Southside ties to the Indianapolis 500

The big race celebrates its 100th running this year. We take a look at the contributions southsiders have made to it throughout the years.

By Rick Shaffer

»Record books for the Indianapolis 500 tell us that Louis Schneider and Bill Cummings were the only two race winners who were born in Indianapolis. Schneider, the 1931 winner, and Cummings, the 1934 winner, grew up within the old city limits of Indianapolis on the near-west side.

But that is not to say the south side of Indianapolis did not provide participants who helped make up the history of the “Greatest Spectacle in Auto Racing,” which will be conducted for the 100th time on May 29. There are countless people from the area who can say they had some sort of participation at the Speedway over the years. And there are several who have strong ties to the 500, including one who got to race in it and another whose family company played more than one role in its history.

An Ambition Fulfilled

Upon visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the age of 5, Andy Hillenburg decided then and there that his ambition in life would be to race in the Indianapolis 500.

“On my first visit to the Speedway (in 1968), I knew something big was going on inside, and I knew whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it,” Hillenburg said.

A 1981 graduate of Perry Meridian and a successful driver in the USAC sprint and dirt car series, he felt he was ready for the big race by 1989. The first step was joining the Rookie Orientation Program, but the car he was assigned to drive never materialized. A year later, a deal for him to drive a local team’s backup car also did not come to fruition. Hillenburg wondered if he would ever get a chance.

“I was so crushed,” he recalled. “So I decided to look in a different direction. I felt like if nothing else, I would try to run the second best race, the Daytona 500. So I went south and won the ARCA race there twice and finally got to run in the Daytona 500 in 1998.”

Interestingly, Hillenburg’s run at Daytona rejuvenated the idea of trying Indianapolis one more time.

“After I ran in the 1998 Daytona 500, some friends of mine said, ‘Now that you’ve done Daytona, it would be neat if you could do the Indy 500.’ That’s how it started — just talk with some friends. And it was a group of friends who raised the money for me to run in the 2000 Indianapolis 500.”

Two of those friends were safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson and Preston Root, whose father, Chapman Root, owned the Sumar Specials that ran in the 500s from 1953 to 1960. For 2000, Hillenburg chose the same navy blue and white Sumar paint scheme to honor the Root family’s participation at Indianapolis.

Hillenburg qualified 33rd, and once the first of three parade laps were underway, he dropped back to savor the moment he had awaited most of his life. After waving to his dad in Turn 2 and his mother and brother along the main straightaway, he “closed the visor and went to work.” He would ultimately finish 28th after a mechanical failure sidelined him on Lap 91. He spent the rest of the day signing autographs and talking to fans.

Hillenburg phased out his driving career in 2004 and today operates the Fast Track High Performance Driving School that opened more than 20 years ago. He also does film and commercial work. The former allowed him to appear in the movie “Talladega Nights,” where he drove the car of Ricky Bobby’s French nemesis, Jean Girard. He currently resides in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife and four children.

So how did racing at Indianapolis rank in his career? “Well, let me put it to you this way,” Hillenburg responded. “I won my share of races, but running in the Indianapolis 500 is the biggest memory for me.”

In the Books

Kennedy Tank and Manufacturing has been located on the south side of Indianapolis since 1898. It has been at its current site at 833 Sumner Ave. since 1953, and a visit to the lobby lets one know immediately that the company has had more than a passing involvement in the Indianapolis 500.

On display is a Kurtis-Offenhauser that was driven in the 1948 500 by Les Anderson. Anderson’s Kennedy Tank Special accounted for one of the seven times Kennedy-sponsored entries qualified and raced in the 500 between 1936 and 1953.

“The company got involved partly through civic pride and partly through a passion for the 500,” says Pat Kennedy, the current president whose great-grandfather, Patrick Washington Kennedy, founded the company. “But there was also a business side to this as our main customers at the time were oil companies. They (the oil companies) were also interested in auto racing, so we used the 500 as a means to entertain customers.”

Kennedy Tank’s involvement in the 500 would take a new turn in the early 1950s when the company began manufacturing the tanks used for refueling during pit stops for the teams that competed in the race. The original tanks were pressurized, but after a number of fires during the 1964 season, a new design was introduced that allowed the fuel to flow via gravity.

