Spotts forever linked Purdue with Indianapolis 500
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
As the “All-American” Band celebrates its 90th year at the Indianapolis 500, alum John Eckert reflects on the last “500” performance of the man who forever linked Purdue with the race – Paul Spotts Emrick.
“Fifty six years ago Paul Spotts Emrick stood with Met singer James Melton, raised his baton and directed his last piece as the director of the Purdue University Band. The piece was, of course, “Back Home Again in Indiana,” a fitting finale to Spotts’ distinguished career. The last chords where quickly swallowed up with applause, the excited cries of the crowd and the sound of engines roaring to life. For Spotts, it was the end of 50 innovative years that had defined the Purdue Band.
“That 1953 race was a grand day of adventure that began with the bus ride from the back of the music hall to the track. My first view of the track was looking out the window near the NW turn. I was surprised the setting was so rural. The bus drove into the track infield where we got out our instruments and warmed up. In the marching band I played a trombonium which would probably be classified as an English baritone. It was an ideal low brass instrument for a marching band and made a terrific racket. The unique aspect of the band was a cadre of glockenspiels. I am sure that marching and playing the instrument required a lot of concentration. The band was certainly small by today’s standards, but then Purdue had less than 10,000 students, mostly engineers.
“We marched up onto the track in the middle of the south chute. The big surprise to me was the amount of banking on turn 1. Seeing the turn from the infield and marching around it were two different things. In 1953 the turns were paved with asphalt but the front straight away was brick. The turns looked very broad and wide at our 2 mph marching speed. I remember glancing at the wall to note the scars on the concrete. This was serious real estate.
“We marched and played our way around to a location on the track just to the south of the pagoda and on the bricks. The 1953 race was one of the hottest on record with temperatures in the low 90s. We were dressed in our wool uniforms more suitable for a cold football game than a race track with a surface temperature over 135 degrees. We had time to spare until we were to play, so the order was given that we could sit down in lieu of fainting in the heat. With less than 45 minutes before the race, there I was, sitting on the bricks in the main straightaway.
“Marie Wilson rode past the band in the pace car and then the cars were pushed down the pits to line up for the race. We were very close to the cars and I remember their bright colors and fine finish. Up to this point in my life the race had only been black and white newsreel clippings and several Hollywood movies.
“After the National Anthem we gathered at the north end of the pit lane for “Back Home Again in Indiana” and then we were on our own to find a viewing position for the start of the race. I stood behind a small fence at the far south end of the pit. In 1953, the staightaway speeds of the cars were quite high and this was hardly a safe spot. We were watching the cars approach at 170 miles per hour just feet from the track. I can still remember the heat blur of the cars coming down the track from the NW turn and the roar of the engines.
“I watched the 1953 race from the area in front of the pagoda and the grandstand right behind the pits. The Borg Warner Trophy was sitting right on the pit wall.
“Because of the extreme heat, much of the drama of the race occurred in the pits. Two different cars had three different drivers that day and sadly one driver died of heat exhaustion. The crowd favorite was Duke Nalon who drove the front engine drive Novi racer. It was the last attempt for the car which can now be seen in the track museum. The winner was Bill Vukovich who made up for his unfortunate earlier loss due to the failure of a small part in the final laps of the 1952 race.
“The 1954 race was pretty much a repeat of the 1953; same heat and same winner. The hero of the day was the great Jimmy Bryan who drove a dirt track car to second place even though a suspension part was broken. His feat remains the best driver performance I have ever seen at the brickyard. One big thrill for me was that I got to meet a childhood hero, Roy Rodgers. Rodgers was close to the band before we started to perform and I went up to him to ask if I could take his photo. He agreed providing he could take a movie of me. I passed up chances to meet Mr. Rodgers later in my life and regret not having stopped and talked to him about the race.
“I had the foresight to carry a Kodak Retina camera in my inside coat pocket. The camera was very flat and easy to conceal. I also manage to splurge and buy a 20- exposure roll of Kodachrome film for each of the races. I saw two more races in the 50’s and then watched the race, first on close circuit TV and then on broadcast TV for years. I didn’t actually go to a race again until late in the 80’s and have gone to a dozen or so since then. I am an avid racing fan. Those two race days in 1953 and 1954 were big events in my life and remain among my most treasured memories.
John Eckert, Chemical Engineering 1956
“I am 74 now and play the tuba in a classical orchestra on the coast of Oregon and in a British Brass Band in Arcata, CA. I also play in the summers with a community band in Bryan, OH. I live deep in a forest and practice on the back porch looking out on the trees. Often “Back Home Again in Indiana” drifts through those woods.......”
Photos from the 2008 Indy 500
Photos from earlier Indy 500s
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