Archive for May 22, 2019

The 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 has become a celebration on several levels. First it was 50 years ago that Mario Andretti and Chicago’s own Andy Granatelli captured the Borg-Warner Trophy. Both Granatelli and Andretti quickly became American racing legends. It was also in 1969, that a burgoning race team from Philadelphia arrived at the greatest racing venue on the planet, the Indiananpolis Motor Speedway, and quickly illustrated that they were one to be reckoned with; Penske Racing.

Also in 1969, a Region Racer by the name of Leon Duray “Jigger” Sirois, pursued the path set by his father and 3 time winner of Brickyard Classic; Earl “Frenchy” Sirois to particpate in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

At the end of four days of qualifying, Sirois cemented his legendary status, a subject still be discussed today, by those knowledgeable of the deep history of the Indianapolis 500. During the month of May in 1969, Jigger Sirois displayed the class of a champion. To this day he still displays the character instilled upon him by his father.

His statement following qualifying remains a defining testament to his character and class …

“Indianapolis is special. It is the ultimate test. If that’s where you’re going, you’d better be ready. If you aren’t, you should take your helmet bag and go home.”

Leon Duray “Jigger” Sirois

Born in Shelby, Indiana on April 16, 1935, the son of the Earl “Frenchy” Sirois, Leon was labeled early. Named after 1920’s driver Leon Duray, it also didn’t take long for him to be nicknamed after another Indy veteran, riding mechanic, “Jigger” Johnson.

Although not pressed by his father to go into racing, “Jigger” Sirois soon learned he had the support of his family and other “Region Racers” like Dale “Tiny” Worley, Johnny Pawl, Jerry Govert, Minnie Joyce and Ray Nichels. He began racing in 1956, with his first contest being a Jalopy race at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville. That same year, the next challenge he accepted was racing midget racecars in the United Midget Auto Racing Association (UMARA) for car owner Jack Sims of Crown Point. Racing at the Joliet Memorial Stadium in Illinois was then considered by race fans to be some of the finest midget racing in the country. Jigger’s midget racing travels also took him to O’Hare Stadium in Chicago, and Raceway Park in Blue Island, Illinois.

By 1961, Jigger’s reputation had grown considerably as a reliable, smooth and competitive driver. He took a new ride with Larry White of Lockport, Illinois and never looked back. Behind the wheel of the No. 82 car, Sirois made his mark winning the UARA Season’s Championship, winning 8 features out of the 49 race cards he appeared on. What was most impressive was his 46 race finishes, coupled with winning 17 heat races and 6 trophy dashes.

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Jigger moved to the USAC National Midgets Schedule in 1962, driving for Harry Turner in the No. 21. He got off to a great start almost winning the 100 lap “Night before the 500” contest at Indianapolis Raceway Park, before losing a tire after leading for well over 60 laps, eventually finishing sixth. It was that evening that the vast majority of the Indianapolis 500 community saw what Sirois could do. Something very important to Jigger as his ultimate goal was racing in the Indianapolis 500.

Four months later, Jigger lay in a hospital bed after a spectacular wreck at the quarter-mile track at Springfield, Illinois. After being in critical condition for almost a week, he began the long road back. Serious head injuries, burns, a broken collar-bone and assorted other injuries required months of rehabilitation. Unbelievably, he was back racing the following season.

Jigger raced midgets and sprint cars for a variety of sanctioning bodies; USAC, IMCA and others over the next few years. He mixed it up with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and other racing greats of the era, winning his share of races.

In 1967, IndyCar rides began to surface with Sirois attempting to qualify at tracks such as Indianapolis, Trenton, Milwaukee, DuQuoin and Springfield. But in every case, the equipment he was in was not competitive, stunting his ability to move up the IndyCar racing ladder. In 1968, he qualified for four IndyCar races. At Michigan International Speedway, he ran with the leaders for much of day, before losing a clutch while in 2nd place in the Inaugural USAC IndyCar 250 mile race.

In 1969, his best opportunity presented itself at Indianapolis. Sirois who was convinced that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, quit his crane operator’s job back in the “Region,” and settled in as he prepared to chase his dream. On Friday, May 16th, Jigger drew the first spot in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 to be held on the following day.

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With the skies threatening rain, Jigger Sirois in his No 14 Quaker State Oil Gerhardt-Offy went out on the track and did what he did best, he “stood on it”. His first lap clocked in at 161 miles per hour, next was a 162 mph, and then the third lap a solid 162.5 mph. But as he headed back into the first turn for his final lap, his car owner, fearing Jigger’s effort wouldn’t be fast enough overall to qualify, unexpectedly pulled out the yellow flag, indicating that the team was waving off their qualifying attempt. Before the next car could get out on the track, it started to rain. It rained the entire weekend wiping out all of speedway qualifying. Had Jigger’s race team allowed him to finish his fourth lap, Sirois would have been the pole winner until qualifying the following weekend. Because of a quirk in the 1969 rules, it was logical that Jigger would have been the first pole winner ever “bumped” the following weekend. But what was even more disheartening was when Sirois went out on the following weekend to claim a spot in the 500, his engine blew after a single lap. To add insult to injury, the slowest Indy 500 qualifying effort was by fellow rookie, Peter Revson, who copped the last spot with a 160.851 mph run. Had Jigger’s car owner not waved off his first qualifying attempt the previous weekend, Jigger’s projected speed of 161.535 mph would have put him in his first 500.

What happened after that, showed what kind of man, Sirois really is. Jigger refused to second guess his car owner stating that “I don’t believe in being bitter. A lot of people have a lot worse things happen to them. I was upset, but life is too short to be bitter.” He later said “Indianapolis is special. It is the ultimate test. If that’s where you’re going, you’d better be ready. If you aren’t, you should take your helmet bag and go home.”

Jigger retired from racing in 1977, relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia and has since retired from the American Oil Company (AMOCO).

Following his racing days, Sirois tackled another great challenge in his life, a life-long stuttering affliction. Jigger had battled with public speaking during his racing days and in 2000 pursued help with his inability to communicate by doing what he did on the race track, battling it. He was victorious and since has won several public speaking awards. In fact, in 2002, after declining for many years to be the host speaker for the annual American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association breakfast held during the Month of May, when the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association  (AARWBA) presents it annual winner of the “The Jigger Award” so named as the hard-luck award, Leon “Jigger” Sirois accepted their invitation and proceeded to give an inspiring speech.

As the years have passed, Leon “Jigger” Sirois has become one of the storied legends of the Brickyard and although his notoriety initially was because of a bad break, his legacy has since become one of class and integrity.

Making the starting field of the Indianapolis 500 can go a long way toward making a driver’s career — missing the field however, can weigh heavily on a man’s spirit for many years to come. 

In 1969, one Region Racer proved he had more character than anyone could have imagined and since then, he’s proved it by a life well-lived. 

That is what makes him one of the great “Region Racers.”

Penske Racing …

Posted: May 22, 2019 in Uncategorized