On the night before Memorial Day way back in 1946, Betty Eisenbacher jumped in her car, a Plymouth as she recalls, and drove to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When the gates opened in the morning, she barreled into the speedway, headed for the infield, and eventually watched the race from the roof of her car. Yes, she recalls, a lot of other stuff went on in the infield, called the snakepit back then, but she watched the race.
Back then, the cars had their engines in front. The driver’s head and shoulders stuck out of the cockpits of the cars. Also, that year, the winning speed was 114 mph.
A lot has changed since that day 70 years ago. For one, Eisenbacher has aged. She was 26 when she saw that first race. She’s 96 now.
But one thing hasn’t changed. Since that first race in 1946, she’s always been in the crowd for the 500, and she’ll be in the crowd again May 29 for the 100th 500.
It will be the 71st consecutive Indy 500 she’s seen.
Eisenbacher, who now lives at Coventry Meadows assisted living in Fort Wayne, is getting a little old. She can’t explain what motivated her to go to the 500 in 1946 when it was resumed after the end of World War II. But she can explain why she’s kept going back.
"It’s something that’s in me. I’ve got to see it and hear the roar of the engines," she says. "The roar of the engines. Those engines really roar."
Over the years, she’s attended the time trials, taking photos and taking 8 mm film of the drivers as they emerged from Gasoline Alley. She’s got a whole photographic history of two-thirds of all the 500s that have been run.
After a few years, Eisenbacher quit going to the infield. During the time trials she would roam the stands looking for the best seat she could find. Eventually she found what she wanted, a seat high up in the fourth turn where she had a good view of the racers as they entered the turn and headed down the straightaway to the finish line.
She’s had the same seats for decades now. She reserves them every year, and from that spot she’s witnessed a lot. There have been plenty of crashes. "I don’t enjoy any wrecks," she said. "I like to have safety."
She likes A.J. Foyt, but she’s not especially partial to Mario Andrettii. He whines too much, she said.
It’s gotten to the point where she’s such a regular that she even gets her name in the program, but you only have to have attended 25 consecutive 500s – a relative newcomer – to earn that privilege.
She’s become enough of a regular at the race that 10 years ago she actually got to ride around the track in a race car before the race. In the last few years, the people who sit around her (they reserve the same seats, too) have cheered when she made it up the steps. They’re regulars, too.
And this year, as usual, she’ll get up at 4 a.m. on race day, park near the track, take a nap and then tailgate until the race starts. And she’ll be back in the same seat, high up on the fourth turn, accompanied by her great nephew Marc Carroll, who has been taking her to the race for the last 10 years.
And when the race is over, Carroll says, it’ll only take about a week until she starts talking about next year’s race.
Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.