Stories of the most loyal Indianapolis 500 fans
Feature stories about some of the most loyal, longtime Indianapolis 500 ticket customers who were featured May 29 when the Indianapolis 500 Fan Rewards Program was unveiled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
RICHARD BENNETT, Pittsburgh
Richard Bennett, from Pittsburgh, has been attending the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race every year since 1946, but he said he started coming to the race since he was born in 1938. His parents never got a baby sitter on Race Day, so young Richard came to the race with his family.
Bennett’s father started bringing a group of eight people to the race, a group that grew over time and was once 100 people strong. Now that group totals around 50 people, all sitting together in the B Stand at the entrance of Turn 1.
Those are familiar seats for Bennett. He has been in the B Stand since it was built. During his early trips to IMS, Bennett and his family watched the race from the infield.
Bennett’s group has a special transportation tradition every year: They gather in Pittsburgh to ride a bus together to Indianapolis, with people traveling from many different states to the Steel City so they can enjoy the entire bus trip.
The group has stayed at the same hotel in Indianapolis for the past 22 years. They always watch the 500 Festival Parade from the front row and have a cookout afterward, when they swap stories about their families and the race.
One of Bennett’s favorite memories of the race includes meeting late IMS owner Tony Hulman. Bennett was unable to get the right amount of tickets for his group and decided to call and speak to Hulman.
After speaking to several assistants, Bennett got through directly to Hulman and told him of his predicament. Hulman helped him by giving him tickets in the Paddock and then surprised Bennett by asking him to bring his family and be Hulman’s personal guests at the Queen’s Ball.
Bennett accepted the offer and remembers the evening as the only time he ever saw his father wear a tuxedo.
“My father said, ‘If we’re going to meet Mr. Hulman, then we ought to look our best,’” Bennett said.
They attended the dinner and sat at a table with the Hulman family and met several high-profile attendees.
Bennett, 72, is a big fan of the Novi cars, and Duke Nalon and Rex Mays were his favorite drivers. He points to a time when Nalon and Mays both made the front row of the starting field as a highlight of his childhood.
LAWRENCE DENNIN, Indianapolis
Lawrence Dennin’s love for the Indianapolis 500 formed in 1947 when his wife, Joanne, took him to his first race. She had tickets that had been passed down through her family since the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
Dennin got hooked on racing during that trip, and he and his wife have missed only a handful of races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1947. His wife didn’t even miss the race when she was due to give birth one year. Dennin, 84, has attended more than 30 “500’s.”
Dennin and his family tried several seats around the Speedway before settling in the B Stand, where they have been since 1970. He has 16 seats in the B Stand for three generations of his family each year.
A tradition that has endured among their group over the years is a continuing bet. Everyone in the group pays a few dollars draws two drivers from a hat. The first-, second- and third-place winners get a share of the money at the end of the day. Dennin said he enjoys running the pool because every driver has someone rooting for them to win, which enhances the fun of the race. Afterward, the group has a party at Dennin’s home, where he has an original photo of the 1911 starting lineup.
Dennin always tries to get more people involved with the “500.” He remembers that he traveled overseas in the 70s and 80s and had an innate ability to introduce the race to other cultures. He would tell the people of places like Argentina and Brazil about the “500” and was even able to use some of his tickets to bring some of them to the event.
“I always want to let people know how great the Indianapolis 500 really is,” he said.
His favorite driver is three-time winner Mauri Rose. Dennin remembers cheering for Rose when he won in 1947.
RON MARTIN, Avon, Ind.
Ron Martin attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1946 at age 9. His father brought him to the race in a dump truck that had a platform on the back that was used for seating. He remembers lining up to hear the signal bombs detonate to alert the crowd that the track was open and then driving to the infield of Turn 3 to watch the race.
Martin has missed only two Indianapolis 500’s since 1946, as this year will be his 63rd “500” in the grandstands at IMS. He missed the race in 1950 because of the invention of television. His family decided they wanted the experience of seeing a race on television but quickly realized it didn’t compare to actually being at the race. It was the first – and last – time he would choose to watch the race on television rather than attending it in person.
