For the first time in 75 years the Indianapolis 500 will not take place (or at least be attempted) on Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been watching on TV since 1985 and made my first race in 2015. I attended again in 2019. The only 500 I missed watching was the second half of the 1995 race due to a wedding. The marriage didn’t last and while I listened to the finish on the way to the wedding I always regret missing the race. The groom eventually married my sister which is just even more evidence that I never should have attended that 1995 wedding.
Many don’t understand my passion. I can’t tell you how many times I hear that a race is just a lot of cars driving in circles. Even my husband does mock interviews- Tell me how did you win that race? – Well I drove fast and turned left, then turned left again… Haha Steve, very funny.
Does anyone watch basketball? Run up court make a basket, run down court and do the same thing. Baseball is the same, hit the ball and run the bases. Same thing every time. Well unless you know the history and the men and women making the history. The history of the Indianapolis 500 goes back to 1909 when the track was built and then 1911 when the first race was won. Traditions run deep with pre race ceremonies including the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana and the command to start engines. Post race there is the drinking of milk and more recently the kissing of the bricks.
History aside there is the courage and boldness of the drivers. Many athletes put in all on the line for their sport but none the way race car drivers do. Every time they strap in the car they know it could be the last. When traveling at speeds of over 200 mph there is no room for mistakes but something can always happen. The courage of the drivers is fascinating and when the unthinkable happens all the drivers can think of is when they can get back in the car. They drive with broken bones, they would lie about possible concussions and even after watching many die trying to win they still push on on do the exact same thing. Pushing every limit of the car to attempt to be the one who drinks the milk after 500 miles.
Then there is another aspect of the race. The fans. What makes this sporting event such a great one? Everyone will have a different story about how long they have attended and what their must do traditions are. Mine are quite different from others because as I’ve said I usually watch on TV. Yet the sentiment is the same, family and tradition.
My first race in 1985 was just my dad and I sitting on the couch watching. I was so surprised to learn AJ Foyt was still racing after having read his biography earlier that school year. 1986-1992 I continued to watch. I would keep up some on qualifying and watch the pre race ceremonies, dad would join me but also do yard work. When the green flag dropped dad would be right with me but as the race progressed he would come and go checking in and then would watch the last 20-30 laps or so with me.
Knowing my interest dad took me to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 1992. We toured the track and museum. Then in 1993 we attended our one and only Pole Day together. We never went to a race but if we weren’t watching together we made multiple phone calls every time something happened on track. When my dad was told his cancer had progressed and he had about 6 months left one of my first thoughts was please let us have one more 500. My dad died in February 2007. In May we had a surprise birthday party to attend on race day. The rain made the race run long. I refused to attend my best friends party until I saw the checkered flag fly. She understood, my husband did not. My dad would have been watching with me.
In 2008 I finally returned to Pole Day. This time I had my five year old son in tow and this is where my traditions and love for Indy grew so much deeper than I could ever imagine. That first year it was just a day trip down and back. The next year we stayed overnight the night before Pole Day. The third year my youngest turned five so I brought both boys and we spent two nights. In 2014 we switched from Pole Day to the Indy GP. 2015 we did both races, attending our first 500. The boys haven’t missed a May in Indy since they were five years old- until this year. It was heartbreaking not spending Mother’s Day weekend at the track with my boys. That is what Indy means to me. Family. The type of memories you will always remember. That is why when we meet others at the track they have the same passion, they have different but similar traditions and memories with their family and friends. We all love sharing our stories and then their stories become ours and we meet up at the track the next year and now our “family” has grown and this crazy thing happens when you enter the Speedway with 300,000 other fans and you find yourself running into multiple people that you know. You’ve only met them at the track or maybe only on Twitter but when you see each other it’s like seeing an old dear friend. You hug and talk and share your stories all over again. Honestly, it blows my mind how many friends I’ve met over the years and how we always seem to meet up time and time again even inside a 2 1/2 mile oval track filled with people. Just this last weekend I went to visit my dear friend Lisa. We met at Road America in 2016. In 2019 I stayed with her at her house for the 500. I was feeling the need to visit the Speedway in May and Lisa was gracious enough to host me again. We went to the track, visited with Mike Silver and then strolled Main Street. We decided to enjoy a glass of wine at the Foyt Vault. We noticed a Twitter friend we had never met before and when we called out to her she immediately knew who we both were. We spent the next hour talking with Valerie and her friend Amber. Once again sharing our stories of first 500’s and why we love the race.
Perhaps one of the most incredible things is the drivers approachability and appreciation of the fans. Multiple drivers remember previous encounters we have had. Mario Andretti wanted to talk all about his winery after he learned we had been there. James Hinchcliffe not only remembers us but has passed on gifts to other drivers for us. All but a very few have stopped scooters, walked out of their way and stayed late to make sure they could sign autographs and meet fans. When I take a friend who is more familiar with stick and ball sports they are usually blown away by the number of drivers we interact with over the weekend.
When you put all that together- 100+ years tradition, family, friends old and new and the kindness and passion of the drivers it is a sport like none other and the Christmas Day of Auto racing is the Indianapolis 500. No one wants to miss Christmas and no one wants to miss the Indianapolis 500. This year we hopefully won’t miss it. We just need to wait a bit longer. I promise it will be worth the wait and hold some sweet surprises when we all meet up again just like it does every year. “You just don’t know what Indy means.”- Al Unser Jr after winning the 500. Well Little Al some of us do.