The Indianapolis 500 and Me

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On the eve of the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, I have many fond memories of this historic race. I was born into a family that loved auto racing and the “500”. I cannot remember a time when I did not listen to “The Race” on the radio while growing up when that was the only way to experience it for me.

When I became old enough to attend the race itself, I did, starting in 1968. I well remember Mario Andretti winning in 1969. I had a great view from my seat right across from the start/finish line and the pits.

Around that time, I learned about my grandfather Otto Schafer’s involvement in racing and the Indy 500. Starting in the 1940s, he owned and raced a series of Midget, Sprint and Indy 500 type cars. To my surprise, I learned that he entered, qualified and then raced a car that he owned in 1948 Indy 500 race! That car, known as The Schafer Gear Works Special #17, started in the 33rd position (last) and after only 42 laps finished 25th. That was the only time grandpa Otto entered a car in the Indy 500, but he continued to race his other cars.

Top left: My uncles Dick, Ray Haroon and Norm Schafer at the IMS standing in front of a 1954 Corvette.  Bottom left: Grandpa Otto Schafer. Top right/middle: My first ‘car’ was a Peddle car, followed by my first powered car, a Go-cart, then the first of six corvettes.

Top left: My uncles Dick, Ray Haroon and Norm Schafer at the IMS standing in front of a 1954 Corvette.
Bottom left: Grandpa Otto Schafer.
Top right/middle: My first ‘car’ was a Peddle car, followed by my first powered car, a Go-cart, then the first of six corvettes.

As a car owner, he hired some of the best professional drivers of that era to drive for him including Johnnie Parsons, the winner of the 1950 Indianapolis 500. As a very young boy in the ‘60s, I remember meeting many race car drivers at my grandparent’s house.

Grandpa Otto spent many months of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1955, he was one of the founding members of The United States Auto Club (USAC), which was the Indy 500 sanctioning body from that time on. And just days before the 1970 race, he died while attending a race-related banquet in Indianapolis.

After his death, the flag hung in my childhood home in South Bend, Indiana and today, a replica of it hangs in my house in Indianapolis (the original is stored elsewhere).

I have always loved cars and racing. More recently, I have driven my Corvette around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track many times, which was always a dream of mine. Thanks go to the Corvette Indy club and its sponsor Roger Penske Chevrolet.

So, I am continuing some of my grandfather’s traditions, in that my first job upon graduating from Purdue University was working at the company he founded in 1934, Schafer Gear Works, which has operated continuously for 85 years.

This is a race flag which my grandfather created in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had many of the famous drivers of the day sign it including Ray Haroon, the winner of the first Indy 500 in 1911, and all the three-time winners up to that time — Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw and Louie Meyer.

This is a race flag which my grandfather created in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had many of the famous drivers of the day sign it including Ray Haroon, the winner of the first Indy 500 in 1911, and all the three-time winners up to that time — Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw and Louie Meyer.

My entire career has been in the gear business and I continue to share grandpa Otto’s and uncles Dick and Norman’s love of gears and the Indy 500. I hope that I am making them proud.

Advice I Would Give To My 15 Year Old Self

Consider the life of this younger Rick. As a teenager, I loved cars – really loved cars. I owned my first car at age 15 before I even had a driver’s license. I enjoyed anything that moved under its own power and especially if it went fast, hence, the go-cart.  I can still remember the thrill of having some g-forces against my back while driving my go-cart with the wind in my face and a feeling of utter freedom without a care in the world.

As much as I admired a good ride in its totality, I also enjoyed taking things apart and rebuilding them. One day I decided my go-cart needed to go faster, so I purloined the engine from my father’s lawn mower. The next time my dad went to mow the lawn, I heard “Hey, where’s my lawn mower engine?”

I had three siblings - two brothers and a sister, but he knew the answer to this mystery lied with me. I told him I needed it for something more important and re-purposed it, as we would say today. At the promise of returning said engine to my dad’s lawnmower, which I did, my co-cart and I rode fast that day while the grass grew a bit taller.   

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So my advice to my 15 year old self would be as follows.

Your possibilities in life are endless and limited only by you and your imagination. Be flexible. Be true to yourself and your values and don’t compromise them.

Stay optimistic; don’t get discouraged. Be patient.

Life does not move in a straight line. Be prepared for the unexpected because it will happen often if not daily. Learn to embrace and be comfortable with change because change will be a constant in your life.

Set personal and professional goals and you will achieve them. Do know it may take more time than you thought and not be achieved in the exact way that you thought.

Be prepared to take notice and advantage of opportunities as they arise. Always believe in yourself and know that you are capable of much more than you think. Seek out opportunities that stretch you and where you can learn from others. Never stop learning and growing.

Just like when you were a teen, never stop being curious.

All of us have been given gifts and talents; things that we uniquely can do well. Use these gifts to the best of your ability. Don’t dissipate them or let them go to waste. As for a job, do what you love and are passionate about.

Have some fun in life and be funny. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Set up the processes, work habits and practices, work ethic and environment where success can flourish. Develop and keep a long term time perspective and timeline. Do not fall for the trap of instant gratification. Some choices in jobs and in life can pay off in the short term but not be best in the long run.

When I graduated from Purdue University in the recession year of 1975, I had two job offers; one from a large, multinational corporation, and one from a small 100-employee gear company. Upon my father’s advice and recommendation, and with much personal reflection, I took the job at the small gear company that paid a salary that was 23 percent less than the other offer. While working at the multinational company may have appeared best in the short term, and certainly paid more, the job I chose with the gear company was by far best in the long term. It formed the basis for what I am today and led to my current path.

Be a person of honesty and integrity and have “do the right thing” as your main philosophy.

Find a mentor and listen to and learn from him/her. Much of what you learn will be outside of your job, and many times outside of your chosen profession. Pay attention to these things as they will truly set you up for success. Then, pay it forward when you can by mentoring someone else.

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Both of my grandfathers were mechanical engineers. One grandfather started a gear company in 1934 called Schafer Gear Works/Schafer Industries that is still in business today and is successful, and the other was Chief Engineer for the Stromberg carburetor/Bendix Fuel Control division of Bendix Corporation with responsibilities for hundreds of people.

Early in my career, I set goals for myself that were a combination of both of my grandfathers - to be successful in the gear industry, to rise to Chief Engineer, to be an inventor who obtains patents, and to  continue their legacy by excelling in a career in which they could be proud of me. As it happened, all of this came to fruition but neither grandfather lived to see it. 

Never in my young man’s dreams did I think my 3 HP teenager’s go-cart would be replaced by a 620 HP supercharged Corvette convertible as my favorite mode of transportation. 
 

I was of course aware of my grandfathers at age 15, but had only a vague sense of their powerful legacy, the examples they set and the depth and breadth of their professional achievements. Even so, the influence and impact that they would ultimately have on me was significant. As the grandson of two great engineers, what I wouldn’t give to be able to talk to either one of them today.

Did I know as a car-loving and go-cart driving 15 year old that I would carry on my grandfathers’ legacy? No, but I do know the engineering profession chose me as it did my grandfathers and for that, I’m thankful.    

Rick Miller is president / sole owner of Innovative Drive Solution LLC, an engineering consulting firm specializing in gears and power transmission devices.