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Since he was a preschooler, Brian Crowe has loved everything about the Indianapolis 500. It was a passion sparked by his late grandfather.
There’s a white racing helmet inside the IU Health Methodist Hospital room of Brian Crowe. It’s covered in 139 (not 140) signatures of IndyCar drivers. There’s a story behind that helmet and there’s also a story behind a pair of Puma tennis shoes tucked under a chair.
“I only wear Puma because that’s what Dan Wheldon wore,” said Crowe, referring to the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. When Crowe’s granddaughter was born in Florida he left the house wearing one Puma shoe without its mate. He said he was in a rush and flustered that the baby was coming on race weekend and he was going to miss the race. As it turned out his granddaughter arrived on his birthday, May 29th.
It’s safe to say that May is a big month for Crowe. His wife Debbie, his high school sweetheart, learned early on in their marriage that “race month” is serious business for Crowe.
So what about that racing helmet? It’s a symbol of what he calls a “passion” for all things IndyCar. It’s also part of a showcase of Crowe’s hobby – collecting racing memorabilia – something that connects him to memories of the month of May spent at the track with his grandfather.
This May is different for Crowe as he recovers from a life-saving double lung transplant.
“I was a Riley kid. I spent my summer vacations and spring breaks getting breathing treatments and bronchoscopies, bronchograms, and IV meds,” said Crowe who was born with bronchiectasis, a chronic condition that causes the inflammation and infection of the walls of the bronchi. His right lung collapsed when he was a teen and as he got older doctors contained the disease with antibiotics. A year ago, Crowe, who turns 54 this month, was advised to get to the hospital.
“I ignored it because I was at the track. I wasn’t going to give up the month of May,” said Crowe, who is in the care of IU Health pulmonologist Dr. Robert Daly. “I saw him on my birthday and he said ‘if you don’t get on the transplant list you won’t see your 60s.’” That started his journey toward an eight-hour double lung transplant performed on Feb. 2 by IU Health surgeon Dr. Jose Garcia.
At his worst, Crowe couldn’t make it through a game of Ping-Pong. His lungs were functioning at about 35 percent capacity. Two days after his transplant Crowe was back in surgery for his gall bladder.
“He’s come a long way. Brian decided to be different all around. He had a reaction to a rejection drug. His kidneys were disturbed. He lost his gallbladder, had blood clots and double strokes but now he’s doing excellent. It just took us awhile to get here,” said Debbie Crowe. And as the months to recovery ticked by, May was around the corner.
“I’m behind the eight ball and I need to catch up,” said Crowe. This year, he’ll hang a checkered flag and be glued to the TV. “There may even be some tissues,” he said.
Little has gotten in the way of Crowe’s love for all things IndyCar. He laughs as he talks about “minor glitches” of year’s past. There was the time his wife hit her head on the car window, got a concussion and they still went to the race. And then there were all the times he repaired his busted cooler with Duct Tape – and he still went to the race.
He has more than 20,000 pictures that capture memories of past races. One shows a five-year-old Crowe sitting on the grass with his mom enjoying an infield picnic. His late grandfather Earl Davidson worked for Enco, a branch of Exxon Mobile that provided fuel for the race. They called Davidson “Enco Red” for his red hair.
“He knew a lot of the older drivers and was good friends with A.J. Foyt. I can remember him working on A.J.’s car. The 1967 was my favorite. They were towing it to Texas so grandpa had it in his garage and we’d go play in it,” said Crowe of the cherry red #14 car that won the 51st running of the Indianapolis 500.
At around the age of 16, Crowe was working at a greenhouse and made his way through Valvoline’s private entrance by bringing in a flat of tomato plants for the gatekeeper. “You were supposed to be 21 to get in but I brought a flat of tomatoes for his garden and got a pass for the month of May,” said Crowe, who estimates he’s been to every race except for the four years he and his wife moved to Florida for his job.
“It was a love affair to be there in that old garage with the drivers. I could go and find the same spot and just watch people go by. I’ve been doing it for so long I could take other people out and they may not realize who someone is,” said Crowe.
Over the years his collection of memorabilia has grown. There’s the helmet – with the signatures of such racing greats as Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, and Rick Mears. He has no clue who was the first to sign it or who was the last but when he had a surprise hospital visit from Pippa Mann her signature was already on the helmet. She gave him a Donate Life model car and a bag of racing goodies to add to his collection that also includes miscellaneous car parts and a 1960s pit board.
“I can’t really say what my favorite memory is,” said Crowe. “There’s nothing like walking through that gate for the first time and I always remember my grandpa’s advice, ‘Don’t ask for an autograph, and don’t bother the drivers when they’re working.’”
-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health. Reach Banes via email email@example.com.