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Editor & Publisher
CEO Jeff Burk
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DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
Director: Casey Araiza
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ET DRAG RACING
NEWS & ANALYSIS
The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman
VOLUME XIX, NUMBER 5 - May 2017
Going in circles at the Indy 500
Even though it's a slam dunk that I am a 'drag racing guy', I do love many, MANY forms of motorsports. If Biography Channel were to do my life story – OK, already some of you are going 'why in the blue HELL would they talk about Chicago Jon?’ Well, hmmm....suppose I were to hit Powerball, THAT'D make me famous, then, like most guys who suddenly have 400 million bucks, I'd proceed to screw it up, and they would ultimately find my bloated corpse under a pile of hookers and dope (next to Charlie Sheen, of course!)
Seriously, history would show that the first live motorsports event in my life was my Grampa Hoffman taking me to the simulcast of the Indy 500 in 1970. Grampa had heard that I was all into racing, so off we went. While we stood out on the sidewalk waiting for the doors of the 'motion picture house' to open, it soon became apparent to me that this was not just like taking-a-grandchild-to-the-museum, type of deal, as Grampa told story after story, about the history of the 500. Here was a man who, like other men of the times, truly followed the Indy 500, and this was clearly not his "first rodeo".
Stories of how the tragic death of Eddie Sachs spawned the development of the fuel cell, or how Lloyd Ruby probably should have won the previous year’s race, only to lose because of a pit road snafu. (That year’s winner, a "nice young eye-TAL-yun boy", as Grampa described him, has a nephew, and we're going to get there in a second.) And the interest in 'The Greatest Spectacle In Racing' dug in for real that day, and I knew that someday I would make this trip happen, but I did not know yet how, in what fashion, nor when.
After a 1987 planned trip was 'de-railed', I finally rallied the troops in 2003 in an "oh YEAH?!?" response to the Super Bowl, of all things. (Everyone at our gameday party that year grew despondent, lamenting that us 'lunch-bucket-toting Joe 30-packs' could never afford such an event). I jumped up, 'Bluto-esque' and began describing an American institution attended by over 200 THOUSAND people, and tickets were CHEAP, too and the trip was ON!
It was reported that Mario’s boy, Mike, along with 'Little Al' Unser would run for the final time as well (and, like most rock bands, said retirements lasted as long as...the next time they UN-retired!)
Things really picked up steam on my return (flying solo here on out) in 2008, when the previously mentioned nephew, and my main man, John Andretti secured a ride with Roth Racing. With a return to the days and ways of my earliest Indy Nationals, it was barnstorm/hammer-down all the way, leave around midnight, do the race, and get home around sundown. With last minute sponsorship deals from 1-800-Las-Vegas and LIDS (stop snickering, it's a hat company) John’s experience was able to wrestle the car as high as 14th, before ending up 16th. At the time, I was a part of a John Andretti fan page/message board, and we all acted like he'd won, we were so happy.
The 2009 race was the beginning of a cool three-year string, as John’s former boss, King Richard Petty, became involved. With the car now in STP red & Petty blue and bearing the sponsorship of Window World, the Dreyer & Reinbold machine was a MEDIA-machine! John needed until the very end of qualifying to get into the field and, boy, did the place go NUTS for the hometown boy when THAT happened. Me, I had mashed my foot during race week, but held off going to the doctor, fearing he'd put my right (driving, obviously) foot in a cast. I gutted my way through the estimated 8+ miles of walking that day, and drove home with my foot in a bag of ice. Turns out three toes were indeed broken, but the sight of John in a #43, the flyover by two B-25 Mitchell bombers and more made it all worth it. (Turns out there was no cast needed after all.)
BACK TO TOP
Truthfully, the 2010 race pretty much sucked, as far as this gung-ho John Andretti fan was concerned. An early (and dubious) black flag on John had him perhaps racing a little too hard, and he crashed coming out of turn two. I should mention that I always approached the race, photographically, as a drag race, and shot "round one" in between turns 2 and 3, about 1200 feet out of 2. For the only time in my career, I froze, didn't shoot, didn't spin the (on a tripod) video camera, nothing. Just stood there, mouth agape, knowing the race was over.
As if that wasn't enough, I also had, three days prior, my big toenail removed, so I hobbled over to the golf course, changed my dressings, gobbled down my liverwurst sammich of a lunch and hit the road, hearing Paul Page doing his best 'Herbert Morrison' with the wicked-bad crash Mike Conway had on the radio as I motored west on Hwy. 74.
My final trip, as I suspected this would be the last time the 'John & Richard show' would air (I was right) was 2011. John managed a 22nd place finish, bringing it home intact this year.
For a refreshing change of pace, both feet were healthy, but the same could not be said for my video camera or the streets of Speedway. Road construction made traffic a nightmare, necessitating me RUNNING through the gates straight to my 'round one spot', and my video camera spent the bulk of the day failing more than succeeding. So, the winner of the 1997 Fire Cracker 400, and the first man to "do the double" (1993, FYI) didn't win in his return to the Brickyard, but I know I loved being there to see him try. (And, while only ceremonial laps in a gimmick-car, I finally saw that "Italian Boy" drive at the Indy 500.)
While planning for this column technically goes back to the spring of last year, I certainly never planned to be ending it in this fashion. On May the first, I learned that my hero, John Andretti is fighting stage 4 colon cancer. I reached out to The Burkster and asked should I strike the column, and his response was “Don't you DARE.”
People in situations like John’s do not want to be bundled in bubble wrap and placed in a 'pity-party'. John is telling everyone that he is in-it-to-win-it, and encourages everyone to go out and get screened. (More info at #CheckIt4Andretti)
I can say personally that last year, with my job of 20+ years setting in the sunset, I adopted an 'Uncle Billy goes to Atlanta' mindset with my medical plan, and rang up an un-worldly amount of doctor visits, including the dreaded colonoscopy. They took their little 'laser-chainsaw' and hacked out over six of the little buggers, and I'm just fine, thank you. It is no big deal, so don't let the stories that 'oh, no, you might mess your pants' be why you skip this. For your family’s sake and your OWN, go!!
Johnny, my name’s not Earl, but I do believe in karma, and I know that you'll make it through this. From the goofy fans like me, all the way up to King Richard Petty, we are all pulling for you. Hoist that trophy, the one that says "I beat cancer" -- it'll be the best winner’s circle celebration ever.
Time for me to say C-Yaaa!!