It was on this day six years ago that Indy lost one of its most passionate fans. As I look back today in memory, not sad, not upset, only with a sense of celebration for life and enthusiasm, I remember my father this day. I have not previously taken the time to give a proper eulogy, especially to the close-knit racing world. It only stands to reason that in what will be our family’s twenty-fifth “500” this year, we remember him for the enthusiastic fan he was.
I doubt any TF members knew Ken. He passed away before he could actively peruse the message boards. I had him set up for internet on his machine about two months before his passing, only to have the old computer crash before he could really use it. I was not able to get it going again before he was gone. Either way, his fourteen years on the IMS Safety Patrol was more than enough time to establish himself as a friend of “500,” and consider himself a part of its innermost community.
After years of watching it on television, he finally had the opportunity to go to the race in 1981. Immediately he was hooked, and brought me to the Speedway the following year. Three years later he found himself working as a yellow shirt in the backstretch bleachers. It may have been, quite possibly, the worst location to watch the race from, but as we all know, it did not matter. The only thing that mattered was “being there,” and seeing the friends you got to see once a year.
The many misadventures of the yellow shirt world found him move to the turn two infield once (where you could not see any better), and the year he got caught up doing infield “lake duty” halfway through the race, causing him to miss the finish. Thankfully, for the 1995 Brickyard 400, they moved him to the south end of the old yellow Tower Terrace, a move that would be permanent for both races (no F1 back then). It was actually his first race watched from the mainstrech in over a decade. The south end of the pits was the place to be, especially on race day. Mingling with who’s who of Indy, and having the enviable ability to peruse the pits whenever he felt, free of cost. A single “flash of the badge,” as they called it, was perhaps the only intrinsic benefit from being a yellow shirt. Working in the Tower Terrace had its own quirks back then too. Few may know, or remember the doors on the side of the TT grandstands, accessible from the Gasoline Alley entrance, and other corridors, but they actually led to a room underneath, their break room. As dark, dank, and dirty as that room was, it was all seen as a benefit that few got to experience at Indy.
We all have our traditions for Indy, and his were no less personal, and yet no less superfluous. We always had to drive into town a certain way, we always had to play certain songs in the van, and we always had to park in a certain place. It just was not Indy if we did not do it like we did every year.
It was April 1999, when he got that annual thick envelope from the Speedway- the paperwork for his yellow shirt employment for the month. At the time he was out-of-work, and suffering financially. A move to southwest Florida sparked a new chord in his life, one that had been heading down a dark road for every bit of the last decade. He planned to drive up and spend nearly the entire month there, and I would drive up separately to meet him for race weekend with my soon-to-be wife. Only at the end of April, the diagnosis was in. Cancer. I was not there when he had to call the IMS office to cancel his employment for the month, but I cannot imagine it was easy. He had so little left in life at that point, that Indy was what brought him back to life annually. I did go, and it was odd to be there without him. Nevertheless, we planned for him to return in 2000. What made it a little tougher was that 1999 was going to be his fifteenth consecutive year working at IMS, and that would have qualified him as an Oldtimer. While he was not enthusiastic about being called “old,” he graciously welcomed a chance at membership in that club.
The month of May came and went, and it did not seem to outwardly bother him that much that he missed it, although we know he did. The summer and fall were spent in treatment, and his attitude was always positive. It was a live changing experience, and what was for so many years a tumultuous life, seemed for once at ease. As I look back, the tough times that we all had with him over the years were always soothed during those thirty-one days in May. It was the one thing in life that brought him back to the man we remembered growing up with, albeit temporarily each year, and it probably kept him from falling off the path completely.
In all, he went to the race from 1981-1998 working every year from 1984 on. He worked every Brickyard 400 from 1994-1998, and even worked the Brickyard test session in 1993. He started our family tradition of going to the “500” as an annual rite of passage. Along the way, he took other relatives, friends, co-workers, and of course yours truly. I have kept the tradition going, missing only once. Very seldom can you find an annual family tradition, be it Indy, or whatever it is, that lends itself so deeply to the appreciation of life and the bonding together that it creates. One that can bring people together, regardless of their differences, and allow bygones to be bygones for a day or so. In the years since, the people I have brought along myself have come to realize the same thing we’ve known for years, “just knowing what Indy means.”
We remember Ken Johnson (July 15, 1947-February 24, 2000)
The picture above was taken during his last year at Indy on pole day 1998, at his work location, south Tower Terrace.