I was raised on the Indianapolis 500. When I was a wee lad, my family would journey to my great aunt’s summer house in northern PA for every Memorial Day weekend. Sunday morning, we would wake, have breakfast, seed the vegetable garden, and then gather around an ancient box of glowing cathode ray tubes for the race. Even as a frenetic child on his summer vacation, I was transfixed. For those hours, I would just gape at the race in awe. The cars were so conspicuously fragile, the speeds and danger so obviously great, the crowd and the track so massively huge. I knew nothing else about the sport save that once a year, they did THIS, and to me, that was enough.
A succession of Mears and Unser victories marked those days for me, with a couple interjections from a man named Fittipaldi. Years later, I confessed to my wife that the only reason it took me so long to propose to her was that I needed to pay off the new wheels I’d put on my car—17” Fittipaldi Flames—before I could buy her a ring. (She’s since forgiven me. Just ask her about it.)
As I grew up and the pace of life increased, I still tried to keep up with the happenings at the 500. I remember the changing of the guard taking place in the early 2000’s, as the older Indy vets gracefully gave way to a younger generation of stars: the made-for-TV smile of the fence-climbing Helio Castroneves; the entitled, yet fiery and determined Marco Andretti; fan favorite and Vin Diesel lookalike Tony Kanaan; the fast, witty, and wily longhaired Brit Dan Wheldon; and the Italian-name/Italian-face guy that somehow spoke in Scottish brogue: Dario Franchitti.
I was living in Las Vegas in October of 2011, but I wasn’t at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when we lost Wheldon—instead, my wife and boys and I were at Leguna Seca for Rennsport Reunion IV. Still, I remember the moment atop that glorious hill at that glorious track when a voice came across the PA system and announced the news. I remember feeling a deathly chill and audibly gasping, “What???” My next coherent thought was of Dan’s pretty wife and young boys—I remembered seeing them, just a few months before, reacting joyously after Wheldon swept past the still-rolling wreckage of JR Hildebrand’s car to take the lead just before crossing the bricks for the win at the 500.
That crazy finish was made even crazier by the fact that Wheldon didn’t even have a ride for the remainder of the 2011 IndyCar Series season. Bryan Herta’s racing team didn’t have deep pockets and had thrown together a car and a driver just for the 500. As a result, Wheldon logged the 500 win, then went right back to doing race commentary on the SPEED channel. More important was the work he was doing as a driver-consultant for chassis-maker Dallara, who was in the midst of producing an all-new chassis for the IndyCar series, set to debut in the 2012 season. The chassis was later named “DW12” in Wheldon’s honor, and rightfully so. With Dan’s help, Dallara had done a spectacular job and ushered in a new and fantastic era in IndyCar.
The new chassis created such an aerodynamic void behind it at high speed that leaders at Indy were now completely unable to hold the lead for long. Challengers could lurk in the low-drag wake behind the leader, and then ‘slingshot’ past when exiting a turn onto the long straights at Indianapolis. The 2012 500 saw an all-time record 34 lead changes, and a race that in past days had been at times relatively placid at the front suddenly became a never-look-away, white-knuckle rivet-fest for all 500 miles. That 2012 race wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato spun out from under Dario Franchitti in turn one of lap 200. The 2013 race finally placed Tony Kanaan atop the podium. And the 2014 race gave us an American winner for the first time in 8 years: Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the back of his almost unbelievably ballsy, nearly-into-the-grass, lap-197 pass.
Raised on Indy and now hopelessly addicted to Indy—and finally living within a day’s drive of Indy—I could not pass up the 99th running of the race. I bought tickets and convinced friends and family from four different states to come join me. We drove into town under a very light rain and found a $10 parking spot on a Georgetown Road front lawn. The rain gave way to sunshine as we walked the remaining distance to the track entrance. Along with lots of other people.
So…many…other…people. I’ve been to professional racing events before, but 20,000 or 30,000 people at Mid-Ohio or Leguna Seca is not remotely in the same league as a quarter-million folks at Indy. Heck, a top-attended pro or college football game doesn’t even merit HALF as many attendees as the 500. The scale of this event is truly enormous, epic, massive, incredible—something words on a page can’t describe.
We meandered through the IndyCar Fan Village, checked out the 2016 Camaro (and a unicorn 3-pedal SS) that Chevrolet had on display, and eyed the bright-green Honda Civic Type R concept. For a few moments, I stood close enough to Hunter-Reay’s 2014 winning car to bask in its victorious yellow aura. Then we strolled back to our seats for the traditional pre-race pageantry, so important at the 500.
My favorite moment of these festivities was during the driver introductions, where the assembled multitudes loudly—and rightfully—booed lead IndyCar Series d-bag Will Power. I knew right then that I was among good folk! Speaking of good folk, Jim Nabors has stepped aside as official “Back Home Again In Indiana” singer, and instead Indiana University alums Straight No Chaser did an excellent job in his place. Jordan Sparks gave a solid national anthem (though either she finished early, or the A-10 flyover came in late—so hard to get that timing just right). Mari Hulman George, as she has done for as long as I remember, gave the ‘start engines’ command, albeit this time with help from one of her daughters. And then the Corvette pace car ducked into the pits, the green flag dropped, the engines roared, and…Sato crashed. A glorious early summer day at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
I won’t bore you with an amateur recounting of all 500 miles, but the best radio line of the day was from Turn 3 man Jake Query, who summarized the Chevrolet-engine dominance with this clever quip: “The Victory Banquet may be the weekend’s formal affair, but a bowtie is required attire for this race!” For me, the best result of the day was seeing low-key Ganassi man Charlie Kimball put together a brilliant drive, starting 14th on the grid but finishing on the podium in 3rd. Charlie is now batting a thousand when it comes to achieving a podium finish at IndyCar races that I’ve attended (Mid-Ohio 2013, 1st place).
Next year will, of course, be the 100th running. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be showing off a host of upgrades, Helio will still be looking for his fourth win, Marco will still be trying to break the Andretti Curse, Tony will still be playing up his ‘fan favorite’ status, and Sato will surely crash again. I’ve already got my tickets, and as sixty-five percent of the US population lives within a day’s drive of Indianapolis—no excuses, I’ll see you there.