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Peonies, lilacs, and the Indy 500

Editor’s note: I wrote the following for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville, Indiana’s best (and only) literary review.  The book was divided into monthly sections this year, and because of my love for the Indy 500, I was asked to write about the month of May.  It touches on a little more than just the race.  If you grew up in small-town Indiana in the 1960’s, you will understand.

Early each spring, my neighbors look out their windows and see me standing by my garage staring at the ground.  The grass is not yet green, and the leaves on the trees are still buds.  My neighbors don’t know it, but I’m waiting for my old friend the peony bush to push its way out of the mulch and thus begin my countdown to the month of May.

I’m a perennial guy.  You can keep your petunias, begonias, and marigolds.  An annual just doesn’t have the heart of a perennial.  They may last longer and have prettier blooms, but annuals are just so transitory.  Give me reliability over flash anytime.  Perennials are something you can trust.  The perennials I trust bloom three times in the month of May: once with the peony, once with the lilac, and once with the Indianapolis 500.

The peony bush requires some explanation.  I remember being taught that the peony, pronounced with three syllables and a long “e” sound, was our state flower. I never connected that flower with the peony bush, pronounced with two syllables that sound like  pine with a “y” at the end: piney.  That’s how it was pronounced in the Shirley, Indiana of my youth.  I was stunned to find out that they were the same flower.  The peony is one of the hoi polloi of flowers, a blue collar bloom if there ever was one.  It’s deep green leaves and stalks grow quickly and sport massive buds that bloom into large, heavy, ant covered flowers that explode and fade in the month of May.  After that riot of color, it resumes a plebeian life of ugliness and lives out the year on the borders of properties, waiting again for its fleeting moment of glory.

Small town people understand the peony.  They appreciate its toughness and resiliency.  They admire the springtime beauty that requires no extra attention, no extra cultivation, no extra love.  That is how small town people have lived their lives in Indiana for over a century.  The peony is a paean to Hoosier life.  So every year I stand by my garage and stare at the ground, waiting for my favorite flower to announce once again that spring is here.  And every year it brings memories of the end of school, dewy mornings, and the month of May.

As the peony flowers sag to the ground under their own weight or become victims of the baseball bats of boys, the lilac’s purple flowers remind us that beauty can be both seen and smelled.  Our yard had only two beautiful things: the peonies in front of the house and the lilac bush out by the alley.  Growing up in a house where making a living took most of their time, my parents never added beauty to the property.  I am sure that both the peonies and the lilacs were planted long before we ever moved into the house on the corner of White and Shirley Streets.  Even so, we took time out to walk around the lilac every year, basking in the fragrance of its purple flowers.  That such a beautiful and wonderful thing existed in our yard always amazed us, although we never spoke about it.  Beauty was never spoken of in our house.  We acknowledged its existence silently, internally.  It was as if beauty was reserved for others, for special people who somehow deserved it.  The lilac was our beauty.

Today, the scent of the lilac sends me back to the innocent wonder of beauty in our backyard.  I cannot explain where that sweet purple smell takes me.  It is not a certain place, time, or event.  It is not one achingly beautiful or sad moment, nor is it one game of catch in the backyard with my dad.  It is all of those things.  The lilac whispers to me in a voice I can’t quite hear, describing things I can’t quite see, about a moment I can’t quite remember.  The lilac makes me cry.  It is the essence of May.

But all is not rural dialect and maudlin reminisces.  Even though the natural beauty of flowers and shrubs are touchstones for the month of May to me, a man-made event culminates the month and has dominated my interest since I can remember.  The Indianapolis 500 makes the month of May the centerpiece of my existence.  Time is measured as before or after the race.  Only in Indiana can you say “I’m going to the race” or “I’m going to the track,” and no one ever asks what race or which track.  There is only one of each.

May was listening to Sid Collins announce “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on the radio.  You were one of two tribes: A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti.  You could not be both.  You read both the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News to make sure you did not miss any stories about the race.  It was almost beyond belief that this event was taking place just down the road.  It was ours.

When I was ten years old, the impossible happened.  My brother told me I could go to the race with him.  On the afternoon before the race, a highly modified 1953 GMC panel truck with the sides cut out and a platform on top pulled into our driveway.  A local tavern owner and his cronies had built it for the sole purpose of going to the 500.  It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen.  As my mother frowned powerfully, we headed to Speedway to spend the night on 16th Street.  In the morning we rode our bright blue chariot into the track and up to the fence in the second turn.  I have been going ever since.  Just like the peonies and the lilacs, the Indy 500 is one of my May perennials.

