County resident Brennan recalls time spent with moonwalker as 50th anniversary rolls in

Mike Brennan, of Huntington County, sits next to the trophy he received for winning the Purdue Grand Prix in 1975. He is holding a copy of a newspaper article that was written about his victory. After the race, Brennan got to meet Neil Armstrong, who served as the event’s grand marshal.
Mike Brennan, of Huntington County, sits next to the trophy he received for winning the Purdue Grand Prix in 1975. He is holding a copy of a newspaper article that was written about his victory. After the race, Brennan got to meet Neil Armstrong, who served as the event’s grand marshal. Photo by Scott Trauner.

Long before astronaut Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon, he was walking to class at Purdue University.

Upon returning to earth, Armstrong maintained ties with his alma mater in West Lafayette. For instance, in 1975, he served as grand marshal of the Purdue Grand Prix, a large go-kart race held annually at the school.

And it’s in this context that a resident of Huntington County, Mike Brennan, met Armstrong.

A senior at Purdue, Brennan was competing in the Grand Prix. He’d participated in the race as a sophomore, capturing seventh place. He entered the race again as a junior, with designs on an even higher finish.

But the 160-lap race, which Brennan describes as a “long, grueling, physically brutal race,” didn’t go according to plan.

“The second year, I got tangled with a kart and I was out in like three laps,” he says.

Determined to rebound from that disappointment, Brennan entered his final year at Purdue with all the motivation he needed to make his last chance at racing in the Grand Prix count. In the months leading up to the race, Brennan fussed over every detail on his kart.

“Preparation is everything,” he says. “You got to look at every little nut and bolt. You’ve got to have everything and then just hope it all holds together.”

Brennan was so focused on the kart he even found himself shirking his academic responsibilities.

“That becomes the number one priority – screw classes,” he says with a grin.

Aside from making sure the kart was mechanically sound, Brennan looked for other, non-mechanical ways to give his ride an edge. For example, he used the race number 23, which had been used by the Grand Prix’s previous winner, for good luck. He also named the kart in honor of Armstrong, whom he knew would be the race’s grand marshal.

“I’d raced in it two previous times and you could name your cart and I thought, ‘Man, that’s goofy.’ But I thought, ‘Heck, he’s coming; I’m going to name it the ‘Columbia Eagle,’” says Brennan, referring to the names of Armstrong’s command and lunar modules from the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

When the day of the Grand Prix arrived on April 26, Brennan made a vow to not put too much pressure on himself.

“That morning I thought, the two previous (races) I’d ended the day just so disappointed,” he shares. “And I said to myself, ‘Hey, win or lose, I’m going to go have fun.’”

Once the 33-kart race started, Brennan says he encountered a pair of situations that threatened to end his race prematurely, just like the previous year.

This time around, though, things turned out differently. And Brennan thinks the kart’s name may have had something to do with it.

“I remember two different times during that race, two different carts banged on me and when we came around again, they gave them a warning flag,” says Brennan of race officials. “I’m kind of thinking, ‘Are they thinking, don’t be messing with the ‘Columbia Eagle’ because Neil Armstrong’s here?’”

Either way, the kart’s name proved to be prophetic – just as Armstrong’s Eagle reached its destination, so too did Brennan’s.

He won the race.

“I was in gaga land,” shares Brennan. “I wanted that race more than I wanted my degree, literally.”

The post-race scene was a frenzy, says Brennan, as about 7,000 people had showed up to watch the spectacle. One of those people was, of course, Armstrong. And it was the famed astronaut who presented the Grand Prix trophy to Brennan.

“My whole body was tingling, from head to toe,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Why are you so happy right now? Because you won the race or, in about two minutes, you’re going to shake hands with the first man on the moon?’

“And I remember saying to myself, ‘Both!’”

During the race, Brennan had developed a large blister on his right hand – a result of gripping the steering wheel so tightly – and it astounded Armstrong in the leadup to their handshake.

“I had a blister larger than a silver dollar on this hand,” recounts Brennan. “I didn’t even know it was there. But I remember him taking a big interest in that and grabbing my hand and staring at it.”

“That’s why, if you look how he’s shaking my hand, he’s (doing it) very gingerly,” Brennan adds, referring to a picture of their handshake that appeared in The Indianapolis News.

In the end, Brennan’s lasting impression of Armstrong is that, for being the first person to walk on the moon, he couldn’t have been more down to earth.

“I just remember how kind he was to me,” recollects Brennan. “What a kind, humble man.

“That’s the main thing I remember.”