Making a big deal of the three cars and drivers that qualified for places in the front row of the Indianapolis 500 is a time-honored tradition. When the places are determined, the drivers and their cars are parked on the bricks at the start/finish line for photos each year.
It really is something to be among the three fastest qualifiers in the 33-car field, but fan interest begins to drop off beginning with the second row and going back from there. Hardly anyone pays attention to the 11th — the last — row of qualifiers.
Jerry Castor plans to change that situation at 11 a.m. Saturday when he opens the doors of the Community Building of the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds for the 15th annual Old Timers Reunion.
He’s going to re-create the last row of the 1950 Indianapolis 500, bringing to Columbus the three cars that barely made it into the field, one of which occupies a special place in local racing history.
Castor is the co-founder and current organizer of the reunion — a gathering focused on nostalgia about the good old days of racing in and around Columbus. The theme of the first reunion in 1999 was on two defunct raceways — the old 25th Street Fairgrounds (now home to FairOaks Mall) and the Columbus Speedway, which was located just off State Road 7 south of Columbus.
Over the years, the reunion has evolved beyond those two dirt tracks to encompass local involvement in much bigger events, such as the Indianapolis 500.
This year, Castor came up with the unusual twist of resurrecting the last row in the 1950 field, three cars that went on to achieve a kind of quirky fame in their own way.
“We always try to have a ‘special something’ for our fans,” Castor said in explaining his efforts to bring to Columbus the last three cars in the 1950 race. “What makes this special is that the car in the middle of the 11th row was the Cummins ‘Green Hornet,’ which was driven by Jimmy Jackson.”
Getting the car to Columbus was a feat in itself. It’s been enshrined at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame for several years, and negotiations with Speedway officials to have the car loaned out for the reunion were completed only this week.
Castor also had to do some convincing to land the cars that started out alongside the Green Hornet. Run as the “Pete Wales Special” (for the trucking company owner who purchased it from racing legend Andy Granatelli and his brothers), the 33rd-place car eventually was acquired and restored by a collector in Cincinnati who agreed to have it on display in Columbus.
An appearance by the third car in the last row of the 1950 race is a bit iffy at this time. Owner Ray Boissineau earlier had committed to send the Troy Oil car to the Old Timers Reunion, but since it’s quartered in Manchester, N.H., and that area just experienced 16 inches of snow, chances of it getting out of Manchester are kind of remote.
Even if the Troy Oil special doesn’t make it here, the Green Hornet will be the star of the show.
The car named for its distinctive colors is not as well-known in local history as some Cummins entrants in other races. The 1931 No. 8 was the local company’s first effort at competitive racing, and it entered the history books when Dave Evans became the first driver to run the entire 500 miles without a pit stop. Ironically, Jackson, who drove the Green Hornet in the 1950 race, accomplished the same thing in another entry in the 1949 race. He, Evans and two others are the only drivers in the history of the race to run all 200 laps without a pit stop.
The 1952 car driven by Freddie Agabashian won the pole, and the 1987 Cummins-sponsored car piloted by Al Unser Sr. won the race.
The Green Hornet didn’t have that kind of record. Although Jackson had become competitive by the 50th lap, bad luck struck on the 52nd when his supercharged engine began to come apart. He was forced to pull out of the rain-shortened race and finished 29th.
Nevertheless, the car was an important development in the local company’s Indianapolis 500 history.
For one thing, most of the major components — as for those of all of the company’s entries save for the 1987 winning car — were put together by Cummins personnel.
The 1950 car also marked the company’s re-entry into 500 racing. The 1931 car was followed by homemade entries in the 1934 and ’35 races, but company officials decided to get out of racing after the 1935 event.
The return of the company to racing in 1950 was treated as a second coming by the media. The Indianapolis press quickly affixed the Green Hornet title to it, and Clark Gable visited the Cummins garage in Gasoline Alley and was photographed with the car.
On race day, Columbus accounted for a good share of the crowd. Almost 1,000 Cummins workers were bused to the track.
The folks back home had an even better view of the race … on television. Since TV was relatively new in 1950, there weren’t such things as blackouts for coverage of the race by Indianapolis stations. Those local folks who didn’t have sets took it in on three sets at Donner Center that were donated by Harley Freeman of Modern Appliance Store.
The screens on those sets were 16 inches, but by 10:30 on race day morning, all 300 available seats in Donner were filled.
The finish was disappointing, but the Hornet had paved the way for even greater successes, most notably Agabashian’s pole run in 1952.
In some ways, the Green Hornet is ancient history, but Castor thinks it still has an audience.
“One of my purposes in getting the Cummins car to the reunion was to give new-to-
Columbus staffers exposure to the racing history of the company and the city,” he said.
In the case of the Green Hornet, it’s a colorful history.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.