INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The first time Tommy Mascari entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was in the 1930s, when he and his buddies would rush the fence as soon as the morning cannon sounded on race day.
"We used to wait until the bomb went off, and there'd be about 25 bigger boys, and we used to tear off. That's when the wood fences were out here, and we would drop 'em, and when the bomb went off everybody ran," he told WXIN. "They could never catch me."
On the eve of his 97th birthday, Tommy’s family gave the World War II veteran something else to remember: A 175 mph tour of the speedway from the back seat of an IndyCar.
"This is something I never did and it's gonna be something," said the spry old Italian as he walked Pit Row toward the waiting two-seater. "I can’t wait for it."
Considering Mascari's WWII exploits, it's amazing that Uncle Tommy, as his family calls him, considered the Brickyard hot loops the biggest thrill of his life.
As one of the U.S. Army's legendary Darby's Rangers stationed in Italy, Mascari and his comrades were assigned to cut German Army supply lines in battles after the landings in Anzio during the Italian Campaign in 1942.
A German counterattack left the Rangers exposed and landed Mascari and his friends in a prisoner of war camp for six months.
When the Americans received word they were being moved to another camp closer to the German heartland, Mascari decided he had had enough and led three other GIs in leaping from a transport train into the Italian mountains.
“That was nothing, to get off of a train, 'cause we used to hang on to 'em and ride 'em,” said Mascari, recalling his youth during the Depression on Indianapolis' south side, when a nickel was too much to pay to ride a trolley car to a favorite swimming hole.
Mascari said he was able to avoid SS troops searching for escaped prisoners in the small towns of Italy because of his Italian heritage and looks and a smattering of dialect he picked up to fool the Nazis.
In his racing suit, Mascari was reminded of another famed Italian racer, one Mario Andretti, and was asked that if the two retired countrymen would race, who would win?
"Oh, he would," Uncle Tommy said with a twinkle and a laugh as a nephew told him to slow down when he burst into a shuffling dash to the track.
On the civilian side of the pit wall, a crew member fitted Mascari for a helmet and protective gloves.
Strapped into the back seat of the metallic blue racer, Mascari gave a final thumbs up as the car roared out from beneath a canopy and shot toward turn one.
After one completed lap, a fast pass down the front straight and once more into the four corners of the speedway and the biggest thrill of Mascari's life was quickly over.
"It was great. I didn’t realize the G-forces they go through. When they go through those turns, the G-forces were great," he said. "Great God."
Once out of his gear, Mascari shared a hug with another veteran, retired driver Sarah Fisher, who marveled at Mascari's claim that his ride around the track was a bigger rush than leaping from a moving German POW train.
"No way. Are you serious?" she said.
Mascari assured her he was.
"Great, great. What a thrill."
All that was missing was a bottle of cold milk to pour over the winner’s head.