The 500: Coming Home
by, 05-06-2010 at 05:48 PM (986 Views)
I’m not going to give you a story about having a long legacy at Indy, because I don’t. I’m a child of the 80’s, brought up in the days of Rick Mears, Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Rahal, and Danny Sullivan.
Growing up on the east side of Indy, I was fortunate that my father took an interest in the Indy 500. I visited the track when I was very young, though much of what was going on was then confusing to me. I still remember though, even when I was very young, coming home and listening to the Greatest Spectacle In Racing with my dad.
Later, many Memorial Day Weekend family get-togethers featured drawing driver names out of a hat. If your driver won, well, you got some prize or other.
I loved Rick Mears. I would have a friendly bet with my grandpa every Indy 500—he would take the field, I would take Rick Mears. Bragging rights, and a single U.S. dollar were at stake. I won that bet enough for it to be worthwhile for me.
When I was in junior high, my family moved up north. The 500 was still an event for us, but perhaps we weren’t as connected to it as we once were. One year, we didn’t do our usual 500 bet. Then Rick Mears retired, I started high school, and I drifted away from the 500, except for perhaps that one day a year.
After high school (immediately after the open wheel split), I bummed around college for a year, then went into the U.S. Air Force. I ended up in some places I didn’t care for, but it became strangely important for me to hear that race broadcast every memorial day weekend. I watched it on a grainy Armed Forces channel in the desert; I watched a VHS tape of the race sent to me in Korea. Wherever I was, I felt like I wasn’t only listening to part of my childhood, but part of my hometown and my country.
When I got out of the Air Force a few years ago, I was excited that first May back. Nothing could pull me from the radio and Donald Davidson talking about Jim Hurtubise for the 11th time in as many years. I went over every ounce of information I could find on the different drivers trying to qualify. I cried when Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again In Indiana”. That song had never been far from my mind in some trying times in some bad places.
Finally, I was able to come back to the track itself. People always talk about the “ghosts of the Speedway”, but that isn’t some quasi-spiritual company line. When you’ve seen the world, seen tragedy, and have come back home, you can hear the whispers so very clearly.
There’s a strange electric feeling that courses through my veins when I see and hear my first IndyCar of the month. It leaves me feeling weak and ecstatic all at once. The Speedway can overwhelm you. The famous bricks, Gasoline Alley, the grounds themselves—you feel the history around you, a feeling of a special legacy that for me is unique in all the world to this one place. How much could each of us write without capturing “that feeling”? We all know it, but it is a transparent, weightless, nebulous thing—so very hard to put into words.
The track has a reserved majesty, even when inhabited by rowdy, wild fans and revelers. Whatever has been done in the past, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s lines regarding another, earlier monarch:
“Age cannot whither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”
A love for the Speedway has made me go back and do my homework on other drivers and incidents from the storied legends of that place. Parnelli Jones. Harroun. Wilcox. Meyer. Parsons. Vukovich. Sachs. Men who lived, and men who died, challenging distances and speeds normal men would flinch from.
This year marks the first year my oldest daughter will be making her way to the track yet. Maybe she won’t hear the ghosts—I didn’t at her age—but maybe the secret is giving her something to come back to.
Maybe we’ll even make a dollar bet, her driver against the field.