Sunday is Mother’s Day. Back when Foyt, Andrettis and Unsers defined auto racing in this country, that often meant Saturday would have been scheduled to be the first day of Indianapolis 500 qualifying, Pole Day. To me, Pole Day was the real Mother’s Day.
Sunday Mother’s Day meant my mother, her four siblings, their kids who lived with them all joining my maternal grandmother at her church for services and Sunday afternoon dinner at Laughner’s Cafeteria. Pole Day Mother’s Day meant Mom and me at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with 165,000 others watching four-lap runs that decided who started where on Race Day.
Our eclectic sports tastes allowed us to savor a sporting paella: 1976 Olympics, Chris Evert’s invincibility, USSR National hockey team, championship boxing, WHA, ABA, NBA.
But Pole Day was our tradition.
We usually sat in Turn 4. She’d be holding whatever we tried to use as a stopwatch while getting sunburned as one of the few not wearing Coppertone. I’d have a pen and The Indianapolis Star’s qualification scorecard on which I’d record each car’s lap. Between us, honey loaf sandwiches, a cooler of various soft drinks, taco flavor Doritos. As each car curved out of Turn 3 and shot toward us, we’d try to gauge its speed, snarling through clenched teeth at favorites or track record threats, “Push it! Push it, baby! Push it!”
We laughed at the cool drama of Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt taking the pole with runs late in the day. We hugged and yipped at the first front row with three 200-mph averages in 1978.
I sharpened math skills calculating averages and converting time to speed. She educated me on the Friday night or Saturday morning provision run, lessons that would serve through the years at auto races, journalistic stakeouts, golf tournaments and swim meets.
(On Saturday, the time and speed report Mom awaits will tell the story of her granddaughter in the 50 backstroke, 50 breaststroke and 50 freestyle.)
The only time I unloaded on Mom in public and got away with it: the Pole Day that saw Gordon Smiley smack the wall coming out of Turn 3 and it looked like an auto-parts store burped a fireball. Upon hearing the crowd gasp, Mom, who had just left for the restroom came running back into the stands with a giddy, “What’d I miss?”
I spewed a loud, angry upbraiding. Unfair as my reply was — for all she knew, he could’ve just been taking Tom Sneva’s high line off Turn 4 — she took in the sight of Smiley getting the sheet cover and realized her teenage son had just seen someone die. She delivered a needless apology. Smart parenting.
Pole Day also reminds me of the most valuable lesson Mom got through to me.
Some black folks in Indianapolis, young and old, never went to the Speedway because, as a friend said years later, “There weren’t too many of us out there.”
I never understood that. Not only had my family long gone — our Pole Day tradition started in a pack that included Auntie (Mom’s sister JoAnn), Uncle Gerald, Aunt Jean, cousins Mark and Dawn — but that wasn’t Mom’s mentality. Or, one that she allowed me to take for a second.
You’re interested in what you’re interested in and dream what you want to dream. If you don’t want to be limited in accomplishment or want others limiting you through prejudicial attitudes, don’t limit your role models. There was something to learn from Foyt, Sneva, Al Unser, etc.
Us being the only black folks in J Section mattered as little as the paucity of black NHL players, black sportswriters (of whom I knew), black U.S. presidential candidates. Nobody with your skin color or gender has done it? Guess you’ll just have to be the first.
Like Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500.
Three years after our tradition broke, I went to the first Pole Day without Mom. I started the two-hour walk before dawn carrying provisions in my ever-present wagon red athletic bag. Track announcer Tom Carnegie bellowed his iconic, “It’s a newwww track RECORD!” a few times that day.
Still, for perhaps the only time, I left Pole Day very early. Mother’s Day without Mom? Red flag.