Sigma Chi 1969 Grand Prix Champion

As we compiled information on our chapter’s Grand Prix history, Gary Vonderheide ’69, sent in his reflections and details on Sigma Chi’s 1969 victory.  This was Sigma Chi’s second time winning the race in its eleven-year history.  Our first victory was in 1959.
Gary Vonderheide with Grand Prix trophy

Gary Vonderheide holding the 1969 Grand Prix Trophy

Becoming the Driver in 1969

Gary VonDerheide, IE ’69, doesn’t quite remember how he landed the driver position in Kart#7 over fifty years ago. He had just completed a successful year as Delta Delta’s Consul and drove around campus in a sporty TR4.  Although he had no racing experience, he guessed the guys in the house thought he was a pretty fast driver.

New Track Presents Challenges

It was a rainy spring in 1969, so practice on Grand Prix’s new permanent track, located at the NW corner of the Ross Ade Stadium, was often limited by weather. “Practice” became weaving in and out of lanes on the Sears parking lot or dodging parked cars on the EX circular driveway to simulate traffic on the track.

Once they got on the new track, their engine started giving them trouble, burning rings every 4 or 5 laps. Others, running the same low-pressure muffler, were having similar problems. Using their engineering training, they analyzed that after going through the long bending straightaway, they let up on the gas going into the turn. They determined that cold air was hitting the hot piston to crack the ring. They switched to a heavier muffler with more sound abatement that slowed down their speed, but they never had the problem again.

With the ring issues solved but with a little slower kart, Gary remembers time trials were excruciating, “sitting on the bubble” as kart after kart tried to knock them off. They entered the race 21st of 33 karts, thankful to miss the sprint races.

Benefits to Starting 21st

Starting 21st turned out to be a blessing, as Gary was able to avoid a major pile-up on Lap 1 by sitting further back in the pack, allowing Gary to move up at least 10 positions from his starting spot. EX continued to improve their position throughout the race as “KDR and Acacia had the better karts but went out with mechanical problems.”

Vonderheide on Victory Lap

Sigma Chi cart on Victory Lab

Race day was warm, muggy, sticky, and cloudy. Smothered in a leather jacket, jeans, gloves, boots and helmet, the kart felt like a steam bath. Gary remembered, “While running the race, the adrenaline was going but once the race was over, all 200 laps and 1600 turns, I felt like a wet towel.”

Taking the Checkered Flag

Scoring was done manually on little sheets of paper, so the Sigs weren’t sure Gary was winning the race. On what Gary thought was the last lap, another kart was “two feet behind me,” so he wasn’t certain which kart received the checkered flag, so he did one more lap at full speed just to be sure. Dehydrated and physically numb, Gary accepted the checkered flag and trophy still sitting in his kart; he simply couldn’t get out. Although EX was declared the winner, it took nearly an hour for all the paper tallies to be counted to confirm Gary’s victory.  To read more on the Sigma Chi victory go to Exponent and Delta Delta Data.

Gary recalls Grand Prix was huge at Purdue at the time, with “Victor Varieties” bringing in top entertainment like Rosie Greer of the LA Rams and Pat Paulson of the Smother’s Brothers. “It was a really great way to end my senior year.”

After graduation, Gary’s career took him to Peru, IN with his Chi Omega college sweetheart, Patricia Rouch, where he worked for suppliers to General Motors until they retired to Venice, Florida.


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