Early Sunday morning, Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Pancho Carter will leave his ranch-style home here in central Indiana and drive eight miles to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the world's most important automobile race.
It will be the 35th consecutive year that Carter has been on hand for the Indy 500. Rather a remarkable fact, considering he is only 34.
Carter's father, Duane Sr., drove in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 and finished 12th in the Belanger Special. His mother, Arza, eight months pregnant, was in the stands.
"We didn't even make it to the next race," reminisced Duane Sr. at a front-row party in Jonathon's Pub honoring Pancho, Scott Brayton and Bobby Rahal. "We were driving to Milwaukee for a 100-miler the following week, and on the way, Arza said: 'We're not going to make it. You'd better get me to a hospital.' "
So Duane Carter, Jr., was born June 11, 1950, in Racine, Wis. Or as young Carter says, "Eleven days after the 500."
The name Pancho evolved even earlier, although it isn't the kind of a name you put on a birth certificate.
"I was driving in the old Pan-Am Road Race through Mexico,"the elder Carter said. "Each night when we stopped, Arza was there with the support team. She was getting pretty big, and I'd pat her on the tummy and say, 'How's little Pancho?' It became our private little joke.
"Later, after he was born, my wife didn't like having two Duanes in the house, and I didn't like Junior so we started calling him Pancho again. And it stuck."
About the only place Pancho has been called by his proper name was at Marina High School in Huntington Beach and at Cal State Long Beach, where he got a degree in business administration in 1973.
It would be difficult to find anyone in racing with more racing heritage than Pancho. His father drove in 11 Indy 500s and was the United States Auto Club's first director of competition. His mother is an avid racing enthusiast, having been married to two race drivers, Carter and Johnnie Parsons, the 1950 Indianapolis 500 winner. Pancho's wife, Carla, is the daughter of Carl Forberg, a sprint-car owner who gave Carter one of his first rides.
When he got his first haircut at two, it was in the pits at Indianapolis, and the barber was driver Duke Nalon. Speed Age magazine carried a picture of Nalon and Pancho, with Arza observing the proceedings.
"Race drivers were about the only people I knew when I was growing up," Pancho recalled. "We were constantly going from race to race and living with all the great drivers. My first school was Carl Fisher elementary in Indianapolis, and Fisher was one of the men who built Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With that environment, there wasn't any doubt in my mind what I was going to do for a living, and I haven't regretted a minute of it."
Before Pancho was 6, he was racing tiny quarter-midgets on tenth-mile ovals in Southern California three or four nights a week during the summer. The competition, even for such youngsters, was intense. Among his rivals were his half-brother, Johnny Parsons, who is also in Sunday's race; former Indy 500 drivers Bruce Walkup and Jimmy Caruthers, and Tracy Potter, who is a member of Rick Galles' crew on Carter's Buick-powered March.
"It was kind of like Little League, just family and friends, but Pancho learned a lot running as much as he did," his father said. "By the time he moved up to three-quarter and then full midgets, he had a world of experience behind him."
Between the ages of 12, when he outgrew quarter-midgets, and 16, when he became old enough for three-quarter midgets, Pancho tried other sports. He played lightweight football at Marina High, and led the Vikings to two Sunset League wrestling championships.
By the time he got to college, though, he was a full-time professional race driver. After a couple of years of racing three-quarter midgets at the old Trojan Speedway on Firestone Blvd. and at El Toro, he began making weekend trips to the Midwest and East for other races.
Carter lived in Huntington Beach with his mother, but when he was still a teen-ager, he was winning races at such places as Bechtelsville, Pa.; Hales Corners, Wis.; Flemington, N.J.; Hinsdale, Ill., and Rutland, Vt.
"When I graduated from college, it was like getting a $2,000 bonus," Pancho said. "That's what it cost me to fly back and forth on weekends to race. I'd leave home Friday night, study on the way, race Saturday or Sunday and fly home Sunday night in time for Monday morning class."
School didn't interfere too much, however, as Pancho won the USAC national midget-car championship in 1972 while still a college senior.
After getting his degree, he moved here to be nearer the center of racing.
"There was more racing back here, and racing is all I ever wanted to do, so it seemed like the thing to do was come back here to stay," he said.
"I tried a few other things, like drilling bowling balls, working in a gas station and a shoe store, running a forklift, but I couldn't stand working at a certain time every day. I'd rather work on a race car from 7 in the morning to 2 the next morning than work 8 to 5 at a desk job."
The way his racing career took off, he needn't have worried. Every second year, he won a national championship--the midget title in '72, USAC sprint car titles in '74 and '76, and the USAC dirt car crown in '78.
Carter drove at Indianapolis for the first time in 1974 in one of Bob Fletcher's cars and was named Rookie of the Year after finishing seventh.
On Dec. 2, 1977, his career nearly ended. While testing a Lightning Cosworth at Phoenix International Raceway, the right rear universal joint broke and caused the car to veer into the inside guard rail, nearly breaking the car in half.
Not the least hesitant about talking about the accident, Carter reels off his injuries as if it were a list of credits: "Both bones in my left arm were broken, my pelvis was broken in four places, my right hip cup was damaged, my bladder was ruptured, and a regenerating nerve in my back causes my limp. I have almost no use of my right ankle or right leg."
The crash was so severe that the car was broken in half at the refueling fitting, about where Carter's knees fit.
"The only thing that kept the car together was the real thick rubber of the fuel cell," Carter said.
Doctors told his wife to tell him that he would never drive again.
"You tell him," snapped Carla.
Four months later, after eight weeks in the hospital and two months in therapy, Carter returned to win consecutive USAC sprint car features at Indianapolis Raceway Park and Winchester, Ind.
"You never know what'll happen," said Carter, smiling at the memory. "We were just going out to Raceway Park to see how it felt. We wanted to see how far we could go, and we went all the way to the checkered flag. I was tired and a little sore the next day, but we went to Winchester and we won there, too. That was tough. Winchester is a tough, high-banked half-mile."
Since then, however, the years have not been particularly good to Carter. He has won only one Indy car race in 116 starts--the 1981 Michigan 500.
"I knew I didn't have competitive equipment when I came back to Indy most of the time, so I lacked the dedication that's needed," he said. "I was complacent, gained a lot of weight and wasn't in good condition, mentally or physically.
"This year, when Rick Galles hired me to drive the new Buick, it was like a new life. I trained down, lost a lot of weight and am in the best shape I've been in for seven years."
Carter, getting a break in the changing weather conditions during qualifying, won the pole for Sunday's 500 with four laps at 212.583 m.p.h. Brayton, in another Buick-powered March, will start second. The fastest Cosworth driver, Bobby Rahal, will be on the outside of the front row.
Thirty of the 33 starters Sunday will use Cosworth engines, two are turbocharged Buicks and one is a stock block Chevy.
"I'm ready for 500 miles Sunday, and I think the Buick is, too," Carter said. "I don't go along with the talk that the Buicks won't last. I tried to abuse my engine at Long Beach because I wanted to see if it would live, and it did. The Buick seems to be as reliable internally as a Cosworth. Look back, and you'll note that a lot of Cosworths don't go 500 miles, either. I'm more confident than I have been in a long, long time."
Then, with a sly grin, the usually reserved Pancho added:
"Besides, I've got a secret weapon. I get to sleep in my own bed every night."