What I miss about the Indy 500
Growing older is a mixed bag. The down side is the inevitable nature of this whole mortality thing. On the other hand, you accumulate so many wonderful memories. The down side of that, of course, is the memory loss that comes with aging. So many memories, so few brain cells. So why am I sounding such a maudlin note? The answer is simple: I haven’t lost all my memories of the Indy 500, and it’s an exercise in nostalgia to remember how it used to be. Here’s my list.
- I miss the media coverage. The 500 used to dominate the news cycle in Indianapolis. From the beginning of May until the awards banquet, both Indy papers, the Star and the News, were filled with all sorts of racing, social, and human interest stories about the 500. People around the world would subscribe to one or both of the papers. Indy always began when the papers reported that Larry Bisceglia had arrived to be first in line at IMS. You expected to read multiple articles every day. Now you hope you see something.
- I miss the night before the 500. Going to 16th Street the night before the race was an EVENT. You planned for it. If you were a denizen of the infield, you had to be somewhere near the track the night before so you could get in line on 16th Street to get in the gates. Good parking places were at a premium both outside the track the night before the race and inside the track the day of the race. You plotted, planned, faked, and finally pulled into line. More than once a car pulled out of a parking spot to get in line and was waved on down the street by the police. It was a contest. And the party was HUGE. It was a place to grow up a little each year. Of course I was relatively unsupervised from the time I was ten, so I learned a lot at an early age. But that knowledge is worthless now. The number of people trying to park inside the track has grown smaller because most of the infield parking has disappeared. I think it’s one of those law of diminishing returns kind of thing.
- I miss the community that was the infield. It had an organic vitality that no longer exists. Check the photos at IndyStar.com to see what the Snake Pit was like in the 70′s. It was the high water mark. The new third turn dynamic pales in comparison. That’s not to say the past was all sweetness and light. It wasn’t. It was drunk, dirty, and dangerous. The new corporate Snake Pit is like a ride at Disney World: a lot of fun but still an imitation of the real thing.
- I miss the characters. Name one current owner like Andy Granatelli. You can’t. Name a driver like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, Jim Hurtubise, or Jimmy Clark. They were bigger than life and far from the politically correct drivers of today. And that’s not an indictment of today’s drivers. It’s a comment on the power of money and sponsorship. Today’s drivers are a product of the business of racing. I think there’s hope with James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden, though. I hope the corporate suits let them be themselves.
- I miss “Thirty Days in May.” The track used to open on May 1st and teams practiced every day until the second week of qualifications was over. I understand that economics dictated the shortening of the month. Just because it was the right decision doesn’t mean I have to like it. It was news to be the first car and driver on the track each year. There was action every day. Engines weren’t leased, and there were no mileage limits. You could run all day, every day if you wanted. As Eric Hall at anotherindycarblog.com noted, Happy Hour just isn’t the same, either. If you arrived at the track at 5:00 PM, you were assured of seeing SPEED. Sadly, those days are over. The two weekends of qualifying were meaningful because the 500 actually was “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The drivers acted like making the race was the most important moment in their lives because it was. Quite simply, the whole month of May was the most important and publicized racing time of the year.
- I miss the crowds. If the race is the largest one day sporting event in the world, the first day of qualifications might have been the second largest. Records were broken and reputations were made. It was its own race. The crowds on race day are gone now, too. A ducat to the race used to be gold. Every seat was sold. Now the unsold seats show up on TV. With the lack of parking inside the track, the general admission crowd is also down, and the crowds that used to sit in all four turns and the backstretch are squeezed into the backstretch and the third turn. And very quietly, IMS is planning on downsizing the NE Vista and at least one other stand. If these stands were full, or had a hope of being full, IMS would not be tearing part of them down. The crowd is smaller, and the larger crowd is never coming back.
- I miss the icons of Indy. And I know I’m going to miss more of them. This track just celebrated its centennial, and if those years have taught us anything, it’s that everyone and everything has an arc. The track, the race, and the drivers all change, yet remain constant in so many ways. This year we will see a video of Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” One day a new voice will sing that song. Donald Davidson will continue to amaze us with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Indy. Someday there will be a new historian. Dan Wheldon will not share his pure joy of racing with us again, yet new drivers will always come to 16th and Georgetown to be part of this fabulous tradition. The voice of Tom Carnegie, whose signature PA call is the title of this blog, will never be heard again. These arcs are passing or passed. I do, and will, miss them all.
My father Horace Wilkinson was born May 30, 1913. Race day. He loved the 500. My granddaughter Isabella Wilkinson was born May 29, 2011. Race day. I hope my father’s, my son’s, and my love of this event gets passed on to her. I hope that someday she passes her love of this great tradition on to her children and grandchildren. Maybe she will tell stories of what she misses most about the race. Maybe one of those stories will be about me. 
1. I thought long and hard about what song to connect to this moment. What song says “remember me” in a moving fashion? I want to thank Tony Johns at PopOffValve.com for mentioning the band Neutral Milk Hotel in a “Paddock Pulse” comment about my blog . I checked out the band and found the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” sung by Jeff Mangum. He wrote this song about Anne Frank after visiting Amsterdam. Listen to the lyrics and think not only of Dan Wheldon, but of all those we miss in our lives. Never forget that we race on Memorial Day and what that means. The lyrics expand below the video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZuwRORuEyw