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Remembering a joyride with my father at his first Indianapolis 500

Globe reporter Michael Vega (right) and his father, Mike Vega Sr., at the 1989 Indianapolis 500.
Globe reporter Michael Vega (right) and his father, Mike Vega Sr., at the 1989 Indianapolis 500.Michael Vega

In my three decades as a Boston Globe sportswriter, I’ve filed many stories from prestigious events, including the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, and NCAA Final Fours.

But the event that has never failed to get me revved up, well, that’s easy: the Indianapolis 500.

When you stream through the portals of the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day, you surrender yourself to a breathtaking sensory overload. There’s the kaleidoscope of color, the deafening cacophony of the 33 sleek, turbocharged Indy cars whooshing past the roaring crowd of 250,000 fans ringing the 2½-mile oval, the smell of fuel in the air, and the crescendo of excitement leading up to the greatest command in all of sports: “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

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Sunday would have been race day at the fabled Brickyard. But the coronavirus pandemic led officials to shift the race off its normal Memorial Day weekend date to August, leaving me to reminisce about the races I’ve covered, including my most memorable, the 1989 Indianapolis 500.

It was the year Emerson Fittipaldi defeated Al Unser Jr. after a thrilling wheel-to-wheel duel on the penultimate lap, marking the first of two Indy 500 victories for the dashing Formula One champion from Brazil.

In one of the most dramatic finishes in Indy 500 history, Fittipaldi made a move to regain the lead from Little Al, who was vying to have his likeness carved on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside those of his famous father, Big Al, and Uncle Bobby, both multiple race winners.

Fittipaldi drew even entering Turn 3 with an inside maneuver. Two cars entered the turn but only one could emerge. “Emmo” rapidly closed on a lapped car in the apron, drifted up, and touched wheels with Unser’s car, causing it to spin out of control and hit the wall.

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Little Al’s day ended in a spray of shattered dreams and car parts. Fittipaldi, meanwhile, held his line, kept his composure, and drove on to win the race under caution.

Afterward, an anguished Unser said, “In racing, there are times you don’t think about life, you don’t think about money, you don’t think about anything but winning. This is one of those times.”

Fittipaldi accepted the laurel wreath with panache, remarking, “The Marlboro car, she was beautiful today.”

But the reason it was all so memorable for me was that my father, Mike Sr., now 80, was there to witness it all.

Full disclosure: Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, I didn’t enjoy many warm and fuzzy bonding moments with my dad. As the oldest of five children (two brothers, two sisters), I bore the brunt of his strict discipline, resulting in some iciness between us when I was a teenager.

But when I moved away to attend the University of Texas in Austin, and then landed a job in Boston, a much-welcomed thaw followed. So I hoped my dad’s first Indy 500 (my third with the Globe) would serve as a memorable father-son adventure.

Some uneasy moments

Race day was picture-perfect, bright and sunny. We took an early shuttle bus to the track, and were deposited on the backstretch. We hiked about a mile across the infield to the old media center in Gasoline Alley, near the legendary Snake Pit in Turn 1, a section of rowdy fans where you ventured at your own peril.

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We navigated our way past the Snake Pit and made it to pit road for a prerace stroll, Dad with his camera (playing paparazzo) ready to snap photos of racing’s glitterati. We propped ourselves on the wall and watched as the cars and stars rolled onto the track.

"Look, Dad, there goes A.J. Foyt.'' Click.

"There's Paul Newman." Click.

"Mario Andretti." Click.

"Oh, there's Roger Penske." Click.

Mike Vega Sr. took this photo of the Pit Stop Challenge between Michael Andretti (left) and Bobby Rahal (right). Rahal's pit crew won and advanced in the competition.
Mike Vega Sr. took this photo of the Pit Stop Challenge between Michael Andretti (left) and Bobby Rahal (right). Rahal's pit crew won and advanced in the competition.Michael Vega Sr.

“Hey, Dad, get a shot of ...” and at that moment, I was blindsided by a forearm shiver. I wheeled around and it was Tom Ramsey, the quarterback with whom I had become acquainted while covering the Patriots. Tom was at the race as an honorary pit crew member for Panther Racing.

I made a quick introduction. "Dad, this is Tom Ramsey. He played quarterback at UCLA and was a backup with the New England Patriots before he signed this offseason as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts.''

My father nodded and looked Ramsey up and down, taking full measure of his unassuming 6-foot-1-inch frame.

"Did my son say you were a quarterback?'' Dad asked, with a great deal of suspicion.

"Yes sir, I am,'' Tom replied.

"Well, you sure don't look like no quarterback," my father said.

