This is Roger Penske, and you're listening to Pit Pass Indy, sponsored by Penske Truck Rental.
IndyCar fans, it's time to start your engines. Welcome to Pit Pass Indy, a production of Evergreen Podcasts. I'm your host, Bruce Martin, a journalist who regularly covers the NTT IndyCar Series.
Our goal at Pit Pass Indy is to give racing fans an insider's view of the exciting world of the NTT IndyCar Series in a fast-paced podcast featuring interviews with the biggest names in the sport.
I bring nearly 40 years of experience covering IndyCar and NASCAR, working for such media brands as nbcsports.com, si.com, ESPN Sports Ticker, Sports Illustrated, Autoweek, and Speed Sport.
So, let's drop the green flag on this episode of Pit Pass Indy.
Welcome to this week's edition of Pit Pass Indy presented by Penske Truck Rental.
All of us at Pit Pass Indy hope you had a fantastic Thanksgiving Day and enter the holiday season with plenty of reasons to be thankful.
One of the great things we get to do with this podcast is talk to some of the great drivers from IndyCar's past.
Today we get to say howdy to Howdy Holmes. The 1979 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year from Chelsea, Michigan.
The 1978 Formula Atlantic champion came to the Indianapolis 500 one year later and was one of 14 rookie drivers who were attempting to make that race. Holmes was the only driver out of that group that made the 35 drivers starting field in the 1979 Indy 500.
Yes, that's right. There were 35 drivers in the starting lineup after our court ruling. And later a USAC decision allowed each car already bumped, would get one more chance and a special qualification session the day before the 1979 Indianapolis 500.
The 33 cars that were already in the field were locked in and could not be bumped. Each of the 11 cars would be allowed only one attempt. There were no wave loss allowed, and if the run was incomplete or if the driver missed their turn in line, the attempt was forfeited.
If the driver completed the four-lap qualifying run faster than the slowest car in the field, they would be added to the rear of the grid. That potentially meant up to a record 44 cars could have started on race day.
But only two cars, Bill Vukovich II and George Snider ran fast enough and the final grid comprised 35 cars.
This did not impact Holmes who was already safely in the field starting in 13th position. Holmes finished seventh in the race earning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors.
Although he was the only rookie in that year's 500, Holmes is proud of being the only rookie out of the 14 first timers that made the starting lineup that year. Plus, a seventh place finish out of 35 starters is a pretty big achievement in the Indy 500.
Holmes was one of the little guys of the Indianapolis 500 and the CART series in the late 1970s through the 1980s. The diminutive driver may have been small in stature, but he had a big personality that made him a fan favorite.
Holmes retired from CART and the Indianapolis 500 in 1988. His last race was the 1988 Nissan Indy Challenge at Tamiami Park in Miami on November 6th, 1988.
With his IndyCar parked, Holmes returned to the family business in Chelsea, Michigan. The Chelsea Milling Company makers of JIFFY Mix Corn Muffin Mix.
This season, Holmes became a sponsorship partner at Chip Ganassi Racing with JIFFY Mix on all four of Ganassi's IndyCar entries.
35 years after driving in his final IndyCar race, Holmes got to celebrate a championship as Alex Palou won the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series Championship for Chip Ganassi Racing. The 75-year-old Holmes had one of the best seats in all of IndyCar, right next to team owner Chip Ganassi on the timing stand on pit lane.
For the first time since 1988, Holmes and the JIFFY Mix brand are back in IndyCar racing as a team sponsor with his longtime friend, Chip Ganassi.
I had a chance to catch up with the 75-year-old Holmes before the final IndyCar Series race of the season for this exclusive interview for Pit Pass Indy.
Joining us now, on Pit Pass Indy is one of the good guys of IndyCar racing. Its former CART series driver, Howdy Holmes, who actually this year has played a role in Chip Ganassi's 15th IndyCar Series National Championship.
Howdy, you look like you could still race.
Looks are deceiving, Bruce. Very deceiving. I can say that when I left, had to make sure that I didn't have any unfinished business.
And 35 years later, back in racing with JIFFY Mix and Chip Ganassi, and it's a real dream for me. I've enjoyed it a ton. I don't have all the pressure as before. A lot of people I still know and I'm enjoying myself.
For anybody who followed IndyCar racing in the late ‘70s and the 1980s, Howdy was the driver of the JIFFY Mix car in CART. And although he didn't have the most success in the series, it was certainly among the most popular.
What do you believe is the reason why so many fans loved Howdy Holmes as a racer?
Yikes, interesting question. I guess the only way I can answer that is I'm the same today as I am a tomorrow. And no matter who I'm talking to, I try and just be natural. And I like to think I'm a friendly guy and I think that matters a lot.
I understand the big picture, Bruce, and realized that fans are critical to any sport and certainly racing. So, I've always made an effort to kind of acknowledge them.
