03 May 2010

The Month of May

Last week, Vision Racing asked via their twitter account, for accounts of how people came to fall in love with the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing.  I replied with a 140-character response, but as we hit the month of May, allow me to expand upon it.

I've spent nearly 24 of my 28 years on this planet living in Indianapolis.  I was born and bred here, before heading out to Boston College for four years and returning after graduation (and enjoying amenities like being able to afford a house for the cost of a studio, cheap beer, etc.).

Growing up in Indianapolis, at least in my house, the month of May took on special properties.  I remember my father running the Mini-Marathon when I was younger; they used to finish the race at the start/finish line in Speedway and bus people back to downtown Indy.  In any case, I remember the negatives they used to send of each participant finishing, and to me, finishing 13.1 miles right where the Indycars did was pretty cool to a 4-year old.

My parents began attending the 500 from the time they moved to Indianapolis in the early 1980's, taking family members over their young son for the entire decade.  They initially had seats in Turn 4, but continually renewed until settling in their current location - Paddock, Section 9, Row BB, Seats 17-20.

Gradually, I got to attend qualifications, maybe to build up my ear resistance to the motors.  As a little kid, I had a few heroes - the Chicago Cubs, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and Danny Sullivan.  When I was still too young to attend the race, I remember my parents bringing back the 500 program, and the pull-out of the 33-car grid.  For whatever reason, I was fascinated by all the cars - maybe it was the colors, or the different designs - I couldn't get enough of those grids.

I was 2-and-a-half when the "Spin N' Win" occurred, but throughout the 80's, Danny Sullivan was my guy; when wearing my plastic racing helmet, that's who I was, cornering at Indy.

As I grew up, IMS slowly became more available to me; by fourth grade, I was attending the 500 with my dad; coolers of Coke, Gatorade and a bag of Twizzlers became a race-day tradition, as did waking up early to make roughly 12 sandwiches for me, my dad, and whatever two friends tagged along to the race.

I made every 500 after 1992 but one - Arie Luyendyk's 1997 500 victory; it was eighth grade, and the race was postponed two days by rain.  I wasn't allowed to skip school for the Tuesday race, unfortunately.

By high school, my friends and I were heading to IMS on a regular basis for the 500.  I had one friend fall asleep in the middle of the race - I don't think we invited him back for another 500.  For us, the 500 was a chance to act above our age - we could walk around IMS unsupervised and see all sorts of sights and sounds, especially for the ones who spent Saturday night in Speedway.

In college, the 500 was a reason to come home.  I didn't make it back to Indianapolis too often, but Memorial Day weekend was always circled on the calendar.

It became my goal to get my roommates to the 500, and I largely succeeded.  Introducing IndyCar racing to someone who has never seen it, especially at Indianapolis, was a rush.  You could see their eyes glaze over from sensory overload when the green flag dropped and 33 cars topped 220 mph heading into turn 1.  And by the end of the day, their eyes were crazy with adrenaline from the race and the fatigue of waking up early and imbibing in a beverage or two throughout the weekend.

Indianapolis really hit home to me in my junior year of college, when I spent five months in Sydney, Australia, studying at the University of New South Wales.  Throughout my interactions with people, the 500 was the easiest way to relate to people.  It was practically the first thing that folks brought up when I told them where I was from (that and American foreign policy in 2003).

IMS and the 500 became my tie to home, aside from my family and friends.  Living so far away from home, I clung to the race, not because I missed Indianapolis and America, but because I realized just how much the 500 was an identifier for my home.  People in Australia didn't care about the Pacers, or the Cubs (try watching the 2003 NLCS at 9 a.m. Australian time), but they did identify with IMS and the 500.

Today, it's nearly impossible for me to maintain a dry eye during "Back Home Again in Indiana."

Since graduating, I still enjoy the lure of IMS.  Living in Indy, and having an office from where I can hear the engines on a good day, the sirens' song only grows louder.  I can spend a few more days there now (along with a few more dollars), from Pole Day through the 500, and each new experience at IMS adds to the bank of memories I've accumulated.

These days, I've largely taken over the ticket account from my father, but in doing so, I feel an even stronger tie to those days of my youth, when I was a large-eyed 10 year-old staring out at the expanse of IMS.  I still love bringing newcomers to the track for the race; my wife (then girlfriend) enjoyed her first experience at IMS in 2006 - it probably helped that Marco Andretti damn near won the race.  I knew that she was a keeper, but the fact that she enjoyed the 500 so much only sold me that much more.

Attending the 500 brings back a flood of memories - I still have to buy a program and look at the grid, if nothing else to mention to everyone that I've loved them since my youth.  I still have a secret path to IMS on race day that avoids nearly all traffic and I always park in the same lot.  It still annoys everyone I've ever driven to the 500 that I force everyone up early after a night of revelry to get to IMS early, so we miss traffic.

I remember attending qualifications and races with my mom and dad (it's where I learned who "Lone Star JR" was), and running on the track during the five Mini-Marathons in which I've run.

This year, I'll add a few memories to the 2010 Indianapolis 500 - a track lap with my wife and father in a pace car that we took in mid-April; it was a thrill to top 100 mph in an Impala.  And personally, I'll add the experience of sitting and riding in a two-seater, which I will do on this upcoming Thursday.  I cannot wait until the race, when I can say, "I've done that," as a car corners through turn 1.

Yes, the Indianapolis 500 is about speed, pushing the envelope of the speed/safety balance and the history and pageantry of IMS.  And to another extent, the parties before, during and after the 500.  It's the Snake Pit, the pure American-ness of bringing a cooler of your own beverages into the track, and enjoying a sun-splashed late-spring day in Indianapolis (though as I leave IMS each year, I appreciate being covered in the Paddock).

To me, though, it's more: the month of May brings me back to my home and memories; through all the changes in life throughout the years, the ups and downs, Indianapolis has always been there on Memorial Day weekend, welcoming all comers (and whatever changes in life had occurred in the last year) with open arms.

And come May 30, 2010, I'll make another Indianapolis 500 (my 17th) and add to the memories.  I cannot wait.


  1. Well played, sir. Well played indeed.

  2. A beautiful commentary on what the EXPERIENCE of the Indianapolis 500 is about. It's not the race alone to take in. The thought of ethanol in the air makes me smile...

  3. Michael Togni07 May, 2010 00:22

    I am with you completely! This will be my 27th 500 in a row. You story gave me misty eyes. I too, have annoyed many a friend by mandating we're at The Coke Lot by 5:30 a.m. and in line at Gate 9 by 6:00 a.m. for the 7:00 a.m. sprint to The Tower Terrace for Pole Day.

  4. Excellent story. Well done.

  5. I can related deeply and passionately to your story. This will be my 39th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race since my first visit to the Speedway in 1969 for Pole Day with my Dad, brother and a couple of gradeschool friends. My wife and I were married at 16th & Georgetown on May 25th, 1996.