He also missed the weather-plagued 1997 race. With the rain pushing the race two days past the scheduled start date, Martin had to return to his job and miss the race.
Martin didn’t even miss the “500” when he lived in New York for 10 years.
“It was a long drive, but I still managed to make the trip to Indianapolis every year just to see ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’” he said. His dedication to witness the race also was clear in 1961 when he was in the military and had to hitchhike from Terre Haute to attend.
One of Martin’s favorite memories of the Speedway came when a movie was being filmed there. One day he and his friends rode their bikes to the infield and started climbing in the trees. After a short while, a crew member told them to get out of the trees, but the producers liked having them in the trees for the scene they were shooting, so they asked them to get back in the trees. Martin and his friends got to be in the movie.
Martin’s favorite driver was 1955 winner Bob Sweikert. But his favorite race was the legendary duel in 1960 between Rodger Ward and eventual race winner Jim Rathmann.
Martin originally had 16 seats in the B Stand, but when the E Stand was being built in the 50s, he picked out exactly what seats he wanted and switched all 16 of his seats to the new stand. He still has all 16 seats, and they’re filled with four generations of his family that join him to watch the race every year.
RICHARD OEFFINGER, Indianapolis
Richard Oeffinger has been attending the Indianapolis 500 since 1947, when he was 17. His ticket in the first turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a high school graduation gift from his parents.
“Before the race even started, I was bitten by the excitement bug,” he said of his experience of his first race.
In 1948, Oeffinger bought tickets in the C Stand and has not changed seats in the 62 Indianapolis 500 Mile Races he has watched at the Speedway. He has missed only two races since 1947 – in 1951 and 1952 during his service in the Air Force.
One of Oeffinger’s greatest memories about the Indianapolis 500 was when he was an engineering mechanic from 1962-79. He will never forget when he met Gordon Johncock and John Tinney when they were first coming on to the scene in 1964.
During the month of May, Oeffinger was staying in a camper that could sleep four people. When he was working in the garage one evening, he was asked to show Johncock and Tinney around since he knew the track so well. At the end of the night, he overheard the two men talking about sleeping in their cars and offered them spots in his camper for as long as they liked.
Oeffinger still laughs every time he remembers how Johncock stayed for two weeks and Tinney stayed for the whole month. Oeffinger later became Johncock’s mechanic for several years because of their first interaction, and Johncock is one of Oeffinger’s favorite drivers because of all the time they spent together.
Oeffinger’s mechanical experience even led him to appear in a movie filmed at the Speedway. The film crew of the movie “Winning,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Wagner, needed someone to work around the car. Oeffinger can be seen refueling the car in the film.
At age 80, Oeffinger has been in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Old-Timers Club for more than 30 years. He hopes to soon retire his yellow hat given to 30-year members of the Oldtimers so he can where the white hat for members of 40 years or more.
FRANCES QUIGLEY, Indianapolis
Frances Quigley, of Indianapolis Ind., attended her first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1940 at the age of 16. Her father, Bert Dingley who had been involved in racing both as a driver and a mechanic, took her to her first race. She credits her father’s love of the sport with keeping her coming back to the race year after year.
Her father drove a Simplex car in the 2nd Indianapolis 500 in 1912. He was forced to drop out of the race with a broken connecting rod and he finished 13th. Quigley’s father had a very sharp mechanical mind and was always involved in the automotive industry. He was even the vice president for Stutz Motor Company at one point in time.
Quigley has missed a handful of events. The weather and timing issues were usually the culprits when she couldn’t make it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She currently holds tickets in the lower level of the Paddock. They are the same tickets that she has been using since she started attending the greatest spectacle in racing. Her father had the tickets since the early 30’s before he passed them down to Frances.
Frances has that she enjoys the event and the experiences so much that she can’t pick a favorite race or memory because she cherishes them all. Though she enjoys the whole race, she particularly loves the festivities before the race like the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” and the balloon release as well as the opening laps of the race. She believes that those laps are some of the most exciting laps of the whole race.
