected in my mind that it would be expansive, like a modern football replay screen in today’s stadiums.  I envisioned it covering an end wall inside the arena, I guess. The thought that it would be in black and white didn’t occur to me, either.  Colored TV hadn’t been in existence very long at the time, but it was ubiquitous and improving annually.  I expected color, dammit!

It was the beginning of the end of my interest in the Indy 500.

I watched half the race and got out of there. On the way home, I drove that beater way too fast.

I’d taken the beater on a previous risky trip, to the 1970 Vortex I gathering, where I camped for a night and recall being blown away by a rock band from Vegas called High Voltage. I rode with a bag of bad pot, but once at the festival I found the good stuff.

If you’re not familiar with the famous circumstances of the Vortex Festival read about them here.

When the driveline fell out of that car, I went to jail.

I’ll spare you the details of that for now, but I’ll tell you this much. I’m glad the driveline didn’t fall out when I was speeding up and down I-5 as a dumbass kid seeking some of life’s greatest pleasures.

I guess I was lucky in that regard.  I lived.

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Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.

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