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On a typical warm, humid summer evening in Indianapolis, August 16, 1955, Bob Russo talked the top journalists of the Indy racing world into assembling for an organization meeting in the basement of the Mates' White Front Tavern, 3535 West 16th Street, about a mile from the main entrance to the speedway.
The auto racing world was in turmoil due to the position taken by major U. S. auto manufacturers, who decided that an image as the makers of hot cars was inconsistent with their avowed goal of promoting safety while de-emphasizing performance. With their pullout from the sport of motor racing (in name only, as it turned out), there was no longer a reason for the American Automobile Association to continue as a sanctioning body for the sport. That left Indy with no sanction for the 500.
At the Mecca of racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Hulman caused his own new organization to form in replacement of the AAA Contest Board. It was called the United States Auto Club. So Russo had a model for what he foresaw as the American Auto Racing Writers Association.
The only problem with that was that the organizing group nominated Charlie Brockman, a local radio commentator on Station WIRE, to be chairman of the meeting. To placate Charlie, they voted to add "and Broadcasters" to the title. The eight men in the room voted to name Russo their first president. Jep Cadou, busy putting out the next morning's Star, wasn't there to defend himself. So he was elected vice-president.
That was not the last time the name for this organization was discussed. Down through the years there were several attempts to change it, but nobody could think of anything better that the membership would agree on. (This included an ill-fated attempt by president Dave Overpeck of the Star to merge AARWBA with the Southern Motorsports Writers Association, which was in the process of renaming itself the National Motorsports Press Association.) So this association's name was shortened to its current acronym, AARWBA, and eventually pronounced Ah-ROO'-bah, a cross between the sound made by the horn of a Model T Ford and the name of the lush Caribbean island of Aruba.
For the time being the small group of journalists continued to meet at the White Front, which in its day was a lot classier than the exotic dancing spa that occupies the building in this Millennium.
Attending that first meeting were Bill Fox, sports editor of the News, Bill Eckert, a Star sportswriter, George Moore, auto editor of the News, Jim Smith, sports editor of the Indianapolis Times, Russo, who was a freelance writer currently working for the new USAC organization, and two members of the speedway publicity staff, Bob Laycock and Bill Marvel. Their boss, Al Bloemker, wasn't very enthusiastic about their lending support to such a subversive organization. No good would come out of organizing sportswriters, he believed.
Dues were a five bucks a year, which was a lot for guys who probably didn't average more than $50 a week during the Eisenhower administration.
An early recruit, Angelo Angelopolous of the News, made an impassioned plea that the new organization remain pure and not accept any corporate sponsorships, but Dick McGeorge of Champion Spark Plug broke that resolve with a gift of $50 to start a treasury.
Early years passed with little formality. One of the early presidents was Chris Economaki, editor of National Speed Sport News. One day as he was parking his car in the infield at the speedway a colleague called out to him, "Hey, Chris, what are you going to spend our $5 dues on this year?"
Economaki rightly wanted to know what he was talking about. The journalist said Chris had just been elected president. It was the first he heard. A few years after that Dick Mittman, who had just returned to Indianapolis to work at the News from his last job at the Chicago Daily News, heard his name announced on a radio broadcast. That's how he found out he was a vice-president, although he had never before heard of the association.
An annual breakfast meeting was called on the day before the Indy 500, and out of that meeting several of the association's traditions evolved. In memory of Angelopolous, a sportsmanship award was started. A few years later the AARWBA immortalized Jigger Sirois, whose hapless team threw out a yellow flag just seconds before he would have become the only pole day qualifier before a rainout.
Called the Jigger Award™, it epitomized the frustrations of a month at Indianapolis when fate often plays a role in who gets to start the 500 and who does not. The Jigger Award was designed to be used as a jigger, from which sorrows could be drowned in alcohol.
John McDonald of the San Diego Union, president in 1970, visualized a sea change for motor racing, if the association would elect and sponsor an All American team, like the all-star awards given in college football and other sports. He felt an All American Auto Racing team would help elevate the sport and give it recognition in newsrooms across the nation. With the first All American team in 1970 McDonald also created another award, the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy™, given to the driver who receives the most votes of the All American drivers elected. Titus, a member of AARWBA who was a magazine editor and a professional race driver, had just died in a racing accident in 1969. Fittingly, McDonald had a trophy built around Titus's portable typewriter and his racing helmet, a uniquely designed trophy to this day.
The association also sponsors and perpetuates an Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Started by Russo, who was the Hall of Fame chairman as well as the All American chairman for many years, its existence was hampered for lack of a home - a Cooperstown, so to speak - and other Hall of Fame projects took root elsewhere, at venues like Novi, Michigan, Talladega, Ala., and even Indianapolis. Until the closure of Ontario Motor Speedway, the AARWBA Hall of Fame resided in the Hall of Fame Restaurant at the California track. When the restaurant went out of business, board members thought they could differentiate their project better by changing the name to Legends in Racing. In 2001 the "Legends In Racing" was subtitled the "Hall of Honor", but the material is still fishing for a home. Both the All American selections and the Hall of Fame are presided over today by freelance writer and former newspaper editor Rocky Entriken.
One of the association's most popular traditions is a yearly writing, photo and electronic journalism contest, the winners of which are announced at the annual Indianapolis breakfast meeting. The original award, which grew to a series of awards, was dreamed up by Dave Blackmer, who at the time was the publicist for traditional racing sponsor Wynn's Friction Proofing. Wynn's promoted a trip to Italy for winners of an in-house sales contest, and Blackmer wangled one of the trips for two as a prize for the contest. The first winner was Mittman, who took his wife Pat with him on the Italian junket and even got to meet Enzo Ferrari.
Soon Blackmer was working for Andy Granatelli at STP, and Andy's peerless PR man, Bill Dredge, expanded the contest into many categories. Dredge and his successor, Harvey Duck, made an annual pilgrimage to Indy to hand out awards until 2000, when that sponsorship ended.
In 1981 the association published a White Paper dealing with ethics and other important issues of professionalism in the coverage of the sport. It was revised in 1990 to include new technologies and the concerns of working journalists at event venues.
In 2005, the Association celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a year-long celebration led by Chairman Michael Knight. There were two banquets that year - one for the 2004 All America Team and one for the 2005 All America Team, moved ot December of that year. The Annual Breakfast was another highlight of the celebratory year, which also included naming the most important newsmaker of the half century - The France Family.
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