Stodghill Says So

An opinionated posting on a variety of subjects by a former newspaper reporter and columnist whose daily column was named best in Indiana by UPI. The Blog title is that used in his high school sports predictions for the Muncie Evening Press.

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Location: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, United States

At the age of 18 I was a 4th Infantry Division rifleman in the invasion of Normandy, then later was called back for the Korean War. Put in a couple of years as a Pinkerton detective. Much of my life was spent as a newspaper reporter, sports writer and daily columnist. Published three books on high school sports in Ohio and Indiana. I write mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and others. Three books, Normandy 1944 - A Young Rifleman's War, The Hoosier Hot Shots, and From Devout Catholic to Communist Agitator are now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. So are four collections of short mysteries: Jack Eddy Stories Volumes 1 and 2, Midland Murders, and The Rough Old Stuff From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Sixty Years Ago at the Indianapolis 500

Sixty years, that's how long it's been since I last stood in the infield on race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How things have changed since then, both there and in my life. I was a few months shy of my 22nd birthday in 1947, now it's my 82nd. In Indianapolis almost everything has changed other than the design of the track itself.
The most startling difference is the level of safety. Sixty years ago there were no fire-resistant suits for the drivers. Crash helmets were simple devices compared with those of today. The drivers wore goggles and you could see their faces, recognize them even if you didn't recognize the car. They had lap seat belts, not shoulder harnesses. On race day some wore dress shirts or sport shirts, some merely a white T-shirt. There was no radio communication with drivers. If it was necessary to tell one something it was done by a member of the pit crew holding up a chalk board. Having a woman in the race was unimaginable. This year there'll be three.
The cars were far different, of course. Tires were thin and treaded and might not have to be changed throughout the race. During that era Cliff Bergere once drove an entire race without a pit stop. The cars were higher off the ground so that, along with the narrow tires, made it much easier for one to turn over. Many were pre-war cars nearly a decade old.
The casualty rate was horrific back then. I had seen the 1946 race, the first after a four year hiatus because of World War II. George Robson won that race in a boxy old car that was primitive by today's standards. He was killed in a race less than three months after his victory at Indy. In 1947 the orange car driven by Shorty Cantlon refused to start. Several laps had been completed when it finally did. He was trying a little too hard to make up lost ground and hit the wall on the first curve head-on. The steering post pierced his chest; his death was announced before the race ended.
Several more big name drivers on the track that day died in later races. Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Ralph Hepburn, perhaps others. They were the Dan Wheldons, Tony Kanaans, Scott Dixons of their day. It was a terribly risky business , driving a race car in those days.
We made the trip from Akron to Indianapolis in the 10-year-old Chevy owned by my friend Bob Shafer, a sportswriter for the Beacon Journal. His younger brother Dick was with us. The horn would blow on its own at inconvenient moments. It did in Ashland, scaring an old lady crossing the street in front of us half to death. We arrived the afternoon before the race and parked on a side street near the track so in the morning we could finish the trip on foot.
We slept in the car and awoke to find that Bob had somehow managed to get his head caught between the spokes of the steering wheel. I was ready for breakfast that in those days was a cup of black coffee and a cigarette. Today it's Irish breakfast tea and a pipe. Bob said not to worry, he had breakfast all taken care of. It turned out to be a case of beer in the trunk.
Despite such things it was a fun trip, but I'd hate to make it today. I don't think any of us could make it today. I'll be watching on TV, of course, and I'm sure Bob will too. Probably brother Dick as well. It won't be quite the same as being there, but that's OK because nothing else about it is quite the same.


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