Forty years ago this weekend, I found a passion that nearly matched my love of baseball, golf and whatever else a 20-year-old would dwell upon.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1974, I attended my first Indianapolis 500 and became absolutely hooked by everything the event represented – speeds, noises, smells, crowds, traditions and emotions that bring a tear one moment and utter fear the next.
This weekend, I return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in what has become an annual journey.
I’ve always been an auto racing fan. My dad took me to races at the Missouri State Fair when I was a rugrat, and I covered motorsports after I got my first sportswriting job while in high school.
Yes, the chance of seeing a big crash hooked me.
But the more I got to know the sport and the people infected with whatever filled their veins with a need for speed, the more I became immersed into it myself.
Drivers are a rare mix of speed junkies, risk takers and athletes (yes, they’re athletes) who rely on sharp reflexes and instincts through their eyes, hands, feet and butts in order to keep a car under control while on the very edge of being out of control.
Mechanics constantly search for one more horsepower down the straightaway or just a little more grip in the turns.
And the race fans are as dedicated to their favorite drivers/cars/sport as any I’ve encountered in more than 40 years covering a variety of athletic events.
Most of us are at least a little curious what it must be like to drive a race car. I’ve ridden in fast cars around race tracks, including a couple of laps around Indy in the pace car when I covered the 500 in the late 1970s, and it’s a jarring experience.
Acceleration throws you back into the seat. Cornering creates G-forces that want to toss you out of that seat. And, at Indy, the massive 2 ½-mile track seems very small at 140 mph in the pace car. I can’t imagine what it must feel like at better than 231 mph, which was the average speed of this year’s Indy 500 pole-sitter, Ed Carpenter.
Because of all that, I love the Indy 500.
But there’s more, and my first trip to the 500 in 1974 showed me that everything you see on TV doesn’t come close to conveying the true Indy experience.
The first thing that drops your jaw is the size of the place. It’s the world’s largest arena, with nearly 250,000 permanent seats and room in the infield for another 100,000 or so. Plus there’s a golf course, with four holes inside speedway and the other 14 just outside the backstraight. There’s a museum that contains some of the most famous cars I racing history.
Then there’s the speed. The first time I saw a car flash by at 200 mph, I wondered how a human being could possibly control such a thing.
And finally, there’s the atmosphere around Indianapolis the 24 hours before the race – a sense of anticipation, of celebration, of fear and, to many, of lewd behavior. Outside the speedway on the day before the 500, there’s a block party that envelopes the entire community of Speedway and lasts all night. Many liken it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
I remember sitting on a curb just outside the main straight the night before my first 500 in 1974 talking with a man who was about to see his 20th. It struck me that this man had seen his first race in 1954, about a week before I was born, and that he’d witnessed triumph and tragedy that was so common with Indy in those days.
There must have been 50,000 or more people outside the speedway that night, enjoying beautiful late-May weather and drinking lots and lots of beer.
That’s when I also learned that the four most famous words at the Indy 500 aren’t necessarily “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Over and over during my first trip to the 500 in 1974 I heard guys shout, “Show us your tits!”
Ten years ago, my brother and I took his two sons to the race for the first time. The boys were 7 and 12 years old then, and I really looked forward to their reaction to everything that encompassed the 500 experience – the speed of the cars, the size of the place, etc.
First thing we saw as we walked outside the speedway the day before the race was a cardboard sign near the front porch of a house filled with partying young men. The sign read, “Show tits for free beer!”
The youngest boy asked, “Dad, what’s that about?”
That’s when my brother delivered one of the finest statements I’ve ever heard at the Indy 500.
“Boys, listen up,” my brother began. “You’re going to see some things here this weekend that you really shouldn’t be seeing. Just remember that if your mother ever finds out, none of us is coming back here again.”
Those boys are adults now, and this weekend will be their 10th Indy 500.
And like they experienced for the first time 10 years ago – and me 40 years ago – Indy will invade the senses like no other event.