TJ’s Take on the Little 500

By T.J. Buffenbarger

Essexville, MI — (05/26/2001) — During my 23 years of race chasing and the past 6 seasons of doing TJ (has it really been that long?) I have been to some of the biggest open wheel events in the world. Some are still going strong such at the Kings Royal, the Amoco Knoxville Nationals, Ohio Speedweek, and the 4-Crown Nationals. Others such as the Eldora Nationals, the Wolverine Mid Season Nationals, the Warsaw Classic, and the Avilla Nationals are now traditions that are a thing of the past.

This past weekend though I went to one of the longest running open wheel events in the world, the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana. For the 53rd time sprint cars lined up three abreast, 11 rows deep, for 500 grueling laps around the high-banked ¼-mile oval. I grew up in what is the “Open Wheel Magazine” generation, reading about all of the great open wheel races in the United States. Finally this year I would be getting a chance to see what I had heard, read, and been told about, what is the most unique event in all of sprint car racing. I came away with several wonderful impressions of this event.

The people…

Mudclodbob and myself loaded up the Pimpmoble and headed on down to Anderson amongst thick cloud cover. With heavy race, thunder storms, and hail predicted in Central Indiana we defined sensible logic and drove down undaunted. Something unusual has happened to me this season: For some by trusting my gut I have been able to pretty much tell when we are going to get rained out and when we are going to get a race in. My gut felt for some reason the Little 500 would run, so down I-69 we traveled.

Just after our tour of the pits it started to rain, storm, and hail. People were seen pairing off animals and rushing around to build what appeared to be a large boat. All around the speedway dark clouds circled as a low pressure center just would not leave Indiana, and appeared as the Little 500 would become another rain delayed victim of the next to last week in May. However, as darkness settled over Indiana the clouds parted and the rain stopped. What happened next was simply phenomenal.

Dave Argabright wrote this week in National Speed Sport News that the Little 500 is a happening, and people are drawn to it almost like a pilgrimage that is passed down from generation to generation. Even after the torrential downpours people were everywhere after the rained stopped with a line for tickets that seemed a mile long!

I spoke with many of the fans. The average fan at the Little 500 seems to have been going for the past 10 to 12 years. There were several newcomers, myself included, that speculated what the evening’s events would be like as veterans smiled and laughed at our new found joy.

By the time the green flag waved the speedway’s grandstands the surround the ¼-mile track were nearly full, and everyone was excited to see this once a year event.

The Drivers Meeting…

If you ever want to go to a drivers meeting that is our of ordinary, and hear a true “put the fear of God in the teams and drivers” meeting, take in the Drivers Meeting behind the grandstands at Anderson. The meeting lasted at least an hour with enough directions to make a college lecture appear light on notes. All joking aside it is important that all the directions are followed exactly, and the drivers all did a tremendous job on the track along with crews following suit in the pit area.

The pit area…

The craziest thing in the entire race has to be the pit area setup. Anderson Speedway has a figure 8 track in the infield. The east and west ends of the figure 8 track serve as the pit road. Half the field goes into the pit area in turn four, and comes out in turn three, while the other half enters in turn two and exits in turn one. Adjoining paved access roads running parallel to the corners house about six push trucks for each pit area.

Since pit stops are not routine, some very unique equipment is used to service the car. Every car that we eyed in the pits did have a fuel vent hooked up just for this event to help make the process faster and safer. The popular method of fueling is an elevated dump can with a hose similar to what the Indy cars use. I spotted the T&T Promotions/Dowker team with driver Gary Fedewa in particular that were using the refueling rig from the Jet Engineering Indy Car team from back in the 1980’s complete with the #64 still on the tank! Of course Dowker’s have been associated with Jet Engineering for many years, and had a brand new Butch Dowker creation ready to go in the event.

Walking through the quiet pit area hours before hot laps were scheduled to begin as teams set up their equipment was absolutely terrifying. I could not imagine being down in the infield with all the activity going on. I have also never stood in any one spot with more racing fuel packed into one area.

The pit stops themselves are unreal. Cars zoom into the pits during green and caution flag conditions. Crews change tires, refuel cars, and any good team will have one member whose only job is to summon a push truck. Once the truck is lined up, several crew members jump up and down waving their arms to get going. Green or caution the cars are pushed onto the speedway via the apron. The green flag push starts are exceptionally hairy, as your eyes will be following the racing on the track when out of the blue a car comes flying out of the pits.

At one point I was laughing at the entire scene because it was so outrageous that I was totally blown away. Pit stops also change the outcome of the event. The two biggest examples were Tony Elliott’s green flag pit stop just before halfway in the event that put him enough laps down to take him out of contention, and David Steele getting stuck behind a push truck in the pit lane that put him down the lap that eventually cost him the race. To win the Little 500, one must master the pits as well as the track.

The start…

Many times sprint car races have difficulty starting at two abreast, but for 53 years the Little 500 has started 33 sprint cars in 11 rows of three. Anderson Speedway is not exactly the most spacious little racetrack in the world, and a lot of give and take is used to make it through the first lap. By no means though is the start anything like other flying three wide starts where the cars are very strung out, the Little 500 starts in a very tight formation that is truly a beautiful sight.

With the wind blowing in towards our seat, the smell was invigorating. The sent of burning methanol was extremely strong for a few laps until my eyes and nose got used to it.

Following the race…

This is way easier than either myself or mud clod ever figured. The start is totally overwhelming, as I pretty much forgot about taking any kind of notes for the first 30 laps or so except for who was in the lead. David Steele caught slower traffic in the total of about two laps. But once we caught sight of the scoreboard, it was easy to figure out who the top ten cars were. From that point on it was really easy to follow the first five to six cars for us throughout the event, even when the P.A. system crapped out ¼ of the way into the event.

The pit stops did not even cause confusion actually, as all but one time I was able to pick up the leader and who was in pursuit. This made actually watching the race much more enjoyable.

The cars….

Throw out the rulebook for the Little 500 for the most part. There are a few basic rules, but mainly the concept is to make it appear as some sort of sprint car type vehicle that has races in the past 3 decades. This brings out everything from your typical standard issue USAC style Beast Chassis, Dowker Roadsters from the 1970’s, V-6 powered cars, boxy style AVSS pavement sprinters, and Florida’s Hurricane chassis.

David Harrison led the roaster gang in a V-6 powered radically offset car. Harrison was involved in an early incident that sent him to the pits on a hook. After returning to the track several laps down, Harrison was one of the fastest cars on the track. I hope David will run this car next year and can say out of trouble to see how things can turn out.

The other roadster that did not make the race driven by Dorman Snyder was actually the former Ace Nut and Bolt special that Sam Sessions once drove for the Dowker’s. Ironically there has been a lot of discussion with the upcoming Sam Sessions memorial at Winchester this year being an Auto Value race that Sam never ran a winged sprint car. This is somewhat untrue though as Sam drove that roadster in several winged TRI-SAC events that were contested with both roadsters and sprint cars.

Derek Davidson also had a V6 in the BWB Racing Stealth. The Jones Engineering power plant received rave reviews for its performance. The team though plans on tweaking their strategy for the event to improve on their third place finish.

In closing…

Will I be back next year? Without a doubt I will return. Would I advise readers to check out this race? Definitely! Did the Little 500 live up to all the hype? The Little 500 actually was better than even all the hype everyone gave it to me. I am already counting down the days until this once a year event will take place in 2002.