INDY: Astronaut Devoted to Stars of Indy 500 for 29 Years
8 May 1998INDIANAPOLIS -- Astronaut David Wolf was less frightened when Russian space station Mir lost all of its electrical power than when he sat in the front row of the first turn of his first Indianapolis 500 in 1969.
"It scared me to death," said Wolf, an Indianapolis native, about watching the cars storm into the turn just a few feet from where he sat with his father, Harry.
"We were in the very front row and the cars came right at you. The seats were not set back like they are today, and you could set your Coke on the wall. When I saw them coming right at me I ducked behind the wall. I missed the first 15 or 20 laps."
Twenty-nine years later, Wolf, now 41, made his own circles last winter, but his track was around the Earth on the crippled space station. Wolf is back home now and scheduled to be grand marshal of the 500 Festival parade through the downtown streets of Indianapolis on May 23. While working on Mir, Wolf appeared to have some perilous moments.
Was he scared?
"No," he said matter-of-factly. "I slept good. Even when we had the total power failure, I didn't think it was an emergency situation. I was more scared in the first turn."
Astronauts often attend the "500." But none has a string of consecutive races like Wolf's -- 29 in a row. And he said his goal is to attend 100 in a row. Seriously.
NASA's original schedule had Wolf listed for Mir duty this spring (later it was moved up to a launch last October), which meant his streak of attending the "500" would have ended. But the innovative Wolf had a contingency plan.
"It was to request an orbit adjustment (over Indianapolis) on Race Day," he said. "I would use a telescope to see a race car on the track and count that toward my 100th in a row."
Wolf said he actually could see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Mir with the naked eye. A telescope brought it in much clearer. Without a telescope, a viewer from space had to know where the track was. The golf course and track, though, could be seen.
"But you barely could see the tiny little ribbon of a track," he said.
Wolf told his Russian space companions -- Anatoly Solovey and Pavel Vinagradov -- that he was looking at Indianapolis, where the biggest race in the world was held each year. They said they had heard of it.
The hometown astronaut said it is somewhat of a tradition for his NASA mates to come to Indy for the race and compared it to his North Central High School class reunions. Curt Brown, for instance, has attended the race three times. Brown will command the crew, including 77-year-old Sen. John Glenn, of the space shuttle Discovery that will launch into space this October.
"They all love it," Wolf said of the "500."
Wolf also is a member of the 16th Squadron of the Indiana Air National Guard based in Terre Haute, Ind. The name of the group is "Racers." They've taken many Indy 500 drivers on supersonic jet flights.
There are comparisons between sitting in a race car cockpit for three hours and in a space capsule, Wolf pointed out.
"It's like doing a space walk in a suit," he said. "It's very hard work, very strenuous. I was outside (Mir) four hours and in the suit 10 hours. Other similarities are the fire hazards because we breathe pure oxygen and, I think, the concentration involved."
Wolf won't head into space again for about 2 1/2 years. He will spend the next year transferring information from his Mir ride to engineering and scientific teams designing the new international space station.
Wolf, whose father is an Indianapolis physician, sat in the first turn seats for several years, then moved around and eventually watched from the Tower Terrace. One of his most vivid memories is the start of the 1973 Indy race when driver David "Salt" Walther flipped on the start and slid down into the grass at the end of pit area. Wolf said this happened directly in front of him.
Wolf says he'd love to drive an Indy Racing League car and is thrilled to be grand marshal of the parade.
"That's as important to me as my space walk," he said.
And then he added one final juicy thought.
"I've always wanted to drive the Pace Car," he said. "Make sure you get that in."
Event schedule: Opening day for this year's Indianapolis 500 is May 10, with a full schedule of activities leading up to race day May 24. Qualifications have been shortened from four days to two this year, combining Pole Day and Bubble Day into one exciting weekend May 16-17.
Practice will take place from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. May 10-15, with Pole Day qualifications starting at 11 a.m. May 16. Bubble Day qualifications start at noon May 17.
Carburetion Day is May 21, with practice from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and the Coors Pit Stop Competition from 1:30-3 p.m.
The 82nd Indianapolis 500 starts at 11 a.m. May 24.
Broadcast schedule: The Indianapolis 500 will be broadcast live on ABC and the IMS Radio Network at noon (EDT) May 24. The ABC and the IMS Radio Network prerace shows start at 11 a.m. (EDT) May 24.
ABC will televise Pole Day live from 1-2 p.m. May 16 and Bubble Day live from 1:30-3 p.m. May 17. ESPN will offer live Pole Day coverage from 2-5:30 p.m. May 16 and live Bubble Day coverage from 5-7 p.m. May 17. ESPN2 will show live Pole Day coverage from 5:30-7 p.m. May 16 and live Bubble Day coverage from 3-5 p.m.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast two live, one-hour shows on Pole Day, at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. May 16. Two live, one-hour shows also will be broadcast on Bubble Day, at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. May 17.
ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, QVC and the IMS Radio Network also will combine to offer thorough coverage of practice days, Carburetion Day and the Victory Banquet, with other race previews also scheduled.
Tickets: General admission tickets for Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifications can be purchased in advance by calling (317) 484-6700. Reserved race-day tickets are sold out, but general admission tickets are available in advance or at the gate.