The Amazing Tunnys
Editor’s Note, Nov. 15, 2013: Speedrome legend Bill Tunny Jr. was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in summer 2012. The disease has since spread to his brain. After numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Bill has been sent home, where he is receiving 24-hour care. The Tunny family is now trying to raise money to pay for alternative treatments not covered by health insurance. If you would like to donate, click here.
Five miles east of Monument Circle, on the far edge of Irvington, the railroad runs past factories and warehouses and a tiny asphalt racetrack. There is no infield, just a rubber-streaked oval two-tenths of a mile in circumference, little bigger than a hockey rink, surrounded by a wire fence and grandstands of bleachers and folding metal chairs. During the week, the Indianapolis Speedrome stands as empty as many of the abandoned buildings on the industrial east side. But every summer Saturday night, the place comes alive with beer-swilling fans who’ve paid $11 to watch four hours of action, semi-pro drivers trading paint in everything from go-karts to jalopies, all of it just prelude to the mayhem that is the main event, a little-known battle royale of bent metal that may just be auto racing’s truest spectacle: the Figure 8.
By 10 p.m., the stadium lights are casting the shadows of 18 racecars revving at the starting line. They are called late models, long, low-riding boxes of sheet metal riveted to aluminum frames, open front wheels flanking the nose, rear tires enclosed beneath vertical fins, the actual purpose of which no one is certain. The engines are American from the ’60s and ’70s—400-plus cubic inches—and as the field accelerates into Turn 1, their combined horsepower shakes the ground, rattling the crowd to its feet, its cheers choked by the fumes of spent fuel. But as the cars round the pylon at Turn 2, the drivers pull the wheel sharply left and then cut diagonally across the infield to the opposite corner, where they brake into a right turn. After just seconds in the short chute, the drivers pull another right, slicing back across the middle to complete the “8.” As the laps tick by, the field spreads out, and cars begin to meet on their crisscrossing paths at center track, some going 70 miles per hour. Often, drivers swerve to avoid each other, or one or both brake, sometimes to a halt. Sometimes the spectators get what they think they came for: two wild men, checkers in their eyes, each refusing to deviate from his course. The scream of rubber and the crunch of crumpled metal. A column of flame and smoke. A red flag and a heavy silence as the medics pull the men from the wreckage. But the true lure of the Speedrome is the anticipation, hanging above the grandstands, palpable among drivers and spectators alike, who force themselves to look on as weekend heroes manage to dodge disaster over and over again.
Every September since 1977, fans have packed the stands to watch the World Figure 8 Championship—the granddaddy race of the sport. As many as 60 drivers compete, each sweating it out for three hours in closed cockpits and fire suits for 400 to 500 laps, trying to take home an oversized check for $20,000. The Enduro, as the drivers call it, is the most prestigious Figure 8 race, and success requires a blend of skill, stamina, guts, and luck that they believe sets them apart from any oval-goer at Indy or Daytona. Over three hours, drivers may face the crossover 1,000 times, a fact that some in the sport believe makes it the hardest race in the world to win.
Blood with octane this high runs through generations. Speedrome lineups from seven decades are seeded with the same surnames, Seniors and Juniors and a few IIIs. But no family is more synonymous with this track or this sport than the Tunnys of Indianapolis, who have run the 8 here for almost 50 years. The men pitted on Tunny Row are Speedrome royalty, having won 165 feature races and six track championships. They’ve also owned the Enduro, winning it five times and placing in the top three in 10 of the last 12. This year, there will be six Tunnys—Bill Jr. and sons Ben, Jesse, and Austin; Bill’s brother, Bruce; and Bruce’s son, Mark—vying for a place on the three-hour podium.
Preparations begin three miles east of the Speedrome in the Tunny Garage, a sagging structure behind the home of the patriarch, 80-year-old Bill Tunny Sr. Every November, the Tunny boys strip their cars down to aluminum tubes, replacing worn parts, welding frames, and reassembling rear ends while warming their hands over their rebuilt engines or the fire in the corner stove. The cars are gradually pieced back together until spring, when the overhead door rolls open and it’s time to go racing.
On a race day in April, Ben Tunny’s No. 5 sits in the garage assembled and poised, its weight distributions and suspension settings recorded in a binder labeled TUNNY RACING: TOP SECRET. But the car is not quite ready. Squatting beside the front, 24-year-old Ben sprays a pool of white paint onto a piece of plastic. He wets a small brush and begins to daintily whiten the faded Hoosier logo on his tires. From the stands, he says, they’ll look like new.
Attention to the car’s appearance is a tradition that began in this very garage in 1963, when Bill Sr. fixed up a ’53 Chevy sedan for one of his brothers to drive in the 8. At the time, most of the entries were rusted-out jalopies, junkers patched together and bearing the scrapes of collisions past. Bill Sr.’s cars were painted a light blue and polished after every race, dings smoothed and refinished. “It shines them up for the people in the stands so they can see your decals—the sponsors appreciate that,” says Bill Jr. “It’s also about pride in what you’re doing.” Bill Jr. and younger brother Bruce absorbed this ethos from their earliest days, watching from the stands alongside their mom and sister in matching black-and-white-checkered Tunny Racing T-shirts. As they got older, they were in the pits banging out dents and touching up the blue paint themselves. They honed their skills running jury-rigged pushcarts with lawnmower wheels down the hill at Flat Rock River, or taping numbers to their bikes and grinding a dirt “8” into Bill Sr.’s backyard.
When Bill Sr. came home one day in 1977 to find 17-year-old Bill Jr. in the garage among the scattered pieces of a dismantled GTO, he shook his head and walked back up to the house. He watched from afar as his son built his own racecar. “I didn’t want him to get into it,” says Bill Sr. “I knew what was involved. You gotta work like hell at it. But once he proved himself, I helped him all I could.”
The same held true when Bruce followed suit a couple of years later. Both Tunny boys won races in their rookie years—and many thereafter. Barrel-chested Bill Jr. was aggressive, standing on the gas from corner to corner in the crossover, earning the nickname “Wild Bill.” Bruce was cooler, more calculating, hanging back to let the race come to him. Of course, when the Tunny brothers ran up against each other, all bets were off. “When we even got close,” says Bruce, “all the announcer could talk about was getting ready for ‘sparks to fly.’”
In one race, the two were so close fighting for the lead in the 8 that Bruce’s car ran up onto the side of Bill Jr.’s, putting Bruce on two wheels before both cars spun out. Such a mishap would end the evenings of most competitors, but the Tunny lead was so great that the two were able to pull back out and fight to the last lap. “He won,” Bruce recalls, his voice tinged with equal amounts of disgust and respect.
The Speedrome opened in 1941, one of dozens of hometown and neighborhood tracks popping up all over the Midwest at the time. Legend has it that Figure 8 racing was invented here in the 1950s, when, looking for added excitement and hoping to lure fans, promoter Art Zipp took a stick and drew an “8” in the dirt.
While the sport may have been concocted as a gimmick, drivers bristle at the idea that it is nothing more than a demolition derby. Fans may want to see carnage, but drivers want to win, and the best way to do that is not to wreck. “You don’t just close your eyes,” says Duane “The General” Lee, a 15-year veteran of the Figure 8 and four-time Speedrome champion. “You’ve got to know who you’re racing.” Lee says that in the 1 to 2 seconds it takes to speed through the crossover, a veteran can almost instinctively factor in his surroundings to tell whether he needs to hit the brakes or the gas. First, it’s about track position—slower drivers will generally yield to the leaders. Second, after years of racing the same guys every week, a driver knows who has money and doesn’t care if he tears up his car. “It gets to the point where you don’t even think about it,” says Bill Jr. “If you think about it too much, and you change your mind or he changes his, you’re going to crash.”
That doesn’t mean drivers don’t consider the dangers. After a crossover wreck that pinned Jesse Tunny’s thumb between the steering wheel and a bar, the 21-year-old is tentative steering with his right hand. Bruce Tunny lowers his voice to a reverent tone when recounting his 1985 crossover collision, after which he had to be cut from the wreckage, tire marks visible on his seat. “Sometimes you’re racing four cars on either side at 70 mph while cars are coming right at you from the side and all you can see is the bumper in front of you,” says Jesse. “In those moments,” adds Ben, “your butt puckers up.”
Somewhere there is a Speedrome rulebook of specs and guidelines for the competitors and the cars. But no one can seem to remember the last time it was referenced. In fact, outside of naming the winner, track officials pretty much leave the drivers alone. When there is a disagreement, the parties are usually left to straighten matters out themselves. The pits are rife with hearsay about who said what about whom, or who is about to get their ass kicked for something they did on the track. Sometimes matters escalate to shouting, screaming, and throwing of equipment. An angry driver might run over to another car, reach in through the window, and grab his alleged offender. There may be punches thrown. On occasion, weapons like a jack handle or a crowbar will appear. Once, in the late ’80s, Bruce Tunny had a pistol leveled at him. On the track. The Speedrome banned the gunman from the premises—for two weeks.
Over 50 years, the Tunnys have been involved in plenty of arguments, and their continued success has spawned resentment from other drivers and their fans. Tunny team policy has always been to try to talk things out man to man. But when a driver messes with one Tunny, he had better be prepared to face them all.
On a warm Speedrome night in late April, word has made it down to Tunny Row that another driver, Cory Turner, isn’t happy about some recent run-ins with the youngest Tunny, 19-year-old Austin. Turner’s camp, the rumors go, is predicting that tonight, Austin won’t finish the 8. “Cory’s a hothead just like his daddy,” says Bill Jr. “I went to school with Danny Turner. I used to race against him. The closest I’ve ever come to punching someone was Danny Turner.”
Austin starts the race on the pole, but he loses the lead on the first lap and quickly falls back into the pack. On lap 25 of 70,
Austin makes contact with a car running alongside him in the crossover. His right side comes off the ground and slams into the pavement, sending his car spinning and collecting others in a colossal smoke-shrouded wreck.
It’s impossible to follow all the action at the Speedrome, and at speed, even the drivers can’t always be sure who initiated contact. There is no instant replay, no Jumbotron where fans can review every on-track dust-up. But on this night, some things are clear. When the haze lifts, in the middle of the logjam sits Cory Turner.
Helmet off, middle brother Jesse Tunny jumps out of his car and runs to Turner’s window, leaning in and waving his finger. Out of nowhere, oldest brother Ben arrives, running his car into Turner’s rear bumper. Turner emerges from his cockpit, Ben takes Jesse’s place in Turner’s face, and the two exchange words from beneath their helmets. Suddenly, Turner flails a clenched right hand at Ben’s head. The two scuffle, Ben putting Turner in a headlock before Turner takes him down. Bedlam ensues, as Turner’s brother, Chris, and father, Danny, rush onto the track to get into the action. Finally the police come onto the track to break things up. The race continues without Ben or Jesse or Turner.
A few minutes later, back on Tunny Row, Ben is in his stall, desperately cranking on the right front suspension, concerned about the season points standings and trying to get back to finish the race. His father strolls up slowly, returning from the officials’ office.
“You’re done,” Bill Jr. says, calm but stern. “That’s what’s best.”
“I couldn’t …” Ben says, exasperated. But his father cuts him off, noticing the black mark below his son’s right eye getting darker.
“Well,” says Bill Jr. “He got you.”
In 1981, the Speedrome came under fire from neighbors in Irvington, who complained to Mayor Bill Hudnut that the cars and the PA were too loud. At town hall meetings, disgruntled citizens pushed for the track to be shut down. In stepped Bill Sr.’s wife, Phyllis Tunny. The Speedrome was her family’s life. She practically raised her children there. Racing kept her sons busy working on cars and out of trouble. It held them together.
Phyllis started a “Save the Speedrome” campaign, circulating a petition and soliciting letters to the media and city officials. Eventually, the track agreed to shut off the PA after 11 p.m. and to require all cars to have mufflers. But the track remained open. Phyllis had helped save her family’s home.
Racing and working on a car monopolize so much of a driver’s time that, over decades, wives and children have been forced to put down roots in the Speedrome stands. It takes a special kind of understanding. Ben has lost a string of girlfriends who didn’t want to share him with the track. Bruce met his first wife while she was working as the facility scorekeeper. Jesse’s wife grew up at the Speedrome like he did, the child of a driver.
