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.