IRL: Indy500: Riding mechanic still has fond memories of short Indy career

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 26, 2000 -- Ray Stearns looked at the spinning cars in front of his racing machine then looked at driver Joe Huff and said, "My first race may be my last one." This was in the 1930 Indianapolis 500, 70 ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 26, 2000 -- Ray Stearns looked at the spinning cars in front of his racing machine then looked at driver Joe Huff and said, "My first race may be my last one." This was in the 1930 Indianapolis 500, 70 years ago. Stearns, now 93, was talking from his bed in the VA Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. Until a few weeks ago, he had planned to return to this year's Indianapolis 500 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his one-time appearance as a riding mechanic. A mild heart attack and a bout with emphysema and pneumonia instead have given him some, as racers call it, "sheet time." Still, Stearns is a special individual. His ride in the "500" extends back farther than any other living person. He participated in the 18th Indianapolis 500, barely seven months after the 1929 stock-market crash launched the Great Depression. When the green flag flies Sunday, the 84th Indianapolis 500 will begin. Stearns, who grew up close to the Speedway, raced motorcycles for several years and saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 1920 when he and three friends climbed up a tree on Georgetown Road and watched the action over the fence. In May 1930, Stearns hung around the Speedway garages when he was summoned to Herman Gauss's compound. Gauss owned a passenger-car garage on E. Washington Street and decided to enter a front-wheel-drive race car built by Johnny Cooper in the race for Huff, also an Indianapolis native. Gauss asked the 5-foot-2 Stearns if he would like to be the riding mechanic. Actually, Stearns wanted to be the driver. He showed his skills when he worked on the shocks by taking the car out by himself and driving faster than 100 mph during sessions. The Huff machine was one of only 18 of the 38 starters that qualified faster than 100 that year. "I was called over (by Speedway officials) and told I had to have two years of driving race cars on dirt before I could be a driver," he said. "I said, 'What's that got to do with it? These are bricks.' Besides, I had been racing motorcycles on dirt." The track stewards wouldn't budge, so Stearns accepted his role as riding mechanic. His job was to read the blackboard when the cars roared by the pits to see their position, tell his driver whom to pass, look for tire wear and pump up the fuel pressure. "I liked it," he said. "I was used to seeing the front wheel go round. I liked to go fast. I lost 10 pounds out there that month. Those bricks shook it off of you." Everything was going fine in the race until Huff and Stearns came around the north end on Lap 23 and saw six spinning cars. Huff looked to go left, looked to go right and but instead was indecisive. "Then a hole opened up right in front of us," Stearns said. "We sweated that out." Stearns' race lasted only another 25 laps before a valve broke in the engine. Huff was listed as the 23rd-place finisher. "I quit then," Stearns said. Stearns then opened an Indian motorcycle dealership on E. 10th Street in Indianapolis. He had attended nearby Tech High School, and before he ever graduated had built a car ... in the attic of his home. "I had to take it apart to get it out," he said. "It had a motorcycle engine, a chain drive to one rear wheel, frame from a bed rail and body of plywood. The steering gear was out of a washing machine. I drove it for two years." When Charles Lindbergh flew over the Atlantic in 1927, it inspired Stearns to take a course in airplane mechanics. He joined the Air Force in World War II and wanted to be a turret gunner on a B-17 bomber. Instead, Stearns rebuilt B-17 engines, more than 1,000, at a base in England. He once changed four engines in 24 hours, a record, he said. Stearns returned to the Speedway as mechanic for Roland Free in 1946 and 1947. Free had driven in the 1930 race, but didn't qualify for his second and last "500" until '47. Bothered by the cold in Indianapolis, Stearns moved to St. Petersburg in 1960. He worked as a parts manager for a Honda motorcycle dealership - "one year I sold $1 million in parts" -- until he was 88. He returned to the Speedway a few times to visit old friends. Then reflecting one final time on his ride at Indy, Stearns said: "That was 70 years ago. It's hard to believe. I can't believe it myself."

-IRMLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar