He’ll return to Indianapolis for the race that used to make life stop for so many on Memorial Day weekend. He’ll walk the garage area, see familiar faces, shake hands and sign autographs.

“More people have climbed Mt. Everest than have competed in the Indy 500 at least once,” he likes to say. In the elite fraternity of 269 living drivers, Howard Holmes is one.

An older generation remembers him by his nickname, Howdy. He was the top rookie in 1979, finishing seventh behind winner Rick Mears and runner-up A.J. Foyt. In 1984 he was the second-fastest qualifier and started on the front row between pole-sitter Tom Sneva and Mears.

Howdy Holmes will be in South Portland on Monday night, the speaker at the Maine Family Business Awards banquet. He is the eighth generation to run the family business, Chelsea Milling Company, known by its Jiffy baking mixes.

Racing rocketships on wheels to baking. From warp speed to pedestrian.

“You can go from zero to 100 and back to zero in six seconds,” says Holmes. “Speed is relative. To the fans the car is a flash, a streak of paint.”

You can hear amusement in his voice. “I’m not a car guy anymore. In 1983 I came up with a five-year plan. I was detoxing my way out of racing.” Business was calling. He last raced in 1988. His 22-year-old son tried to talk dad into a Ferrari or Lamborghini for his next car but Howdy shook his head. They aren’t common-sense cars.

In a way, America has moved past men like Holmes. This is the centennial for the Indy 500. All 269 living drivers have been invited back. The drivers in this year’s race will pass between lines of those who preceded them as they walk to their cars. Holmes will be there.

Foyt, who celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first of his four Indy 500 victories, will drive the pace car. Grand stuff, even if it is bittersweet for Holmes.

“It’s not the same. It hasn’t been for a while. I can remember when 400,000 people were there and all the pomp and circumstance.”

In 1979, even casual fans had a chance at naming half the drivers. After Mears and Foyt, Mike Mosley, Danny Ongais, Bobby Unser, and Gordon Johncock finished in front of Holmes. Drivers named Steve Krisiloff, Salt Walther, Sneva, Johnny Rutherford and Janet Guthrie followed.

Mario Andretti was racing Formula I then. Holmes was considered to be Andretti’s teammate after Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson was killed.

Indy-car racing has been eclipsed by NASCAR. The Indy 500 is no longer must-see TV.

Like many drivers from that era, Holmes was hands-on. He started in Formula Ford, an entry-level, open-wheeled series. Bought a set of tools from a mail-order company and an engine manual from a college bookstore, and took apart an English Cortina race engine. He reassembled it. He learned from the ground up.

“My learning curve was vertical. I was Walter Mitty personified.”

He went to his first Indy 500 with his parents in 1957, making the trip from their home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 9 years old and already dreaming. In the Holmes house, Christmas morning and the Indy 500 became synonymous.

When Michigan International Speedway opened more than 10 years later, a brochure came to the Holmes home touting a racing school. Howdy signed up.

This Memorial Day weekend, as he does most years, Holmes will travel to Indianapolis with seven employees, a mix of hourly and salaried members of a work family that numbers more than 300. Seven people each trip who have never been part of the spectacle.

They’ll sit in Turn 1 where Holmes’ parents once sat with their children. “It will be my chance to show them I’m a regular guy,” said Holmes.

He’s not. He’s one of the 269 living drivers.

The hold the Indy 500 has on Americans has changed, but the mindset of the men and women who race hasn’t.

“It isn’t something everybody can do,” said Holmes. “It’s a gift.”

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]