This weekend is the running of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. It’s an auto racing fanatic’s must-see event, whether it is seen on television or in person. The latter is far a more exciting and stimulating experience.
I wanted to cover the 1963 race, and rather than be crowded in the stands with more than a quarter million other spectators, I decided that I wanted to be where the action was — on the track and in the pits where the drivers and their cars belonged.
As a neophyte writer, this was my first attempt to publish, and to do so, I had to convince three entities that I was worthy enough. I needed to find one racing crew who would allow me to follow them around during time trials and on race day, and I would be able to interview their people. After receiving permission to do so, then I had to mail out well-written query letters to numerous publications, seeking an assignment. Once I had these two in hand, I could contact the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and acquire the needed press credentials.
I aimed for the best, and contacted A.J. Watson, the builder of the 1962 Indy winner, as well as thirteen other Watson/Offy race cars. He graciously granted me access to himself, his crew, his car and his driver Roger Ward, during both the time trials and the May 30 race.
To find a publication, I sent out more than a dozen letters of inquiry, and received a variety of replies including from one “high-class” publication who returned my query with the words “Oh, Shit!” written across it using a black crayon. Modern Man, a Grade D Playboy, was the only magazine that sent me a positive response.
With these two “guarantees” in hand, I contacted Al Bloemker, the Speedway’s Publicity Director, and he offered me press credentials.
Since I was gainfully unemployed at the time, I went down for the time trials and the race, got to know Watson and Roger Ward, and mingled with the as many drivers as I could. It was a fabulous experience, and I was determined to write an exceptionally good article, which I did. It was entitled, ”A. J. Watson: The Wonderful Wizard of Indy.”
When the article came out that December, I told my family and friends about it, and my Uncle Sidney, a prominent member of his Lorain, Ohio community, went to the newsstand downtown, and asked the proprietor for a copy of the latest issue of Modern Man. The man behind the counter asked, “Mr. Gotliffe, are you sure that you want this particular magazine?” as he slowly took it out from beneath the counter. “Why, yes,” my Uncle proudly said. “My nephew has written an article in it.”
My Uncle bought the copy of Modern Man, and flipped through the pages until he found the one article on the previous year’s Indy 500, tucked between photographs of scantily clad women. He proudly said, “Here it is,” and the man looked at the article and wondered out loud, “Is your nephew named Bob Russo?”
No, it was and still is Harvey Gotliffe, and my embarrassed Uncle took the magazine and left. When I discovered that Bob Russo was given credit for my writing, I quickly realized that someone at Modern Man had either deliberately or inadvertently put Russo’s name as the writer. Russo was far better known than I, however, his first name was Paul, not Bob. He was a 48-year-old grandfather and Indy racer, and although he had failed to qualify in 1963, he had finished 28th in 1962.
I wrote an indignant letter to the magazine’s editor demanding action, and the editor in turn, said mistakes are made; we will correct the attribution in the next available issue, and because of your inflammatory attitude, please don’t ever try and write for us again.
He stuck to his word, and in the March 1964 issue there was a small box buried within the publication and it read in minuscule type that the December 1963 story on A. J. Watson was “credited to the wrong writer. Harvy Gotliffe, sports car and racing writer, was the correct author of this story.” The magazine “accidentally” misspelled my first name.
This piece was just published for two reasons, with the first being that this is the weekend for the running of the 2014 Indy-500 Mile Race. More importantly, A. J. Watson died at the age of 90 on May 12th, and this is a belated reminder that his generosity helped to get me jump-started in my writing career.