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Veterans of Numerous ‘500’ Roles Celebrate Love of Race through Oldtimers Club

The Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club must be one of the toughest organizations anywhere to qualify for membership.

How else do you explain that founder of the group, then television sports announcer Tom Carnegie, couldn’t immediately join in 1961? Neither could Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, who invited the club to hold its annual Barbecue gathering on his racetrack grounds.

Why? Neither was eligible because they had not had 20 years involvement with the 500-Mile Race.

That stipulation was written into the original bylaws, and it’s still there today.

The January 1966 Oldtimers News Letter opened with a “Welcome Tony!!” headline, a picture of Tony Hulman and the following commentary:

“Well, it took some doing and a little time (only 20 years), but now you can finally attend the Oldtimers Bar-B-Q as a member. You’ve lost your guest status, and that’s fine with us.

“It always felt rather awkward asking you to be a guest at a function held on your grounds. You know, kind of like asking you to be a guest in your own home.

“We like it better this way, and sincerely hope you do.”

The club was formed in 1961. Since Hulman's and Carnegie's association with the “500” as track owner and Speedway Public Address announcer/WFBM-TV sports reporter respectively occurred with the first race after World War II, in 1946, they didn’t become eligible for membership until 1966. Their applications for membership were gladly approved that year.

Thoughts of an Oldtimers Club emerged among veteran racers from the pre-World War II days as the 50th anniversary of the first Indy 500 in 1911 approached. Among them was Ray Harroun, winner of that race.

It was on April 3, 1961, a month before the track opened, that the Oldtimers Club was born.

Carnegie conversed with his television boss Don Menke about helping form such an organization, and Menke also became a firm proponent when the meeting was convened in the WFBM-TV studios. Attending besides Carnegie and Menke were Al Bloemker, the IMS Public Relations director, Herman Deupree, Fritz Duesenberg, Harroun, Harry Hartz, Karl Kizer and Art Wright.

Unable to attend but enthusiastically backing such an organization were Hulman, Bill Anstead, Henry Banks and Harlan Fengler.

And on that night the International Association of Indianapolis 500 Oldtimer, Inc., came into existence.

There were various capacities such as driver, mechanic, etc., for membership qualifications. One rule other than the 20-year minimum was very restrictive. Males only, it said.

A Board of Directors was selected, with Deupree, who later referred to himself as “Speedway Press Box Flack (1909 thru 1963)”, chosen to oversee the organization. Among those appointed to the board was Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, former driver, World War I flying ace, track owner and survivor of a harrowing many days in a life raft in World War II when his plane went down in the Pacific.

The Barbecue was introduced four years prior, with an informal smaller gathering. It was televised by WFBM-TV and this continued when the organization became official.

Art Wright, who wrote the “Wright Angle” in The Indianapolis Times, was appointed to the PR position and publisher of a newsletter.

He penned in the first issue following the 1961 affair: “Many say this was the most outstanding gathering of 500 veterans of all time. The castor oil sure did fly.”

Bloemker was presented the “Golden Car” award, first of many plaques and trophies to be given to deserving members through the decades.

A cute side light to that first Barbecue was a bottle of imported wine brought by 1925 “500” winner Peter DePaolo. It had ribbons twirled around it and a note attached. It was a gift from movie star Jane Mansfield, who happened to be in Indianapolis at the time.

By 1962, the Club had received enough notice to be invited to participate in the 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis the night prior to the race.

In a more laid-back times, members often wrote in about their post-racing lives. Dave Evans, who drove in six races between 1927 (fifth) and 1934, penned the following:

“I’ve been in and out of the hospital all winter. I had an accident rounding up some cattle in a blizzard. My horse fell on me and broke six ribs, two vertebrae and punctured my right lung. After flying and race cars I had to let a horse get me.”

He was a cowboy in Dell, Montana.

Harry Hartz replaced Deupree as president in 1967, and since a new president moves up from first vice president to take over the club every two years.

In 1963, Art Wright became ill and Frankie Bain, the 500’s chief registrar, was assigned to the secretaries duties including writing of the News Letter.

A.J. Foyt got his picture in the News Letter after winning his second “500” in 1964. He carries Life Membership No. 571.

In a 1965 issue of the News Letter it was reported that a towering elm tree at the head of the straight was cut down for track improvements. Donald Davidson, fresh from England, began writing “Looking Back” articles for the News Letter after joining USAC.

In 1969, women got a boost when a petition was offered that would provide Speedway employees Frances Welker, Francis Derr and June Swango to become club members. Work was begun to amend the eligibility rules. They were inducted in 1970.

Many years later, Joanna King served on the Oldtimers Board and handled the financial books. When she retired, Barbara Hellyer replaced her.

The Oldtimers began a special project during the 1990s that continues today. Members from all categories have been interviewed, many at length, about their memories of their years at the Speedway. They have been filmed, put on a disc and presented to the Speedway Museum for its archives. Paul Castagnolli had a big hand in the technical projection end while several members have done the interviews.

One thing hasn't changed, though. It still takes 20 years to get in the club.

Think, a rookie "Yellow Shirt" member of the IMS Safety Patrol this year can apply for membership in 2040.


Note: Visit 500oldtimers.com for more information on the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club.

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