You're not racing anymore, but you're still with JIFFY Mix. If you could describe what your roles are running that company and it's one of the most successful companies in its retail brand.
Well, we're the number one selling dried grocery item in the United States. And over my last 35 years of taking the family business and tripled the income, tripled the sales, and actually turned it over to my son two years ago in December of ‘21.
So, I remain as a CEO and the chairman of the board, and I try and help him. And we have a relationship that is not dad and son, it's CEO and president. It works.
And you're still in Chelsea, Michigan. I guess once a Michigander always a Michigander.
Absolutely. Chelsea, I can't say it's the big city, but I love the place. And I'm certain you've had dinner at the Common Grill, if I'm not mistaken, a few times, huh?
And as far as being that close to Michigan International Speedway, I'm sure that you had a lot of great stories to recall on the Glory Days when CART used to have the Michigan 500 up there.
A lot of us still wish that IndyCar raced at that track. For whatever reason, they don't. But what do you think about back when Michigan was undeniably the second biggest race in the schedule behind the Indianapolis 500?
Well, I guess it's a bit of a mystery why it didn't continue. And I think part of the answer lies with the fact that it's so close to Detroit and the big three. It really is a NASCAR track. And although it was unique in the beginning, the fans just didn't show up.
And there are places, markets in the country where sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's kind of too bad because it's a good tracking. Well, by the way, it was close to home for me.
I believe your rookie season at the Indianapolis 500, you could already count on getting a trophy even before the month started because you were the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, but you were also the only rookie in that year's race.
Yeah, I love to answer that question and let me put it to you this way. There were 14 rookies that started out that month and there was one that made the race. That would be me. And so, there were 13 that didn't make it.
So, although it might've been automatic, I earned that. Line lap two of the race, I came out last and finished seventh. And if that isn't worthy of the rookie of the year, I don't know what the hell is.
Well, and the other thing that should always be pointed out about that award is it's not the rookie of the race, it's the rookie for the entire month of May. So, when you put it on those categories, to be the only rookie out of 14 who made the starting lineup, that is pretty impressive.
There've been a few times over the years, mostly when I was in this sport, where people would point out that, “Hey, you got that award because you're the only one.” And I was the only one, but I deserved that award.
And to your point, it is about the whole month of May. And I never spun or never hit anything. And had a old car with Sherman Armstrong, with a Wildcat, with an Offenhauser engine and so on. And we didn't have the greatest equipment, but it was reliable. So, we put on a good show.
Goodyear told me that throughout the race, I had the third fastest cornering times of anybody. So, that's worthy.
Are you amazed how many people in IndyCar still recognize Howdy Holmes when he shows up at an IndyCar race?
Great question. And you know what, it warms my heart. It comes a little bit nostalgic, but it really does. Because I retired 35 years ago, and there are lots of people that are happy to see me, and I'm happy to see them.
And they say, “Thanks for coming back.” We need people that are happy and the people that have fun and are just kind of real people that it's like a homecoming in a way, Bruce.
And when you're driving or when you're in the sport, you really don't have time to think about those things because you're busy, busy, busy.
And I go back to Indianapolis this year, a lot of these tracks, I've been amazed at how many people have said, “Hey, good to see you, glad you're back.” And so, it warms my heart.
How did your role with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023 develop?
As always is the case, my son, Howard, and I would go to the first weekend at qualifying. We're always hanging out with Chip, or Roger, or a bunch of some of the other teams, Andretti.
And this year, the three of us were talking, and I can't remember which one of them said, “Hey, let's do something.” And everybody thought it was a good idea. And in about 15 minutes, we put a deal together.
It's not a major sponsorship deal, but we have signage brand on all four cars. And it's been a magical year. I mean, the first three races that I went to, win, win, win. And so, I'm thinking this is a great deal, not only for the Ganassi team and his drivers, but for Howdy Holmes and JIFFY Mix.
And so, it is not a situation where we're the major sponsor, but people know our brand, they love our brand. Everybody at home's got some on the retail side, the boxes of a Corn Muffin, or a Honey Corn Muffin, or Veggie in their cupboards.
But we also do food service. So, our emphasis with racing is directed more towards the food service side, which for us is a startup company. It's in Chelsea too. So, we do both of them, retail and food service in Chelsea.
First year with the team, and Chip gets his 15th IndyCar championship. Are you the secret weapon?
I might be, I might be.
They always say once a racer, always a racer. But do you ever look at the car and say, “I'd like one more chance to get out there and take a lap.”
No. And I can say, honestly, no. I had a five-year exit plan from ‘83 to ‘88 for that very reason that I didn't want any unfinished business when I left. People are kidding, like three times a day people have said, “You got your helmet, let's go.” And I go, “No. My helmets, I don't even know where they are. They're somewhere in the basement.”
