From left, Richard Holmlund, Reggie Ambrosini, Curt Brown
and Ray Klingberg stop for a roadside feast on a 1934 Ford Tudor
during an eventful voyage from Jamestown, N.Y., to Indianapolis
in May 1953.
It was the spring of our senior year in high school and we seemed to be car crazy. Curt Brown and I couldn’t have a conversation without it quickly turning to cars and car-related topics. We both were working as stock clerks at the Nu-Way Market and one Saturday in 1953, while chowing down hot roast beef sandwiches during our lunch break, an idea began to form.
“Hey, why don’t we convince Lyle to drive us to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend for the big race?” Curt asked. Lyle was Curt’s older brother and was also nuts about cars and racing. Maybe he, too, would be keen about the prospect of a road trip to Indiana.
It promised to be a very big trip: we’d leave Jamestown, N.Y., and travel across Pennsylvania and Ohio and a long way into Indiana. There were no freeways in 1953, and the major roads, such as Route 20, passed right through the downtowns of each city along the route.
It turns out that Lyle was, in fact, enthusiastic about such a trip. He had a 1934 Ford Tudor at the time, and it could accommodate five passengers. So, Lyle, Reggie Ambrosini and Ray Klingberg all excitedly agreed to make the trip with me and Curt.
Lyle’s Ford had bucket seats up front and a wide back seat; there was no trunk, so everything we brought had to be stored inside the car. We laid our sleeping bags across the back seat, making quite a pile so that when we sat on them, we were pretty high. The rest of our gear was on the floor.
The ’34 Ford was black with wide whitewall tires, and its dual exhaust system made that little V-8 sound so nice, especially when shifting through the gears in populated areas. The first big city we hit was Erie, Pa., and while stopped at a traffic light, I looked over and saw my twin cousins waiting for a bus.
“Patty, Phyllis!” I cried. “It’s me, Dickie!” We hadn’t been together for a few years, so it was great to see each other. But then the light changed, and we went roaring off.
It was the end of May, and as the day wore on, the temperature climbed higher and higher. There was no air conditioning in the ’34 Ford, so we had the windows down and the windshield open as far as it would go. We soon became aware that Reggie was a really funny guy. He sat there sweating and kept repeating, “Wattameloon, watameloon!” Finally, we figured out what he wanted and soon spied a farm stand and screeched to a halt, the dust rising around us. Out we went and bought the biggest watermelon we could find and proceeded to quench our thirsts, laughing and spitting seeds at each other.
We were OK with the heat for quite a while, but as the afternoon wore on, it was really getting to us. Somewhere in western Ohio we spotted a pond off in a field, quite a distance from the road. It was somewhat secluded — enough so that we could skinny dip to cool off.
Finally we reached the outskirts of Indianapolis. It was well after dark and we were all getting tired, but the excitement of being there kept us going. We found our way to Speedway, an incorporated village containing the racecourse, all within the city limits of Indianapolis. Our next problem was finding a place to stay for the night. That turned out to be pretty easy, as many of the private homes had signs advertising parking spaces on their property. We drove in one yard and were directed to drive to the backyard, where we could park and sleep on the grass.
Even though we were dead tired, we decided to walk around downtown Speedway. After we grabbed a bite to eat, Curt, Ray and I sat on the curb, watching all the action. It was after midnight, but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity. People were walking all over, souvenir shops were booming and a constant parade of interesting cars was passing by. Eventually, we headed back to the car, got in our sleeping bags and tried to sleep.
Morning brought another hot and humid day. We joined a line of cars heading for the racecourse and were soon parked on a grassy area in the vicinity of the first turn. Today, there are bleachers around the first turn and spectators are forbidden from getting near the wall, but back then you could walk right up to the wall.
There were tall elm trees there, and after walking up and looking over the wall surrounding the raceway, we laid on the grass under the trees and tried to sleep some more. Soon, it was 11 a.m. and we heard over the loudspeaker, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” That got our attention! We scrambled up and elbowed a place at the wall. The pace car led the 33 racers around for the first lap and then we heard the roar as the cars accelerated past the start-finish line to begin the race. As the first ones passed us, we could smell the racing fuel exhaust, hear the high-pitched whine of the engines and feel a vibration that seemed to shake our entire bodies.
We watched for a while, but soon the noise and fatigue caused us, one by one, to retire to the shade of the elms and the comfort of the cool grass. I don’t remember how long we laid there, but one of us began to talk about how far our trip home would be, and pretty soon, we decided to take one last look over the wall and then head for home even, though the race was far from over.
The trip back wasn’t nearly as much fun as the one out. We didn’t even know who won the race until we were almost home and learned that Bill Vukovich in an Offenhauser had taken the checkered flag. All in all, I think this was a fine example of the phenomena in life where anticipation of an event can be much more enjoyable than the event itself. Even so, I think all four of us would agree that it was a worthwhile experience that provided us with some wonderful memories.
Richard Holmlund can be reached at email@example.com.