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Keep On Truckin'
David Albin
May 20, 1996
The depleted field vying for the Indy 500 pole opened the door for an unlikely qualifier
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May 20, 1996

Keep On Truckin'

The depleted field vying for the Indy 500 pole opened the door for an unlikely qualifier

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I'm pretty sure that everybody in the world knows this by now, but in case someone didn't hear it—from Sports-Center or CNN or Pravda or Joe Blow at the watercooler—a pickup truck qualified on Sunday for the Indy 500. A rusty 79 Ford Ranger. I'm not kidding. I was there when it happened.

And here's how the "driver" describes the preparations he and his good buddy Ronnie Briggs are making for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, on May 26. "We pro'ly was losin' nine or 10 miles per 'ar down the straightaways, just 'cause the damn tailgate was up," reckons Bob Mackey. "But rollin' the windas up? That was just a hunch that Ronnie had. The wind whips past the cab now! When the windas were down, though, that damn wind slowed us down sumpin' awful—blew them napkins and Hardee's bags all around the cab too—and damn near ripped my hat off! If it's hot on race day, though, you can double-damn betcha I'll have them windas down!

"We're tryin' to figure if we should run with the air vents open or closed, or with the radio on. I'd like t' keep up with how we're doin' and listen to some tunes—500 miles is a long way. But we do know the bug shield slows us down. We're fine-tunin'."

There will be no Andretti at Indy this year and no Penske, no Fittipaldi, no Rahal. The best-known Indy Car teams and drivers will be in Michigan, boycotting the Indy 500 and racing in the inaugural U.S. 500 because Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George are fighting over control of their sport. That's why reporters are asking a truck driver how he'll do at the fabled Brickyard.

"Weeeeell, let me tell ya," Mackey drawls, "with the way George has bin messin' with the Indy 500, there's barely enough cars here to even run. We know we ain't got a chance of leadin' the race from the git-go, but if we can finish it and I guaran-damn-tee ya we can finish it—then there's a chance that all them real racers'll be broke down and out when we come across for the checkered."

This simplistic tortoise-and-hare reasoning is what's now passing for race strategy on Gasoline Alley. But after the strange events on Sunday, who's to say Mackey can't win? At about 10:30 a.m., a security guard on the Speedway infield mistakenly allowed the truck through the gate to Gasoline Alley. Mackey, with Briggs beside him, tooled onto the track to take a few laps, and thousands of fans, depressed by the defections of their favorite drivers, picked up the chant: "Let 'em qualify!"

Track safety crews were slow to respond, unsure of what was going on, but not Gen. Chuck Yeager, test pilot, American hero and spark plug pitchman. He quickly sortied in the pace car and intercepted Team Truck for an escort back to Gasoline Alley, where Mackey provided anyone who would listen with this version of Sunday morning's events: "We were just tryin' to get in to see a day of qualifications and pay our respects. Who knows if there'll be any more racin' here, ya know? Anyway, on the drive over here Ronnie kept eggin' me on to make a run for Gasoline Alley. My head was throbbin' pretty bad from a party we'd been at the night before, so I didn't need his whinin'. But in the drive-thru at that Hardee's in Terre Haute he looked more serious than that time I helped him bury his dog—hell, he didn't even touch his second bacon-and-egg biscuit—so I knew he was down and really wanted me to make a run for it. I told 'im I'd do it. Hell, I bin to jail before; it ain't that big a deal. Then when we got up here, and that old security guard was just starin' at his feet and let us through, I stepped on the gas. Ronnie's face just lit up, like that time he caught that state-record bluegill. But it's that crowd cheerin' us that got me t' thinkin' about tryin' to qualify. Damn, them folks was somethin'!"

So, with the overwhelming support of the drunken mob that was fast surrounding Gasoline Alley. Mackey and Briggs persuaded Indy officials that a couple of farm boys deserved a chance to qualify. The turning point, most observers agree, was when George came down to the pits to assess the situation, and Mackey, in response to something George had mumbled, yanked a crowbar out of his pickup, pried off the truck's rear left fender and proudly proclaimed, "There's yer open-wheel racer!" The fans went nuts, European soccer-style. So George shook Mackey's and Briggs's hands and motioned for them to pull their truck out onto the track. He'd let 'em in. And after they'd qualified, the crowd erupted.

As George walked away from the pandemonium he'd helped create, one longtime fan seemed to be grasping the ramifications of the morning: "Geez, the race is screwed up this year, but these guys in the 500 just ain't right. Hell, I got a truck! And you don't see me out here tryin' to qualify!"

Ah, but George would've let him. He would've compromised the integrity of the sport for him too.