Auto racing | Indianapolis 500

On 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, region native Goldsmith looks back on career

2011-05-28T22:00:00Z 2013-05-23T19:56:15Z On 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, region native Goldsmith looks back on careerBy Josh Weinfuss josh.weinfuss@nwi.com, (219) 933-3374 nwitimes.com

They're the types of dreams that cause nightmares.

The what-ifs keep on running through the memories. The should'ves, would'ves and could'ves are playing on repeat.

For 51 years, Paul Goldsmith has been one pit stop and a bald tire away from winning the Indianapolis 500. In 1960, in what was his third of six 500s, Goldsmith took four pit stops, while winner Jim Rathmann took three.

"That put me from the lead to half a lap back," Goldsmith said. "I wore the right rear tire out. I had the car set up loose and it was sliding too much, but the looser you have the car, the faster you run.

"That's what's happening down there today."

At 85, Goldsmith is one of 269 living veteran drivers of the Indianapolis 500, which celebrates its 100th anniversary today. This week also marked Goldsmith's return to the race for the first time since 1963, he said from his office at the Griffith Airport.

To many, coming within a few places of winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing would be a life-defining moment. For Goldsmith, it's just one of many chapters.

"I enjoy what I'm doing (now)," Goldsmith said. "I enjoy the race, but that's before. I'm not doing that no more."

He was enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2008, an honor that still gets the octogenarian abuzz and goes along with his place in the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame. The accolades and recognition only mean so much to Goldsmith, who said the major benefit of his career has come in business.

He's the founder of Griffith Aviation, a company that sells airplanes and then provides the necessities for their clients to travel around the world. Getting away for a weekend at a race or to receive an honor isn't how Goldsmith wants to spend his time.

"It's nice, yes, for a lot of people who have time to do it," he said.

Goldsmith is focused on his job at the airport after years of building race cars with good friend and longtime business partner Ray Nichels down the street from the airport in Griffith. They constructed Pontiacs and Chryslers, selling the bodies and parts to race teams around the country from about 1960-70.

In 1969, during a race in Jackson, Mich., Goldsmith's engine blew and he decided, as his car coasted to the pits, that he had enough.

"I got (ticked) off with all of it and I said, 'Hell with it,'" Goldsmith said with a laugh.

Brush with death

Goldsmith almost never got to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his third-place finish. During practice for the 1961 race, Tinley Park's Tony Bettenhausen approached Goldsmith about taking Bettenhausen's car for a spin around the 2 1/2-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"He said, 'It's just not feeling right, will you try it?'" Goldsmith said. "I thought about it for a little while, and I went and talked to Ray (Nichels, his mechanic) and I said, 'I don't think I want to do it. I'm going to stick with this. I don't want distractions.'

"About a half-hour later, he goes out there, breaks the steering arm and hits the wall."

Bettenhausen died in the accident.

"That would've been me if I had said OK," Goldsmith said, still scared 50 years later. "It was only a half-hour before he was talking to me about running it. It could have been me. It may have not broke, but it would have."

Any time, any place

You name the place and time, and as a young driver, Goldsmith would have -- or could have -- raced there.

He began his career racing motorcycles, becoming a dominate AMA driver and then becoming a name on the early NASCAR circuit for owner Smokey Yunick. In 1953, Goldsmith won the Daytona 200 motorcycle race on the beach, then five years later he won the last race on the 4.1-mile Daytona Beach Road Course, also run on the beach, becoming the only driver to win on the course on a motorcycle and in a stock car.

With the help of Yunick and Mauri Rose, Goldsmith made it to Indianapolis in 1958 and qualified for his first 500 in an open-wheel car. And when he finally ran in the race, Goldsmith's pit crew was a patchwork group of two airline pilots -- one from United, the other from Eastern Airlines.

Speed, speed, speed

Goldsmith had been going so fast for so long, he couldn't take driving three days to get from one track to another. In the early 1960s, when he was driving open-wheel and stock cars for Yunick, he learned how to fly a Bonanza in a matter of months while he lived in Detroit.

Instead of taking three days to get from his home to Darlington Raceway in South Carolina by commercial flight to test cars, he was there in a matter of hours in his own plane -- and back for dinner that night.

"It cuts your time down," Goldsmith said. "Just like when I first started to fly, it saved me two days of time to get my job done. I'd get it done in one instead of three."

Intimidating the 'Intimidator'

After his career racing cars and building them, Goldsmith sold planes to business men across the world, including actor Paul Newman, who Goldsmith said was a good driver.

One sale that never happened helped validate Goldsmith's career, and proof can be found in his office, where a small replica of Dale Earnhardt's NASCAR car sits on a shelf.

The Intimidator was interested in buying a plane, so Goldsmith flew to Earnhardt to show him the vehicle. Even though Earnhardt didn't want that particular line, Goldsmith said Earnhardt recognized the trailblazer who flew it to him.

"Oh yeah, he knew me," Goldsmith said. "He complimented me pretty good. I was one of the best drivers who was down there -- 'I'm just trying to do what you did,' is what he told me.

"I met him again at Rockingham (Speedway in North Carolina). I talked to him there for a little while. He told me again about the same thing."

In awe

With today's 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500, the history of the open-wheel cars has been in the front row of discussions this month. Goldsmith is impressed and amazed at how the cars have evolved since he drove them.

"There's an awful, awful lot of engineering and technology since the type of car that I drove," he said. "They've got a better car.

"The aerodynamics and engineering that they have on the car today ... If we had that kind of money to spend on engineering, maybe it would be a little bit different."

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