Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Hoosier History Live

May 3, 2019

(April 27, 2019) Who is the only person to participate, as a musician at an Indiana high school, in the Spectacle of the Bandsat the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then eventually compete as a race driver in the Indianapolis 500?

How did Purdue University begin their role as "host band" for the opening ceremonies at the racetrack - and how big is one of the band's most recognizable symbols, what's promoted as the "World's Largest Drum"?

And who has been the oldest winning driver in Indy 500 history?

The answers are among the fun facts about "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and its pageantry - including the 500 Festival Parade - that Nelson's studio guest share during our show. A tour guide at the racetrack, James Craig Reinhardt (who is known as "Craig") retired from his job as a Tampa businessman to move to the town of Speedway and indulge his lifelong dream of being affiliated with the world-famous race.

Craig is the author of two new books, both published by IU Press: The Winning Cars of the Indianapolis 500 and The Indianapolis 500: Inside the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Purdue University All-American Marching Band serving as "host band" of the Indy 500. The "World's Largest Drum" is one of the band's most recognizable symbols.As he does in his books, Craig explains the origins of the long-time "Gentlemen, start your engines!" command - and the controversy that unfolded when it was initially modified in 1977 as Janet Guthrie became the first woman driver to qualify for the race.

Craig says his interest in the Indy 500 was sparked during the early 1950s when his father took him to the race, which kicked off a string of more than a dozen such visits.

"I can still remember sleeping in our red and white Pontiac Star Chief on West 16th Street across from the main gate the night before a race," he says.

As a tour guide since 2014, he has kept notes about questions that the public frequently asks about the race and its storied venue, which led him to compile the answers in his two books.

According to The Winning Cars of the Indianapolis 500, the oldest champion driver since the first Indy 500 in 1911 was Al Unser Sr., who took the checkered flag in 1987 when he was 47 years and 360 days old.

According to The Indianapolis 500: Inside the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the only person to be both a Spectacle of the Bands musician and a race driver was Johnny Parsons, who drove 12 times in the Indy 500 between 1974 and 1996. Before his racing career, Parsons was a trumpet player in the marching band at Scecina Memorial High School and participated in the pre-race musical festivities. (History fact: Parsons is the son of Johnnie Parsons, who won the Indy 500 in 1950.

Book cover: The Indianapolis 500: Inside the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.Speaking of bands: The Purdue University All-American Marching Band has been the "host band" since 1919, making this the 100th anniversary for the tradition.

The well-known promotional phrase "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" dates to the mid-1950s. During our show, Craig describes its origin, as well as the annual involvement in pre-race festivities and the 500 Festival Parade of the Gordon Pipers, a Scottish/Celtic bagpipe band.

Some other fun facts from Craig's books:

  • Although the starting field of the Indy 500 has almost always consisted of 33 cars for several decades, the number fluctuated in earlier eras. In the 1933 race, there were 42 cars, the largest starting field ever.
  • The youngest victorious driver has been Troy Ruttman, who was just 22 years old when he won the race in 1952.
  • For 37 consecutive years beginning in 1950, a spectator from Arizona was the first in line when the IMS gates opened for practice in early May.

Hoopla before the start of the Indy 500 typically includes hundreds of spectators, military personnel, musicians, media and entertainers congregating on the racetrack, as seen in this 2017 photo. In front of the Pagoda, note the Purdue University marching band, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary as 'host band' at the Speedway this year. Photo by Phil Brooks