Each spring, I look forward to the month of May with tremendous anticipation. This year is no different, and there is the added bonus of a road course race, and an new qualifying format for this year’s 500. I’ll be at the Speedway this month once again representing Drafting the Circuits, bringing you live updates.
As I look back on the many Indy 500′s in my past, I couldn’t help but realize that this year’s 500 is significant for me. Not only is it 20 years since I first attended the event in 1994, it is also the 35th anniversary of the first time I watched the 500 on TV in 1979.
With this in mind, I thought that it would be appropriate to share with you some of my personal recollections of this event, in the hopes of explaining why this race holds such a special place in my heart.
While many of you that follow Drafting the Circuits know me as the IndyCar correspondent, it may or may not come as a surprise to you that the first forms of racing that I fell in love with were Formula One, Sports Cars, and Can-Am. These races featured powerful cars, that turned right and left, and went uphill and downhill, on some of the most challenging race courses in the world. Racing in a circle, by comparison, seemed silly to me as a young fan.
I didn’t come across that opinion all by myself. My mom’s little brother, Hughie, was absolutely crazy about road racing, and he taught me everything about racing. Uncle Hughie had a bunch of racing books, hardbound with bright color pictures. I would read through these as often as I could. I would have my sketchpad out, and try to draw these beautiful racecars all the time. At the same time, I was reading intently, gaining knowledge about the history of road racing.
In 1978, Hughie took me to my first professional race, the Formula One Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. I was eleven years old at the time. During that weekend, I became a race fan for life.
A year later, Hughie was at our home in New Jersey on Memorial Day weekend. We were heading out early Monday morning to go to Lime Rock Park to see the IMSA race. On Sunday night, we tuned in to ABC-TV to watch the Indianapolis 500.
I had never seen this race before. I liked the cars, they looked a lot like F-1 cars. I liked the fact that the bulk of the drivers were American. But, the thing that blew my mind was the size of the crowd. Hughie told me that he had a good feeling that Rick Mears was going to win. Hughie was right, Mears took the win, much to the delight of the crowd.
I was hooked! The Indianapolis 500, despite being an oval race, really was the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
On top of that, I realized the Hughie was perhaps one of the greatest prognosticators in racing. Later, I discovered that the Indy 500 was shown tape-delayed during that era and the news of Mears’ win was actually reported hours earlier. Hughie swears to this day that he didn’t see the news earlier, and made that call without prior knowledge. To me, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. What mattered was that I realized the importance of that event.
Later that same year, Hughie took me to Watkins Glen again, this time to see the IndyCars. it was the road course debut of the newly-formed CART Series. I was amazed with the driver access.
At the F-1 race, we didn’t meet a single driver. At this CART race, I was able to meet huge stars like Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, and Tom Begley right there in the garages. I was hooked: these guys raced road courses and ovals at the same time.
As the CART series gained popularity through the 1980′s, it eventually replaced Formula One as my favorite race series. The Indianapolis 500 solidly became my favorite race of the year. Yes, I still loved watching F-1 and Can-Am, but the CART series seemingly had it all.
As the years wore on, I fondly remember watching great 500′s including Johncock narrowly beating Mears in 1982, Danny Sullivan’s spin-and-win in 1985, Big Al’s fourth win in 1987, Arie Luyendyk’s win in 1990, and the epic battle between Michael Andretti and Rick Mears in 1991.
By 1994, I was 27 years old, living in Virginia and forging out a career for myself. I had heard the news that the 1994 Indy 500 would be Mario Andretti’s farewell. The Indy 500 was a sellout every year back then, but I felt like I needed to get to this one, somehow. I didn’t care how, I was going to get there one way or another.
I utilized a third-party ticket broker and bought four tickets. The ticket face value was $25, and I paid $75 each for those tickets. I didn’t care, the price actually seemed quite reasonable. After all, it’s the INDY 500!
There was one person, for sure, that I wanted to take with me. The same guy who took me to all those races when I was a kid: Uncle Hughie. I called him up, and he was all in. We made plans to meet up in Flat Rock, Indiana at the home of our old friend Steve Batcha.
