As I was standing in the back-straight bleachers at my very first Indianapolis 500, I caught sight of the field firing out of Turn 2 during the first lap, a hail of oncoming bullets like bright-colored cans of motor oil. The earth tilted under my feet. My eyes passed along the visual data to my brain, my occipital lobe immediately began to smoke from overload, and when I tried to say “wow!” to my buddy, what squeaked out of my mouth was “control-alt-delete.”
I’d seen the 500 plenty of times on TV, of course, but Indy speed doesn’t translate to the screen. Sure, the cars look fast, and the show is always impressive, but the speed — and the noise, the grandstands shimmering behind the heat waves, the sweat, the barbecue smoke, and the howls of more than 300,000 sunscreened humans squeezed shoulder to shoulder under a Midwestern sky — can only be appreciated by being there. Watching 33 open-cockpit race cars scream past you at more than 200 mph — mere yards away, the drivers fighting to maintain control as much as they are for position, the entire swarm of orderly chaos at the mercy of a blown tire or a detached wing or one tiny wrong flick of a steering wheel — is like being sucked into the Matrix. Hold on! That can’t be real. Did I just see … Who are those creatures driving those unholy things? My hands are shaking. Look out! Here they come again!
My first Indy 500 was way back in 1985, the famous “spin and win” in which Danny Sullivan, attempting to pass Mario Andretti, lost control, pirouetted a full 360 degrees, miraculously hit nothing, and later successfully passed Andretti to take the checkered flag and win a free glass of milk. My pal and I didn’t fare so well on the refreshments front. After we’d agreed to celebrate our Speedway baptism by depressurizing with some cold beers around the motel swimming pool, a local drugstore clerk gave us the bad news: “Boys, this is Indiana. You can’t buy alcohol on Sundays.” Before I’d even exited the store, all of my lobes had burst into flames.
I came back the next year anyway but didn’t see the race. Rained out. The trip wasn’t a total loss, though. By then I was in the “industry” and was able to hide out from the downpour in the brand-new Gasoline Alley garage that housed that year’s Chevrolet Corvette pace car. In walked A.J. Foyt, and we exchanged pleasantries. A living legend and an incredibly nice guy, he didn’t seem put off by the delays in the slightest. Soon afterward, I managed a few words with that year’s pace-car driver, Chuck Yeager. It turned out the then-retired exemplar of “The Right Stuff” owned a ’Vette of his own, so I asked Yeager if he ever liked to push the envelope at the wheel. He broke into a crinkled smile: “Son, I’ve been lookin’ over my shoulder my whole life. These days, I keep it at 55.”
Indy even takes being a mere spectator to the next level. It isn’t a foul ball that might come flying your way if something goes amiss. In 1994, drivers Mike Groff and Dominic Dobson tangled in Turn 1. I was standing in the infield, close enough to the tarmac that I could feel the crash. I managed to duck in time to avoid some flying debris, and for the next few hours I was plucking pieces of race car out of my hair.
Then I got my first drive at Indy. Nope, I wasn’t in the 500. Wasn’t in a race car, either. Instead, a prominent audio company was unveiling some new car stereos and chose the Speedway as the venue. Lined up in the pits were several gleaming Camaro Z28s. The drill was to take a car and slowly cruise around the famed oval while swooning at the expensive tweeters and woofers. Uh, right. I grabbed a Camaro, drove out of the pits … and turned the stereo off. C’mon. This was Indy. This was 2.5 miles of the most hallowed tarmac in the racing world.
We were supposed to stay under 50 mph, but by the back straight somehow the Camaro was doing 120. I swallowed hard at a realization: Right here IndyCar drivers are going almost twice as fast. