Baggy Paragraphs

Howdy Holmes: Q&A with Chelsea, Michigan’s greatest contribution to the Indy 500

with 14 comments

Howdy Holmes qualified second at Indy in 1984. His speed of 207.970 placed him on the front row between polesitter Tom Sneva and Rick Mears. | Photo courtesy of Howdy Holmes.

Howard S. “Howdy” Holmes III, president and CEO of Chelsea Milling Company, is the eighth-generation Holmes in the business of flour milling, the fourth generation in Chelsea, Michigan, and the third generation to market the company’s Jiffy mixes, the first of which was created by his grandmother in 1930. With the purpose of making his racing history better known in the local area, Baggy Paragraphs visited the his office on July 30, 2010, to talk with Holmes for a story in AnnArbor.com.

Holmes is 62 years old, but delayed entry into the family business while pursuing a 20-year-long racing career that saw him compete six times in the Indianapolis 500, where he was rookie of the year in 1979. Holmes retired from racing after the 1988 season. He revamped the business, which had been a sole proprietorship, and brought in modern management practices emphasizing teamwork, equality, and an open-door policy. During our hour-long interview, he was interrupted by a sales staff member and later by the company’s technical director, who had one bag of devil’s food cake mix with shortening and another evidently without for Holmes’s inspection. They discussed the volume, color, and texture of the mixes.

Despite being a modern business executive, Holmes made the decision to eschew the use of a personal computer, and he says many have expressed envy at the amount of free time he must have today.

Besides his business career, racing also caused him to delay marriage, and he wed late, in 1986, before becoming the father of one son, Howard S. Holmes II, also known as Howdy. (There’s a story about why the son is Howdy II, but I was eager to devote the time to racing; and besides, genealogy is generally confusing to me.) Howdy II will be a senior in college in the fall and is working at the company for the fifth summer.

Holmes at the Chelsea Milling Co. office on July 30, 2010. | Baggy Paragraphs Photo

Howdy Holmes: Some folks remember every round of golf they played and what they shot and what ball they played and what irons they used, and stuff like that, and you know, if you were to ask me what the stats were, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with really good answers. I can tell you plus or minus five or six how many Indy car races I did or how many Indys or how many years in this—that kind of stuff.

Baggy Paragraphs: It says you were a graduate of EMU [Eastern Michigan University] in 1968.

Howdy Holmes: I think that article didn’t say I was a graduate.

Baggy Paragraphs: It says you were a senior.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, right. Because I left, that article was accurate. I left in my senior year to start to pursue my boyhood love of becoming a race car driver. Now, mind you, I had no more idea than a rabbit how to do that. But that didn’t seem to matter. My interest, I guess, was spawned by going to the Indianapolis 500 with my family. I’m the eldest of five kids and other than Christmas the one thing we did together, and I think we all remember very fondly, was to go to the Indy 500 each year: go west on [Interstate] 94 to [Interstate] 69 and then stop just inside Indiana, Pokagon [State] Park and have the obligatory burnt chicken, deviled eggs and stuff like that, and then drive a little bit farther and—I’m sure you know this—even today, within a 50-mile radius of Indianapolis, all the hotels double and even triple the price and charge you for three days even if you’re staying for one. So we’re a pretty conservative family, and we would stay outside that 50-mile radius. So that was, I believe, 1957, the first race. So for me, basically, it was this boyhood dream. And in the mid-’60s, Ronald, they built Michigan International Speedway out here, which is I think identical to the Texas speedway. If I’m not mistaken, it was built by the same guys—I can’t think of their names—the same architects. I think they’re both two-mile, they’re identical, much like Ontario Motor Speedway was very similar to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In any event, anybody who lived within 50 miles of Cambridge Junction, in the Irish Hills, got in the mail an advertisement promoting the Michigan International School of High Performance Racing. It was a pretty slick, six-color brochure, said the school was going to be taught by Stirling Moss [laughs]. I’m thinking Stirling Moss had no idea where Cambridge Junction was. He might’ve heard of the state of Michigan. And so I went whimsically and thought this would be— You know when you’re a little kid and you dream about things, a couple things happens. You don’t have any sense of reality of what that may be: probably the good thing of fantasy, it always ends up the way you want it to, that way. So I went to the school and it was one of these situations where, “I’m just going to do this.” Actually, it was taught by a guy named Kenny Love, who was a South African who was in North America racing in the Continental Series, which was basically Formula B cars, SCCA classification Formula B, and they had races in Canada and the United States. And then his mechanic was a guy by the name of Kenny Smith. So these were two guys who were over here racing on a shoestring, and he was the instructor. So after that summer—I think that was ’68 maybe—I worked for a guy in Ann Arbor whose name was John Stringer. He had a company by the name of Road Sport International, and to me, he was a big deal and was a nice find. I was kind of the go-fer. As it turns out, he just had a small race shop and loved racing, wasn’t a Roger Penske, per se. But with my limited experience, anybody was more experienced that I was. So a couple years of hanging around there, doing odd jobs and things. Then I finally took the plunge by ordering a set of tools through a catalog for $69.95, from the Auto World catalog, built a homemade trailer with another guy, a close friend, and purchased a Royale RP3 from John Stringer, who somehow had the Royale distributorship for the Midwest. I think I was the second car that he had sold. As you know, those cars, Formula Fords, had four-cylinder, English Ford Cortina engines. The guys down here at Chelsea Milling Company built me about a 12 by 20 foot plywood garage in the corner of one of the warehouses, and I bought my engine manual from Ulrich’s Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, and that’s the way I started. What were humble beginnings, looking back, I mean, for me it was a really big deal. I never had been mechanical as a kid. You know, when you look back, it’s a great way to do things, is to just jump in with both feet. You make a lot of mistakes, but you learn it. Of course, more from your failures or mistakes than you do from one’s successes.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were about 24 around this time?

Howdy Holmes: I was 23, I think. My first race was—have to think about this. I did SCCA Detroit Region Formula Ford in ’71 and actually won the regional championship, and halfway through I had the regional thing wrapped up, the central division, and the question was, “Well, shall I do national races?” I really wanted to go for that. And it looked like, with the schedule, I might not have a chance of winning that, so I stayed, did a couple of national races, and then oddly enough the guy who was sent to Atlanta for the runoffs from this area, Detroit region, central division, a guy by the name of Jim Harrell, out of Adrian—and Adrian later on in my career plays a big role—anyway, Jim Harrell asked me to be his mechanic. I thought, “Wow!” You know, for a guy who knew nothing about mechanics and stuff. And it turns out, he ends up winning the national championship that year. Next year, [I] go to Super Vee, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Formula Atlantic, and all that kind of stuff.

Baggy Paragraphs: In Formula Atlantic, you actually were pretty hot and outperformed Bobby Rahal. I just wondered about your account of those days. What engines did they run in Formula Atlantic?

Howdy Holmes: A BDA: A Ford 1600cc twin-cam BDA done by Cosworth. I could tell you that of all the cars I’ve driven, Formula 3, Formula 2, Indy cars, blah, blah, blah, Atlantic to me was the best example of horsepower to weight and balance, just marvelous machines to drive. And of course they weren’t turbocharged or anything like that, so you could drive with your foot. You want the tail end to come out, a little bit more gas. You want to bring it? To me that’s what driving’s all about. So I remember Formula Atlantic days fondly. I was champion in ’78. Gilles Villeneuve was ’77. He was a hell of a driver, and a nice man, too. So you had Rahal in there, Keke Rosberg, Tom Gloy, and of course the big race for Formula Atlantic was the Three Rivers [Trois-Rivières] race. That was the big deal. It was a great series that was in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, I mean just an immense amount of talent. And unfortunately, I think this year is the first year that Atlantic doesn’t have a series. It’s been going for 35 years, something like that.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Shows a business card for Newfoundland promoter Bob Giannou and asks about the Atlantic Series' race in St. John's, Newfoundland.]

Howdy Holmes: It was in July, it might have been ’74, I’m going to guess. It was either ’74 or ’75, I think ’74, and it was in July, and it was around the Confederation Building. It was a combination of the main street that went in front of the Confederation Building and surface streets, and back through a parking lot behind the Confederation Building, and that was it. Saturday’s practice was delayed for an hour and a half because there was an iceberg in the harbor—I’m not shitting you—iceberg in the harbor and it was evaporating, so it was causing this fog. You couldn’t see a thing. Oh. What else? The race course was this combination of regular streets, surface road, and wide-open parking lot with cones. And much like rallies, people were standing right on the edge of the road. And you find yourself drifting through a corner with the tail out and people are within a foot of you. And it was sort of frightening on one hand. But it’s very much like street courses. The more road you use, the straighter the line, the faster you go. It was really bizarre.

Baggy Paragraphs: Well, it’s hard to kill a Newfy.

Howdy Holmes: What else is there to tell? I was there driving for Fred Opert in a Chevron. I believe I started fourth and finished second. I’ll never forget Newfoundland.

 
 

The men of Jiffy. | Holmes collection

Baggy Paragraphs

: That’s the thing about racing. I think that it’s like going to sea, you know? Boys used to run away and go off to sea. You have incredible adventures and all kinds of people. It’s fascinating.

Howdy Holmes: They’re a hardy group of people.

Baggy Paragraphs: Then the speed and everything. What about getting into Indy cars? You were rookie of the year at Indy in 1979.

Howdy Holmes: I was.

Baggy Paragraphs: To make that step you’re talking about, Indy really was kind of a long ways away, still, from here. You made that big step that you had only envisioned in your mind.