Bill Jr. jokes that he duped his wife, Rosann, into becoming a Speedrome woman. When he finally convinced her to go on a date with him to the track, he neglected to tell her that he would be driving that evening. She has since spent a majority of her Saturday nights there, first cheering on her husband, and eventually their three boys. Today, she can be seen patrolling the pits on race nights, making sure that Ben remembers to eat, seeing if Austin is okay after a frustrating finish, or wiping the grease off of Jesse’s face with a mother’s thumb. She says she’s happy her boys are here on the weekends with their father and grandfather. But even she covers her eyes when one of them enters the crossover.
However, just as women like Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and Ashley Force are breaking through in other series, gender roles at the Speedrome are slowly starting to shift. Even though a female has yet to make her mark on the 8, a new generation of women can be seen in fire suits racing in some of the smaller car classes. Bruce’s 21-year-old daughter, Katie Tunny, was raised racing bikes with her brothers and cousins, but when the boys graduated to go-karts in the school parking lot, she was left out. “Since I was a freshman in high school, I’ve been begging my dad for a go-kart,” she says. “He’s super-protective. I’m the only girl in the family.”
Katie refuses to idly wait for her turn at the wheel. Instead, she puts on a pair of gloves and works side by side in the pits with Bruce and Mark on their cars, helping where she can. She has rigged up a webcam in their cockpits so they can replay races and analyze their performance. During the 8, she climbs to the top of her dad’s trailer so she can better follow the action. She knows almost every driver, a bit of their history and their style. And when a Tunny makes a move, she almost leaps off the trailer with excitement. “A lot of my friends choose to do stupid stuff on Saturday nights,” she says. “I spend the whole summer with my family.”
Less than four months before the Enduro, on a hot night in May, the younger Tunny boys fitfully tinker with their cars in preparation for tonight’s 100-lap Figure 8. Meanwhile, Bruce, the veteran, puffs away on cigarettes, flipping butts from his lawn chair in the back of his trailer. When the PA announcer finally calls the 16 cars to the gate, Bruce takes one last drag and zips up his faded blue jacket, connecting the stitched “T-U” on the right breast to the “N-N-Y” on the left. He climbs into his No. 3T and fires it up.
When the green flag drops, Bruce quickly works his way from sixth to second, closing fast on the leader, No. 71. After several blocked attempts to pass, Bruce backs off until he sees an opening on lap 6, flooring it through the crossover and plowing into the back of the No. 71, which spins out of control, to the delight and dismay of a divided crowd now watching Bruce in the lead.
By lap 37, Bruce’s nephew Ben has moved from the back of the field to take third place. On lap 72, he overtakes brother Austin for second. Now Bruce and Ben pull away, bumper-to-bumper, full-throttle through the crossover as they lap stragglers. Ben ap-
pears to have the faster car, but he is unable to get around. Ben tries to go low, then high, but Bruce won’t let him past. On lap 88, Ben musters one last attempt, managing to get alongside his uncle in the crossover. But as they brake into the turn, Bruce noses in front again. When the checkered flag falls after 100 caution-free laps, the No. 3T crosses the finish line a car length ahead.
Bruce hands his father the checkered flag as he gets out of the car and approaches the PA announcer and the microphone to address the crowd from center track. “I was done on lap 35,” he says, breathing hard. “Maybe this is a sign for me to get back on the exercise bike. Especially against drivers that drive as hard as those young boys.”
Later in the pits, the Tunny crew members lay out their versions of the race. “The fact that he came down on you like that,” says Bill Jr., “I’d have done the same thing. You’re not going to get it easy.”
“I really wanted to pass him,” Ben says. “But I didn’t want to wreck him, and I couldn’t get around.”
“Why didn’t you floor it and tag him?” someone asks.
Ben hesitates, mentally paging back through the evening. He is not wired to stare patiently at anyone’s back bumper. But, as his father has taught him, a driver has always got to think about next week. And a Tunny must sometimes take an even longer view. Ben shakes his head and answers through clenched teeth.
“Makes Thanksgivings difficult,” he says.