‘Tales From the Indianapolis 500’: Stories of Racing Legends

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 12, 1987: Broadcaster Jack Arute interviews Roberto Guerrero following his victory in the Checker 200 CART Indy Car race at Phoenix International Raceway.

PHOENIX, AZ – APRIL 12, 1987: Broadcaster Jack Arute interviews Roberto Guerrero following his victory in the Checker 200 CART Indy Car race at Phoenix International Raceway.
photo: RacingOne / Contributor (Getty Images)

Since 1911, over the course of 111 years and 105 races, many men and women have aimed to be the first to cross the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and claim eternal glory in the racing world. Behind those drivers, those well-known names, are the stories of the teams, sponsors, track workers and more, told through the eyes of hundreds, thousands of men and women who write about it: the journalists.

Jack Arute was one of those journalists, and he happened to cover some of the most incredible years of racing from 1984 to 2009. From AJ Foyt’s last race as a driver to Mario and Michael Andretti’s struggle with the curse, Arute’s book Tales From the Indianapolis 500 takes us back in time and through some of the lesser-known, but incredibly important stories that took place behind the greatest moments in Indy 500 history.

(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This week, in honor of the Indianapolis 500, we’re looking at Tales From the Indianapolis 500, by Jack Arute.)

Knowing the history of anything in this world, from discographies to detailed notes of World War II, takes a certain kind of dedication… and the longer the history is or the more complicated and involved it is, the more difficult it is to take in every note. The history of the Indianapolis 500 is one of those events that few have been able to conquer in knowing every fact. Those 111 years and 105 races (this past weekend was No. 106) account for dozens of drivers, the ones that were bumped, the crews behind each of those drivers, performers, volunteers and workers at the track—every bit of the story potentially forged and forgotten in history. But some have preserved them, like Arute, a former Indy broadcast correspondent for ESPN and ABC. I have compiled some of the best stories from his career into one book for another glimpse at the legendary day.

These are stories that only Arute and the few souls in the room could tell you—each story in its own separate context. One story reveals the genius of Rick Mears and how he studied his competition, and how those unique study habits won him the Indy 500 pole in 1986. Because of Arute’s relationship with AJ Foyt, there are more enlightening and somewhat intriguing details behind his sudden retirement from driving. Or the day Mario Andretti suffered a close call while shaking down Tony Kanaan’s car for the 500 — a wake-up call to what would end Mario’s competitive driving. From the book:

In 2003 when I first heard that Tony Kanaan was hurt in the Firestone Indy 300 in Japan and that Michael Andretti was going to have Mario shake the car down and test the car at Indianapolis. I was excited. You forget how old Mario actually is because he still looks like he could get behind the wheel. There was always a twinkle in his eyes from him that hinted at the believe, “You know what? If I wanted to do it, I bet I could still do it.

On Mario Andretti’s first day of practice, I turned on the radio and heard he was posting really fast laps.

“Yes, the old man has still got it! I thought as I turned on ESPN. Then I saw him take flight. As I watched the car suspended in air, all I could think was: “Get out of the car, Mario, before you get killed.”

When he got out of the car after the crash, it was the first time I ever saw Mario look like he knew that his career was over. The twinkle was gone. I could see in his eyes that he knew things were over as he talked to the press from Gasoline Alley.

It wasn’t afraid. Fear had nothing to do with it because in my opinion, Mario Andretti is more fearless than AJ Foyt. I do not know why, but I could see that he came to grips with his mortality; I thought he had decided this “Racing Grandfather” thing is kind of selfish and stupid. Somewhere in midair or when he landed, he came to the realization that he wanted to be there for his grandkids.

In some cases, I want the stories to let us in a little further, but in most all cases, they’re a pleasant glimpse behind the scenes at the Greatest Racing Spectacle in the World. You learn that although Foyt is stern, he has a somewhat hidden playful side. In one story, Arute was supposed to interview Foyt… and watching the time, it looked like Foyt wasn’t coming to it! The interview was to be one of Arute’s first stories in television and his luck had him following Foyt into the bathroom. Foyt did do the interview, but messed with Arute in the process. Had it not worked out, Arute would have likely never had a career in racing coverage.

You follow the monumental efforts of the first women who graced the brickyard, from how Janet Guthrie got her first ride to become the first woman to race in the Indy 500, Lyn St. James taking on the Brickyard for her first time at 45-years -old, to Danica Patrick’s fourth-place finish — the highest ever finish by a female driver — in 2005. Danica’s 2005 Indy story is broken down into a couple of stories, observing the errors she made in her near-winning run.

Each story is like reading through a picture book… you turn the page to the next photo and a description of what’s going on in that moment. If you know the story surrounding that moment, it makes your story something more to cherish. Otherwise, you get a brief look into a scene you never knew much about.

If you’ve never picked up Tales From the Indianapolis 500, and have or are making the trek to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it’s a fairly quick read. It’s easy to take in for those of you with insanely busy schedules, reading through a couple of stories at a time, without feeling like you’re missing out on anything. While it’s not every detailed story of the race upon Indy’s hallowed ground, you feel a little more enlightened, and can take in the history that is the 500

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