Butch Welsch Reflects on Changing Memorial Day Traditions after 72 Straight Indy 500’s

Some thoughts by Butch Welsch prior to Memorial Day 2020.

Traditions Lost: Figuring out what I am going to be doing on Memorial Day weekend for the first time after 72 straight years attending the Indianapolis 500.

It’s the Wednesday before Memorial Day Weekend. I text my son and grandson in California to say: “I’ll see you guys at the St. Louis Airport at 1:00 PM tomorrow.” My son texts back to remind me, “Don’t forget the ham sandwiches for the ride to Indy and of course remember the tickets and badges.” Then we simultaneously text: “Whoops, not this year.” And so the end of traditions begins.

Wednesday night and I am supposed to be putting the finishing touches on my article for TrackSideOnline.com presented by HondaRacing/HPD, providing my predictions for the upcoming race. Instead I am making 27 trips from the dining room to the basement with things such as Aunt Martha’s Wedgewood dishes which we haven’t used in 40 years. However, I have to be careful with them because they are worth a fortune – and by the way no one wants to buy them. We are having a bunch of new carpet installed and it is necessary to remove all of the glass and china from the cabinets. I said I didn’t want to spend my Memorial Day weekend moving all of the dining room stuff so my wife had it ready to move to the basement on Wednesday. This weekend is not starting off well.

Thursday is reserved for some time at the office and then pick up the kids for a nice leisurely drive to the Hoosier state. We actually won’t be missing the boring drive through Illinois.

On Friday, it is up early and to the track. The first stop is at the booth of the number one Indy Car Racing artist, Randy Owens, who I have gotten to know over about 20 years. I proudly own about 30-40 of Randy’s pieces and would have more if I had more wall space and less wife. Then it is off to the garage area to check out the final liveries on the cars in this year’s race. This is followed by a brisk walk under the main straight tunnel to head for the Penthouse of grandstand “B”. This is a good vantage point for “Carb Day” as it is right at pit exit and the cars tend to come in and go out frequently. I am already missing it as I write this. Then comes the Freedom 100. This Indy Lights race has become one of the racing highlights of the weekend. Frequent passing, sometimes at least two wide into turn one, are the norm. And then we will never forget the sight of four cars wide coming across the yard of bricks, unable to tell who was ahead from our vantage point.

By then it’s time for a track dog or two to get us through the rest of the afternoon. We hit the concession stand on our way north to take up seats in the Paddock for the pit stop contest. This is always a light hearted fun event with low key competition and typically some interesting oddities during the pitting processes.

By now we are pretty tired out and following a walk back to the car in the infield it is back to the hotel. There a quick shower and change of clothes is required. Bryant Heating and Cooling Co. has been sponsoring at car at the Speedway since 1958. Every year since then, they have held a large dealer rally in conjunction with the 500. For about 40 of those years and counting, they have utilized the Marriott East Indianapolis Hotel as their headquarters. Since we are a heating and air conditioning company in St. Louis which utilizes Bryant equipment, we are invited to their large Friday night dinner. The highlight of the dinner is an appearance of the driver of the Bryant Heating and Cooling Special. For the last 13  years that driver has been Tony Kanaan. Because Bryant is Tony’s longest tenured personal sponsor, he always has a lot of nice things to say and in addition he always conducts some fun banter with the emcee. Did I mention there is a fabulous dinner as well?

Back to the hotel for an early turn in because tomorrow is going to be another fun filled day. Again, its early to the track for some tours around Gasoline Alley. Since we know there is going to be a driver autograph session, placing ourselves in the proper position allows for some good photos as the drivers arrive on their scooters. We pass on the monstrous lines of fans seeking autographs and head for the Tower Terrace seats in front of the new press box to claim our seats for the drivers meeting.

While it is still an hour before the drivers meeting starts, the time passes quickly as there is a procession of old time Indy race cars making laps around the track. The highlight of this portion is Donald Davidson, sitting on the pit wall, with only a microphone giving every detail of the years the cars ran, their start and finishing places and more information than one can imagine. And he does it all from his memory.

Now it’s time for the Driver’s Meeting itself. While the announced time is 10:30, there ae always some drivers who straggle in and a 10:40 starting time is more usual. There are always some awards to last year’s winner and the polesitter. Then finally, the part we are there to see. Each driver is introduced and comes forward to receive a ring acknowledging that he is an Indy 500 starter. Can you imagine what AJ Foyt has done with 35 of those?