But it's for everybody else. I had my time. It was a good experience. I loved it. I'm honored. And to be able to say that I’m Indy 500 competitor for six years, and aside from former Atlantic champion and rookie of the year and front row and all that kind of stuff, it was terrific.
Michigan has turned down some really good Indianapolis 500 drivers. There's another one in your state up in South Branch, Gordon Johncock. Another unique character by the way.
What are your recollections of Gordon Johncock and what he meant for the state of Michigan?
Well, don't forget that he drove for Pat Patrick towards the end, another Michigander in Jackson. And here's the story about Gordy. He's really a great guy, and I can say he is a good friend.
But you needed to be absolutely certain when you were dueling with Gordy that you are on your games because he was a difficult guy to pass. And there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, some are easy to pass, some are difficult. Gordy didn't make it easy, and I respect him for that.
Another thing that you have to respect about you is you have a really good friendship with Chip Ganassi. And Chip may not be friends with some people, but to those that he is friends with, he's very loyal.
How did your friendship with Chip Ganassi begin?
Yeah, that's a great question. Chip had a horrible accident at Michigan in ‘82, and he was airlifted to the University of Michigan Hospital. And I live in Ann Arbor, so of course I went to visit him and his father, Floyd, was there and Chip was a mess. And I think both of them really kind of appreciated that.
Drivers generally don't get close to other drivers, but I think that's the situation that kind of created a bond and it's been there ever since. And I can talk with Chip about anything, no matter what it is.
But I respect what he's doing in business. And I don't kind of quiz him about that, and I don't challenge them on most things. But it's the type of friendship that you can say whatever you want, and that's really important.
You have one of the best seats in IndyCar. It's on the timing stand right next to Chip Ganassi. So, how cool is that at this stage of your career that Howdy Holmes is up there, the number one team in IndyCar right next to the team owner in the timing stand?
Well, I'll tell you, nobody remembers who finishes second. So, if you're going to come back, you might as well do it in style. And I'm doing my best to do that.
And is it one of the best decisions that you and JIFFY Mix have made is to get back into IndyCar in some capacity?
It was a good decision for the brand, but it was really a great decision for me personally. And I have to credit my son, Howard, as I've passed the torch on him. He's cognizant that I'm a pretty complicated guy and pretty committed to a lot of things.
And one of the things he said to me, he said, “Hey, we got to find you something that you can do that you enjoy.” And so, this was an ideal solution. It's great for the brand, it's great for me. And we're on roll.
I just hope that we can complete the trifecta today, or the triple crown, or whatever you want to call it. And Marcus Armstrong being the rookie of the year, that's never been done before, Bruce.
We're at Monterey, California for the last race of the season in IndyCar, but Alex Palou wrapped up the championship at Portland. You weren't there, but I'm sure you were watching on TV. And how exciting was that for you?
Oh, it was great. And Portland just kind of a long way to go and so I did miss that, but what a drive. Oh my God.
And Scott Dixon as well. I mean, the guy just never ceases to amaze me. And it's heartwarming, I guess. And maybe there's a little bit of sort of satisfaction.
I can't really say I'm a team member per se because we came in the middle of the season right after May, but it's been a fairytale deal. And I guess the question is, what the hell are we going to do for an encore?
Well, it certainly is a great second lap around the IndyCar Series. He was one of the most popular drivers during his day. Howdy Holmes, congratulations on being part of Chip Ganassi's 15th IndyCar national Championship winning team. Good luck in your endeavors with JIFFY Mix, and thank you for joining us today on Pit Pass Indy.
Thanks, Bruce. Appreciate it.
We'll be right back to Pit Pass Indy after this short break.
This is Will Power of Team Penske, and you are listening to Pit Pass Indy presented by Penske Truck Rental.
And that puts a checkered flag on this edition of Pit Pass Indy presented by Penske Truck Rental. We want to thank our guest, 1979 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, Howdy Holmes. One of the most popular drivers in IndyCar and CART in the late 1970s and the 1980s.
Along with loyal listeners like you, our guests help make Pit Pass Indy presented by Penske Truck Rental, your path to victory lane in IndyCar.
And because of our guest and listeners, Pit Pass Indy is proud to be the winner of The Best Podcast by the National Motorsports Press Association.
And as the holiday season begins with Thanksgiving and continues into December and the New Year, Pit Pass Indy presented by Penske Truck Rental hopes all of you have a lot to celebrate.
For more IndyCar coverage, follow me at Twitter @BruceMartin (one-word, uppercase B, uppercase M) _500.
This has been a production of Evergreen Podcasts. A special thanks to our production team. Executive producers are Brigid Coyne and Gerardo Orlando. Recordings and edits were done by me, Bruce Martin, and final mixing was done by Dave Douglas. Learn more at evergreenpodcasts.com.
Until next time, be sure to keep it out of the wall.