Howdy Holmes: Well, let me tell you how that happened. Being the Atlantic champion in ’78 and Bernie Ecclestone coming to the, he was at the Three Rivers race and Gilles Villeneuve had just made the jump from Atlantic, actually went gone to McLaren before he went to Ferrari, so my career path was more towards Formula One. And all road racers, that’s their career path. What’s odd about that is, my background is road racing, but I’m an American. Road racing in America is about as popular as, I don’t know, American football is in Turkey. I mean, it just, so [laughs], and I know you know that. You also remember that in ’78 Mario Andretti won the world championship, and he was driving for Lotus. And his teammate was Ronnie Peterson, and the car was just spectacular. I mean, they’re good drivers. But we all know the car is more important than the driver. So they were winning everything that year and then Peterson was killed, which I don’t mean that as a negative to why, one of the two was going to win the world championship and Peterson was leading in points. I mean, both of those guys were blindingly fast, especially Peterson, on a single-lap basis. Mario was probably a little better, more consistent. Peterson, he’d do just a screamer, and the next lap would be two- or three-tenths, and in racing, that’s years. So what I’m getting to is that, there were some people that were very interested in having an all-American team at Lotus. And I attended the Watkins Glen race which was always in early October—

Baggy Paragraphs: That was the USGP?

Howdy Holmes: Yes, as a guest of the Lotus team. And being my own manager and things like that, I guess I really didn’t know any better, but the European press knew who I was and started asking me questions and I kind of referred to this project that was going on. That was the end of that. That was a really difficult lesson to learn. And the lesson is: you keep your mouth shut, especially in Formula One. All of a sudden, that possibility was no longer probable.

Baggy Paragraphs: So you were around 30 by this time?

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, about 30. And then what happened was— Wow, what a mistake that was! What a lesson to learn! Yikes! So I went back in ’79 to Atlantic again. I loved the series, but in racing, as you know, there’s this certain kind of progression that at any time, if it gets stalled someplace, they basically take your name right off the list. That’s just the way it works and I was aware of that and didn’t want that to happen. So it seemed to me that the best think I could do was to defend the Atlantic championship. And I drove for Doug Shierson [of Adrian, Michigan], a great guy and sorry he’s not with us.

Baggy Paragraphs: He has since died?

Howdy Holmes: He has, and very, very sad. A big part of my life. But as it turns out, in March [1979], I get a call from a guy, and this is exactly the way it happened:

“Hello?”

“Are you Howdy Holmes?”

“Yes.”

“How would you like to drive in the Indy 500?”

Now I’m still suffering from this kind of political mistake, and I actually thought it was some idiot trying to be funny. I’m having my own pity party because I apparently think I’ve blown the rest of my career. The guy says, “Are you Howdy Holmes?”

“Yeah.”

He says, “How would you like to drive in the Indy 500?”

I say, “No, thanks. I’m playing paddleball that weekend.” That’s kind of my sense of humor, twisted as it may be.

And the guy says, “No, my name is Yanto [sp?] Roberts. I’m serious.”

I never knew who he was. I said, “I was sort of kidding about the paddleball thing. Tell me what’s up.”

Speeding at Pocono. | Wikimedia

And it turned out that Sherman Armstrong, who was an Indiana businessman, from Winchester, Indiana, a self-made multimillionaire who grew up in Winchester, worked for Anchor-Hocking, which is the glass company, thought, “Wait a minute. This stuff looks pretty easy. I could do this myself.” So he did. He started Armstrong Mould and made a gazillion dollars, small-time guy, didn’t know what to do with all this money.

Baggy Paragraphs: It’s only 40 miles to Indy from Winchester.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, but they first got into sprint car racing.

Baggy Paragraphs: I know there’s a track right there.

Howdy Holmes: Oh, yeah! I tested the first March Indy car at Winchester, without a rear wing. Interesting day! Talk about pucker power! Anyway, Sherman Armstrong had gotten Paul Leffler, who was the best mechanic in sprint cars in those days, and they were winning everything and they got bored, so they were looking for something else to do. Somehow, they thought, “Well, let’s go to Indy.” They got hooked up with Starcraft and a couple of other companies, and Texaco hired this PR firm out of New York, where Yanto Roberts comes in. The theory was: “Hey, this is a new Indy car owner. Why not come in with an unknown Indy car driver? Rookie-rookie sort of thing and see what we could do?” Well, I was the choice. It happened, and, geez, we qualified thirteenth. I’ll never forget—”

Baggy Paragraphs: Do you remember roughly your speed? Two-ten?

Howdy Holmes: No, it wasn’t even close. It was in the high 80s [180s] in those days. What’s interesting is that, in those days, practice would start the first Saturday of May. But that weekend I had an Atlantic commitment in Mexico City. I won the race in Mexico City, and I had all the flights lined up to get out of Mexico City as quickly as I [could]. But you know what happened, I won the race in Mexico, so you had to stay around for the celebrations and all that stuff, which is fine, I mean, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And then, I had talked with the promoters down there, and they knew that I had this flight to get. So they put me in the back of this car and I had an escort, two motorcycle—you’ve been to Mexico, right?

Baggy Paragraphs: Never been to Mexico City.

Howdy Holmes: Well, I want to tell you, there’s 29 or 30 million people in Mexico City, and the driving is a nightmare. The motorcycle cops are out of control and I’m in the back of this car with a police escort on the way to the airport, and one police motorcycle guy would get in front, go to the next intersection and slide to a stop, put his hands up and we’d go blasting through. And then these cops would keep changing places. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I mean, not in Indy cars, I’ve been in horrible wrecks. That’s nothing compared to being… Of course, you’re not driving, you know? Long story short, I get to Indy, the car is not ready, I don’t get on the track until Thursday, the first day. These guys, good competent people from sprint cars, but hadn’t been used to open-wheel cars. I brought part A and part B so I could make a seat, with the paper, or the plastic bag and all this kind of stuff so I could touch the pedals, and I mean it was a zoo. Well, geez, I get out on Thursday—

Baggy Paragraphs: Had you driven on an oval?

Howdy Holmes: No. Well, a little bit. In 1977, they had this thing called Mini-Indy, which was a Volkswagen series. Volkswagen had a Super Vee series for a number of years, and then they tried to do a thing called Mini-Indy, which was supposed to be a step up to Indy cars and they had a race at Trenton, Phoenix, there might have been another one, maybe someplace else. [Milwaukee and Mosport were also on the schedule; Holmes finished second and third in four starts.] So that’s the experience that I had. Anyway, I breezed through my rookie test and had maybe 35 laps on the car before qualifying. I qualified 13th and finished seventh. You know, looking back, and at the time I realized that there was a sea change going on, a paradigm shift if you will, because the path, so to speak, to Indy cars had been midgets and sprint cars. And all Indy car races had only been on ovals, the Trentons and the Phoenix and Milwaukees and so on. There was in those days an uprising with the owners. It was the beginning of CART, and USAC—and remember that there was a plane crash where five of eight USAC officials perished—and that was the tipping point where CART basically broke away, for good reasons, in their minds. The stated reason was the board of directors for the USAC were 21 people, and they were all basically friends and associates of the Hulman family in sprint car racing. But USAC was the sanctioning organization, the administrative body, that also put on the Indy 500. So there was a lot going on. I basically was, I’d been a business guy ever since I was a kid. I sold Cutco cutlery and so on. And I’m running my own marketing business and advertising business in motorsports and being my own mechanic; I told that story. So I was kind of like the prototype corporate driver, is what other people would say. I came with attorneys and not chief mechanics. And I understood that racing is entertainment first; that’s the way it’s sold. And it’s the only sport that demands overt commercialism to survive. So the truth is, racing’s about putting deals together, more than anything. And I was pretty good at that. I was a pretty good driver, too. My personal disappointment was, I wish it was more about talent, a driver’s talent, skills, skills on the track, than skills off the track. But, hey, that’s the way it is. So, I have to tell you, the car was a Wildcat. It was four-year-old car. Wildcat was the name that Pat Patrick used for their brand, for making their own car. It was a four-year-old car, had an Offenhauser engine. The hot stuff at the time was the Cosworth V-8. Offenhauser was a four.

Chelsea Milling's technical director Neil Bucsh (yes, that's how it's spelled) shows Holmes two variations of a devil's food cake mix. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Baggy Paragraphs: Turbocharged?

Howdy Holmes: It was. A hundred and sixty-one-cubic-inch, I think. But the good news was that the car had been around, so there was fair amount of knowledge on what it took to set up the suspension and stuff. Although we did a good job in qualifying and we did a good job in the race, the fact is, on lap two, we spent two minutes in the pits.

Baggy Paragraphs: After they threw the yellow flag?

Howdy Holmes: No, no, no, no. There was a mechanical problem with the car. On the second lap I came into the pits because a hose clamp had come off the turbocharger that [went] between the plenum chamber and back in… They found it. Went back out thirty-third and finished seventh.

Baggy Paragraphs: You’d lost a lap by that point.

Howdy Holmes: Two.

Baggy Paragraphs: You finished seventh on the lead lap?

Howdy Holmes: No. I wasn’t on the lead lap. I don’t remember how many laps. I’m going guess three or four. But two of them were right there. But Goodyear guys told us—

Baggy Paragraphs: But otherwise you kept the race pace.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, I mean, who knows? But Goodyear, they always do cornering speeds and things like that, we consistently had the fourth-fastest cornering speeds. So it turned out to be terrific.

Baggy Paragraphs: A huge success!

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, and I’ll tell you another thing which I discovered during that experience, Ronald. I’d always believed, and maybe some people still do, that the most difficult thing would be road racing, and of course the most difficult thing to drive would be a Formula One. Both not true. Oval driving is considerably harder than road racing, and here’s why: because once you—especially the big ovals—once you get going, you’re not braking, you’re not shifting. You don’t have perception changes, depth perception. You’re not turning left, not turning right. You’re just basically going around in a circle. What that means is, your band of concentration is very narrow. You don’t have constant reminders to keep you sharp. So the focus window is considerable smaller. Oh, by the way, your average speed is a whole lot faster. And there are walls. And they hurt.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Mentions Nelson Piquet's unfortunate experience at Indy in 1992.]

Howdy Holmes: In road racing, you’re always looking at the apex. Different people might disagree on this one. In oval racing, yeah, the apex is important. But instead of looking always to your left, you need to look to the right because the more you can straighten out that curve, the faster you go because the less friction you’re generating, side-bite. So the idea is to straighten out the corner as much as you can; you’ll go faster the longer way around. It may a hundred, a hundred-fifty, maybe seventy-five RPM, but the whole trick is, you buy those RPM for the whole length of the straightaway, and that’s why you’re fast.

Baggy Paragraphs: And that also means going up really close to that wall at time. I see these cars come up just inches from the wall, and I can’t imagine doing that. So you were in seven Indy 500s?

Howdy Holmes: Six: ’79, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85 and ’88.

Baggy Paragraphs: By ’88, you were 40, 41 years old.

Howdy Holmes: A young pup [laughs].

Baggy Paragraphs: And starting to look at the end of things.

Howdy Holmes: Well, really, honestly, I started my exit. I had a five-year exit plan. In 1983 is when I kind of made the decision, it’s time to start detoxing my way out of racing and preparing for my return to Chelsea Milling Company, which, for the record, I always intended to come back here. My mom and dad knew it. I don’t think any of us thought it would be 20 years, but it was, and I’m very thankful for it. So it was a five-year plan. I raced in ’83, ’84, and ’85. Two-thirds of the way through the ’85 season I got hurt pretty bad at Laguna Seca.

Baggy Paragraphs: Who were you driving for at the time?

Howdy Holmes: Forsythe Brothers. Real kind of bad concussion. No broken bones but a fairly bad concussion. So I was out the last third of ’85, ’86, and ’87. It was a good news/bad news kind of situation, because I’d already made the commitment to have this five-year business plan, exit/reentry. It gave me a lot of time to think. I happened to meet the right girl [Caroline] in ’83, and that was helpful of course—and different.

Baggy Paragraphs: What do you mean: different?

Howdy Holmes: Well, I was used to being, I was a single guy for a long time. I guess I always thought I would be single forever. But things change. So that’s what I mean, different, in that sense. I came back to Chelsea Milling Company in November of ’87, but then this John Capels ’88 season opportunity came up. I don’t know, honestly, why I went for it. It probably, in looking back, was the best thing I did, because it horrible relationship. I persevered through ’88. As an example, at Indy, we just couldn’t get up to speed. The last day of qualifying we got bumped out of the field. Turns out, we had a crack in the plenum chamber. John Capels was telling me I didn’t know how to use the boost. It was ugly. Anyway, we went back on the track, the last ones to go out, the gun goes off as I’m starting the first turn, and we got back in the race by seven-one-thousandths of a second.

Mears, Holmes, Sneva. | Holmes collection

Baggy Paragraphs: Do you remember who was bumped?

Howdy Holmes: I don’t, but whoever it was, and I don’t remember, I would feel very sorry for them. I mean, it happens.

Baggy Paragraphs: Seven one-thousandths. So you started last.

Howdy Holmes: Started last, finished twelfth or thirteenth.

Baggy Paragraphs: Did you? So you ran the whole race.

Howdy Holmes: Probably other than competing at Indy, you get asked from time to time what was the best memory, this, that, and the other, for me it was since it all started as a fantasy, sitting in the stands, to race at Indy was kind of the best, but to race six times, start six and finish six, a sixth, a seventh, two tenths, a twelfth, and a thirteenth. Actually, I had the highest average finishing record of anybody who started three or more races when I retired in ’88.

Howdy Holmes: I think the ones that stand out to me the most, some of these names, they’re not well-known names. I guess the guys that I respected and hung with a little bit—drivers generally don’t hang together because it’s a pretty dangerous sport, so you don’t want to get too close to somebody. But the ones that come to mind are Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford. Of course, A.J. [Foyt] and Mario [Andretti] and [Gordon] Johncock and all these guys. It’s very unreal to be sitting in the stands as a spectator and watching Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. race in the Indy 500, and then find yourself competing against them. I mean, it’s really different. So those are names that come to mind. Bobby Rahal and I, I would say, are really good friends.

Baggy Paragraphs: Even today?

Howdy Holmes: Even today. We don’t see each other often, but whenever we do, it doesn’t matter how much time has gone under the bridge. We just pick up where we left off. Keke Rosberg would be another one of those names. He’s got a son, Nico, that’s in Formula One now. Paul Newman, probably, is certainly on that list.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were close to him?

Howdy Holmes: Very close to him. Even though we didn’t compete in the same series and stuff like that, we just sort of—I met him in 1972, I think, at Road Atlanta. He came up to me and said, “I understand you’re the new hot shoe.” And I’m going, “You gotta be shittin’ me! What? This is Paul Newman!” And he said, “I want to talk to you. Come into my motorhome.” I tried to act like I do that stuff all the time. Of course I didn’t. The thing about Paul, and his wife, Joanne, is their status is legendary, but in practice they’re just down home folks, Paul was. I’m sorry he’s gone. But he was like, he was just one of the guys. I mean, we used to call him Chicken Legs, because he had no calves. He had these legs that were kind of like [gestures]. So he’d never wear any shorts. So I had a good relationship with Paul. So that’s another one. I mean, as an example, how well did I know him? Well, Paul Newman sang “Happy Birthday” to my wife [Carole] in a Portland restaurant in 1985. So I’d say, pretty well.

Baggy Paragraphs: You were relatively newly married at the time, I gather?

Howdy Holmes: We weren’t even married yet. We didn’t get married till ’86.

Baggy Paragraphs: What are your reflections on Indy racing today?

Howdy Holmes: One, I don’t go to the races. I haven’t since I retired. I do take seven employees each year to the Indy 500. To me, it’s an opportunity to get to know them a little bit better away from here. There have been a lot of changes. Honestly, I’d have to say I don’t think many of them are for the better. The racing is different than back then, so to speak. Of course, everybody says that. I think it’s very unfortunate that the split that took place with the IRL and CART—

Baggy Paragraphs: Fifteen years ago, or fourteen years, but we’re still feeling the effects?

Howdy Holmes: Oh, are you kidding me? I don’t think it’s ever going to recover to where it was. And there’s some very strategic reasons that I believe that’s true. You had a history going, and a momentum, that you can’t replace. I don’t care who’s involved. You just can’t replace that. It’s broken. The line’s broken. So then you have to rebuild. The competition for the consumer dollar—let’s keep in mind that all other types of racing haven’t been just standing still while Indy car or the Champ car series or whatever you want to call it decides that they’re going to go bonkers and have a spitting contest. I think it’s tragic, what happened. I don’t think they’ll ever recover from it, which is too bad. I’m old-fashioned. I think a great deal about tradition and principle and things like that. I still love going to the Indy 500, but the racing is pretty boring and it’s very predictable. It’s a spec series. I’ve never driven one of these cars but I understand you can pretty much go around most anything flat out. And you said it earlier, they all finish the races. That wasn’t the way it was in the old days.

Baggy Paragraphs: You had the drama of, “Well, yeah, he’s a quarter lap ahead, but will that Buick live?”

Howdy Holmes: Yeah. I want to be conscious of the owners and the mechanics and the sponsors and the drivers and everybody that’s involved and not be critical or judgmental, but it is very different. It’s not the same product. And at the end of the day, it is the entertainment business, even though racing is a very serious profession. A lot of people don’t see it as that, but it is a business. I feel a little sorry for those that are doing it now because it isn’t what it used to be, and there will always maybe sort of be a asterisk. I feel sad about that. But what are you going to do? It’s kind of like a piece of you has gone away and my reaction is to be very thankful and appreciative of having had an opportunity during a time when it was really something. I mean, it was a really big deal.

Baggy Paragraphs: Even at Michigan International Speedway through the late-’90s, they were drawing big crowds for those Indy races, and you’d see whole sections where they’d all be wearing the same orange cap from some company. There was a lot of interest. And then a couple of things happened, including three people dying among the spectators. And the crowds just dropped way off. Then they quit the race.

Howdy Holmes: That, and let’s not forget that NASCAR was making terrific gains during that time.

Baggy Paragraphs: How about the way the sport has changed?

Howdy Holmes: So the racing’s different, and the politics is very different. Women’s presence in racing is a good example of that—I think a good example of that. Politics isn’t always a dirty term, although that’s the way it’s usually portrayed. For Sherman Armstrong, Janet Guthrie drove for Sherm Armstrong in, I think it was 1978, if I’m not mistaken. The year I won the Atlantic championship, Janet debuted with—was it Sherman? Might have been Sherman. Yeah. And that was a big question that a lot of people struggled with. People said, “It’s dangerous and all.” Well, all those things are true. But you look at today and there’s some really good drivers. Say what you want about Danica Patrick, but she’s got the right stuff. I don’t know this Simona—

Baggy Paragraphs: Simona de Silvestro.

Howdy Holmes: I maybe can’t pronounce her name, but I’ve seen her drive. She knows what she’s doing. Have there been women out there that don’t know what they’re doing? Yeah. But I want to tell you, there have been a lot more men out there that don’t know what they’re doing than there have been women that don’t know what they’re doing. And the percentages aren’t even close. So you can come to your own conclusions on that one. I suppose I find myself, Ronald, kind of thinking, you know, “Here’s this old fart talking. Aww, it ain’t like it used to be!” And all that kind of stuff. And in a lot of ways, it isn’t. But the important thing is, whatever the time, and whatever the environment, you’ve got to make it happen.

