Marching to their own drum: Three generations of Gordon Pipers continue Celtic band’s Indy 500 tradition

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By Heather Lusk

It’s not uncommon for grandparents to share activities with their grandchildren. What’s less common is when the activity is a marching bagpipe troupe that’s become a family affair.

Connie Summers and her grandson, Carter Whybrew, are both members of Indianapolis’ Gordon Pipers, a bagpiping and drumming group created in 1962 to celebrate Celtic music. Carter’s mother, Melissa Whybrew, and grandfather, Dennis Summers, are also involved.

Carter began drumming with the group when he was 4. Now 5, he’s still the youngest performer of the group. His grandmother has been with the group for 50 years, longer than any other current member.

“When I got my pipes back in ’69, ’70, I never dreamed that I would play them this long,” said Summers, who lives in Franklin.

Carter, a kindergartener at Zionsville’s Boone Meadow Elementary School, is called “Hollywood” among the troupe because, “If you want to be on the big screen or in the newspaper, you march next to Carter,” said his mother, Melissa Whybrew, who began drumming with the Pipers when she was 9.

Whybrew still plays drums for the Pipers and teaches Highland dancing, something she pursued in her 20s following in her mother’s footsteps.

Dancing is what initially drew Summers to the Gordon Pipers. In 1963, the group began performing annually for an antique auto tour. Summers was riding in her parent’s antique car when she first saw the Highland dancers following the bagpipers with swords.

She learned to dance with the group and continued until its founder, Dr. Wallace Gordon Diehl, decided to make a change that still exists.

“After doing it for a couple of years, Doc said, ‘I want all these girls to pick up an instrument,’” she said.

As a result, Summers and a friend decided to try bagpiping. Her friend quit, but Summers stuck with it. She hoped her daughter would also play the bagpipes, but after a few attempts, Whybrew decided to stick with drums.

“Drumming’s so much easier,” Whybrew said.

She would consider trying again with Carter, but he’s adamant for now that he’s sticking with drumming.

“I’m still learning,” Carter said. “Every time I play I’m getting better and better.”

Carter mastered some drumming moves, such as cross-sticking, during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which requires many hours of playing the same songs repeatedly.

“You’re playing all day,” Whybrew said. “If there’s one thing you’re hung up on, you’re going to get it on St. Patrick’s Day.”

The group has been part of the Indianapolis 500 since 1963, when it would march the entire distance of the 2 1/2-mile oval prior to the race. The group now leads the Borg Warner Trophy from Turn 3 to the starting line.

“You don’t want the outside,” Whybrew said of marching on a slant for the section of the oval track. “We all argue for the inside.”

After the race, four bagpipers are allowed into the Winner’s Circle to represent the car returning safely on four wheels.

“We’ve done that throughout the entire time we’ve been at the track, which is pretty exciting to be out there with all that commotion,” Summers said.

Because bagpipers are selected based on seniority, she almost always claims a spot.

The biggest challenge the performers face is wearing the required attire during hot summer parades.

You’ve got wool socks and a wool kilt,” Whybrew said. “It’s hot.”

The bagpipers wear the green Gordon tartan and the drummers wear the red Wallace tartan in honor of founder Gordon Diehl. They wear full Scottish military uniforms with hats and long sleeves.

Although Whybrew traced her own family’s heritage to the Grant clan, a Scottish background isn’t required to participate. The Gordon Pipers practice weekly and offer lessons to anyone who will help with the performance commitments.

“The more, the merrier,” Whybrew said.

Approximately 40 core members are consistently involved while others participate as schedules permit. They’re occasionally joined by a sister band in Canada.

“We think of each other as family,” Summers said. “We spend a lot of hours and time together.”

Unique opportunities

The Gordon Pipers played prior to concerts for The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, who was named an honorary member. They perform annually at various Indianapolis-area parades, have marched during the U.S. Grand Prix and at Highland events in Canada and Scotland.

Melissa Whybrew’s favorite place to perform was the Daytona 500, where members  were able to drive vehicles around the track before the race.

“You could roll down the window and practically touch the side of the track because it goes up the embankment so high,” Whybrew said.

After the performance, the group played their instruments on the beach.

An event that stands out for Connie Summers is a Fourth of July parade in Bristol, R.I. that was her first experience traveling to perform. She also enjoyed performing prior to two Rod Stewart concerts. She was able to meet Stewart backstage, and Whybrew played basketball with his band.

Carter Whybrew’s favorite performance was during the Red Bull Air Show, but a close second is before Colts games so he can enjoy the game and eat pizza after playing. The Gordon Pipers are known as the Horseshoe Pipes and Drums for the games and are the only pipe band that plays for an NFL team.

“Over the years we’ve done a lot of stuff,” Summers said.

“There’s still a lot to do,” Whybrew added.

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