Indy 500 habit drives West Dundee fan for more than six decades
It's hard to compile an exact number, what with the time trials, crashes, blown engines and rain, but since he began his annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to the Indianapolis 500 as an Elgin teenager in 1949, Marshall Schneider has witnessed a couple million consecutive left turns.
"It gets better every year," says the 82-year-old race fan, who lives in West Dundee and has only missed his trek to Indy twice in the past 63 years -- and then only because he was in the Army.
That first year, Schneider was working in the parts department for a Hudson Motor Car dealership on State Street in Elgin when he got the chance for tickets to the Indy 500.
"My dad wouldn't let me go unless I went with someone," Schneider says. His buddy, Bob Bentley, wasn't a big auto fan, but "thought it would be something to do," so the pair set out for Indianapolis.
"We drove down the night before and didn't have a room," says Schneider. Homes near the track did (and still do in some cases) rent rooms to race fans. The pair got a basement room on West 16th Street across from the track.
"We met the nicest family," Schneider says, recalling how he continued renting from Mr. and Mrs. Pine for years, even after they moved to a nearby side street. "It was a long walk, but what's that to a 19-year-old?"
Veteran driver Bill Holland won the 1949 race with an average speed of 121 mph.
"It was everything and more than I expected," says Schneider, who wishes he would have kept the 25-cent program he bought that day. "We were right along the main straightaway in back of the pits about 25 rows up. I knew right then that I was going to go some more."
And he did. Drafted into the Army, Schneider missed the races in 1952 and '53, constrained to listening to them on Armed Forces Radio from his base in Japan. He's been to every Indy 500 since.
A month after he married Dolores, she accompanied him to the 1956 race, the first of many they shared. Sometimes, they'd go to the time trials leading up to the race and picnic on the racetrack infield. She has been to more than a dozen Indy 500s during their 56 years of marriage. Some years, Schneider took his father-in-law, Robert Cook. Other times, Schneider would take a customer he met through his job as a distributor for Elgin Oil. Before his sons, Jerry and Ronald, were old enough for first grade, they began accompanying their father on his pilgrimage to the Hoosier holy land for race fans.
This year, Schneider will go with Jerry, 55, of Milwaukee, but they plan to meet up with 51-year-old Ron, whose motor sports marketing job puts him in a skybox for the race.
"It's the tradition, the sound, the smell, the color, the pageantry, and I'd add the speed and, of course, the cars and how they've evolved," Jerry Schneider says. "We inherited that race and all of our passion from our dad, just as other sons have gotten baseball from their fathers."
"We love getting together at Indy because it brings back so many memories of when we were young and provides so many topics of discussion," Ron Schneider says. "It's a weekend we always can count on to get together."
As a boy with a bicycle, Marshall Schneider spent time on his family's farm outside of Elgin tinkering with engines instead of playing baseball, basketball or football.
"The only thing I was interested in was motor sports," Schneider says. "The truth is that I was a gear head, but I never got them (his mechanical contrivances) to work."
His father, Harry "Goat" Schneider, used to take him and his teenage brother Russell to the Wisconsin State Fair, where the highlight for the 10-year-old boy was the big auto race.
"It was a 100-mile race on dirt, and they'd really sling those cars. That's what got me hooked," Schneider remembers. "You'd hear the engines running, and I'd want to get in there, and my dad would say, 'They're just warming up,' but I'd want to see them warm up."
His dad, who ran the Schneider's Recreation bowling alley in Elgin, bought him a used motor scooter that the boy would take on the streets through town.
"I started driving a little early because the Second World War was on. The streets were empty," remembers Schneider, who learned how to drive in the family 1939 Buick and a 1936 Ford pickup truck. The year he turned 18 and graduated from Elgin High School, he received a new 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline Aerosedan.
He liked to drive fast, but he never raced on a track, Schneider says. But he got his boys a go-cart.
"With a plow and a disc, I dug up a little track for them," he says of the oval dirt racecourse that hooked his sons on the dangerous sport of racing. "Their mother, of course, was more concerned about it, but they were lucky."
Both won races as adults with the Sports Car Club of America, which would bring their father to races at Elkhart Lake's Road America and other nearby tracks.
The closest Schneider came to that experience himself was the time he and Dolores both got to drive their youngest son's 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during an event with Mopar automobile parts and service. Ron Schneider recently finished restoring that car.
The Schneiders have seen a lot of death at Indy. Two-time winner Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955 when his car flipped during a chain-reaction accident and burst into flames. Sports Illustrated cover subject Pat O'Connor was killed during a crash on the first lap of the 1958 race. Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a 1964 crash. In a spectacularly gruesome crash, driver Swede Savage was severely burned and died 33 days later.
His crew member, Armand Teran, was rushing to Savage's aid after the crash when he was struck and killed by a firetruck. A spectator in the stands was killed by a flying tire in 1987.
Schneider says he isn't one of those people who goes to the Indianapolis 500 to see the crashes.
"No, I can go out here on Randall Road and see that," he says from his house.
The wrecks he's witnessed give him an appreciation for the safety improvements he's seen as the speeds jump 100 mph since 1949.
"If they get killed now, the good Lord wants them," Schneider says, explaining how drivers emerge unscathed after their cars have hit the speedway walls at 200 mph. "The guy gets out, shakes his head and throws his helmet at the car."
He rooted for A.J. Foyt some years and has a couple miniature replicas of the four-time winner's No. 14 cars. He rattles off the names of drivers and speaks lovingly of engines he remembers.
The Indianapolis 500 has lots of devoted fans and Schneider says the people he deals with are always very pleasant but don't make a big deal out of his consecutive race streak.
"They don't say, 'Hey, you can ride in the pace car' or anything like that," Schneider says.
Even as he heads for this year's race, he's already filled out the order form for tickets to next year's Indy 500.
"When I leave here, I go by the mailbox and drop it in."