OLSON: Winning With The Big Wheel

Kevin Olson

In general, racing movies are usually not very good, and don’t even come close to showing what racing is really like. The one exception is Talladega Nights, depicting NASCAR and how it works these days. I’ve seen most of them through the years, but I think the best of them all were Winning with Paul Newman and The Big Wheel with Mickey Rooney.

I like Winning because I saw guys like Gary Bettenhausen and Mel Kenyon in it, and it was in an era when some good open-wheel racers were getting rides in Indy cars without having to pay for them. In the movie, Gary had on one of those cool Hinchman Nomex uniforms that had only Goodyear on the back and just his name on the front. Those uniforms were always a shiny-looking white and had the bare minimum of patches on them, with the exception of the mandatory Honest Jack’s Used Cars in Stoughton, Wisconsin that was the main sponsor for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in those days.

The car Paul Newman was in was actually the car the Bobby Unser won the 500 in back in 1968, which was owned by Bob Wilke of Leader Card fame and sponsored that year by Rislone. Also appearing in the movie numerous times was my favorite motel of all time, the Speedway Motel, where Frank Newman (Paul Capua) had his room both in the movie and filming. I loved that place. Whenever you spent the night there, it was before or after a day at the hallowed grounds across the parking lot of the IMS racetrack.

All the great drivers and owners stayed there during the month of May back in the era of roadsters and Offys. Even the Beatles stayed there back in the ‘60s when they came to watch qualifying and partied in the first turn snake pit. About 10 years ago I was working for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network and on the day before the 500 I was walking across the lot from the motel to the Speedway bar, golf store, and restaurant when I saw Jim Nabors walking just ahead of me heading to the same place. I said, “Gomer sez hey.” He turned around and stopped and talked with me briefly. I finally got it out of him why he dropped the dime on Barney when he did that U-turn in the middle of the street in Mayberry, making that citizen’s arrest on him. Due to the great respect for the man that made me cry every May singing Back Home Again in Indiana during the pre-race, I will not disclose what he told me.

But, probably the greatest racing movie of all time was The Big Wheel, starring Mickey Rooney. Back in the late ‘70s, I saw Mickey Rooney at the LA Airport and asked him about filming that movie, and he told me he didn’t remember a lot about the racing scenes, but had fun running some of the cars and hanging around the Speedway for a bit.

The Big Wheel had so many great scenes with real footage, including the rare footage of Happy crashing to his death while laughing with Billy Coy pointing at his loose left rear wheel right before the crash trying to warn him of the danger. Glad for Happy that there wasn’t any drug testing or sobriety tests before the races back then, as Happy was just too happy while driving, laughing all the time.

Also, there were great shots of some great old midgets, including Johnny Pawl’s car and a lot of great tracks as well. Billy Coy (Rooney) gets his midget ride to impress his girlfriend by just walking into Keith Kunz’s garage full of midgets and is hired immediately when he tells his owner he will just “drive right through them.” He wins race after race and finally gets an Indy ride, which he almost wins but crashes on the last lap and still manages to get the Borg Warner trophy and the trophy girl in the ambulance with him on the way to the hospital.

So, the point of all this is (actually there is no point to it, I guess) back then and when I started racing, Indy was the goal to any serious race driver regarding which direction he would want to go. When I started in 1970, the Indy 500 was, and still is, the biggest worldwide race for any driver to win (although it is tied with the USAC Turkey Night Grand Prix, only at Ascot Park in Gardena, with the Chili Bowl coming in a close second).

But, as time has moved on and eras passed, it doesn’t seem like the open-wheel drivers today have the Indy 500 on the top of their list when it comes to their careers. When I started, USAC was the major sanctioning body, with the Indy 500 and the Championship Trail, along with sprint car and midget divisions. Also, they had a killer stock car division back then that was much more popular than NASCAR, which didn’t even have their races televised. USAC had a lot of stock car races, both on the dirt and pavement, and drivers crossed over from the Indy cars and sprints to come and race stock car events.

Guys like A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Jim Hurtubise, Dan Gurney and Roger McCluskey were just a few of the greats who crossed over to race with regulars like Don White, Ramo Stott and Fred Lorenzen. They put on some great races for years before USAC folded the division in 1984. Back then, NASCAR only had Daytona as a race most people followed, but also had some great drivers then, like Lee and Dick Petty, David Pearson, Junior Johnson and others. Yet, even the Daytona 500 was only shown taped on the Wide World of Sports and usually in segments a few weeks after the race was run.


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