We got to the race track, and the seats were as crappy as they could be. They were on the inside of turn two, affording a view of that turn and nothing else. But we didn’t care, it was the Indianapolis 500 and we saw history in the making as Al Unser Jr. drove the controversial Penske-Illmor/Mercedes to a decisive victory.
I thought to myself at the time, “Come hell or high water, I am going to go to this race every year from here on out.”
As fate would have it, I started a new job in 1995, and relocated to Wisconsin. A trip to Indy was off the table, as I hadn’t earned any vacation time yet. I did, however, get to attend wonderful CART races at Milwaukee and Road America while living up there.
In 1996, Tony George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League beginning the open wheel split that lasted until 2008. Suddenly, the 500 was a race that I actually could care less about. Yes, I still watched it every year, but as a CART loyalist, I actually found the 500 laughable in the early IRL years.
During that time, I had embarked on my career in race journalism, attending CART races around the country, while ignoring the IRL and the formerly great 500 mile race at the Brickyard.
In 2001, I relocated to Kentucky. Within a year, some of the larger CART teams began jumping ship to the IRL causing a paradigm shift in the split. Suddenly, the IRL was gaining momentum, while CART was on a slow downward spiral. Realizing that the Speedway was a mere three hour drive from my home in Kentucky, I headed up to Indy on a practice day in May of 2002, just to check it out.
Sitting and watching, all those feelings from 1994 came rushing back. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the greatest place on earth. How could I have turned my back on it for all those years?
With the split, the 500 had actually lost enough of its luster that tickets were now available for purchase through the track. The ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ was no longer a guaranteed sellout. Actually, that was good news for me as I ordered and received my tickets for the 2003 Indy 500. We enjoyed a great win by Gil deFerran for the Penske Team. I renewed my tickets, and have not missed a 500 since.
In 2004, I got married and took my wife, Laura, to her first Indy 500 in 2005. I had previously taken her to a NASCAR race at Martinsville and an IndyCar race in Nashville. She hadn’t quite caught the racing bug yet, but she was excited to go to Indianapolis.
By the end of the day, a young rookie named Danica Patrick set the crowd on its feet leading towards the end. Another young driver named Dan Wheldon came through with the win, and Laura was hooked.
“I was excited and overwhelmed all at the same time,” she told me. “I have never been part of such a tremendous crowd, it’s absolutely amazing, I have nothing to compare it to.”
She made me promise to take her back every year, and I have held true to that promise. Our annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis is a highlight on our calendar. We have witnessed some of the greatest 500s in history including all three of Dario’s wins, Hornish nipping Andretti at the line in 2006, Helio joining the three-timers club in 2009, Dan Wheldon grabbing an opportunistic win the in Centennial event in 2011 and Tony Kanaan finally adding his face to the Borg-Warner in 2013.
Not lost on me is another milestone for 2014. It will be the tenth consecutive 500 that Laura and I have attended together. One of the greatest things about the Speedway is renewing our grandstand seats each year, and sitting with the same folks year after year. While we only see these people once a year, we have forged great friendships, and enjoy their company.
We have press credentials this day and age, and could watch the race from the Media Center, or anywhere else that we would like. However, we still keep our grandstand tickets. We always head over and watch most of the race right there, with our great friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that Laura agrees with me. This is the part of the Indy 500 experience that you cannot put into words.
I do realize that with 12 Indy 500s under my belt, and a thirteenth on the way, that I am far from a veteran of the Speedway. There is a kindly gentleman that sits right in front of Laura and I each year who has been attending since the 1950s. Now, he has some great stories to share, and I always enjoy speaking with him. Sadly, this past year, he wasn’t there. There were new fans in his seat. I do not know what has become of him, but I hope he’s still around.
At the same time, I realize that Laura and I are building our own legacy at the Speedway. Each year we add new stories.
Sometimes they are good, sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, but great memories nonetheless. These are all stories that we can share with the next generation of IndyCar fans that may someday sit next to us.
One day, a kindly old man, with his sweet wife at his side, will be escorted to his seats by his grandchildren and engage some young fans in conversation about Indy history.
That will be me.