Tomorrow is a momentous occasion for sports in America as America’s race, The Indianapolis 500, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, will run its 100th edition. One hundred times fans have flocked from around the world to see cars racing at the fastest speeds of the era, one hundred times fans of all ages have made the pilgrimage to the intersection of 16th and Georgetown, and it’ll be the one hundredth time one driver will obtain racing immortality while the rest of the field, regardless of a 2nd or 33rd place finish, will say, “maybe next year.”
Indy, however, is more than just a race for many and for myself this event will mark my 20th straight. Each year the event means more to me, and I know I say that every year, but as Sunday dawns and the traditional drive to the track begins along with what could be a record in the range of 350,000-400,000 other spectators, and the traditional walk to the track commence, and the prerace ceremonies begin I will find myself fighting back emotions. This year is extra special because I got to play a very small role for five hours on the fourth day of practice helping out with the flags, but that is the essence of Indy.
For one person on Sunday it will be their 90th Indy 500! For others it will be their first and for anyone that goes through the gates on race day for the first time, regardless of age, it’s obvious that this isn’t just another event, but rather a stage that one can dream. For the young fans that are getting their first taste of the Indy 500, and the traditions that go along with it, they may dream about being a driver someday in the race, and maybe even being one of the chosen few that comes off of turn four on the final lap seeing the twin checkereds in the air knowing that immortality is about to be achieved and all the sacrifice and hard work is about to pay off and the celebration will include the sweetest swig of milk one could ever experience.
For another fan Sunday will be a remembrance of races past, and of family members that are no longer here. Indy is based on traditions and many families have many different traditions. For those experiencing it the first time someone, most likely, is bringing them to it and I know I will never forget my first Indy experiences in 1987 as I waved a tiny little checkered flag as the cars zipped past imagining that I had the power to communicate with the drivers with my little souvenir flag. It was my dad that introduced me to the hallowed grounds of IMS and in 1989 I saw my first 500. Slowly, and the tradition of the annual pilgrimage began in 1997, the rituals were set and each year we attend. I’m lucky as I still have my dad to attend with me, but for others their first trip through the turnstiles may have been in the 40’s, or 50’s, and the one that introduced them to the heritage and spectacle that is the Indianapolis 500 is no longer with them, but come Sunday, in a way, they will most certainly be with them in spirit.
You see, and for those that don’t know this phrase often seems trite and a stretch, but the Indy 500 is more than a race. Is the race the main draw? Yes. Is it the reason why people attend? Yes, but it’s the history that comes with it and the history that those in the stand associate with the event that makes it transcend the “just another sporting event” tag.
Sunday will see the 100th running and when the first 500 was ran in 1911 I doubt the organizers could envision what it has become today as fans from around the world will descend upon the grounds each with his or her little traditions. Friends that see each other just once a year may meat up at the pagoda, or a family may have a spot they go to before the race to remember the one that introduced them to the race, and for others, well, for others by the end of the day they may have partied so hard they may not actually remember the day, but whomever they are I’d say a majority are there for reasons that transcend the race itself. Again, this is to take nothing away from the race as the winner on Sunday will put their name down in the history books on what is shaping up to be a stacked field, but it’s because of the race that the traditions have been set. It’s because of the race that those friends will meet up, or a son or daughter will shed a tear during the playing Taps, or Back Home Again in Indiana, and it’s because of the race that chills will be sent down the spines of all those in attendance as the electricity in the air comes to a crescendo on the saying of, “Lady, and gentleman, start your engines!” It’s because of this race dreams can be had, dreams can be realized, and I’ll experience my 20th straight story, but I’m just one amongst hundreds of thousands. You can watch the race on television but until you experience the traditions, the tears, the pageantry, and the site of 33 cars starting three wide and coming by in excess of 220 miles per hour the true spectacle can’t be experienced. Indy is more, and in 20 more years my story will be much different than it is now, but with each race the passage of time is marked and it brings to view to cherish each lap, each moment, because there’s no telling when the race can’t be celebrated with the person that introduced you to, what I consider to be, the greatest place on Earth. Yes, Indy is more and perhaps not everyone will share in my perspective of the event the way I do, but if you do I can guarantee you’ve got a tear in your eye just like I do right now writing this and this, exactly, is why Indy has a soul and why a record crowd will gather tomorrow to witness the tradition, the emotion, and then get lost in the thrill of watching the world’s greatest motor race.
Here’s to another 100 runnings of the Indy 500 and to all the stories that have been told, will be experienced for the first time, and to those that will experience their first 500 on the 101st running!