Log In

Reset Password

Yesterday column: Indy 500 memories

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the Indy 500 is the usual prime sports event - along with the NHL and NBA playoffs. Also, don’t forget the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

Over the years, the Indy 500 certainly has lost its luster among sports fans. It is 55 years ago this weekend that Nazareth’s Mario Andretti won the Indy 500 in his STP machine under the guidance of Andy Granatelli.

Being a Nazareth native, I still remember the parade in town - and how Nazareth had an instant celebrity. Andretti still is the only driver to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978).

In this week’s version of my Yesterday column - reminiscing about sports and pop culture in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and sometimes before and beyond - I’ll look back at some Indy flashbacks as well as some memorable Memorial Day moments.

Does anyone remember the tragedies behind the 1973 Indy race? Did you have an Aurora slot-car set? And, finally, what local Hall of Famer called it quits over the holiday 35 years ago?

Motor Memories ... Growing up, I was always glued to ABC’s telecast of the race, and if I wasn’t, I had to know who won the race. It was a staple of your sports world.

In terms of crashes, I’ll always remember Swede Savage’s crash in 1973. Savage’s car burst into flames after he hit the wall. Savage somehow survived the crash and was taken from his car to a nearby hospital. However, Savage eventually succumbed to injuries and died July 2.

Does anyone remember Art Pollard’s crash during practice of the 1973 race? Pollard was killed when he slammed into the outside wall coming out of turn one and his car burst into flames. Many racing moguls named the 1973 Indy as one of the worst in terms of crashes and the overall race.

As far as the field, Indy’s lineup was a star-studded one - similar to baseball, football or basketball. We knew all the personalities like Andretti, A.J. Foyt (racing’s bad boy), Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Joe Leonard, Mark Donahue, Johnny Rutherford, Gary Bettenhausen, Wally Dallenbach, Lloyd Ruby and Billy Vukovich to name a few.

Vukovich’s father, Bill, was killed in a 1955 crash at the track.

Those Who Left Us This Year ... Like every year, a number of sports personalities moved on to the great court or field in the sky. Those who left us this year from the world of our four sports were former Sixer Earl Cureton, former Yankee and Red Don Gullett, former Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell, former Met, Phillie and Ranger Bud Harrelson, former Rockets forward Robert Reid, former Bill and 49er O.J. Simpson, former Cub, Yankee, A and Oriole Ken Holtzman, former Steeler Andy Russell, former Brooklyn Dodger Carl Erskine, former Brown Frank Ryan, former Atlanta Flame, Maple Leaf, Red Wing and Blue Tim Ecclestone.

Also, former Eagles quarterbacks Roman Gabriel and Norm Snead both passed earlier this year.

Turning Back the Clock ... Besides the racing, there were other memorable events involving the holiday.

In 1935, Jesse Owens tied or broke four world records at a Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan in less than an hour in an event described as “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” By the way, Owens was an Ohio State grad.

Thirty years later, then champion Muhammed Ali defeated Sonny Liston in a rematch of their previous championship bout in which then champion Liston didn’t come out of his corner for round six.

The rematch in Lewiston, Maine, involved the famous “phantom punch” in which Liston was on the canvas and was never truly counted out by referee Jersey Joe Walcott, who tried to corral Ali during his victory dance. Walcott stated that Liston - who tried to get up but collapsed - was on the canvas for at least 10 seconds.

In keeping with the racing theme, Bobby Unser was disqualified for passing cars under caution after he won his third Indy 500 in 1981. After a five-month protest and a lawsuit, he was declared the official winner.

Staying on the Track ... Did anyone have an Aurora slot car racing set? They were popular in the 1960s and 70s and were among several sets then on the market.

They were labeled “AFX” (Aurora Factory Experimentals) cars and were introduced by the Aurora Plastics Corporation in 1961. If you recall, Aurora also produced a variety of models during the same time period.

Among some of their more popular race-track sets were the “Golden Gate,” “Flying Turns,” “Rally Bank” and the “Peter Revson Race Master Challenge.”

The AFX brand slot car stayed in production until 1983 when the company closed due to receivership.

Hard to believe, Harry ... It was 35 years ago on a Memorial Day weekend in 1989 that Mike Schmidt announced his retirement from the game. It was on a Monday morning of a West Coast trip after the club had been swept by the Giants. The Phillies had lost 10 of their previous 13 games and 22 of 31, obviously going nowhere.

At age 39, Schmidt was hitting .203 with six homers and 28 RBIs. Over his final dozen games, Schmidt hit just .053.

Wrestling Wrap ... Each week I’ll look back at a former professional wrestler. Do you remember the Magnificent Muraco? He is best known for his appearances in the World Wrestling Federation from 1981-1988 and held the WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship on two different occasions. Muraco also won the inaugural King of the Ring tournament in 1985.

Prior to coming to the WWF, Muraco - a Hawaiian native - began his career in the AWA and also had stops at the NWA and CWF (Championship Wrestling from Florida). He was noted for applying the figure-four leg lock.

Muraco, 74, retired in 1995 to Hawaii and helped form Hawaii Championship Wrestling. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.

Knockin’ On Wood ... White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood had a busy Memorial Day in 1973. He started by pitching the remainder of a 21-inning game delayed two days earlier, giving up a pair of hits in five innings in a 6-3 victory over Cleveland.

The knuckleballer concluded his day by throwing a four-hit shutout for his second win of the day. Two months later, Wood started both ends of a doubleheader, becoming the last pitcher to pull off that feat.

Another Classic Game ... When it was first created in 1965, the “Green Ghost” was marketed as the first glow-in-the-dark game, and there have been three versions of the board. One was green with red spaces, another white with red spaces and the third was white with brown spaces.

There was a thought that the popular board game was a correlation to the camp horror sitcoms, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family.” A large green ghost - its main character - also was compared to the horror classic “The Blob.”

Memory Lane ... Do you remember sports caster Joe Pellegrino? He was a staple on ABC-TV Channel 6 in the early 1970s, and he later joined WCAU-Channel 10’s sports staff in the 80s for six years after a stint in Detroit.

Pellegrino also had a regular gig on WIP and WSSJ radio, and also worked on Sixers’ broadcasts. In addition, Pellegrino worked in Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, and with the universities of Michigan, Michigan State, Villanova and the Naval Academy.

He passed away at the age of 89 on April 12.

Final thought ... This shouldn’t just be a weekend filled with picnics. We should all remember the sacrifices veterans made for us through the years to allow us to have our freedoms today.

Thank a veteran.

Feedback ... Your thoughts are always welcomed at tnsports@tnonline.com