Yesterday’s Indianapolis 500 was certainly one for the ages.
It was the 100th anniversary of the speedway—not to be confused with the anniversary of the race, which was halted several years during the war years, both the first and second World Wars. The 100th running of the event will be marked later this decade. Coincidentally, I attended my first 500 in 1966 as a nine-year-old boy. It was the 50th running of the race, and a tradition of my own was born that year. In the seventies and eighties I strung together more than twenty consecutive races—I have the tickets to prove it. I witnessed Foyt become the first man to win four 500s. I’ve seen some of the greatest drivers—A.J. Foyt, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, the Unsers and the Andrettis, Emerson Fittipaldi and many others. I witnessed history as Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever start the Indy 500.
Sadly, in the 1970’s, the sport began to change. It became more about technology. Where once a great driver could put a car into Victory Lane, it’s now about investing the most money in equipment. Today a winning team is composed of maybe 40% driver. In the 1990’s I stopped going to the race.
Three and a half years ago my now ex-girlfriend, knowing of my past love for this event, asked me when I was going to take her to a 500. She’d long complained that I didn’t take her out enough and so I ordered two tickets—not the best seats in the house; I ordered them late and few good seats were available. We went and she complained about the seats, the noise and the heat and I was reminded why it was I rarely took her anyplace. Did I mention she’s now my ex-girlfriend?
Last fall I suggested to a boyhood pal, who had never been to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, that attending this special anniversary celebration might be the one to make his first. Mark told me, “Sure, let me get back to you,” leaving me to wonder if he really would. True to his word, he contacted me a few days later to tell me that two of his buddies from church wanted to come along and so I ordered four tickets.
Four grown men, we guys of a certain age, driving all night to attend the Indy 500—truly a recipe for a grand time. Or maybe disaster.
I told Mark we should leave at 2:30 Sunday morning, which would allow us enough time to enjoy breakfast at the International House of Pancakes on Meridian at 16th Street. There was nothing special about the IHOP other than its rich history: Dad had taken me there in 1966 and I’d gone there every year I ever attended a race. I took a previous girlfriend there—it was the year Foyt won his fourth—as well as my wife and, three years ago, my old girlfriend. The IHOP was long part of my tradition. From there we’d head downtown and grab a shuttle to the track where we’d roam the infield to check out the sights before the race.
Well, David was late arriving to Northridge Church, where we’d all agreed to meet. By the time we got his stuff loaded into Mark’s Expedition we were thirty minutes behind schedule. But Mark got us back on schedule by pushing the upper limits of the posted speeds.
We talked all night, the stuff guys talk about. Mark talked about his three sons, of whom he is rightly proud. I’ve met them all and they are fine young men.
“Daniel,” he said, “had to do a paper for school on the merits of video games.”
Daniel is Mark’s youngest, at age nineteen. He’s intelligent and, as Mark claims, not nearly as quiet in private as he is in public. Best of all, he’s respectful of others—including our generation, when it’s earned.
“There are merits to playing video games?” David asked from the backseat. “As opposed to, say, reading a book?”
“That was the challenge of the assignment,” Mark said. “He put forth a good argument.”
“He convinced you?” I asked.
We all laughed.
“Daniel told me he caught up with you on some website where you were carrying on a debate about some aspect of baseball,” Mark told me.
“I forget what the discussion was about but he told me he thought you sure were passionate about baseball.”
“That was a surprise to you?”
Mark laughed. “No.”
From there we talked of baseball, the beauty of the game, instant replay, steroids, the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players.
“You’re against instant replay,” Mark said to me, “even though last summer it would’ve guaranteed Galarraga’s perfect game?”
“He still twirled a perfect game,” I countered. “Everyone knows that. Jim Joyce admitted it later, that he blew the call. In my mind I attended the only perfect game in major league history that will never appear in any record book. There’s something field of dreamish about that.”
“It’s not a perfect game if it took twenty-eight outs,” Mark said.
“It is if the umpire admits he blew the call.”
“Tell that to Galarraga.”
“He knows,” I said. “In his heart he knows. He doesn’t need no steenkin’ record book to tell him.”
We both agreed that Galarraga showed incredible class in the aftermath of what might have been.
We talked of politics and bin Laden and what constitutes torture.
“I’m not above torture,” Mark said. “I’d employ water-boarding to obtain the information that might save my family.”
We talked of David’s recent separation from his wife and his impending divorce.
Starlin talked about his motorcycle accident.
“I looked down for a minute,” he explained, “and when I looked up again a Volvo was stopped right in front of me. I went over the handlebars.”
Mark quipped that a minute was a long time to have one’s eyes not on the road.
We spoke of a variety of topics, including the race and who our favorites were.
“My favorite is anyone not driving for Penske or whose name is not Danica Patrick,” I said.
“I think she’s hot,” Star said.
“What’ve you got against Danica?” David asked.
“When she first broke in,” I said, “she did an interview during which she said she wanted to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, not a woman trying to play in the sandbox with the boys. Then she proceeded to take off her clothes for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.”
“You have a problem with that?”
“I like pretty girls as much as the next guy,” I said. “But if she wants to be taken seriously as a racecar driver, that’s not the way to go about it.”
“Carl Edwards in NASCAR did a spread for a magazine. That guy is ripped.”
“So what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.”
“Two wrongs make a right.”
“What’s wrong about it?”
“In a society that purports to be anti-objectification of women, a lot.”
And so it went. We passed the miles and the hours debating, in a healthy fashion, a host of topics, each of us respectful of the other’s opinions.
