She’ll be back home in Indiana when green flag waves
Little more than a week to go until the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and as usual, I’ll be occupying Seat No. 1 in Row J, Section 36, of the paddock, right across the track from where the balloons fly up at the closing strains of the event’s signature tune “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
Vanity precludes divulging exactly how many times I’ve watched those balloons ascend, but let’s just say more than a handful of next week’s drivers hadn’t yet been born when I first stepped onto the hallowed ground at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.
Attending the legendary contest once is a pleasure. Having the good fortune to hold race-day tickets dozens of times is a privilege and it’s amazing to look back at the racing dramas I’ve watched unfold.
There was the Gordon Johncock/Rick Mears duel to the finish, and Danny Sullivan’s “spin and win” feat. Mario slowing down ... again. Helio climbing the fence and Danica leading toward the end of her rookie 500 with screaming spectators believing for 19 laps that they’d see the first-ever woman 500 winner. The extraordinary celebration in the stands when beloved “TK” Tony Kanaan finally took the checkered flag in 2013.
The Kevin Cogan race-start pileup that enraged A.J. Foyt happened right before our eyes, as did the closest-ever finish, when Little Al beat out Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds and tearfully cried out in Victory Lane, “You just don’t know what Indy means!”
Some of us fans could say the same, Al. We too get a bit teary when reflecting on those and a thousand other memories from many pilgrimages to Indianapolis. And it’s not just about the outcome at the start-finish line.
Over the decades I’ve come to know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an entity in itself, and as more than just the infrastructure for producing “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
In its way it’s a slice of Americana, a shrine to tradition not just for motorsports teams but for many families like mine. My dad, who started driving down to the 500 in the early 1960s, is gone — but I can still stand in the track museum we used to browse together, or sit on the exact same shady concrete ledge where we would pause to drink a beer and people-watch the pre-race crowds behind the pit area.
Fads and fashions in engines, chassis, drivers and sponsors have come and gone. Jim Nabors has retired and country-rock blasts from the PA instead of the little jazz combo that used to play to near-empty bleachers in the early post-dawn hours of race day. Tom Carnegie, the announcer who called an astounding 61 Indy 500 races, has died. I can still clearly hear his voice saying “And heeere they come” as the warmed-up racers rounded Turn Four, accelerating toward the snapping green flag.
Meager menu offerings (we used to supplement by bringing frozen ham sandwiches on white bread) and modest souvenir booths have been replaced by giant gift shops, large open-air food stands and rolling carts selling margaritas, bloody marys and imported beer. The “new” pagoda that replaced the green glass control tower is now more than 15 years old. Security fences and guards surround the tractor-trailers that haul the racing machines; you used to be able to roam among them and peer inside at the mobile machine shops or catch a glimpse of a driver conferring with crew members early on race morning. And the scoring pylon (the “pole”) has been replaced by a gaudy LED version.
Some of us die-hards are not always happy about the “modernization,” but usually adapt to them in time. This year there is more trepidation than usual because of some sweeping changes made over the winter to “our” grandstand. I’m not sure what to expect and sort of dread the jolt.
It helps to remember that somewhere beneath all the bricks and mortar and merchandising is the same swath of Indiana land where, starting in 1911, ladies in long dresses would bring picnic baskets and sit in the fields on blankets to watch the cars roar by at a heady 75 mph. How much has happened on those same few hundred acres since then.
You can almost touch the grass, dirt, gravel or concrete, and feel the reverberations of tires and engines clocking millions of laps since then — and all of the hopes, dreams, passion, disappointment, glory and nostalgia experienced by hundreds of drivers, thousands of crew members and millions of spectators in this celebration of the melding of machine and mankind.
A good part of my life is entwined with those others. And a week from Sunday, at about 7:30 a.m., I’ll step out from under the bulwark of the concrete grandstand to join the sellout crowd, revel in memories and make some pretty cool new ones. As the driver said, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com