Speedway-bound

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:02 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- Canada's oldest living Indianapolis 500 driver arrived for breakfast at a pancake house across the road from USAC headquarters a couple blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway here yesterday wearing a red golf hat with an Indy 500 Oldtimers Club patch above the brim.

Eldon Rasmussen, 71, brought along an even older gentleman wearing a gold cap with the same insignia.

"You have to have been involved in at least 20 Indy 500s in some capacity, as a driver, builder, designer, mechanic or owner, or, in my case, all of the above, to get the red cap and be eligible for the club. If you've done 40 like Louis here, you get the gold one," he explained introducing Lou Senter, a designer-engineer and owner from waaaaaay back.

Senter ran his first Indy car here, driven by Spider Webb, in 1946, and has been a regular for the Month Of May, as they call it around here, all those years.

The plan was to spend the day with Rasmussen, who grew up in Standard, Alberta, moved to Hinton and then lived and raced out of Edmonton for years in the Speedway Park days. He gave Ron Hodgson - the car dealer and one of the Oiler ownership group who has been heavily involved in racing over the years - his start in Rassmussen's old shop at Stedelbauer Chev-Olds in Edmonton when Hodgson was still in high school.

Rasmussen used to race the old Western Canada-USA circuit with guys like Victoria's Billy Foster, the first Canadian to race in the 500.

Foster crashed and died testing a car in 1966.

Other names from those days driving the western circuit included Tom and Jerry Sneva, Art Pollard and Jim Maloy.

Eldon Rasmussen was the reason I first came to the Indy 500. He finished 24th in 1975, 13th in 1977 and 23rd in 1979.

The man who designed his own soapbox derby car at age nine was actually more involved in race engineering, designing, fabricating and fixing other people's wrecked cars in his massive Indianapolis Racing Products layout - "The first big race shop in Indianapolis" - than with his own driving projects in his years around the Brickyard. At one point he had wings, suspension parts, turbo units, exhaust header systems or other work he'd done on half the cars in the field. Rasmussen knows this place as well as almost anybody.

"I guess that's my claim to fame around here," he said. "I worked for everybody."

This columnist hasn't been back here in almost three decades and yesterday, first over breakfast, then as a guest to visit the Indy 500 Oldtimers Club- "where we do a lot of bench racing all May." That was followed by a tour of the track pointing out all of the changes since I last covered the event. In the evening he took me to attend a race week radio show hosted by one of his old mechanics, Don Kay.

It was all at the same time a trip down memory lane and an updated education on where the Indy 500 has been and how it's been revitalized by the merger of Champ Car and IRL which brings the new combined series back to his old hometown for the Rexall Edmonton Indy, the only Canadian stop in the series.

Rasmussen was involved in one of the most spectacular Speedway accidents ever on Lap 127 of the 1975 500 when Tom Sneva's car ran up over Rasmussen and slammed the wall in front of the VIP suites on Turn 2. Sneva's car turned into a fireball and ended up in a twisted, smoking wreck that Sneva somehow survived.

"Yeah, that was one of the most famous ones," he said.

"A lot of people should remember it. It was featured on ABC's Wide World of Sport 'thrill of victory, agony of defeat' intro for 15 years, along with that guy who came down the ski jump and fell off."

Rasmussen drove Car No. 58.

"I had no sponsorship," he said. "If a sponsor had his name on that car, it would have been worth millions and millions with exposure that crash received especially week after week on Wide World of Sports."

Even at his age, Rassmussen said he'd still be building other people's race cars, or parts of them, if he could. But those days are over.

"Now they're all running cookie-cutter cars all built in Italy and all racing Honda engines. I'm not real fond of the way it is. It used to be everybody had different cars. You don't have to be a smart guy anymore, you have to be a rich guy," said the one man who built his own race cars from top to bottom, financed them and drove them in his Indy 500s.

Along with partner Dick Simon, an old Western racer out of Salt Lake, they set an Indy 500 record in 1995 when they had six different cars they built make the race.

"That's the most anyone had in the race since Ford had five in 1935," he said.

We took a tour around the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which in many ways seems exactly the same, especially from the outside but is very different on the inside. Especially inside the track itself where there's a road course, a golf course and the legendary museum and hall of fame. It is still astounding to take in the place in which you could put the Roman Coliseum, Vatican City, the Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium, Churchill Downs and Wimbledon's Centre Court with plenty of room to spare.

It looks so much the same as you sit on the pit wall and look at the 250,000 seats which will be mostly full Sunday with the buzz back for the Indy 500 with the merger and the field of cars. The track itself got me the first time I saw it, especially when it got to race day and all those people in the stands magnified the effect. It's so narrow compared to how it looks on television, it's like a ribbon.

But gone is the old Gasoline Alley of wooden garages. Now there are three separate rows of concrete garages which are three times as wide. It's lost the flavour and even romance of the old place that way.

"That track is smooth as glass now," said Rasmussen. "It wasn't when I was racing. I was a few inches too low going into Turn 1 in practice and pretty much demolished the car. I didn't have a back-up. I worked four or five days with Frank Weis out of Calgary to get that car back together. I wouldn't have made the race if it weren't for Frank."

There's a massive new media centre, a new tower and new stands and suites on the interior of the track as well as at a couple of locations on the outside.

Rasmussen pointed out the "soft walls" which aren't the hard concrete of the past.

"They saved at least a half dozen guys this month from going to hospital," he said.

"I wish they'd have been around when I crashed at Pocono."

Rasmussen said you can feel the Indy 500 returning to the glory years with the merger even despite all the rain here this year.

"It's already changed. Over the next few years it'll zoom back up again. The buzz is back.

"Just on 'bump day' Sunday, you could see it. There's actually bumping going on. There was hardly any bumping here for the last five or six years. This year there were 44 cars here," he said of cars taking the track before the gun is fired to bump somebody from the 33rd and final spot with a better qualifying time.

"That's how I got into every race I ran here, with 15 minutes to go on bump day, knocking somebody off the bubble. In 1979 there were 94 entries. There were 84 different cars on the track in the Month of May. There were 66 different drivers and still only 33 spots. And I couldn't afford to go out and practice much. For me it was mostly about those last 15 minutes."

I remember one of those years Rasmussen taking me to the Last Row function where the drivers who started at the back were invited to a special night in their honour where they were presented with cheques for 31, 32 and 33 cents each. It was a hoot.

"Pole day used to draw over 300,000," said Rasmussen of the first qualifying session here. "It got down to where it looked like there was nobody at the race track, even though there were probably just under 100,000 in the place."

The permanent seats have not been sold out since 2000 but Fred Nation of IndyCar informs that they're expecting to be close to a sellout, at that number, this year.

What is certain is this - the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 will be the largest attended single day sporting event in the world just as it has been every year since sometime in the 20th Century. That's never changed.

Rasmussen has 87 seats he's bought every year for decades to insure his old Edmonton friends and people around the racing world he knows will have great seats if they want to come to the Indy 500.

Despite the fact he isn't involved like he once was, although he still has some ties, you can tell Rasmussen is dialed up about Indy being back on track here and coming to the track in his old home town in July.

Rasmussen said being around IndyCar racing here, he knew the Edmonton race had earned a reputation in the three Champ Car seasons. He was brought in for the first one and said he was blown away.

"In all the years I was driving, that had to be the best new track opening of any track I'd ever attended. They got a lot of help from the guys who used to run the race in Vancouver, but the old airport set-up is perfect," he said.

Guys like Bobby Rahal and Mario Andretti attended the Edmonton races and came back just as wowed.

"The Indianaplolis 500 and Edmonton .... that's the roots of my life," he said.


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