Mark Bennett: Famed sports artist captured 'motion' of 1962's classic Indy 500

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May 29—Avid sports fans likely envied LeRoy Neiman's job.

With a sketch pad in hand and a Cuban cigar in mouth, Neiman roamed the world's grandest athletic events for a half-century. He turned those drawings into vivid, brightly colored paintings of Muhammad Ali poised to punch, thoroughbreds thundering on the Churchill Downs homestretch, Olympic sprinters bolting out of the blocks, Joe Namath spying a receiver downfield, Larry Bird launching a 3-pointer and thousands more dramatic moments. That routine continued up to Neiman's death in 2012 at age 91.

Neiman's skill brought him to Indiana in 1962. Indianapolis businessman Harrison Eiteljorg commissioned Neiman to craft a series of paintings of that year's Indianapolis 500. As a close friend of Terre Haute philanthropist Tony Hulman — then-owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — Eiteljorg got Neiman close access to the action of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

Nieman delivered.

Now, his 13 paintings from that race comprise the "LeRoy Neiman's Indy 500" exhibit at Swope Museum of Art in downtown Terre Haute. The collection, on loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, will be displayed through June 20. Swope executive director Fred Nation believes the exhibit marks the first time Neiman's entire 1962 Indy 500 collection has been shown publicly.

The perspectives and scenes Neiman depicted reveal his proximity to the drivers, race cars, track officials, pit crew and fans. The same was true of his renderings of other sports, from basketball to hockey, track to billiards, and more.

"He was the Forrest Gump of sporting events," Nation said Tuesday afternoon.

Indeed, Neiman regularly found himself in the midst of history. His success wasn't accidental.

Born a century ago this summer and raised in the "hardscrabble" Frog Town neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minn., Neiman's artistic talents bloomed early, according to the biography on his official website. As a young man, he designed posters for businesses, drew ink tattoos on the arms of Saint Paul friends, and later painted risque murals on mess hall walls during his U.S. Army stint in World War II. After his military service, Neiman used the GI Bill to study at art colleges, including the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, where his classmates included future art great Robert Indiana.

Neiman's own art career began rising in 1954, the biography explains. That's when a department store advertising assignment led Neiman to meet both his future wife, Janet Byrne, and her coworker Hugh Hefner, who had just started a magazine called Playboy. Hefner commissioned Neiman to illustrate a short story in the fledgling publication, placed alongside the pages of racy photos.

"It was Hefner's way of improving the class of the publication," Nation said.

Neiman continued drawing and writing for Hefner's magazine through the next five decades, sending the artist around the globe to paint images of athletes, sporting events, singers and political figures.

Neiman favored the stages of competitive sports. He sketched each sight closeup, whether it meant standing right behind the 1969 Miracle Mets' batting cage or on the sidelines of a New York Jets game.

Two paintings in Neiman's 1962 Indy 500 collection show that tactic. Both feature longtime Indy 500 chief starter Pat Vidan.

In that era, Vidan stood on the track to flag the race. Neiman wasn't too far behind him. His paintings show Vidan, dressed in a white dinner jacket, flamboyantly waving the green flag alongside the 33 cars to start the 500, and the checkered flag as Rodger Ward crosses the yard of bricks first to win the race.

Indy gave Neiman extra aspects of history that day. The '62 race was Vidan's first as chief starter. It was the first 500 run on an almost fully paved Speedway track, because Tony Hulman had been convinced in the offseason to cover the track's remaining bricks with asphalt — except for the single one-yard batch at the start-finish line. Driver Parnelli Jones cracked the 150-mph barrier during qualifications.

Nation explained those stories as a voice of experience. He served many years on the Speedway staff, including as its executive vice president of communications. Nation wasn't at 1962's Indy 500 on race day, but did travel from Terre Haute to Indianapolis to watch that May's qualifications, as a teenager.

He points to classic Indy figures in Neiman's paintings, such as drivers Dan Gurney, Jones, Eddie Sachs, '62 winner Rodger Ward and A.J. Foyt; car owner J.C. Agajanian; Vidan and Hulman. Neiman's artistry shows those racers' speed, their sprinting pit crewmen and the swoosh of the flags.

"Look how he captures the motion," Nation said in the softly lit museum room.

Nation also understands Terre Haute's long connection to the race and the Speedway, through the Hulmans. That family operated the Speedway from 1945, when Tony Hulman bought the rundown facility, until they sold it to racing businessman Roger Penske in 2019. Interest in the 500 remained high in Terre Haute for decades, Nation said, and the city typically had the highest ticket sales outside Indianapolis and its rim counties.

So, it's fitting for the full Neiman collection from 1962 to make its public debut in a well-regarded Terre Haute museum. "There is a long love affair with the Indianapolis 500 for Terre Haute," Nation said.

The bond gets renewed with Sunday' 105th running of the race. LeRoy Neiman won't be there, but the same scenery he splashed onto canvas 49 years ago will be.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

To visit

—The Swope Museum of Art is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free.

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