Back Home Again

Some fans, apparently, do not like the Brickyard 400. Some kids, apparently, do not like “The Wizard of Oz.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one place where I do not care whether or not there are 40 lead changes. I would probably enjoy the race if one car led every lap. Well, maybe not, but there are some places in sport where the normal standards do not apply. A race at Indy is like a baseball game at Fenway Park. It is to automobile racing what “The Andy Griffith Show” is to television.

No, I’m not from Indiana, but I do revere “the Speedway.” I remember listening to the Indianapolis 500 on radio while my father put the finishing touches on a Memorial Day barbecue. I hung on every syllable as an Indy rookie named Graham Hill pulled off an upset. It was 1966. I was 8 years old.

During my college years, the 500 fell every year during exams, but there are some things more important than studying. I would cram all day long – and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning afterward – so that I could watch the tape-delayed showing of the race on Sunday night. What was kind of cool about that was that, because I had been studying all day, it was easy to watch the race without already knowing who had won.

Now, stock car racing has always been my favorite form of racing, mind you. You didn’t grow up where I did, nestled between the foothills of David Pearson and sandy farming country of Cale Yarborough, without becoming immersed in the lore of NASCAR. My daddy the fertilizer salesman used to fly crop dusters out of the Spartanburg Downtown Airport, where quite often Pearson flew home from his latest conquest at the same time Dad was trying to figure out whether to send Leo Sells off to spray peach trees in Pacolet or a corn field in Cross Anchor. Never once did I ask Pearson for an autograph, and it’s because he just never seemed like the kind of guy you’d ask for an autograph. He was just like all the other folks in upstate South Carolina – hanging out a diner, shooting the bull at a feed store, wondering why the hell we couldn’t get no rain. Only what set him apart was that he was the greatest race-car driver who ever lived, or there’s lots of folks who would say he was.

I loved stock car racing every week, though, whether it was watching week-old highlights on “Wide World of Sports,” jumping up and down on the bed of a pickup truck watching a National Sportsman 200-lapper at Greenville-Pickens Speedway or sharing the backstretch bleachers with every Cub Scout troop in the Palmetto State during the Rebel 400.

Indy just came once. Like Christmas.

There were two great wrongs I was able to correct when I got old enough to escape the limitations of youth and adult supervision. Every year, I went to the spring race, but when the Southern 500 rolled around on Labor Day, I had to practice football. That galled me to no end. When I went off to college in 1976. I didn’t play football anymore, so I drove to Darlington by myself and bought myself a ticket – on the frontstretch, for once – to the Southern 500. It was election season, soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter was there, and Pearson put a major-league whupping on the field.

Then, in the late 1980s, I was possessed by a desire to go to Indy. The first year, 1988, I sat in the third-turn grandstands with some business associates who had been attending the 500 since the 1950s. The next year I bought my own tickets, and in those days it was tough to move up the ladder. I sat in bleachers on the inside of Turn 2, and between that year and 1992, I slowly worked my way back up to the third-turn grandstands where I had started out. The Indy 500s I attended were won, in order, by Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, Al Unser Jr. and, again, Mears.

I’m not rich now, but it was a considerable investment back in those days for me to go to Indy. Usually, I’d get a motel room just north of Louisville, Ky., or far enough away that I didn’t have to abide the price gouging of hotels closer to the track. I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. and set out for the speedway, watching the sun come up and the shadows fall across all that peaceful Hoosier farmland.

One year, on a lark, I went to the “Little 500”, the sprint-car race that is held on a high-banked, quarter-mile track in Anderson, Ind., the night before the big race. That, of course, was too close to Indy for me to be able to afford a motel, so a friend from back home, Steve Wilkins, and I slept in the car at the short track. We shaved, brushed our teeth and washed our faces in a McDonald’s bathroom, and made our way to “the Speedway.”

Since 1993, my job has put me at Charlotte (now Lowe’s) Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 on Indianapolis 500 day. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit that each May, when I’m fighting traffic on the way to the NASCAR track, I’m more than a little bit lonesome for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

For me, the Brickyard 400 is not as significant as the Indy 500, but it is the best I can do, given the circumstances of my life. I’m a cynical veteran of the NASCAR scene, but I still get chill bumps when I walk out on pit road at Indy or walk the beat in Gasoline Alley.

Some people make a big deal about NASCAR being “accepted” at Indy. Hell, I don’t care about that. I always knew stock car racing could stand on its merits no matter where happenstance took it. The appeal of a stock car race on the world’s most famous track is infinitely simpler to me.

As long as NASCAR races at Indy, it gives me a chance every year to go there.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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