Kennedy Tank would continue to make 500 refueling tanks until 1996, when another company became the provider.

Despite losing that connection, Pat Kennedy’s interest in the 500 did not wane. He continued to attend the race, and a chance visit to the Speedway ultimately resulted in a trivia book that first came out in 2010 and a recap book that followed in 2012.

“I was interested in our company involvement and visited with Donald Davidson (the IMS historian) to see about our history,” Kennedy explained. “While I was there, I noticed the ‘Autocourse Official Illustrated History of the Indianapolis 500’ book in the gift shop and bought one. I highlighted parts of it and then started a trivia list with 20 to 30 questions that I was going to use on my friends.”

Kennedy ended up expanding his trivia list to over 500 questions that were published under the title of “How Much Do You Really Know About the Indianapolis 500?” In its third printing and now titled “The Official Indy 500 Trivia Book,” it has more than 700 questions on the history of the race. His second book, “Indy 500 Recaps: The Short Chute Edition,” is in its fourth printing and has grown from 332 pages to 521 pages.

So are there any plans for another book? Probably not, says Kennedy, who attended his first 500 in 1963 at the age of 7 and hasn’t missed a race since. Besides, with history continually in the making at IMS, Kennedy knows he will always have a project in updating both books.

Other 500 Ties

Three years before the first Indianapolis 500, Southport figured prominently in a race promotion by Carl Fisher, one of the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1908, Fisher flew over Indianapolis in a Stoddard-Dayton automobile suspended from a gas balloon in order to promote the upcoming race. Fisher, who was the authorized dealer for Stoddard-Dayton in the Indianapolis area, served as co-pilot to George Bumbaugh.

The gentlemen landed in Southport, whereupon Fisher was said to have driven the automobile back to downtown Indianapolis to a very enthusiastic reception by members of the local media.

But it didn’t exactly happen that way. Fisher actually “flew” a stripped-down version of the car — sans the engine — and then drove a complete model back to his meeting with the press.

And that’s only the beginning.

»A pair of Southport High School graduates would distinguish themselves at the Speedway. Joe Langley, a 1937 SHS grad, was a 500 chief mechanic in the 1950s and ’60s. Diane Hunt, a 1958 graduate, was named 500 Festival Queen in 1961 and later served on the board of directors for the festival.

»Perry Township also gave us Earl Unversaw, who was riding mechanic with Bill Cummings when he won the 1934 race. As a token of their friendship, Cummings named his daughter Earlene in honor of Unversaw.

»Howdy Wilcox II, who finished second to Fred Frame in the 1932 classic, resided in Perry Township during that time.

» Perry Meridian graduate Brian Barnhart has been one of the top officials in Indy car racing. After working for various teams for 12 years, including a number of years with Al Unser Jr. when he won the 500 in 1992 and 1994, he became the superintendent of IMS in 1994. Currently, he serves as vice president of competition for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Brian’s father, Bob Barnhart,  also worked for Indy teams for a number of years, most notably A.J. Foyt Racing.

»Bill McCrary, a Perry Township resident, directed Firestone’s Indy car racing program for a number of years.

»Bill Spangler, another Perry Township resident, served as chief mechanic for Indy 500 cars in the later 1960s and early ’70s.

»Like Kennedy Tank, southside firm Troy Oil also served as a sponsor on Indy 500 cars.

»Greenwood cafeteria owner Jonathan Byrd sponsored 500 entries several years and his sons are following in his footsteps by supporting current 500 drivers Conor Daly and Bryan Clauson.

»And certainly last but not least, there are the 500 Festival Queens from the area. Southport High School added two more to the list in recent years. Annie Berning was crowned in 2009, two years after Danielle Sylvester’s reign. Last year’s queen was Whiteland graduate Ali Mathena, while Center Grove’s Riley Hoffman was crowned in 2011. The first Johnson County resident to be so honored was Greenwood’s Janet Lee Faires, who reigned in 1969. And remember the 1961 winner Diane Hunt? In 1986, her daughter, Wendy Barth, a Center Grove graduate, was named 500 Festival Queen. They remain the only mother and daughter to receive that honor.