Pancho Carter was destined to be a racer, almost before he was born.
“My mom was pregnant with me, and she was down there when my dad ran the Mexican road race,” Duane “Pancho” Carter Jr. said. “So I got the nickname really before I was born. I was born on the way to the Milwaukee race in Racine, Wis.”
Racing has stayed in the Carter family for many years. Duane Carter Sr. made 11 starts in the Indianapolis 500, with a best finish of fourth in 1952.
Pancho made 17 starts in the “500” with a best finish of third in 1982 and six finishes in the top seven. He also won the pole in 1985.
Pancho married Carla Forberg, daughter of the late Carl Forberg, who finished seventh in 1951 in his only start at the Speedway and fielded a sprint car for many years.
And his son Cole is running a midget as the third generation to strap on a helmet.
“I was brought up in a racing family and just got used to it,” Pancho said. “I never thought of doing any different. I’d been around the Speedway since I was a kid, so I wasn’t in awe of it like other drivers (when he first raced at the Brickyard in 1974). Dad helped me, and so did my teammates, Jimmy Caruthers and Jerry Grant.
He was involved in some strange happenings in his Indy-car career.
Pancho won the inaugural Norton-Michigan 500, but it came after a long audit of scoring results as the late Tony Bettenhausen Jr. thought he had won. Then there was a race at Sanair in Quebec where the caution flag was out, and suddenly the green light came on as the field came off the fourth turn to the checkers. Johnny Rutherford was leading, Pancho saw the light and took off, beating Rutherford to the line. That finish went to an appeals hearing, which determined Rutherford had won.
Carter’s runs at the Speedway ran from short to long. When he won the pole in 1985, the car lasted six laps before an oil pump failed on his Buick-powered machine.
“It was running good up until Race Day,” Pancho said. “Something was wrong with it that day. It was like any other racing engine. It’s tough to predict, like it was with any other racing engine.”
Then came a harrowing upside-down trip through the north short chute between Turns 3 and 4 in 1987.
“I just tried a little too hard (going into Turn 3) and spun out,” Pancho said. “It spun once or twice, got backward in the air, and it turned over. It didn’t hit the wall ‘til the fourth turn.”
Carter drove everything from midgets to stock cars during his career, but he had a favorite machine.
“The champ dirt cars on the mile tracks I enjoyed because they seemed to be more challenging to me,” Carter said. “I enjoyed my career, that’s for sure. I would like to have won more races, but that’s just my nature.”
For the last decade, he has served as a spotter for IZOD IndyCar Series drivers. He’ll be on the radio with JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing on Race Day. He also does a little driver coaching “depending on if someone needs it.”
“I don’t want to say I’m retired because that sounds too old,” Pancho said. “The biggest thing is the cars these days. It’s hard to see out of them. Basically, I’m the eyes because you can’t really tell if someone’s behind you.”
The Carters live in Indianapolis, and the Speedway is Pancho’s home away from home in May.
“I was judging the old cars they had out there the other day,” he said of the Celebration of Automobiles on May 11. “I had a good career there, and I had a chance to win it when I was driving for (Dan) Gurney.”