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The buildup begins the moment you know you've qualified for the race. I had tried to qualify in 1969, '70 and '71 and hadn't made it. The first year the officials told me I didn't have enough experience even to be allowed on the track. The second year I crashed and the third year I qualified but was bumped from the field by a faster car. Then came '72, and finally, suddenly, gloriously, I made the show, qualifying on the inside of the third row, seventh fastest. That same day people began calling, asking me if I was a good bet at the 9-1 odds they were quoting on me.
There was a two-week hiatus between the day I qualified and the race. Except for a few interviews and promotional appearances, and an occasional run in the car to make sure everything was checked out, there wasn't much for me to do except wait. I guess I could have gone home for a while, but I never thought of it. What I liked to do was to go over to the track and hang around with my crew. The bigger teams reserve two or three garage bays with the walls knocked out in between, but we had a garage just big enough for our one car and not much else. The car sat on jack stands and, unlike myself, the crew could keep busy by assembling, disassembling, checking and double-checking.
In the evenings I went back to my motel room and exercised. I would grip a desk chair by its back legs, hold it straight out in front of me, then twist it from side to side in a way that simulated the turning of the steering wheel. I found this exhausting, and I was never sure if I really could build up the right muscles for the three-hour grind I had worked so hard to become a part of.
When I went to the Speedway the day before the race, the big gang mowers were putting the finishing touches on the lawns, and the smell of fresh-cut grass was in the air. We were told to report to the pit lane for the "drivers meeting," a ceremony really. Right after it we went to a small airless room under the grandstand—no press or spectators admitted. There was where final instructions were issued.
Next we all picked up and headed into town for the Festival Parade. There were bands and floats, but the center of attention was the drivers. That year we were in 11 identical convertibles moving at walking speed, three to a car, riding on the rear deck. Each convertible symbolized a row of the 11-row, 33-car grid that would take the flag the following day. I was in the third car with Swede Savage and Johnny Rutherford. The crowd was enthusiastic and shouted encouragement. "Johnny!" "Way to go, Swede!" "Sam, baby!" A woman, grossly overweight, dressed in short pants and a halter top, crabbed alongside our car, holding out her autograph book. "Good luck tomorrow, boys," she said, then fell back to meet the next car. The three of us laughed and joked and signed each other's names in the autograph books, but each of us knew that the next morning, strapped into our cars, our helmets on, we would barely exchange a glance. Tomorrow was that other life, the narrow part of the channel where things happen quickly and for keeps.
In the evening there were parties all over town. My younger brother, having driven non-stop from Connecticut to see me in the race, was encamped somewhere beyond the Speedway grounds. Later he told me that from the moment it was known he was related to a driver he never had to buy another beer. The backers of my car arrived from California and Oklahoma and threw a barbecue at Howard Johnson's. My crew chief and I wanted a last chance to go over our strategy for the race, so we begged off from the party and went to a small restaurant. My girl friend was with us and the atmosphere was very calm and controlled. Later I slept soundly for five hours and awoke just after dawn.
Indy is run at 11 a.m., and I had planned to be up early so I wouldn't be hurried. The room was familiar; I had been living in it for almost a month. But today it seemed strange to me, and I couldn't persuade myself it wasn't.
On the morning of the race the police keep open a special approach route for the drivers and crews, and the road was empty. It was eerie because on the adjacent streets the traffic was crawling. I drove through the tunnel that runs under the track between Turns One and Two, emerging on the Speedway grounds. There the grandstands, huge and stretching away to the horizon, were the perimeters of a space so vast it was like a separate universe.
I was used to seeing the stands empty; now they were packed, a wall of undulating colors as the crowd settled into place. The infield parking lots were full and a wave of heat shimmered above the cars. Already it was 80�. All along I had thought I understood the actuality of the race and what I was getting into. Now I wasn't so sure.
Hastily I went to the garage area and, opening the door, I was surprised to see that the car was gone. It had been taken out to the grid. The crewmen were changing into their fireproof refueling outfits. Nobody said a word to me. Soon they left to be with the car. I sat on the floor in a corner. The cement was cool, almost relaxing.