By: Spencer Neff
December 13, 2018 | 9:37 AM
Updated May 15, 2019
Ernest Hemingway once surmised that “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Although the main goal of racing has remained simplistic – complete a given distance faster than any other competitor – outside factors give the sport a unique set of challenges. At any second things could go from good to disastrous. This is a cruel fate that has befallen several drivers.
In our latest edition of “Faces of the 500,” we examine the life and racing career of Jovy Marcelo. While Marcelo’s life story is brief, his impact on the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 has lasted for years.
Rooted in Success
Marcelo was born in Quezon City, Philippines on April 20, 1965. Jovy’s father Eddie was himself a racer, having competed in various forms of motorsport across Southeast Asia. At the age of 11, Marcelo followed suit and took up go-karting.
Off the track, Marcelo would go on to earn a Business Degree at Armstrong College. Soon, the Marcelo family moved to the United States, making their home in the San Francisco area. By 1990, Marcelo began to rise up the ranks of open-wheel racing. That year, he would finish second in the Atlantic Championship to Mark Dismore.
The following year, Marcelo moved on to replace Dismore at P1 Racing. A change of scenery paid dividends for Marcelo. On the back of wins at Lime Rock Park and Nazareth, Marcelo earned the Atlantic Championship title by four points over Jimmy Vasser.
That set the stage for a move to Indy cars, a life long dream for the young driver.
Marcelo and Vasser, who both had roots in the Bay Area, would make the move to CART for 1992. Vasser did so with Hayhoe Racing. Meanwhile, Marcelo would join Euromotorsport.
Although Marcelo was not among the frontrunners in his first starts, he did manage a 14th place at the season opener in Surfers Paradise. In the next two races at Phoenix and Long Beach, he finished 19th each time.
By May, it would be time to begin preparations for the 76th Indianapolis 500. Marcelo passed Rookie Orientation early in the month and as the practice days progressed, it became evident that the speed to make the race was not there.
On May 11 and 12, the team made slight strides as Marcelo was quickest out of the non-qualified cars. In three days, he would be gone.
Before Friday practice to begin the second final qualifying weekend, Marcelo’s team installed a new engine for his Lola-Cosworth entry. Late in the day, the No. 50 car finally made it out on to the track.
Less than 20 minutes later, Marcelo spun and made contact with the Turn 1 wall.
Marcelo sustained a basal skull fracture and was rushed to Methodist Hospital. At 4:35, the 27-year-old was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma as a result of the 176 MPH impact.
He left behind a pregnant wife (Irene, who gave birth to Jovy Nicolai later that year and young son (Karsten, age 5). Marcelo’s death occured ten years to the day of Gordon Smiley’s fatal accident, the previous driver fatality at IMS.
The crash was one of many major accidents at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May of 1992. Nelson Piquet shattered his legs in practice earlier in the month while IMS veterans such as Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jeff Andretti and Arie Luyendyk all crashed during the race.
Unfortunately, Marcelo’s death was one of many major crashes throughout the month. Injured drivers during the month included championship drivers Nelson Piquet and Mario Andretti, as well as Marcelo’s friend Vasser.
The rash of accidents prompted changes to the cars and on the track. Protection was added to the cars and IMS’ famed “Apron” was replaced with warm-up lanes in all four turns.
Although his son was gone, Edward Marcelo continued his involvement in the race. He would help provide sponsorship for Euromotorsport’s 1993 effort with Davy Jones. Jones started 28th and finished 15th.
Since Marcelo’s death, Scott Brayton and Tony Renna also lost their lives in an IndyCar at the speedway. Despite the inherent danger of auto racing, several advancements in safety have been made in the 26+ years since then.
There’s perhaps one major takeaway from Jovy Marcelo’s story. It would be just how delicate and intense the line between success and disaster is in auto racing.
Header image courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.