In May 1986, the Indianapolis media put out an all-points bulletin. Not for any elected official or public persona. Not for any bank robber or criminal on the run. Not even for an Indianapolis resident. Instead, they wanted to know where Larry Bisceglia, the man who’d for every year prior, back to 1950, been first in line to attend the Indianapolis 500, was. Many of those years he waited in a 1951 Chevrolet panel van that will emerge from storage for a rare showing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
Bisceglia, according to a 1987 Orlando Sentinel story about him, could have taken over his family’s tailor shop in Chicago, but decided instead to make his own way in the world. He worked first in construction, then, after buying a tire-grooving machine, installed it on the back of his 1933 DeSoto and traveled the country. Winters would take him south, then as spring rolled around, he’d head back north again.
Though he first traveled to Indianapolis to take in the 500 in 1926, as early as 1947 he decided he needed to be first in line to see the annual race. “I love racing,” he told the Sentinel. “When I first came to the 500 in 1947, I thought if you got in line first you didn’t have to pay. I had to pay, but I just decided to be first” after that.
In 1948 and 1949 Bisceglia came close to being first in line, then realized his dream in 1950, still driving the DeSoto. Every year afterward, for the next 35 years, he became a fixture at the gate, sometimes arriving as early as late March to secure his space in line.
By the late Fifties, Bisceglia had replaced the DeSoto with a 1951 Chevrolet panel van that he outfitted with a bed, stove, and other amenities to support not only his itinerant lifestyle but also his weeks waiting outside the speedway’s gates. He also started to gain recognition from speedway officials, who dubbed him Mr. First in Line, installed an electrical outlet beside his customary parking spot in the infield to make his stay more comfortable, gifted him a key to the gates, put him in a convertible for the pre-race parade one year, and (fulfilling his original goal) gave him a lifetime pass to the Indy 500.
Then, in 1967, when an Indianapolis Ford dealer presented him a new Falcon Club Wagon fitted with a pop-top to replace the Chevrolet, the Chevrolet went into the IMS Museum’s permanent collection, where it’s remained since, still outfitted and stickered up as Bisceglia had it.
The Falcon, similarly outfitted and stickered up, went on to carry Bisceglia to Indianapolis every year until that APB went out. The Indianapolis media found him in Yuma, Arizona, living out of the van in a junkyard parking lot but too sick to make it back to Indy. Mario Andretti and other racers, along with several Indianapolis-area businesses, pitched in to fly him to Indianapolis. He reportedly made it back to the race again in 1987 before dying in December 1988 at the age of 90. The Falcon has since joined the Chevrolet at the museum.
However, according to a press release announcing the museum’s upcoming “From the Vault” exhibit, the museum can currently display just 20 percent of its collection. So for the exhibit the Chevrolet will once again see daylight amid a number of noteworthy race cars, among them a 1954-55 Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula 1 car, the 1964 Ferrari 250 LM that won the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans, Janet Gutherie’s 1978 Wildcat Indy car, and the Kuzma-Offy that Jimmy Bryan drove to win the 1957 Race of Two Worlds.
According to IMS Museum Executive Director Betsy Smith, the exhibit will function as more than just a peek behind the curtains. Rather, it’s meant to showcase what the museum could accomplish given a successful capital campaign aimed at renovating and expanding the museum. The museum has yet to kick off such a capital campaign but has started to take a fresh look at the cars in its collection and how to fundraise to support them, starting with the museum’s Lotus 29.
The IMS Museum’s From the Vault exhibit will start November 20 and run through April 20. For more information, visit IndyRacingMuseum.org.