Racetrack Classics: Grandpa’s 1969 Indy 500 Photos – A Man With Credentials

1969 Camaro Pace Car (with the big 396 under the hood)

It may be hard to imagine through the eyes of the 21st century, but the Indy 500 once generated the kind of excitement that only the Super Bowl or the World Cup can generate today.  Everybody watched.  Jim Clark was my grandma’s favorite driver, solely because he competed in and won the Indy 500.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that Grandpa Vic, who (as I once heard Ray Evernham say about his driver Jeff Gordon) didn’t know a hub from a rotor, was a lifelong fan of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”  He even used his job as a newspaper ad man to snag some photographers’ credentials for the big race several years running.  My parents recently converted his old slides to digital pictures, and in honor of the classic race, the month of May, and Vic himself, these are some of his pictures of the 1969 event.

Here’s the handsome man, proudly wearing his badge so he could get up close to the cars, racers, and celebrities that made up the whirlwind that was the Indianapolis 500.  This photo is from the 1970 event, but the glasses, the cocked hat, and the casual posture bring back all my fond memories of my charismatic grandfather.  He had a big personality to go with his big frame (he was 6’4″), along with a loud voice and a temper to match, but nobody could laugh at the everyday absurdities of life like he could.  I find it surreal that Vic was in his middle 40s, my age today, in this picture.

This is my mom (with my cousin) wearing an Indianapolis Motor Speedway “official photographer” t-shirt back in the early ’70s.  Grandpa had several of these, and I remember wearing one as a kid, but I don’t know what happened to it.

Grandpa started taking pictures right at the gate, where it was apparently Ford day, with a Mustang and a couple of big Fords in view.

Traffic control doesn’t look bad considering how many people attend the event every year.

The parking lot is filled with new models, including two ’69 Chevys, a Cutlass, a ’68 Charger, a newer Firebird, and more.

This reminds me of many events I’ve attended down at Michigan International Speedway, the drag races, or even the local short track – people just parking in the infield and bringing along a cooler.

Here’s Grandma Doris, who sadly passed when I was only five, getting some race food ready.

Oh my gosh, it’s Hoss Cartwright!  Yep, Dan Blocker was a Chevy spokesman of long standing as a star of Bonanza; he passed after gall bladder surgery in 1972, at the young age of 43.

Um, well, this one is a little more controversial.  Of course, before the Bronco chase, O.J. Simpson was a popular football star, actor, and Chevrolet spokesman.  Here he is with, for some reason, Kirk Douglas, who played all sorts of movie characters before passing away at 103 in 2020 (!), and another man I haven’t been able to identify.  Any ideas?

Here’s A.J. Foyt, one of America’s greatest racing drivers of all time, and the eventual four-time winner of the 500 (though Mario won it in ’69 – his only win at Indy).

Grandpa even got near enough to the Borg-Warner trophy to take a picture.  There are a lot more faces on it these days.

I can’t see this banner without Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” playing in my head.  There are few more famous alleys in the world than this one.

They’re about ready to get underway!

Grandpa didn’t actually take a lot of pictures of the race itself, but it looks like this is Mario Andretti’s race-winning backup car, a Hawk-Ford (number 2, the red car).  He crashed his Lotus-Ford in practice and suffered severe enough burns to his face that his identical twin brother Aldo stood in for the picture of the front-row starters.

I got a bit of a chuckle out of these pictures; aside from Mario’s car, Grandpa didn’t take a single picture of a car that finished higher than 11th place.  He must have rooted for the underdog in 1969.  This car was raced by Carl Williams, and it was a Gerhardt-Offy.  Indy cars used the ancient Offy engine into the early 1980s (!), although it was fed by a massive turbocharger by the time the 1969 500 took place.  It’s worth noting in today’s atmosphere of close competition and artificial-feeling finishes that 11th place was a full 35 laps down at the end of the race in 1969.  Mr. Williams finished in 25th, retiring due to a failed clutch.

