This was the nadir of the 1973 race, which has been called the worst race weekend in the history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The sight and size of the fireball coming from the crash brought gasps and cries of “Oh my God!” even where I was sitting, close to the finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and almost a half-mile from the accident.
After exiting the fourth turn of the fabled 2 ½ mile oval, driver Swede Savage lost control of his car and hit the inside wall nearly head-on. His car had just taken on nearly 70 gallons, or 500 pounds of highly combustible methanol. The explosion looked like a scene from a bombing mission in Vietnam
For some reason, I took my eyes off the spectacular sight to glance at the pit lane in front of me, where I saw something in some ways worse.
A “safety” crew pick-up truck was barreling the wrong way through the pits to speed to the site of the accident. Directly in front of me, I saw a pit crew member wandering out into the pit lane to get a better view of the crash in the distance.
In an instant, I could see that the truck was going to hit and almost certainly kill the man. And as people often say, when something horrific is about to happen, it unfolded in agonizing slow motion. I elbowed the friend I was sitting next to and yelled, “Look!” just in time for him to see the impact.
The truck had reached an estimated 60 mph when it struck the crewman, who never saw it coming. The sickening thud was audible even in our seats around the 30th row. The impact hurled the crewman into the air, 30-50 feet by most accounts.
When it landed on the asphalt surface, the body did not move.
I saw a man killed, right before my eyes.
In an account published in an auto racing website, writer Alex Welsh recalled watching the race on television and hearing sportscaster Jim McKay’s voice cracking in disbelief. “We in the TV audience were all equally stunned, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the grandstand and witness it in person,” he wrote.
Surreal just scratches the surface. I knew in an instant that man was dead. And down towards the fourth turn, it still looked like the gates of hell had opened. I felt disoriented and unmoored, like this didn’t happen, this deadly chaos can’t be happening.
It’s often called the darkest day in the most famous race in the world.
Driver Art Pollard had already been killed in a practice session on the previous pole day. Rain showers pushed the 57th running of the 500 back from its normal Memorial Day Sunday date to Wednesday. And when race day finally arrived, driver Salt Walther crashed in a fiery inferno that he miraculously survived but injured 13 spectators.
Still, nothing haunted me like that slow-motion memory of the man I saw killed.
Immediately, consistently, and for the rest of my life, I’ve felt compelled to remember, and in my own way, honor the human being whose life was so violently and needlessly ended. His name was Armando Teran, and he was just 23. He was born in Mexico but lived in California at the time he joined the Pat Patrick Racing Team and he served as a mechanic and signal board operator for driver Graham McRae. Before sophisticated radio contact between drivers and their teams became the norm, he was one of those guys who’d run out to the edge of the track and flash a florescent sign with a brief instruction like “2” to let his driver know to come into the pits in two laps.
Not much was ever written about Teran. He wasn’t a race car driver, he wasn’t a star. And while it’s small comfort to say he died doing what he loved, he died from a senseless mistake by the safety truck driver. Everything on the track and pit lane at the Indianapolis 500 moves counter clockwise. There was no reason to look behind him. He also had reason to be curious about the wreck at the other end of the track. Savage, one of the frontrunners in the race, also drove for the Patrick Racing Team.
It’s been written that for many years, the team owner declined to talk about that day, waving off questions because it was just so profoundly painful.
I still enjoy the Indianapolis 500. And I still go to the track with the boyhood neighbor whose family first took me along to the pole day qualifications session when I was 12. That boyhood friend and I will be sitting together Sunday, just as we have for the umpteenth year since that first visit to the speedway.
I do have a quirk that I developed on that fateful day of death that has been pointed out to me over the years. I look both ways at an intersection, even on a one-way street.
“Why are you looking in that direction?” I’ve been asked, sometimes with a laugh, as I look down a one-way street where no traffic should be coming toward me.
“Armando Teran,” I say.