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Indy Starter Waves the Flag for Ascot

May 26, 2000|SHAV GLICK

INDIANAPOLIS — Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, Sam Hanks, Johnnie Parsons and many other Indianapolis 500 champions and challengers used Ascot Park as a springboard to their success at the Speedway.

Ascot, the legendary half-mile dirt track in Gardena, closed in 1992 but one of its "graduates," Bryan Howard, will be one of the most prominent players in Sunday's 84th Indy 500.

Howard, 38, isn't one of the 33 drivers, nor one of the car owners, but he will be in the spotlight as chief starter. It is Howard who will wave the green flag to start the race, yellow flags to signal caution on the track, and the checkered flag to the winner.

Howard, who follows in the tradition of Indy flag-waving favorites such as Pat Vidan and Duane Sweeney, will be starting the 500 for the fourth time. Vidan, who had a flamboyant style and did the job from down on the track, handled the flags from 1962 to 1979. When Sweeney took over, he stood in a platform above the track on the start-finish line, as will Howard.

"Racing is something I've been around all my life," said Howard, whose father, the late Chuck Howard, built sprint cars for drivers such as Lee James, Hal Minyard and Clark Templeman, all prominent at Ascot in the 1970s. "I used to hang around the pits with my dad, but I never had any desire to drive race cars. I used to watch the starter wave those colorful flags and that looked like fun. It was just something that appealed to me."

When Howard was 17, he worked as an assistant starter to Steve Vodden during the summer for midget races at Ascot. The next year he started flagging sprint car races.

"The first year I was doing it, I would get knots in my stomach on the way to the track each week," he said. "Ascot's history was just about as great as you could get for short tracks. It was almost like being at Indianapolis in terms of prestige."

In 1986, Howard became chief starter for the California Racing Assn. and three years later left to do the same job for USAC Western States events, a position he held for 10 years. When the Indy Racing League was formed in 1996, John Capels, USAC president, asked Howard if he would like to flag some of the events.

"It didn't take me two seconds to say yes," he recalled. At first he was an assistant to Sweeney, but when Sweeney retired, Howard took over from the man he called his idol.

Howard does most of his flag work in Southern California at USAC events. He was there the final night at Ascot when Stan Fox won the 1992 Thanksgiving night race, and he was there opening night at Irwindale Speedway last year.

Between races, Howard is an engineer with Boeing Aircraft in Long Beach.


All you need to know about Andy Granatelli is that he titled his autobiography, "They Call Me Mister 500," and he never drove in the 500.

In his only trip to the Speedway as a driver, in 1946, he called himself Antonio the Great, claiming he was an Italian rocket car driver. In reality, he owned a small garage in Chicago. His Indy career ended when he crashed into the Turn 2 guardrail during practice.

Still, when legends of the Speedway were honored this week, along with driving champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Duke Nalon, Rick Mears, Joe Leonard and Mario Andretti, there was Granatelli.

It's a worthy honor.

Granatelli, all 300 pounds of him, ran ear-splitting Novis and silent turbine "Whooshmobiles," kissed Mario Andretti in the winner's circle and made STP such a familiar name that when Neil Armstrong was about to walk on the moon, it was rumored the first thing he might see would be an STP sticker.

Granatelli isn't hustling STP these days, but at 77 he hasn't shown any signs of slowing. He lives in Montecito, an upscale Santa Barbara suburb, with Dolly, his wife of 43 years, where he spends his time in charity work, fund-raising and making motivational speeches. He is also a director of the Santa Barbara sheriff's department and on the advisory board of the Boys & Girls Club of America.

"This is my 54th year here and it brings tears to my eyes to see so many old friends who remember me," he said. "I'm very pleased with the way Tony George is putting money back into the track and making improvements. It's a far cry from when I first came here in 1946 and the track was all brick, grass was growing up in the corners and the wooden grandstands were a shambles."

Granatelli praised George for starting the IRL, but said the split with CART was hurting both sides. He also said one problem was that there was not enough innovation these days, which, of course, was his trademark.

"One of the reasons why the grandstands are not full right now is because there is no innovation," he said. "You can't have just one engine like they do now and expect people to like what they see. What's an Aurora anyway? And don't talk about Infiniti, because who owns an Infiniti? Six people [actually, two will be in the 500]."

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