Baggy Paragraphs: As a driver?

Howdy Holmes: As a driver or as a business person: whatever it may be. The environment might change. But it’s a little unfair to compare the Thirties with the Eighties in any sport, whatever it may be, auto racing included. I can only share that the things that I see, and it’s not for me to judge per se the things that you and I are talking about. It’s not disputable. Those are facts. At the end, every year that I go to Indy, and take employees down there, I seem to have a greater and greater appreciation for the fact that I did that. And honestly, I go, “Holy smokes! This really is a big deal!” When you’re in the middle of doing it, I never thought of it that way. I looked at it as a job and a career, and the blinders were on.

Baggy Paragraphs: I don’t think a racing driver can afford to be that self-conscious.

Howdy Holmes: Yeah, which is another way of saying you can’t listen to your emotions. Oh, that’s right, we’re talking about guys. What are feelings?

Baggy Paragraphs: How about the future of racing?

Howdy Holmes: I think there is a future for racing of all types because it is so mysterious and automobiles are so ingrained in our life. With the open-wheel stuff, there’s a culture that’s different here in the United States than it is in Europe. Here, it’s the stock car stuff and it gets you from point A to point B, and who doesn’t know about cars? I think that the thing that’s really important is that, let’s not forget that one of the biggest reasons that racing is going to continue, Ronald, is that it’s about technology and it’s about engineering and the studying that takes place in the field. As long as there are people out doing that, and corporate America can utilize racing as a way to entertain and to explain things and introduce products, it’s always going to be there.

The element of danger is always there. I don’t think anybody would really like to see somebody hurt, but crashes are spectacular.

I think it’s exciting. And of course when somebody gets hurt, it’s tragic. But most of the crashes, people don’t get hurt.

Baggy Paragraphs: [Mentions Mike Conway's violent crash at Indy.] How was that guy not torn limb from limb?

Howdy Holmes: That’s my point. The cars are safe.

Baggy Paragraphs: The era that you raced in, if you hit the wall you were likely to crush your legs right up to your knees.

Howdy Holmes: Well, I used to be six foot six.

Written by baggyparagraphs

August 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Wow. That Jiffy guy really got to mix it up with a lot of other drivers. Nice interview!

    volunteer

    August 3, 2010 at 11:37 pm

  2. Forgot he once qualified on front row. Interesting that he thinks of himself as an Indy car driver, as there might never again be a selection of drivers for whom Indy is everything. Too bad no mention of Cheryl.

    Michael Jordan

    August 4, 2010 at 4:36 am

  3. A reader in Burbank, California, responds: Lots of great stuff there. I’d always thought he was a rich kid playing at racing, but, clearly, I was wrong. I’m curious to see what you’ll make the story into. Good luck!

    baggyparagraphs

    August 4, 2010 at 1:36 pm

  4. I remember Howdy very well and was always a fan. Expecially from Formula Super Vee and his special sponsor – Eazy Rider – cigarette rolling papers.

    I also had the privilage of racing with Howdy when the Formula Atlantic series made it’s West Coast (Laguna Seca – 2 races – and the now long gone Ontario Motor Speedway) swing in 1976.

    Formula Atlantic was a fantastic series with some exceptional tallent. The event at the Ontario Motor Speedway had 47 entries. I qualified 40th and finished 15 in my six-year old March 712 (#77) with sponsorship from EAR Plug (hearing protection) and Formula Magazine – I was editor and associated publisher at the time.

    Say “hey” to Howdy for me.

    Hugh Mooney

    August 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm

  5. “Nice piece. Always a pleasure to run into Howdy in town, he’s always been one of the good’uns…….”

    A Colonel

    August 5, 2010 at 11:27 am

  6. I recently found a pic of him in his Jiffy Mixes driving suit at the Indy 500. Very cool! He’s a celebrity of sorts in my hometown, Chelsea (although nothing like Jeff Daniels or me, of course). The Holmes family is still around town, I believe still making money off Jiffy.

    Copy Ed

    August 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

  7. Funny thing, a few years ago I saw Howdy and his wife get on the plane I was boarding en route to Paris. After the flight while waiting for our bags I went up to him and started talking. He didn’t remember me, which was fine, but he gave me his card and I sent him a copy of the book. He sent a very nice note back. Seems to be a genuinely nice guy.

    I do have one Howdy story for you. Late in his career driving for Shierson, he had a really bad accident at MIS. It was the same year Gordon Smiley, I think, was killed at Indy. Howdy lost the car in turn 2 and steered into the skid…which used to mean death on an oval. You’re sliding sideways at 200 mph and you turn into the wall trying to save the car. The car then hooks up and you drive straight into the wall. It’s a natural instinct, especially from a road racer, to steer into the slide. Oval racers learn to steer the other way…slide the car and hope you don’t hit anything. Well, Howdy hit the wall hard, destroying the car. He walked away from it, mainly because of the 18-degree banking scrubbed off a ton of speed before he hit. It scared the daylights out of Ian Reed, the team’s engineer, and Doug. The next year, Howdy was gone.

