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An Annual Indy 500 Pilgrimage

Charlie Schroeder

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Indianapolis family affair
(Courtesy Art Koch)
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There are many well-known streaks in the sports world: Baseball player Cal Ripken famously played in 2,632 straight games, this past April Gary Player teed it up in his 51st consecutive Masters golf tournament -- and who can forget those poor Chicago Cubs? They haven't won a World Series since 1908.

Well, tomorrow at the Indianapolis 500, Art and Kathy Koch will add another year to their own streak, and Weekend America's Charlie Schroeder brings us their story:


Art Koch grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and every Memorial Day his family would go on a picnic. "Someone always had the radio on listening to the 500-mile race," he says. "And [we] would all congregate around the radio listening to Sid Collins call the race."

Like many young men of his era, Koch fell in love with cars and the freedom that came with them. So when he heard the engines roaring through the radio he thought: "I have got to see that race someday."

He finally did, in 1960, a year after he married his high school sweetheart, Kathy. That year there was no interstate, so the drive in his beat up Volkswagen took 12 hours. But they made it.

"I said to my husband after the race, 'What do you think?'" Kathy Koch says. "And he said, 'If I have to crawl, I'm coming back.' Well, then it just became a thing that we did every year."

Every year, for the past half century. Things may have been slower in 1960, but not at Indy, where cars reached top speeds of 146 miles per hour and thousands of people came together to create what Art describes as a mythical city.

"Indianapolis for me is like Brigadoon. It appears. It becomes a city unto itself. It's more than an event, it's a happening. I'd never seen that many people in my life in one place at one time."

Art and Kathy had so much fun that they had a romantic notion: What if they could spend the whole month here? Art asked his boss. He said "sure."

Every May 9, on their anniversary, the couple takes a walk past Pit Row to a tree that towers over Corner One.

"Not only is this our 49th Indianapolis 500 but it'll be our 49th wedding anniversary," Art says.

In 1984, their 25th anniversary, they were a few feet from the tree when Art stopped and asked Kathy if she would marry him again.

"Just to be a little flip, I guess I said 'Oh, I'll have to think about it,'" she says.

"We got to the tree and I said 'You better think fast, hon, because that's what we're here for,'" Art recalls.

That's when a priest stepped out from behind the tree holding a Bible, and renewed their vows.

"I was dumbfounded," Kathy says. "I totally unexpected that. Totally."

In 1975, Kathy gave birth to their daughter, Kristen. A few years later she gave birth to another daughter, Karan.

"And our friends all laughed at us and said 'With a kid or two now, you won't be running all over the country to races, especially spending the month in Indianapolis,'" Art says. "Well, I said to Kathy, 'Let me get this straight -- they need milk and diapers, and other than that they go where I go.'"

And that's pretty much what happened. During May, they took their daughters out of school so they could all travel to Indianapolis together. The girls were tutored there and kept up with their classmates via the mail. They learned about a lot of things that aren't in books, like that spending time together makes a family work.

Tomorrow Kristen and Karan will attend their 28th straight race with their parents. Art and Kathy's drive now only takes half as long and they drive a Cadillac. The tree where the Kochs renewed their vows has been cut down. Last year's winner hit a top speed of 223 miles per hour. But one thing remains the same, the Kochs -- all of them -- are in Indianapolis.

I don't claim to know Art Koch very well. But I do think I know this about him: he loves two things, the Indianapolis 500 and his family. And I think that when they come together every year over Memorial Day weekend, he may be the happiest man in the world, and also one of its saddest.

"We have two daughters," he told me. "But actually we had three daughters. Our first daughter was born in 1962, and it was always my desire to get her to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway."

But that never happened. Colleen died from cancer before she was 4 years old. For years, the Kochs placed one of those remembrances in the Indianapolis Star newspaper that said: "Colleen T. Koch, 1/10/62, 8/23/65" and the words "God Speed" -- the same small prayer that drivers used to receive at the start of the Indianapolis 500.

"When my daughter died in 1965, I closed her eyes in Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh," Art says. "And the last thing I said was 'God Speed Colleen.'"

The same words are on her gravestone in Pittsburgh, and, at their daughter Kristen's suggestion, on a plaque in downtown Indianapolis.

"One day we'll all be joined together," Art says. "I'd like to believe we're joined together every May in Indianapolis in one way or another. I believe we are."

Comments

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  • By Bob Knill

    From Tucson, AZ, 04/22/2012

    Art & Kathy . . those memories will be forever. I remember first meeting you in the early days when I brought my young sons down for qualifying. the years when Joyce and I would hang around with you and your family - what great memories for all of us. We're getting old together my friend. Bob Knill

    By G Zarek

    From Ponce Inlet, FL, 06/21/2011

    Dear Art and Kathy, You two are rare and wonderful people. Your family is also a rare one and I feel blessed to have spent time with you all. This story is a fine one and a great example to us all...I love the ...God Speed. You two have touched my heart and I thank you for accepting me into your hearts which are roomy and intimate. Love, G

    By Dave Simpson

    From Moreno Valley, CA, 05/24/2008

    What a GREAT story. Reminded me of the many years I listened to the race on the radio while in my garage working on my car. I've never seen the race in person, tho I'd certainly like to. I guess living in CA all my life as well as not having the wherewithal, ie: $$$'s is the reason why. I kind of expected Art Koch to make a comment about how much safer, even tho they're MUCH faster, the cars are. Back in the 50's & 60's, it seems like a driver was getting killed in practically each race. It's amazing what technology has accomplished to make cars so much faster, as well as so much safer.
    Great segment, thx a lot.
    Dave Simpson

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