She has seen many great drivers during her time attending the “500”. She said that Johnny Rutherford has to be her favorite driver because,
“He is a very good driver and he seems like a very kind person.”
Quigley is 86 years old and looks forward to being back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Race Day.
JIGGER SIROIS, Williamsburg, Va.
Jigger Sirois attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1948 at the age of 13. He attended his first race with parents and his brother. Sirois and his brother later purchased tickets for a group of 24 close family and friends and have been in the same seats in Stand E for 56 years.
His father, Earl “Frenchy” Sirois, was a mechanic on the Indianapolis 500-winning cars in 1951, 1957 and 1958, which Sirois cites as the reason the family became so interested in the race.
“Auto racing was always what was talked about at the dinner table,” he said.
He also said that coming from a small town and attending such a big event in a big city added to the excitement.
Sirois has been more than just a fan of the Indianapolis 500. He was an accomplished midget and sprint car driver in the 1950s and 60s. In 1969, he attempted to qualify for the “500” and created one of the legendary stories of the race.
Sirois was the first car out on the track on the first day of qualifying. Before the checkered flag flew for his run, his car owner didn’t feel Sirois had the speed to stay in the field and waved the yellow flag to wave off the run.
Immediately after Sirois brought the car into the pits, rain moved into the area, and the rest of the day’s activity was canceled. He had mechanical issues with the car the rest of the month and was not able to make the field.
But history showed that Sirois would have recorded the 31st fastest speed for the ’69 race had he finished his run, and with the rain out, the rules of the time would have put him in the pole position. Sirois was very disappointed, but he was also thrilled and appreciative of having a car to attempt to make the Indianapolis 500. He would later qualify for the race in 1970 and 1974, only to have his car become a Bump Day casualty in both years.
Jigger’s favorite memories of the race involve the cars and the drivers. He said he will never forget what it was like watching his favorite drivers, like Rex Mays and Bill Vukovich; work in the cockpit trying to get everything out of their cars. He fondly remembers the diversity of the cars and the smell of the exhaust fumes.
Sirois always looks forward to getting that great feeling he always feels at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It’s that feeling of knowing the race is the ultimate challenge,” he said.
He loves that every year there are always great stories of triumph but also heartbreaking stories of defeat at the Indianapolis 500. Sirois, 75, will be a part of the Indianapolis 500 for the 62nd consecutive year this year.
LOGAN SMITH, Terre Haute, Ind.
Logan Smith attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1937. He went with his father and friends and snuck in without paying because they hid on the floor in the back seat of the car while their father entered the infield.
Smith has missed the race only twice since 1947, once due to heavy rain and another time due to a broken hip. Smith, 86, will attend his 71st Indianapolis 500 in 2010.
One of his favorite races was the 1946 “500”. He took his girlfriend, Lucille, whom he later married in 1947, to the race using the train that traveled from downtown Indianapolis to the front gate of the Speedway. They watched the race from the infield, where Smith remembers seeing a great race and Lucille getting an intense sunburn.
Smith still has the ticket stub from that race, and Lucille has attended the “500” with him ever since.
Smith started watching the race from the infield and moved around the track. In the 70s, his father got tickets in the Paddock stand, and he has been in the top row ever since. From his various seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he has had the opportunity to watch many drivers compete in the Indianapolis 500, including his two favorite drivers, A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford.
Smith also enjoyed how the garages didn’t have air conditioning. This kept the drivers like Foyt and Rutherford out of the garages, which made them easy to see and talk with. He spent plenty of time near the garages talking with his racing heroes.
An early memory came in the late 1940s when Smith got the chance to meet late IMS owner Tony Hulman. Smith would come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and pick up 16-millimeter film of past races to show to his racing club. One day when picking up the film, he unexpectedly ran into Hulman and talked with him. Smith never expected such a menial task to lead to such a great memory.
Another favorite memory is the year when he paid $100 to put his name on Sheldon Kinser’s Grant King Racers No. 19 car. It was called “The Spirit of Indiana,” and fans supplied the sponsorship by paying to have their names put on the car for the race.
Most of all, the Indianapolis 500 provides Smith with the chance to see old friends, many for the only time all year.