For the traditions to continue, the timing now is critical. The 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indy starts at 12:00 noon. Therefore, we rush, when I was younger it was more of a run, now a fast walk has to suffice, to our car. Then it is out the south tunnel where you can’t turn east like we want, so a 1 block ride west, followed by a U turn gets us heading downtown. There is a quick stop at a Subway on 16th street at Tibbs to pick up a sandwich to eat during the parade. Once downtown we have to take the highway across town because our reserved parade tickets are on Pennsylvania which is the eastern street where the parade begins.

Another 5 or 6 block brisk walk takes us to our seats near New York street. If timing is right, and it usually is, we make our seats just as the Indianapolis 500 Police Motorcycle patrol with their guy who stands on the seat of his motorcycle is passing by signalling the start of the parade. Of course, for us, the highlight of the parade are the drivers and their families. Our grandson can usually grab a high five with Tony Kanaan which makes a great family photograph.

Following the parade, it is back to the track to spend some time going through the museum, getting some pictures and soaking in the atmosphere. After our legs are fully expended, it is back to the hotel. There we catch up with our St. Louis daughter, son-in-law and our two other grandchildren. These days they can’t make it to Indy before Saturday because our daughter is a teacher with year end duties on Friday.

There is just enough time for the kids to take a swim in the pool and then it’s time to prepare for dinner. For that a new tradition has been initiated the last few years. That is dinner reservations at Rick’s Boatyard Café for dinner with an old friend, Jim Michaelian, who is the man in charge of the Long Beach Grand Prix Indy Car Race, and Don Figler, a photographer friend from St. Louis who for dozens of years stationed himself inside of Turn 3 for the 500. Even a college friend who lives in Indy, Ted Popowchak joins us. A lot of racing talk takes place in addition to a nice dinner in a beautiful location.

Following dinner, the family piles in the mini-van for a drive up 16th street from Tibbs and then out Crawfordsville Road just to see the mass pandemonium which is taking place. Actually it used to be much more exciting, but since they have made the Coke lot at the north end of the track the main parking area and have closed off Georgetown Road to cars, there is not quite as much to see. However, there is still enough for us to get “the flavor” of the weekend. Then its back to the hotel for a good, although short, night’s rest.

These are an awful lot of traditions I am going to miss and I haven’t even gotten to race day.

Race day morning, following a quick breakfast, by 6:30 we are in the cars off to the track. For many years our parking spot has been the Speedway United Methodist Church on 16th street about 5 blocks west of the Speedway. We figure we might as well give to a church and besides there is a back way out that avoids exiting onto 16th street.

The walk to the track includes a stop to buy some ear plugs from an enterprising young man who has been selling them in front of his home since he was a small toddler of around 4. He is probably a college graduate now thanks to all of the ear plugs sold.

At the track, one more major tradition is for the whole family in attendance to have our picture taken in front of the main entrance. This tradition began back in the 1950’s.

Butch with Family and Friends at Indy (Butch Welsch Collection)

Once we enter the track, we start taking in the traditions which everyone in attendance has grown to know and love. The parade of bands; the playing of “On the Banks of the Wabash” which signals the cars are to be placed on the track; the parade of celebrities in attendance; the introduction of the drivers.

Then the REAL traditions. The playing of the National Anthem; a single trumpeter playing taps (I get chills just writing that) followed by “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the release of the balloons and the announcement of “Drivers start your Engines”. By this time were ready for the traditions to end and to get on with the race.

I have never felt sorry for Roger Penske on race day. I have been envious of him and consider his methods to be second to none. Don’t tell him, but I preach many of his philosophies of running a business to my employees. Sometimes on race day I have even hoped that maybe a Penske car WOULDN’T win the 500. That hasn’t worked very well as he has visited victory lane 18 times.

However, come this Sunday I am going to feel sorry for Roger Penske. He did a wonderful thing for us race fans by buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR. We all know he is going to do wonderful things with both. And yet this race day, his Holy Ground is all dressed up with no place to go. For me, this is going to be a Memorial Day weekend unlike any other.

However, as much as I am going to miss all of these traditions, I feel very confident knowing that Roger Penske treasures these traditions as much as I do. Therefore, I feel comfortable that as soon as it is humanly possible, Roger Penske is going to bring back these wonderful Indianapolis traditions for us. Remember, it is pretty safe to assume that Roger is very anxious to get that win number 19 and I’ll bet he is also thinking that number 20 sounds like a really good round number.

The traditions will continue.    

Butch Welsch

St. Louis, MO

Indy 500 Entry – Butch Welsch Collection