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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Scenes From The Indy 500

By Art Shay in News on May 23, 2013 4:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art shares memories and photos from his years covering the Indianapolis 500.)

I was bitten by the racing bug at 15, when Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI flying ace and auto racer, officiated my winning heat in the 1937 Soap Box Derby at the Long Island Bowl in New York. He started us by using a hinged pine board on a rope on an incline that he let flap down so gravity could propel our wheels.

Sporadically (starting in the mid Fifties), the picture editor of Sports Illustrated or one of his myrmidons, would call me in a hushed-voice, dripping secrecy that big league magazines like to affect when they latch onto a big story: "Can you make Indy this year, Art?" he'd ask. "This time we're renting a house for the entire crew and eight cars. Unless you drive down?"

Somehow, I always made myself available and never drove down. Driving is nearly impossible on Race Day—especially at Indy. It was much easier to bribe the accommodating police fifty bucks for the use of a three-wheeler and uniformed driver who knew the backroads between the track and the airport and could scoot up and down through forbidding traffic and traffic signals out of pride or boredom.

The last, most important part of our coverage was to get the film from trackside to the Time-Life Building in Manhattan. Sometimes we would hire a lab in Chicago where the honchos would come out and edit. (Nowadays, the photographer has a robotic-like human assistant.) Every time he or she shoots a frame, it bounces immediately to this technician all the way to the viewing room in New York. Thus, a cover or two-page picture can be voted in or out of the story within two minutes of its having been wrenched from, say, the glory or the carnage of the Speedway.

They're about to run number 97 this very weekend. I was 6 years old when this orgy of wheels, blood and money began, but famous as I am for capturing seven of the eight accidents that happened in Gasoline Alley one year—including a grandstand section that tipped over—I somehow didn't get the call.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.