Memorial Day weekend is once again upon us, and as I get older, it gets harder and harder for me to deal with. It’s a personal thing, and it’s all about me and my dad.
I can’t do Memorial Day anymore without remembering my father, Mr. Henry Joseph Fitzwater. For it was Memorial Day weekend which bonded my dad and I together. Our bond revolved around a very special place, and the memories of it are so thick that you can’t bulldoze them away.
The place was Indianapolis, more specifically, the hallowed grounds of the greatest race track in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My earliest memories out of swaddling clothes are of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I owe it all to my dad.
Growing up in Arizona and then Michigan, he would listen to the race religiously every year on Memorial Day weekend. The golden tones of Sid Collins filled our yard when the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was on the airwaves. From the great A.J. Foyt to the Unsers to Rocket Rick Mears and all the heroes and stars in between, the drivers of the Indy 500 were household names. My mom was never a big fan of auto racing, so she always made my dad and I go outside to listen to the race on the radio. My dad was never one to miss an opportunity to put me to work, so he developed an uncanny method of finding ridiculous things to make me do while we listened to the race. The most ridiculous was the year he had me on my hands and knees picking up acorns and putting them into pails. For four hours. There weren’t any acorns in the yard after the race was over — I can tell you that.
As the years went by, it became a date which meant more and more to me. I was always with him watching or listening to the race. My mom finally relented and let us come into the house, but she was not happy about it. I learned later on that she was terrified of the race, for my dad’s lifelong dream was to race in the Indy 500.
I heard rumors as a kid that he had raced in Arizona and California as a young man before he married my mother, but never questioned him about it because it was a touchy subject. Only later did I learn that he raced against the Unsers, Duke Nalon, Jack Cheeseboro, Sam Hanks, A.J. and a bevy of other great drivers. He was on his way to the big time, and had a realistic shot of going to Indy someday. Then one night after a race in Arizona while hauling his race car home a drunk ran a stop sign and broke my dad’s back. He mended, but then met my mother. After he asked her to marry him, she agreed—but under one condition. He could never get back into a race car.
When I first heard this story from my dad’s brother, I was mad at my mom. But then my uncle cautioned me to reconsider.
“Terry, don’t be mad at your mom,” my Uncle Ray said. “She saved your dad’s life. The doctor’s told him if he ever wanted to get back into a race car, one accident would paralyze him for life or kill him. He couldn’t get back in the car.
“But he wanted to, and he took that love of Indy to the grave with him. It killed him not to be able to go and be a part of the great drivers of that generation in the 50s and 60s.’’
It tore me up to hear that, but I did get a measure of satisfaction from some of the things I did for my dad before he died. In 1987, he had a heart attack and had quadruple by-pass surgery. When he came out of it with flying colors, I was the only one in the room when he woke up and he realized he was alive. I gave him a hug, then his brother from Iowa suddenly came walking into the room unexpectedly and three Fitzwater men hugged and cried their eyes out. All I could blurt out at one of the most seminal moments of my life was: “Dad, I’m taking you to Indy when you get better.” That’s all I could think of, and it turned out it was the best thing I could have said to him.
The next time the Indy 500 rolled around, I took my dad to the Mecca of auto racing, Indianapolis. He was so happy to be there, and he even saw one of the men he used to race against 30 years before. They all remembered him. He couldn’t stop smiling. It was a great day, and he got to watch Rick Mears win his third title. A few years later, I took him back when I was with the media, and we got to have dinner at St. Elmo Steak House in Indy with the Roger Penske trio of drivers (Big Al, Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan) and the Dick Simon stable of Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyke. There were 11 Indy 500 wins there and numerous polls, and I thought my dad was going to pop his buttons.
Now, he is gone. He passed away in 2000, and the Memorial Day weekends are not quite the same. But my dad does have a legacy at Indy now.
The year my dad died, I started an auto racing publication called the Midwest Racing Scene. At the end of every year, I named the dirt and pavement Drivers of the Year, and the drivers got a fantastic trophy named after my dad. Every winner of that honor now has a Henry J. Fitzwater Driver of the Year trophy, and he or she gets to receive it every Memorial Day Weekend at the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Every year now, his name is read over the P.A. system at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, “And the winner of the Henry J. Fitzwater Driver of the Trophy is….”
And up there in heaven, I know he is looking down with a smile.
My dad finally made it to Indy.