May in Indianapolis. More than a month; more than a race; more than an event. For 300,000 people, May in Indianapolis is a way of life. For a healthy contingency of these people, eleven months out of the year are spent in preparation and in anticipation for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It’s not just an indycar race; it is the race. A supernova in our quiet galaxy of indycar racing. This is the one time a year that not just the motorsports world, but the entire sporting media takes pause to remember what makes Indy so special. Hundreds of thousands of people huddle around a TV or radio all day long and become hardcore indycar fans; even if for just a single afternoon once a year.
Our crown jewel race means something different to each and every person who watches or experiences it. Indianapolis is the temple of speed; the hallowed grounds where engineers, mechanics and drivers toe the line of sanity; taking machines to within an eyelash of catastrophe just to find that extra tenth of a second. Squeezing every ounce of speed out of the high-tech race machines as an offering to the open-wheel gods is the only way worship at the two and a half mile rectangle. And anyone associated with the ethanol fueled religious experience wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Indy 500 also means prosperity, growth and history. Speedway; the small enclave surrounded by the sprawling city of Indianapolis, was single-handedly birthed and sustained by its famous racetrack. An entire community was created to fuel the massive machine that was, and is, racing at the Speedway. From boutique racing shops to diners to team garages; Speedway’s lifeblood has always been the famous brickyard. The Speedway has also given Indianapolis; a once struggling city with a still born automotive industry, a fighting chance at the prosperity we enjoy today.
Without the world’s largest single day sporting event, Indianapolis would be a shadow of its current self. The Colts, Pacers, NCAA headquarters, our booming convention industry, the Super Bowl; none would have been possible without the Memorial Day Classic. Yes, the Indy 500 has been more and more recently marketed to a local market but it’s our history. A celebration of how far we as a city have come with the most famous race in the world. This is a local rite of passage and a celebration of history, not just a stop on a national touring calendar.
The Indy 500 is a month long celebration around the entire state. But more than remembering history, or idolizing speed, the race has always been a time for family. We hear tales from across the world of cookouts with a main course of 200 laps of open wheel racing each May. Friends and family plan an entire weekend based around the happenings in Speedway. “See you in Indy” is a saying that means so much more than just a time and place to meet. We are all family for one afternoon a year. Every year for the Memorial Day weekend, my family would take some type of trip so we could watch the race live on TV. Whether it is camping or visiting family out of town; the end of May means racing, family and friends.
For the participants, the experience is very similar. Famous racing families have made their name and scribed their name into the history of speed. Andretti, Unser, Chevrolet, Rahal, Bettenhausen, Foyt; generations of drivers have grown up with generations of fans. We have watched our young progeny grow up in the pits and we root for them when they finally take their place on the grid. As if perhaps by destiny, we expect to see the children of our past heroes battle it out on track like their forefathers did before them. For us fans, as well as the heroes we go to cheer on, it has always been a family affair, and always will be.
Another year past and another childhood remembered. A common story among older Indy vets, as well as recent re-returners, is the connection of some part of race day to a simpler time in childhood. For a few hours on those late May afternoons, we are transported back in time. Walking into the amazing facility is like stepping into a time machine. You can hear the sounds of a hundred years of triumph and heartbreak, you can smell the memories of pork tenderloins and methanol exhaust, you can feel the tangible history. All of this sends many of us back to childhoods from many summers past, to a more simple time. An afternoon to just stop and remember.
Indy is all of these things to me. An inextricable link to some kind of intangible rose colored past that may have never actually existed, and may never exist in the future. But it is this romantic, glamorized reality that brings us back year after year. Even if you are a fan for a single day a year, these 500 miles means so much more than a race to the finish. Taps, the balloon release, Back Home Again in Indiana, gentleman start your engines; all things that have been slowly added to the fabric of what Indianapolis means to all of us. Things that are worth far more than the time taken to experience them.
Indianapolis is an afternoon of living history, love and reunion. One of a very small handful of events that can bring so many tangibles and intangibles to the center of attention year in and out. As we embark on yet another greatest month in racing, we are constantly reminded of what this battle of speed means. Contested on a small strip of immovable pavement, founded by men who have become more lore than reality. The 500 may just be another race on the calendar, another points paying event, but if you truly believe that… You just don’t know what Indy means.