Its Still Indy

The Indianapolis 500 will take place on Sunday, just as it has every year—with the exception of World War I and World War II. For the sixth straight year, I’ll be in Charlotte instead of Indianapolis.


That’s not to say that the Coca-Cola 600 isn’t a great place to be on Memorial Day weekend. It’s just not Indianapolis, and it never will be, at least to me.

All the idiots—and I use that word with the greatest possible affection—who say the 500 isn’t what it once was have no idea what the race means to people like me, who grew up thinking that Race Day was the second major holiday in Indiana next to Christmas.

The split between the IRL and CART has cut the car count, true, but there are Andrettis and Foyts and Unsers and Rutherfords and Johncocks and Penskes and Mears’ in Indy this month, just like always. They’re team owners now, or driver coaches or IRL officials or just plain fans, but they’re still there. Fulvio Ballabio and Hiro Matsushita and Hector Rebaque are not. If you know those names at all, I’d be surprised.

When I walk through the gates at 16th St. and Georgetown Road, I’m not thinking about CART (Champ Car, whatever) or the split or anything like that. It’s never been about who was racing, just that they were racing, and I was going to be there. That’s it. Taking simple pleasure in being at the track, with 300,000 of my closest friends—at least on that particular day—and my family is what it’s about.

Both my parents spent the formative years of their lives within sight of the old Brickyard, and they transferred that love of the place to my brother and me. In 1977, I was sitting in Section 1 of the first turn grandstands when Tom Sneva broke the magic 200-mile-per-hour barrier, and when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the race.

I was also there when A.J. Foyt became the first four-time winner at Indianapolis. The roar that went up when Gordon Johncock pulled that bright red Wildcat-Offy off the track and into the grass in Turn 1 with 16 laps remaining still echoes in my mind, and I yelled myself hoarse until Super Tex sealed the deal.

In 1982, when Johncock beat Rick Mears in the most thrilling race I’ve ever seen, it was the same thing. All the world boiled itself down to those two drivers on that old track, and it’s still the greatest race I’ve ever been witness to.

There are others of you who feel the same way about a particular race or experience at Indy, and you buy tickets every year to get that good feeling I spoke of earlier. Politics aside, whatever your feelings, it’s the place itself that gets the respect. Drivers come and go, hot setups and engines and chassis rotate on a regular basis, but Indy is always Indy, at least to me.

Nothing will change that for me, ever. Too much of my childhood was spent waiting for the month of May to roll around so I could go to the track. When it was over, you were happy that you got to be a part of it, and sad that you had to wait 12 months for the same feeling. Having Christmas in the middle didn’t hurt, but I digress.

I’m sure Formula One fans feel the same way about Monaco, and NASCAR people look forward to Daytona with much the same anticipation. Having never been to Monaco, I can’t judge for myself, but I have been to Daytona. It’s exciting, sure, and there’s a magic to that event that is not evident much of anyplace else in that world.

But it isn’t Indy.

It never will be.

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