Scrambling to clean up the crude oil spill of Dad’s unfiltered remark, I apologized to Tom and extricated us from the sticky situation with a polite farewell.

I pulled my father aside and chided him, reminding him that he had violated his own cardinal rule, one he had drilled into me: “Think before you speak.”

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"C'mon, Dad, don't embarrass me,'' I said, scolding him in a father-son role reversal.

I quickly hustled Dad to his seat in the Tower Terrace, a section inside the track that faced pit road. It was a primo viewing spot for his first race.

Like a doting father, I reminded him of the ride I had arranged for him back to the hotel and how we would meet up after I filed my stories. It was a time before cellphones, so I was worried Dad would get lost and I’d never find him.

The temperature climbed into the 90s as I settled into my spot in the open-air press box. Three laps after a flying start, a chill went down my spine when Kevin Cogan struck the triangular attenuating barrier at the entrance of pit road. His car disintegrated on impact, bringing the race to an abrupt halt.

A spray of debris went into the stands and crew members went diving for cover when the cockpit, with Cogan still strapped in it, barrel-rolled down pit road.

After Cogan climbed out unhurt, I began to worry about Dad, who was seated in the vicinity of the crash. I had a nightmarish flashback to the first 500 I covered in 1987, when a spectator seated atop the grandstands in Turn 4 was killed by a flying tire. I was terrified Dad had caught a piece of shrapnel from Cogan’s car.

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A wave of relief came over me, though, when it was announced that no fans had been injured.

The race was on again. The 500 settled into a marathon’s measured pace, culminating in Fittipaldi’s thrilling victory over Little Al.

Michael Andretti (right) walked past Bobby Rahal's car before their competition in the semifinals of the Pit Stop Challenge.
Michael Andretti (right) walked past Bobby Rahal's car before their competition in the semifinals of the Pit Stop Challenge.Michael Vega

I was overjoyed that Dad had been there to experience it. He stayed up most of the night at the hotel, talking nonstop about his adventure.

The thrills aren’t over

The next day, we slept in, grabbed a late lunch, and went to a movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which, fittingly, was about a Holy Grail adventure the title character shares with his father, played by Sean Connery.

I elbowed Dad in the ribs and chuckled every time Connery, in his thick Scottish brogue, referred to Indy as “Junior!” since I was one myself.

When we emerged from the West Side cinema, which was on the same side of town as the track, I decided to stop by the press room to make sure my phone line was disconnected.

The Speedway was desolate in the gloaming as we parked our Pontiac Grand Prix rental car next to the press room. After wrapping things up, we started to drive away when I spied an opening in a fence near the exit of pit road. I rolled the car up to the open gate so Dad could get a last snapshot of pit road and the scoring pylon, which was still lit up at the top with Fittipaldi’s car number: 20.

As Dad clicked away, I stared at the track. A mischievous thought crossed my mind.

“Pop, what do you think?’’ I asked, nodding toward the track.

“I don’t know, mijo. What do you mean?’’

The great Brickyard beckoned, and I was the only one in the car who heard its siren song.

Seizing upon the rare opportunity, I gunned the engine and said, “You know what I say? I say we go for it!’’

Tires squealed as I floored it, summoning every cubic inch of horsepower from the rental car’s engine as we launched into our unauthorized hot lap around the Brickyard.

What amazed me, and still does, was the sheer size of the track and how long it took us to get through the first short chute. It’s a distance covered in a matter of seconds by a racer, but it took our rental car an eternity to go from the exit of Turn 1 to the entrance of Turn 2.

At the exit of Turn 2, the yawning back straightaway invited us to mash the gas, which I did. The speedometer blinked “92 … 92 … 92’’ as we approached Turn 3.

I took the same racing line as Emmo and Little Al, but got spooked when I felt the car shudder from the wheel hop of a street tire not meant to be stressed on a racetrack. I backed off the gas and slowed to about 70 so I could point out the skid marks on the track where Emmo and Little Al had touched wheels.

“Look, Dad!’’ I said, pointing to a large smudge on the wall. “That’s where Little Al crashed!”

Dad barked, “Two hands on the wheel!’’

Father knew best. I sheepishly returned my hands to a 10 o’clock-2 o’clock grip. After safely getting through Turn 4, back down pit road, and across the yard of bricks, we took the checkered flag on our father-son adventure. We drove away from the track under the cover of darkness, having cemented a moment between us.

The treads of that warm memory are well-worn by now, but I’m grateful I can still share it with my father. To this day, it remains the reason the Indianapolis 500 — and that 1989 race in particular — will have a lasting grip on me as a cherished sporting event.


Michael Vega can be reached at michael.vega@globe.com.