    Another interesting thing about Howdy and Doug was the relationship between Howdy’s dad and Tom Monahan, of Domino’s. Howdy’s dad was on Domino’s board of directors, and I’m pretty sure Domino’s bought flour from Jiffy. And then Howdy is driving a race car with Domino’s sponsorship. Too many coincidences to be coincidental, I think.

    Lenawee Guy

    August 5, 2010 at 11:31 am

  8. Thanks Big Guy: I never knew much about this guy……interesting. Sterling Moss was last years honored veteran race driver at the GoodWood. He turned 80 while attending and he participated in many of the vintage races!!! I don’t know who will be honored this year but if it is an american, I’ll let you know.

    San Diego Uncle

    August 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

  9. I forwarded your link to a pal, Tim Evans, who raced in the same era around here. He says that Howdy’s recollection of the dates in his early career are off because Tim himself won the FF regional title in 1971 and crewed for Jim Harrell at Atlanta runoffs that year, too.

    He says he doesn’t remember Howdy, who he knew, being at Atlanta that year but that memory is less clear than is the other stuff. He doesn’t think there’s anything dishonest going on, just that Howdy’s recollections may be off by a year or two about those two details. Probably be worth a little research to verify.

    Retired journalist

    August 5, 2010 at 11:35 am

  10. Great to see that Howdy is still around after all these years. I was around F.Atlantic at the same time as Howdy was winning races for Doug Shierson & March, infact I think we had his old 78A March which we ran Terry Knight in the first two races of 1979 with Joe Stimola Racing out of New York. We did that Mexico City race that Howdy won in ’79 and I was also at Indy in 1984 when he qualified on the front row, our car crashed the morning of qualifying! the Centerline Eagle with Steve Krissloff (but Tom Bigelow did bring our earlier car home 18th in 1982 for HBK Racing)

    To do six Indy 500′s and finish in the top 10 on four occasions is no mean feat (thats better than Chip Ganassi!!) but it’s sad to see he doesn’t go to more races. I guess he tied up in his business like I am back home in New Zealand. Regards to Howdy and the other old Atlantic racers from the 70′s and 80′s, it’s sad to see the demise of F.Atlantic after so many years, we did it from 1976 to 93 and won our fair share of races, especially with the Swift DB4.
    regards to all, murray mac

    Murray McLaren

    August 19, 2010 at 6:48 am

  11. I am so glad I stumbled across this article. Just searching the web while I watch Nascar race in Charlotte on a Saturday night……

    Howdy was always one of my favorites! A short lived career that left a lot of memories for some of us race fans. I don’t have to tell you, my maiden name says it all, but I was RAISED in RACING. The month of May was truly a way of life for us. I was never one to just be a fan of the “usuals”, AJ and Mario were way over-rated. My mom and I always followed the racers with class. Howdy always had class. My mom got to know him very well and I enjoyed the time we all got to spend together in May. He always had a broad smile on his face, was respectful to others and LOVED what he was doing. I’m glad to see what he’s been up to and that he is healthy and well. Howdy is, and was, a great guy to one kid who grew up in Indy LOVING the sport and I’m glad I got to see him race so many times =0)

    Gordy was always my favorite, of course, he was my dad after all. But Scotty Brayton was second and Howdy Holmes was next. Michigan gave us a lot of REALLY GREAT DRIVERS!!!

    Tara Johncock-Cupp

    October 17, 2010 at 12:59 am

  12. Thank you baggy paragraphs for this great interview and article about one of my fellow high school classmates, Howdy Holmes. My sister, Janet Withers, and her first husband Phil Lotts were friends of his back then, and all of us Ann Arbor, Michigan people followed his career with great interest. I am glad his life turned out so well, the racing years and now the family business which we all knew of back then. I still buy Jiffy Mix products out here in the San Francisco Bay Area! My best to Howdy and his family.

    Dale Withers

    October 31, 2010 at 12:43 am

  13. Dear MR Holmes,
    My name is Tod Tudor, I grew up in Chelsea, Graduated school in 1979. You were an idol to me.
    The Jiffy plant was kind of a playground for me at that time, with the train yard and all, I still use
    & tell my friends, “THAT’S where I grew up, they make awsome stuff there” KEEP THE PLANT GOING
    It’s still great, I use your products all the time, still as good as ever. Especially I like the corn muffins.
    Been eating, learned to bake, & sharing them all my life. Made some tonight, really good with chili,
    I just saw your name on the box & had to send a note.

    hope all is well

    Tod

    Tod Tudor

    January 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm

  14. dear MR Holmes im relation and have pictures of old tobias i used to play at the grainery and the one in ovid michigan i lived in dexter can i get an auto graph for the tree i cant find any other way to get a hold of sir thank you from David morindavid485@yahoo.com

    David Morin

    September 20, 2012 at 6:39 pm


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