I have five peonies next to my garage, two lilacs in my backyard, and ten tickets to the Indianapolis 500.  My children go to the race with me every year.  My son has peonies planted next to his garage, and my daughter cuts lilac blooms from my bushes to put on her kitchen counter.  My perennials have become theirs. Maybe one day they will tell their own children about their first race.  Maybe my daughter will smell lilacs with her grandchildren.  And maybe one day, my son’s neighbors will see him standing next to his garage staring at the ground.



Fast Times in Noblesville

(Editor’s note:  This article was written for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville’s only literary review, after interviewing Noblesville, Indiana racer Bryan Clauson at Kokomo Speedway this summer.  The editor is stoked since someone actually printed a piece of his writing in a real publication.  This piece was part of a series on influential/interesting citizens, both past and present and was written assuming the readers were not necessarily racing fans.  If you are interested in supporting The Polk Street Review, click here to check out the website and to order your copy.  Whether it’s grassroots racing or grassroots writing, your support is invaluable.)


Bryan Clauson could be the guy that Hoosier musician John Mellencamp was singing about in his hit song “Small Town.”  Clauson, the 23 year-old championship auto racer from Noblesville, is fully grounded with his sense of place. “Noblesville has grown into a big town, but it still has that small town feel.  That sense of community is part of what keeps me planted in Noblesville.  It would be hard to ever uproot me.”

Bryan has been a USAC (United States Auto Club) champion in both the midget and sprint car series, driven in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and piloted an Indy car in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  The nomadic life of a racer parallels life in a tight-knit community. “(Racing is) something I grew up with, something I love.  It’s definitely one of the places I’m at home.  Everybody’s here to beat each other, but it’s one big family.”  Competing over 100 times a year in the high stress environment of auto racing creates a bond.  Bryan understands that the racing community is like any other family.  “We’re like siblings.  We can pick on each other, but if someone else does it, it’s not OK.”  That’s just the kind of relationship you might see in any home in Noblesville.

It’s that sense of community, in both Noblesville and racing, that helps Bryan handle the traveling that is inherent in big time auto racing. “There’s times you go a month, two months, without seeing your bed.”  While Bryan and his racing team often stay in motels, they also stay with friends and family throughout the country, using both their homes and garages.  He knows how lucky he is.  “I travel the country doing what I love.  It’s hard to beat that.”  In many ways, Bryan is doing what so many people long to do: he is following his dream.

Bryan began racing quarter midgets in California before moving to Noblesville.  His new central Indiana home landed him in the middle of one of the hotbeds of auto racing.  As he progressed through the ranks of USAC sprint and midget racing, he caught the eye of Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR.  His short career in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, which most would consider successful, was cut short by the money woes that plague auto racing at all levels.  He returned to his roots on the short dirt ovals of the Midwest and California and returned to his championship ways.  In 2010, Bryan won the USAC National Driver Championship, earning a scholarship from IndyCar’s CEO Randy Bernard to compete in the 2011 Indy Lights Series with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.  He parlayed that opportunity into a ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  Even though Bryan was fast in practice for the 500, a hard crash in qualifying ended his chance of a good starting position.  A spin early in the race left him with handling problems that led to his early exit and a 30th place finish.  Bryan takes away good memories, though.  “It’s the Mecca of motorsports.  The experience is something I’ll hang onto forever.”

What is it like to do what Bryan does?  He struggled to describe it.  “You take a 1000 pound, 900 horsepower car, and you’re slinging it sideways on a turn at a little over 120 miles-per-hour around a quarter-mile dirt track in a little over 13 seconds.  I don’t think there’s a feeling like it.  You drive it by the seat of your pants.  It’s basically a rocket ship you’re trying to sling around a quarter-mile dirt track.”  It doesn’t quite sound like a trip to town in the family sedan.

When asked about his favorite track while waiting to race at Kokomo Speedway, Bryan smiled and looked around him.  “My favorite Indiana track?  We’re standing in it. Kokomo Speedway.  It’s as good as it gets right here.  It’s the baddest bullring in the country.”  Whether it is the summer racing throughout the United States or his winter racing tour of New Zealand, Bryan’s roots always seem to bring him back to his home tracks in central Indiana and his hometown of Noblesville.  And that is quite all right with him.

Even with all his time away, Bryan always knows where home is.  “Noblesville is home, the place that I love, the place that I’ll probably always call home.”  No matter how fast or how far Bryan Clauson drives, he will always know the road back home to Noblesville.

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