5.23.2011

My Indy 500 tradition (aside from making Jell-O shots)


Before the start of the 2007 Indianapolis 500, from our seats in B Stand.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that my dad waved a checkered flag as my mom gave birth to me.  I'm assuming he didn't, but if he had, I'd calmly ask if he waved the white flag after I crowned.

I've been going to the Indianapolis 500 every year for the last ten years with my dad, my uncle, my brother, and a wild card ticket.  I don't remember every second of every race, or even every incident to cause a caution lap... or even the entertainment at some of the races.

Actually, I hardly remembered a thing about last year's race until I watched the highlights of it on YouTube.  Before that, all I knew for certain was that P., my ex-fiancé, took the wild card ticket and went to his first 500.  I can't believe that was already a year ago.  We had a big fight the morning of the race, and he barely spoke to me all day.  No wonder I pushed it out of my head. 

At any rate, I wasn't always big on stats, unlike my dad, who reads all the qualifying speeds in the paper the next day (only to memorize them, because of course he went to the track to watch the qualifications himself).  I don't know much about cars, the winning purse, who's on which team, who has which sponsorship, or Indy Racing League events outside of Speedway, Indiana. 

What I did get into was the history, the drivers, their families.  Accidents that ended careers or lives.  Things that remind me that the race isn't just entertainment; it's a life for those in the cars, and it isn't just a day of drinking beer and sitting in the sun for (the good) fans.  Some people feel this way about football, but was there ever a time in the history of that sport where 50% of the players wouldn't survive their careers or your life was in danger by simply being a spectator?  I look forward all year to this race, not only because it's the one day that I get to spend with my dad, my brother and my uncle without us getting encumbered by our significant others or kids, but because of the overwhelming energy that takes place at the track every Memorial Day Weekend.  If you've never been to an Indianapolis 500, you have no idea what I'm talking about. 

I'll try to compare it.  Let's see.  The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.  The birth of a child.  Dropping E for the first time.  Crouching under the stairs during a tornado.  Having a crush on someone.  Stepping onto the court/field/stage for a regional competition.  Finding out you're pregnant.  Eavesdropping at work.

Eh, I can't do it justice.  Combine all of those.  Excitement, fear, electricity, adrenaline, "damn, I wish I were closer!", squealing at every turn or downshift or pass or flying spark or pit stop, the wind out of your chest and "OHHHH my god" at every wreck, the rush of disappointment if it rains, the pain in your palms from slapping your hands together, your throat tender and coarse from cheering and trying to talk to your neighbors over the screaming engines.  And the next day, you can barely get out of bed.  I'm convinced that's why the following day is a paid holiday for most Americans.

My Indy 500 tradition is studying videos online of past races, including the wrecks and details of fatalities.  I've seen nearly every wreck that was caught on tape -- I slow them down, I pause them, I watch again, looking for angles of impact...movement in the cockpit...the exact second that something goes wrong.  A blown tire here, wandering high into the marbles there.  I've been doing this for years.  It reminds me that the 500 isn't just a sporting event, and I could easily be paying $85 to witness someone get killed.  I could do that for free by just driving up and down SR 25; I wouldn't have to be out there very long.  Anyway, yes, it sounds like a buzzkill, but to me the danger of the sport plays a huge role in the history of the event -- more than the money, the sponsors, etc.  The risk of participating is right up there with the race's longevity (the track is celebrating its centennial this year) and the drama (hello, Andretti curse).

Some of the best drivers the race has seen -- drivers my dad looked up to when he was a kid, especially after he was upset that his family was moving from New Jersey to Indiana, one of his brothers said to him, "Naw, Indiana's gonna be great, it's got the 500" -- have been killed while competing, testing, or practicing.  Bill Vukovich in 1955's race, Tony Bettenhausen while testing a car in 1961, the heartbreaking second lap of the 1964 race that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald (the race was red-flagged and gasoline has not powered cars at the Indy 500 ever since), Jim Clark in 1968 during a race in Germany.  And it's still dangerous -- Scott Brayton was killed while testing a car in 1996, and other drivers have died at the speedway participating in non-500 events.  I didn't even name 15% of the drivers in the same boat.

In 1931, a kid playing in his own yard on Georgetown Rd. was killed by a flying tire.  The last spectator to die from anything other than stupidity was in 1987, also from a flying tire.  Even as recent as last year, spectators have gotten injured at the race. 

So how is it fun?  Why do we do it? 

You can easily spot the ones who "get it" from those who don't.  I'd like to say that most of the people in the infield don't get it.  The guy with the Natty Lite and a sunburn on his shirtless man-boobs who uses the area near the pulled pork barbeque tent to pee doesn't get it.  Anyone who watches the video of Gordon Smiley's fatal wreck in the 1982 qualifications and reacts with, "oh man, that was a SWEET crash!!!!  Let me see it again!" not only doesn't get it, but gets punched in the face.  I'm not even sure that the rich people in the Tower and Pit Road Terrace seats get it, as some of them have had the legacy tickets for years, or they're donors, or friends of rich friends who know a rich guy, etc.

But then there are those who can't answer the above two questions, who can't describe the experience in words, who jump up and down a little bit and go "shitshitshit!" when Kanaan gets passed, who take our kids to Pole Day once they hit six or seven years old just so we can answer their questions and get them hooked, who almost cried when Meira was sliding along the Turn 1 wall after colliding with Matos in 2009 because he totally could've been dead, who don't get drunk at the race... flip off the sexist morons who boo at Danica Patrick... feel like they might shit their pants when the engines first fire up... watch highlights from each race for the last thirty years online just to prepare themselves for an upcoming event... absolutely wear themselves out from it all, but can't stop feeling excited for next Sunday.

It's larger than life, beyond comprehension.  At least it is to me.  And if it rains this Sunday in Indianapolis, I will be super pissed.

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