This STP car belonged to Art Pollard, who passed away at Indy in 1973.  He finished a lowly 31st in 1969 with his Offy, apparently due to a driveline issue.

This car belonged to Lloyd “Hard Luck” Ruby, who often lived up to his name.  Ruby was an excellent sports car and open wheel driver with two endurance wins in GT40s and seven wins in Indy cars; he led 10 laps of the 1969 500 before taking off too soon with the fuel hose still attached.  The fuel tank ruptured and he was out of the race, finishing 20th.

Here’s Ruby himself (in ’71 or ’72), trademark cowboy hat and all.

The #15 was driven by Bud Tingelstad, whose Lola-Offy finished 15th, a failed engine ending his day.

Sonny Ates’ Brabham-Offy finished 17th due to a failed magneto.

George Follmer, a very good Trans Am driver and eventual champion of that series, was a rookie at Indy in ’69.  He didn’t fare so well in his Gilbert-Ford, finishing 27th due to engine problems.

This is the cockpit of Wally Dallenbach’s 21st place Eagle-Offy; he also dropped out with a bad clutch.

Get out the hammers, boys – it’s time for a pit stop!  It’s a far cry from the 2.5 second affairs of today’s Formula 1.

Here’s Billy Vukovich’s Mongoose-Offy, which apparently dropped out on lap one.  He was still 32nd out of 33; Bruce Walkup apparently didn’t make the start.

Here’s another shot of Dallenbach’s car.

I’m not sure whose car this is, but that looks like a Turbo Offy under the engine cover.  The Ford engine was a V8, the Offy a four. ***This might be Bruce Walkup’s car (33rd place); that was the Thermo-King Gerhardt-Offy.***

This is Lee Roy Yarbrough’s (no relation to Cale, who spelled his last name differently) Vollstedt-Ford.  He was primarily a NASCAR driver who finished 23rd this day, apparently due to a broken exhaust header.

The number 10 was driven by Jim Malloy, who finished in 11th, and was apparently still running at the end of the day.  Good for you, Jim!

Here’s the Carl Williams car again, still looking like quite the professional outfit.

Here’s George Snider in a Coyote-Ford; he finished 16th.

This is Jim McElreath’s Hawk-Offy; he finished 28th due to an engine fire (he was able to get the car stopped and was uninjured).

I’m not sure if these pictures are from 1969, but Cummins apparently brought a couple old race cars to show off.  This one raced in 1931; it was by far the slowest car in the race, but didn’t have to stop for fuel once!  It finished 13th as a result.

This sleek 1952 racer is perhaps more famous, as it was competitive and running 5th when it dropped out due to turbocharger failure.

I went back to the database of Grandpa’s newspaper to see if there were any pictures from the 1969 Indy 500, and they simply used photos supplied by the Associated Press, so Grandpa’s ability to secure a press pass isn’t much of a mystery – they simply didn’t send anyone else to the event.  Grandpa left behind a significant number of Indy pictures, including the tragic crash in 1964 that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave Macdonald.  I’ll leave this 1969 edition, however, with one of his later pictures of the 1969 winner, Mario Andretti.  Andretti never won Indy again, and his car was (according to crew chief Clint Brawner in his great book Indy 500 Mechanic) barely able to make it to the finish in 1969.  He apparently used all the family’s luck in 1969, and the “Andretti curse” at Indianapolis is well-known to race fans.

It’s worth noting that modern race cars are FAR more reliable than they used to be: Four cars finished on the lead lap in 1969, and fifth place was three laps down.  Modern racing is a lot closer; maybe it has to be, since people seem to expect nonstop action at all times to be entertained.

Even if the race itself isn’t quite the universal attention-grabber it once was, there is still a lot of great auto racing out there today.  Memorial Day is coming up soon, so remember our fallen soldiers, and tune in to one of the greatest days of the year for race fans.

Note: My race day information came from Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s website, which chronicles the results of every 500 back to 1911.