Four hours later we rolled into Indianapolis, gassed up the Expedition, and made our way into town.
We turned left onto Meridian and as we approached 16th Street I told Mark the IHOP would be on the left; but when we got there we saw that the IHOP had been replaced by a CVS and I found I was more than a little disappointed that a part of my past had been unceremoniously eradicated.
We drove downtown to get our shuttle tickets—$24 for a roundtrip fare. I recalled my dad telling me when he first started coming to Indy, in 1951, the train fare was but fifty cents.
We found another diner for breakfast where the food was far better than the IHOP had ever been; but it did little to assuage my disappointment.
It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we arrived at the track, and we spent an hour roaming the infield before making our way to our seats in turn one.
The atmosphere was electric, as it always is during the prerace festivities.
I was gratified that some things never change—God Bless America and America the Beautiful were sung. The invocation was given, Military Taps played, the Star Spangled Banner sung (a stealth bomber flew overhead looking sleek and ominous and took with it our breath). When Jim Nabors sang Back Home in Indiana it was again, for a moment, 1966 for me. I thought of my dad, shared the moment with him, and was glad the guys couldn’t see the tears in my eyes behind my sunglasses.
When the command was given to the drivers to start their engines I was only dimly aware of the addition of “ladies.” When the engines fired the four of us exchanged high fives and remained standing through the parade laps and the pace lap.
When the green flag dropped and the cars came by at speed, Mark turned to me and said something I couldn’t hear for the sake of the blessed noise of the screaming engines, but I didn’t care.
We then settled into our seats to watch the race unfold.
It was a race for the ages, a throwback to the golden age of motor sports. The rabbits, one by one fell by the wayside. Castroneves fell a lap behind; the pole sitter, Tagliani, crashed. The race was fast, with few caution periods.
When Danica Patrick took the lead late in the race, Mark elbowed me; but I told him she’d have to stop for fuel and would finish no better than 10th, which is pretty much where she’d been running all day.
The finish, like the race, was fast but eventful.
Kanaan and Franchitti looked to be contenders for the Borg Warner, but they, too, had to stop for a splash of fuel with a handful of laps to go.
J.R. Hildebrand inherited the lead and the race was his to lose, which he did when he hit the fourth turn wall on the last lap, leaving Dan Wheldon to take the checkered flag in one of the wildest finishes I can remember. Hildebrand's wrecked car stopped in front of us and he climbed from the cockpit looking as demolished as his once sleek car looked.
On our shuttle, as we inched along, I spotted a woman in a day-glo pink swimsuit top and short denim cutoffs. Although buxom, she wasn’t very pretty and was too old to be dressed as she was; but who was I to judge?
I called out to David, seated across the aisle from me, if he thought her top was indeed day-glo pink.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m terrible with colors.”
A woman’s voice from behind me concurred with my assessment. I turned in my seat thinking I was about to incur her wrath. But she was an attractive woman of our age, seated next to her husband, and she was good-natured about it.
“Did you notice her sunglasses were white?” she asked with a dazzling grin as her husband laughed.
I looked back at the woman in question and then back at the woman behind me.
“No, I missed that,” I said. “To be honest I was trying to make out the tattoo on her navel.”
When the bus inched past her, I added, “Dere dey glo.”
We had a bird’s eye view of the bus in front of us, where an advertisement stared back at us: a photo of a mansion and the words, See the House that Jefferson built.
“Bus driver,” I called out from my seat three rows behind him.
“What’s your name?”
“Howard,” I said. “Are you going to show us the house that Jefferson built after you drive your bus through it?”
Howard joined us with a laugh and assured us that wouldn't happen.
Our drive home was pleasant and we passed the miles by talking about the day’s events and the lives to which we were returning. I mentioned some small piece of 500 trivia, adding that I was a wealth of worthless knowledge where Indy was concerned, and David said, “That’s something you wouldn’t learn by playing video games.”
Mark said he could see taking his grandchildren to a 500 one day when they got old enough and I took pleasure in passing a new tradition to someone.
We arrived at Northridge Church just after nine and I exchanged handshakes with Star and David, a hug with my childhood buddy, Mark.
On my drive home I lost myself in thoughts of the day, the race, what it meant to me, its traditions, Dad, and my own traditions. I thought of A.J. Foyt, a boyhood idol, who drove the pace car earlier in the day. It was the fiftieth anniversary of his first 500 win, and I wondered where the years had gone.
I fought back tears as I realized, yet again, you really can’t go home again.
I’d learned that lesson fifteen years ago when, after Dad passed away, my sister and I sold the house in which we grew up.
Alone in that house for the last time, I made my way through it, checking all the cupboards to make sure we hadn’t missed anything, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. The image that stared back at me was fifteen years old. Behind me stood Dad, teaching me how to tie a Windsor knot in the tie I wore to my high school homecoming dance.
A few weeks later I drove by that house on my way to visit friends who lived around the corner. It was dusk and I noted the new owners had replaced the drapes of the living room window with vertical blinds. The blinds were open and I could see the wallpaper in the living room had been torn down and the walls painted: the home my parents had made for me and my sister was now someone else’s home.
They, whoever they are, say that change is good. But that’s a blanket statement. Not all change is good, even if it is inevitable. Today’s Indy 500 is faster and safer than it was during the golden age of racing. It’s common for women to compete in what once was a male sport; when I first started attending the Great Race women weren't allowed in the pits. This year’s field boasted four women. Eventually the Borg Warner trophy will bear the likeness of a woman, and that, along with all the rest, is a good thing.
But this morning that does little to assuage my grief over a past forever etched only in memories.