Other people have more interesting stories about what goes on at Indianapolis Motor Speedway than mine. Other people have a more extensive history of the doings behind the scenes than I do.
But I’d wager that none of them are connected to the Brickyard in quite the same way I am.
Just after the party had died down from Al Unser’s victory in that gorgeous Johnny Lightning car, after the Snake Pit had emptied for another year, when the grounds crew was starting the laborious task of cleaning up after another year’s edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” when David Letterman was closing the book on his day as a roving reporter for ABC during the race, I figured it was time to make my appearance on this tiny, unremarkable little planet upon which we live. I took my first bow on the grand stage not far from the Speedway in a small room at Methodist Hospital.
My mother says that I cried pretty loudly when I was born – most likely because I was upset at having missed the race by a couple of days.
I spent the first few years of my life in an apartment only a few blocks away from IMS. My memory has never been as good as other people’s – I can’t tell you everything that happened to me when I was a toddler. As a child, I apparently attended several Indianapolis 500-Mile Races, but precious few souvenirs from those days still exist in my family coffers. My dad remembers being there when Gordon Smiley tragically perished, and he was in Turn 1 with a front-row seat to Salt Walther’s terrifying accident. I don’t remember much of it, at least not with any clarity.
Some things, though, do still stand in sharp relief in the dulling, fractious shards of my early childhood recollections. I remember the first time I ever walked down the frontstretch at Indianapolis. My dad held my hand as we walked next to the catch fence during practice. In the distance, an Indy car barreled out of Turn 4 and careened toward me. I was facing north, so I saw it coming. It was going so fast that all I really saw was the huge cow-catcher front wing, the enormous rear wing and four black spots representing the tires.
I still remember the echoing, howling whine of that car’s engine as it rushed at me down the front straight. The car was past me before I could tell which one it was. But that sound… warped by the Doppler effect, louder than anything I’d ever heard before, so penetrating that it rattled my teeth… it hit me in the solar plexus like a hard right from Muhammad Ali. I remember standing still, feeling the pull of my dad’s hand as he kept walking briefly, still smelling the sweet scent of methanol washing through the air in the turbulent wake of that amazing machine.
I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
On another occasion, we were returning to our car after some session or another. We were parked in the infield, and I was young and short enough to be spooked by how many legs there were to push through in the crowd. Once again, I had hold of my dad’s hand and was hoping not to get lost in the crush. He suddenly steered me out of the crowd and stopped in front of another pair of legs. I looked up, followed the legs up the torso until my eyes rested on the face of my favorite driver, Tom Sneva – grinning from beneath a huge blue Goodyear hat.
“Hey, kid,” my hero said.
That meeting was stuck in my brain in 2005 when I boarded my flight home from the 500 and discovered that the guy sitting next to me was none other than Sneva. It turns out that he had been coaching Pancho Carter’s son Cole during the Firestone Indy Lights event at the Speedway that weekend. Coincidentally, I had donated some professional services to Cole’s American Revolution Racing team for the same race, so thankfully I had something more profound to discuss with my childhood idol besides, “Hey, do you remember about 30 years ago in the Speedway parking lot…?”
Though I’ve worked in many media centers at many tracks in my professional career, I only got to cover the Indianapolis 500 from Gasoline Alley once. I sometimes think that that has been a blessing for me. In the 15-odd years I have spent in one job or another in motorsports, my ability to be a fan of racing has steadily diminished in direct proportion to how close I have come to understanding the sport’s business. That is not to say I have had bad experiences working in racing – in fact, the overwhelming majority of my involvement has been very positive. But there is something lost when you become familiar with something or someone you once revered at a distance. Maybe it’s a result of seeing through image to see substance … perhaps, even if the substance is still positive, the ability to see it dispels a bit of that magical aura that is so instrumental in establishing the pedestals from which our heroes regard us.
That never happened with Indianapolis. At least not for me. I wonder if it is because it was such an integral part of my childhood. Like Tony Stewart, I spent hours with toy Indy cars racing around a thickly woven oval-shaped rug in our living room. Most of my clothes had checkered flags on them. I’d spend most of my Mays singing, “The Five Hundred, the Five Hundred, the greatest race of them all!” while listening to WIBC radio. That childlike enthusiasm for the race has never waned, not even during the dark, depressing days during the civil war between the IRL and CART. I have always been giddy for the month of May and sad when it turns to June.
For me, Indianapolis is more than just a race or a “bucket list” event. The 500 is as near and dear to me as a family member, and even in the years when I can’t be there in person, I still consume the traditions and pageantry as greedily as I ever did the tenderloin sandwiches I bought at the Mug ‘n’ Bun or the Tin Star Jail. My year still revolves around the end of May, and even the best birthday party still feels like a bit of a letdown after the party I celebrate the week before.
“Indy 500 or Bust” is a call to action, an invitation to congregate in the Circle City for an annual pilgrimage. But in reality, I have never really completely left Indianapolis or the Speedway. Part of me lives there, only truly happy when the Indy cars are turning laps in anger and singing a hymn of speed in full, glorious chorus.