Memorial Day means one thing. Flying the flag from the front porch, and the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. OK, two things. Maybe it was being born the day after the 1968 race, but I have always been partial to Memorial Day. It comes after a long drought of holidays and heralds the beginning of summer; the arrival of humidity, the end of school, the opening of the beaches, and pools and, all the things that make being a kid so wonderful.
My first real memory of watching the race was when A.J. Foyt won his 4th in 1977. Seeing that Red Coyote made an impression on me, and forever after, this is what I picture in my mind when I hear the word “race car”…
1977 was the year that Janet Guthrie became the first woman to drive in the race, and the controversy surrounding that fact was all over the news in the lead up to the race. So much so that even a 9 year old kid was aware of it. Back then it seemed like everything in life was boys against girls, which for a nine year old boy is still pretty much true.
After watching that race (on tape delay, not that I knew) I spent the next several days trying to build my own Coyote Ford-Foyt V8 race car out of whatever I could find. Mostly my bicycle and some cardboard boxes from the barn. I’d ride that bike up and down the street pretending I was racing in the Indy 500.
In the years that followed, Dad and I would always sit and watch the race together. Dad was a Foyt fan, and we’d root against the Unser’s every year. I’d look forward to the race each year, and sit and watch, listening to the commentary by Jim McKay, and Jackie Stewart, with the unmistakable voice of Chris Economaki reporting from the pits. In those days it wasn’t a significant sporting event if Jim McKay wasn’t doing the play-by-play in a yellow sport coat.
Sadly, A.J. never got closer than 2nd again in 1979 losing out to a young Rick Mears. During those years I developed a group of drivers that I liked, and those that I didn’t based of course on the color of their cars.
Like: A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Gordon Johncock
Dislike: Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears
As I got older, I drifted from watching racing with Dad. I became a teenager, much more interested in girls than race cars. Still, I’d peak in on the ABC broadcast occasionally, or sit and watch for awhile as I was coming and going through the living room. At 20 Prospect, you couldn’t walk anywhere in the house without passing the TV. The big old wooden Zenith console sat right in the center of the house, and it was always on.
I didn’t rediscover IndyCar racing until 2007. Sitting in my brother in law’s house on a rainy Memorial Day weekend, I saw the race for the first time on a widescreen HDTV. I was hooked. During the summer, I watched a few more races with 20 Prospect Jr. Enough to rekindle my interest in following the sport. Finally, in 2008, at the cusp of age 40, I made it to my first Indy 500.
I drove down with 20 Prospect Jr. on a “guys weekend”. We went as far as Champaign, Illinois on Saturday, and on Sunday morning we drove over to Indianapolis for the race. If you have never been to the Indianapolis 500 it is hard to put into words the sheer size, and scope of the place. There’s a reason they call it “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. It is far more than a mere race. It is a cultural event on par with the Kentucky Derby, The Tour de France, the Superbowl, and the Olympics.
We spent the afternoon watching the race from Turn 4, with 300,000 of our closest friends. The weather was glorious, high 70’s and sunny. The race was entertaining, and afterward we made our way out of the grounds with an army the size of Napoleon’s at Waterloo. We stopped on the drive back to Champaign for dinner, and spent a half hour playing catch in a park in a small Indiana town, before getting back to the hotel and going for a swim.
The next day we made the loooong drive back to Minnesota, vowing to return again someday. Last year though we opted for going to the Indycar race at Iowa Speedway instead, to keep the travel expense and drive time down. We’ll be doing the same this year.
Iowa Speedway puts on a wonderful show, and it is the most fan / family friendly experience I have ever had at a sporting event. But it’s not Indy. There is just something special about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s 100 year history, and the pageantry and tradition that surrounds the race give you goose bumps. Those that have been their know, it gets to you. The only other places I have been that felt that historic and haunted was Notre Dame stadium when I was 9. You really do get the sense of being part of something much, much larger than a car race.
I’m not sure when I’ll get back there. I would love to make it back next year for the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500, but we’ll have to wait and see. Life has a way of getting in the way sometimes, but like General MacArthur I vow that I will return.