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Love of Indy 500 a family tradition

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FORTVILLE — History looks back at you on the kitchen counter of Rod Hiday’s Fortville home.

There’s the easy smile of Johnnie Parsons, the lone winner of the Indianapolis 500 to have his name misspelled on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

A few inches over is A.J. Foyt on the 1965 voucher, smiling after his 1964 triumph, the second of his four 500 victories.

A quick glance across the counter, and you spot 1965 victor Jim Clark, surrounded by the gold and teal border of the 1966 ticket – the 50th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The tickets not only represent the passage of time, but the small paper slips reveal a family’s passion, a story that, boiled down to its core, is a tale of fathers and sons.

Hiday is a lifelong Fortville resident and an inaugural graduate of Mt. Vernon High School – the 1964 class recently held its 50th class reunion – and Hiday taught in his alma mater’s school district for two years before moving to Pendleton Heights Middle School, where he educated seventh-graders in social studies for 33 years.

Hiday, now retired, spent his working years educating his students about the history of the world outside of the United States. But since he’s made at least one trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every race week since 1955, Hiday also could have instructed his pupils on anything and everything about the track and its traditions.

“He was into it. He’d keep track of drivers; he’d bring a stopwatch to track their times on quals, lap times and who was fastest in practice. He’d document practice times. At that point, I knew he was more serious than your average fan that just goes and watches,” said Rod’s son, Justin. “He knew drivers’ names, their numbers, their sponsors and could tell you who was the fastest in practice or had the fastest lap in the last 10 minutes. He was on top of it.

“As a little kid, when I was 5, 6, 7 years old. I’d get up early, and he’d get up by 4:30 (a.m.). I can picture him packing the cooler and heading out the door. I wasn’t sure what it was all about then, but it makes sense now.”

Life father, like son.

“My dad, Dick, was a fanatic about it in the ’50s. He went to all four days of qualification, practice and the race,” Rod said. “He took me, and I got the bug.”

In 1959, Rod accompanied his father to his very first 500.

“The first race I went to, I had the best seats in the house,” Rod recalled, remembering his seats in the Stand E Penthouse, which overlooks the first turn.

Beginning in the 1940s, a beer distributor sold Fortville restaurant owner Don Downing eight tickets each year at face value. Downing would then sell the tickets to people he knew. Dick Hiday was a yearly customer.

Rod Hiday remembers his life’s worth of experiences at the Speedway like they happened yesterday.

Bring up 1961, when Jim Rathmann’s portrait graced the facing of Hiday’s ticket in Stand E, Row C, Seat 7, and Hiday recollects how Eddie Sachs won the pole position by coming closer than any driver ever had to cracking 150 mph.

“He went like 148,” Hiday said. (Sachs topped out at 147.481 mph.)

In 1964, with Parnelli Jones – who cracked the 150 mph barrier in 1962 – adorning his ticket, Hiday watched Paul Russo – sponsored by Fortville car dealership owner Richard Kemerly – fall one spot short of the final starting grid.

When Dick died in 1981, Rod was going through his father’s belongings and noticed that Dick had been saving his 500 tickets, something Rod had not been doing. So, a good portion of Rod’s ticket collection – a compilation he now secures in a safety deposit box – can be credited to Dick.

“These are like the baseball cards that were never thrown away,” said Rod, smiling as he looks over the slices of racing history he and his father saved.

Starting in the early 1990s, Justin became old enough to go along with his father to the track. Before then, Justin ingrained himself in what he termed the “culture” that surrounds the 500, listening to the race on the radio as he and his friends played basketball and cruised around the neighborhood on their Big Wheels.

“Back then, there were probably 100,000 people there for qualifications. Seeing that as a 12-year-old, it was kind of like going to Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium for the first time. Sitting in the upper deck for the first time, seeing the drivers you heard about but never saw. That was my first memory, seeing the Motor Speedway itself,” said Justin, who attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1996. “At 12 years old, you go to a high school football or basketball game, a Pacer game or something, but going to that, that was on a new scale. You see the facility, the cars for the first time. You never saw a car go faster than 75 (mph); now you’re seeing a car go 225, and you’re blown away. It was a neat experience.”

Rod could’ve sold his collection long ago – 25 years ago he was offered $700 for the lot – but instead has chosen to hold on to his reminders of yesteryear.

Also staying in the family are his yearly tickets, which he hopes to pass on to Justin one day, even though his son, a 1999 Mt. Vernon graduate, works as a physical therapist in Tennessee.

“I don’t have a desire to sell,” Rod said. “I’ll keep ’em in the family.”

Justin welcomes the idea of continuing on what has become a Hiday institution.

“I would definitely want to make it a tradition. I have a 3-year-old son now and another on the way. I would like to make it a tradition now and in the future. It’s a reason I go back home,” he said. “I want to let my family know and my sons know how important it is to my dad. It’s something I’d like to do.”

Sunday, Rod and Justin will leave before daybreak and make their way down to 16th Street and Georgetown Road for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500. When they glance at their tickets, Tony Kanaan will be looking back at them. The 500’s 2013 winner is on the ticket artwork for the reserved seats this year.

The Hidays will spend the afternoon in their seats high in the third turn, witnessing the 500’s next installment of racing history.

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