Published 12:04 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Marilyn Portemont is shown in her Indy 500 shirt. | Michele Gerlach/Star-News

Marilyn Portemont is shown in her Indy 500 shirt. | Michele Gerlach/Star-News

Portemont’s attended 64 races

Not long after racing resumed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the track’s World War II hiatus, Marilyn Portemont was there.

And from that year – 1951 – to this, she’s only missed one race – when she was recovering from an accident about 50 years ago.

As a matter of fact, she’s so well known at what has become known as the Indianapolis 500, she is introduced at the race, and last year was honored with a resolution and an Indianapolis 500 vase.

“Oh, Lord. I’ve been a race fan since I was 5 years old,” she said.

Born and reared in Terre Haute, Ind., south of Chicago, she first attended races on a dirt racetrack at Jungle Park in 1929. Her father and brothers went there on Sundays, and young Marilyn went with them. She talks about the drivers of that era with ease – recalling their names and her favorites – especially a driver named Howdy Wilcox.

During the war, she went to Detroit, where her work included helping to manufacture airplane shafts.

“I was 18 years old,” she said, adding that as in most of her life, she was lucky. She made friends who helped take care of her.

The man who would be her husband, Johnny Portemont, came home from the Marine Corps in January of 1946. Mrs. Portemont recalled that the racetrack was in shambles after sitting idle during the war.

Tony Hullman, also from Terre Haute, and whose family owned Clabber Girl Baking Powder, was convinced to purchase the track.

“He bought it 1945, and they started racing again,” she said. “At that time, the grandstands were wood, and the toilets were the water running underneath.”

The Hullmans never owned a food stand, she said.

“A guy out of Texas had a carnival, and he would sell popcorn and candy apples in big tents.”

The Portemonts got into the carnival business after the war, and made connections with the track. Through the years, their 10 tickets have been used by business associates, family members, and loyal employees.

“I got my seats here because a lot of people wanted to come,” she said. “We walked all around until I picked out the seats we thought were the best – Grandstand A on the first turn.

“Johnny, myself, a brother, the man who makes merry-go-rounds from Wichita, Kansas,” she said of the early years.

“My friends, all met, and tailgated together, and that’s the way it’s been.”

If someone foregoes tickets one year, that’s it. She has people waiting in line to join her.

“When they quit, that’s it,” she said. “Somebody else takes over.”

Those who travel with her wear T-shirts that read. “Marilyn’s pit crew.” Hers simply says “I’m Marilyn.”

When she first went, tickets were $15 each. Now they’re $109.

One of the highlights of race week, she said, is a dinner she has for 15 to 20 people each year. The location is chosen not for the food, but the piano player.

“I’ve followed a piano player around for years,” she said.

Even though she’s an Indiana native, she said, because she lives in Alabama, she’s always asked to sing “Dixie.”

This year, she did a George M. Cohan medley, including “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and of course, “Dixie.”

She still has favorite drivers from back in the day, but doesn’t have a particular favorite now.

“Most of the drivers today are not from here,” she said. “Now, I’m for the winner, I guess.”

After a while, she said, you don’t want to miss a race. And with good reason.

Each year, she’s introduced, and recently received a standing ovation.

“I go for the out and back gate and all that. My people up in the stands have been there,”’ she said. “ But it’s not exactly the same. I’ve gone through three to four generations.

That’s why they give me a standing ovation.”

Indianapolis is on the bucket list for a lot of people, she said. For her, it’s just the list.

As a “bionic woman” – she’s had a hip and knee replacement – she said she couldn’t keep up the travel anymore without the help of her daughter and son-in-law, Suzette and Scotty Hooper.

But when her friends call out to her at the end of the race, “See ya’ next year,” she answers with a positive, “I’ll be here.”

“It’s crazy,” she said. “But it becomes something.”