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Why Indy is more than a race

After winning the Indy 500 in 1992, Al Unser, Jr. said, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”  He was right.  Somehow, words cannot always convey the emotional connection that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has on its fans.

Growing up in central Indiana, it was easy to fall in love with the month of May.  The peonies and lilacs bloomed, the weather warmed, checkered flags appeared in all the newspaper ads, and the Indy 500 took place on Memorial Day.  The topics of conversation were how the rain was affecting the farmers and who was going fast at the track.  And it was always “the track.”  No more needed to be said.

The Indy 500 was the only race that registered on the national consciousness. Sorry, Daytona.  You are a more recent icon.  Some of the long-time Indy 500 fans’ bitterness toward stock car nation is how it has eclipsed not IndyCar racing, but the Indy 500 itself.  No one wants to see his idol tarnished.  And after the IRL split from CART, the Indy 500 lost some of its luster and has been trying to burnish its image ever since.

Of course, to those of us locals, the image never lost its shine.  The edifice always stood at 16th and Georgetown, and we could visit it anytime.  It dominated the sports scene in Indy.  Much of the world woke up to Indianapolis on Memorial Day, but the true believers celebrated the entire month.  Students skipped school to watch practice.  You always went to at least one of the four days of qualifications even if you did not go to the race.  It was headline news in both local Indianapolis papers all month, and all of the local TV stations devoted coverage to the race.  It seemed that every business had a promotion connected to racing and checkered flags.  Simply put, May in Indy was the 500.  There was no escaping.

The result was that you became a fan of something that was yours in some indefinable way.  Central Indiana, for all of its Chamber of Commerce PR, really had nothing else of note to brag about.  It was always a little stunning to realize that this world class racing event was just down the street.  To be honest, most Indy 500 fans in Indiana cannot tell you the history of IndyCar, the IRL, or CART.  Those are just names.  But ask them about Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, or Helio Castroneves and they will tell you all about where they were and what they were doing while they watched or listened to the race.  The 500 is part of the fabric of Hoosier existence, the warp and the weft of our lives.

In the age of social media with its immediacy of opinions, fans of the 500 often find themselves at odds with out-of-state or series-first fans who object to the hagiography that builds up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  These fans often allude to to fact that it is just another race.  It is most assuredly not.  It is a time marker, a cultural touchstone, and a crown jewel to its Indiana fans.  All good race fans have their favorite stories about the month, the track, and the race.  Even its detractors have their stories about why they don’t like it.

Hoosiers, despite recent adverse political publicity, are a friendly and accepting lot, and completely understand why people wish, if only for one month, that they could be one of us.  While we cannot always wax poetic about it, we know that Indy is more than a race.  Just ask us.


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6 thoughts on “Why Indy is more than a race

  1. Corey Cole on said:

    Wrote this last year…

    16th & Georgetown
    Speedway, Indiana
    A little town in the “Crossroads of America” where a single crossroad tells it all. A little town that will double, five times over, in a matter of 26 days. A pilgrimage of wiley pros, wishful newcomers, and wide-eyed specatators.

    Here is the where dreams are built and tried and tested. Where hopeful questions are answered with cold buttermilk immortality or an ugly smear on a white-washed wall. A place of legend. Hallowed ground. When all is still, you hear the echos of history. Jubilant applause, screams of horror, screeching tires, roaring engines, and the announcer over the P.A. Men have lost their lives here, and I’m not so sure they would’ve changed anything for it. These four turns and 2.5 miles of asphalt were…are that meaningful. To accomplish a feat once unimaginable, a balance on a razor’s edge between speed and insanity. This city may have constructed this place, but it MADE itself and it MADE our city. We are forever indebted to it.

    Harroun, Rickenbacker, Offenhauser, Cosworth, Penske, Jones, Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Mears, Luyendyke, Hulman, George, Firestone, Goodyear, Castroneves, Franchitti, Wheldon, Kanaan, Nabors, Chevrolet, Honda, Penzoil, Rutherford, Donahue, Johncock, Sneva, Shaw, Fittipaldi, Lola, Dallara, Marmon
    The names last forever.
    Men and women from all corners of the world compete here for that chance at immortality. We adore them and give them a home away from home. We are all drawn here. For the scene of the giant grandstands and the glass and steel pagoda. For the smell of burning fuel and burning rubber. For the screaming sound of glistening 4-wheeled demons. Screaming Demons in the Vatican of Speed. Its beauty and poetry at life-blurring speed.

    Indy in May is…
    “Back home again, in Indiana” and…
    “Gentlemen, start your engines”.
    Indy in May is 3-wide into Turn 1.
    It’s kissing the bricks…
    and tapping the wall.
    It’s yellow-shirts waving you in.
    It’s 14″ x 14″ x 14″…
    and Carb Day inebriation.
    Indy in May is practice day sunburns..
    and hoping it doesn’t rain.
    A new track record!
    Crossing your fingers on Bump Day.
    From the Bob and Tom Pre-race broadcast..
    to the 1070 Race Call,
    and circling drivers on The Indianapolis Star entrant page.
    It’s the Coke Lot.
    It’s the Snake Pit old or new.
    Indy in May is the 5 car teams worrying about the 1 car teams.
    Indy in May is about the anticipation of heading in traffic…
    and the exhausted exaltation of heading out traffic.
    Indy in May is the journey from Gasoline Alley…
    to Victory Lane.
    But most of all, it is what we love about living here.

  2. Nice list! And as far as you know, I’m not stealing any of the ideas for a future column.

  3. Jim Ray on said:

    Last year I finally made the 16hr drive from Boston to experience the 500 in person. Told friends I was just checking it off my bucket list. Felt the pull to return get stronger as the snow disappeared and Simona getting a ride sealed the deal.
    After almost 50 years of listening to the radio call, watching the tape delay then live broadcast with my Dad, it’s kinda surreal to be there to take it all in.
    I really enjoy reading your columns and can’t wait to return in (wow) 18 days!

  4. Very well said. Being a native Tennessean, there is no place here in the Volunteer State that compares to 16th and Georgetown in May. I was up there this past weekend and will be there the next three in a row. Is it May yet? Why, yes it is.

  5. Cyndi on said:

    The Indy 500 is indeed far more than a race. You captured the essence of its glory to Indiana. During my many adventures attending the race, I always had cold chills from the singing of Back Home Again to somewhere in the 15th lap. Excellent!

  6. It’s one of the reasons I moved back to IN after chasing my dreams and supermodified racing in Oswego, NY. You nailed it!

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