Revved Up For The Indy 500 Every Year Since 1947

Originally published on May 28, 2011 6:39 pm

The Indianapolis 500, billed as the "greatest spectacle in racing," celebrates its 100th birthday on Sunday.

It's also a big day for Robert Joss. The 82-year-old has attended every Indy 500 since 1947.

Joss, who lives in Indianapolis, got his first ticket from his Uncle Floyd back when Harry Truman was president. Fresh out of Howe Military School, Joss says, he wasn't particularly fresh that first race day.

"In those days they used castor oil in the engines, and, boy, you could smell it," Joss tells NPR's Rachel Martin. He was only about 20 feet from the track during that race. "After about two laps, you were saturated."

Even with that oily beginning, Joss was hooked.

A Few Roadblocks

His consecutive-race streak was only threatened a few times.

One year, he forgot his ticket and Uncle Floyd pulled a few strings to get him in. A few years later, Joss had to arrange his furlough from the Army around the race.

And 1973 brought an epic rain delay. Joss, who was a schoolteacher at the time, had to take off in the middle of a school day to attend the 500, while two colleagues covered his classes.

Perhaps the closet call came in 1960. His wife, Margaret, was pregnant. Her due date? Race day.

She tried to draw a line in the sand: If she hadn't given birth before the Indy 500, she said, he couldn't attend.

"I casually said to her, 'Well, you can call me out at the track, I'll be out there,' " he remembers, chuckling. "Me and 250,000 other people."

Lucky for Joss (and Margaret), his daughter was born a week later.

"She could've hung it over my head for a long time," he says.

Bring On The Noise

After six-plus decades, you'd think the Indy 500 would start to become a blur. But Joss says he gets excited for it every year, especially in the first lap.

Before the start, he and his Uncle Floyd used to calm their nerves with "a good snort of whiskey before it started." Now, with his uncle long dead and his grandson as race-day companion, Joss has traded the bourbon for a few beers. He's a diabetic and has undergone open heart surgery.

"I have to kind of take care of myself," he says.

But his eardrums still get a workout. Joss has never worn earplugs to a race. After years of driving a semi-truck to supplement his teacher's income, he says, he's gotten used to noise.

Being the hard-core Indy fan he is, does he feel confident enough to bet on a winning driver?

"I'd rather bet on whether it'll rain in the next five minutes," he says with a laugh, "There's too many variables."

Even if he can't pick a winner, Joss seems content these days to eat turkey legs in the stands with his grandson. He hopes to get to few more races under his belt to make his record an even 70 years.

"If I can still crawl," he says, "I'll be going."

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to celebrate a big birthday now, 100 years to be exact. The centenarian in question: the Indy 500. The greatest spectacle in racing turns 100 years old tomorrow.

Tomorrow's also a big day for Robert Joss. This 82-year-old has attended every Indy 500 since Harry Truman was president.

Robert Joss joins me now from his home in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Robert, welcome to the program, and congratulations on your milestone.

Mr. ROBERT JOSS: Well, it's good. This will be my 65th after Sunday. But right now, I've got 64 of 'em in.

MARTIN: Let's see. You do the math: 64 under your belt. That means your first Indy 500 was back in 1947, is that right?

Mr. JOSS: Right.

MARTIN: So what was that like? You were a teenager. Describe how you got there and what was the experience like.

Mr. JOSS: Very exciting. My uncle gave me the - my tickets to go that year. In those days, they used castor oil in the engines instead of regular oil, and boy, you could smell it. And the race started, and after about two laps, you were saturated, 'cause we were on the straightaway that year, and we were only about 20 feet from the track. And it was a little bit noisy.

MARTIN: I imagine. I imagine. Did you start wearing earplugs at that point?

Mr. JOSS: Never did.

MARTIN: Never did.

Mr. JOSS: No. I'm paying for it now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was going to say. Have you seen some effects over the years, I imagine?

Mr. JOSS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Is there some buildup for you the day or two before the race? Do you get excited?

Mr. JOSS: I've enjoyed it so much over the years. And when my uncle was living, we'd sit there and kibitz back and forth. Now, I've got a grandson that sits with me. And he's 12 years old, and he likes it. He doesn't want to stop. That's good.

MARTIN: Oh, the addiction runs in the family. I understand there's also a little bit of family history here. You had a daughter who was supposed to be born on race day?

Mr. JOSS: Yeah. As we got toward the time when my wife was supposed to deliver, she said, well, you can't go to the race if I don't have the baby before you go to the race. And so I casually said to her, well, you can call me out at the track. I'll be out there, me and 250,000 other people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOSS: And fortunately, she didn't have it until a week after the race.

MARTIN: You're a lucky man.

Mr. JOSS: Oh, yeah. Clean living.

MARTIN: Clean living.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So she didn't end up having it, we should clarify, on that day. You went to the race and your baby was born a week later.

Mr. JOSS: Yeah. On the sixth of June.

MARTIN: On the sixth of June. Do you have any rituals when you're at the 500?

Mr. JOSS: Well, I used - my uncle and I used to have a good snort of whisky before it started because it was just nervousness. I mean, you see them come down there, and I still feel that way.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. JOSS: I don't have the snort, but I'll drink a couple beers during the race.

MARTIN: So traded in the bourbon for a couple of beers?

Mr. JOSS: I still occasionally force myself to drink it once or twice a week. But I've had a five-way open heart surgery. And then I got a pacemaker, and I've got diabetes and so forth, so I have to kind of take care of myself.

MARTIN: Are you good at picking the winner?

Mr. JOSS: Hey, I'd rather bet on whether it's going to rain in the next five minutes, because there's too many variables.

MARTIN: How many more of these do you think you have in you?

Mr. JOSS: About five more, get an even 70.

MARTIN: And then you think you'll be able to just stop?

Mr. JOSS: I may not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOSS: If I can still crawl, I'll be going.

MARTIN: That's Robert Joss. He's about to attend his 65th consecutive Indy 500 race. He's been talking with me from his home in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Robert, thank you so much. Have fun at the race.

Mr. JOSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.