The Indianapolis 500 is an event unlike any other. In its 105-year history there have been hundreds of drivers fortunate enough to race at the famed Speedway and it is important to recognize the members of this elite fraternity, whether they have four wins on the last weekend in May or never saw the green flag in the 500 Mile Race.
Within the 500 are many unique artifacts, such as pictures, old track surface bricks, stories and even cars that pop up from time to time, all with their own tale to tell. Yesterday I was browsing through the IndyCar media portal’s Indianapolis 500 picture database from the 1968 race searching for a Throwback Thursday picture to post on our social media channels. Almost immediately I was drawn to the image that you see above this text.
At the forefront of the snapshot is a man that, if you do not recognize him from this picture you would surely remember his warm, booming voice: Tom Carnegie, the longtime public address announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Behind him we have two drivers – one that should be quite familiar to the worldwide motorsports fan, and another driver whose identity is a little more obscure.
The driver in the darker colored firesuit is two-time Formula One world champion Graham Hill, who would win the second of those titles during this 1968 calendar year. He is widely known for not only his success in Formula One, but for being the only man to accomplish motor racing’s most elusive prize – the Triple Crown of victories at Monaco, Indianapolis and Le Mans in a driving career. While Fernando Alonso tries his hand at a modern-day Triple Crown, Hill continues to be the gold standard of racing immortality – a true legend that will never be forgotten. The 1968 Indianapolis 500 would be Hill’s final appearance in the grand race, qualifying 2nd before losing a wheel and pounding the turn two wall on lap 110.
Those are the guys you most likely know. Now I would like to talk about the guy you most likely do not know.
His name is Mike Spence, age 31 at the time of this photo in 1968. He is the man in the white coveralls standing to Tom Carnegie’s right, arms crossed with STP logos smacked onto his chest and sleeves. Spence, hailing from the UK, was the driver selected to fill the seat Jim Clark had vacated following his untimely death in April 1968 at Hockenheim. Racing for Colin Champman and Lotus, Spence had secured the most ambitious (and daring) ride of his early driving career. A winner of the “Race of Champions” at Brands Hatch in 1965 and a six-year veteran of Formula One racing, he was a worthy understudy for Clark and made waves early in this Indianapolis debut.
Not short on confidence, Spence remarked playfully that it was difficult for him to stay within the regulated speed limits for rookies testing at the Speedway due to his natural talent and perceived understanding of the car. When practice opened for the month and competitors began posting times, the Brit held tough in the top half of the leaderboard. While quick, Spence negotiated the four corners noticeably lower than most drivers, slinging the car harder and narrower towards the apex than had typically been seen at the 2.5-mile oval. He received advice from multiple USAC officials and even the Chief Steward of IMS, Harlan Fengler, warning him that danger could be near should these driving patterns continue.
By May 7th, Spence and fellow Lotus driver Hill were the provisional leaders of speed for the month and posted the Speedway’s first day with two drivers over the 169 mph mark. With less than an hour left in the day, competitor Greg Weld asked Spence to shake down his car and give an opinion on the machine. After turning an opening lap of 162 mph, Spence entered turn one on the following lap very high, an uncharacteristic entry compared to how he normally drove. The car’s front tires struggled to grip the racing surface as the car began to slide, a loss of traction that would continue until contact was made with the outside retaining wall.
Upon impact, the right front tire and its suspension sheared from the car and entered the cockpit area, striking the driver on the head while knocking his helmet off. Unfortunately the injuries sustained would prove to be fatal, and Michael Spence passed away that evening. Colin Chapman would travel back to England with the body, and faced deep sorrow after losing Spence and good friend Clark within two months time.
The story of Spence is not his death at the Speedway, but rather the full picture of events that make up yet another Indianapolis connection. It is the opportunity that was created from Clark’s passing in April of that year, one that was met with a terrific performance over the course of seven practice days. It is the sportsmanlike gesture to drive another man’s car in an attempt to help him find the meaning of Indy – speed.
This piece was written to recognize a unique part, albeit small and relatively unknown, of Indianapolis 500 history. It was to recognize the guy in the white driving suit that you would not notice at first glance, and what his story could have been at Indianapolis given the early success. For the record books it is known that Mike Spence did not even attempt to qualify for an Indianapolis 500 – but I find it fascinating how one picture could hold a life of its own with so much more to be told behind the ink. These stories are part of what makes the 500 Mile Race so extraordinary, too enormous to hold. It is more than a race, and for many it becomes the meaning of life.
Each driver has his or her own place in that tale, and today was the day to tell the chapter of our friend in white.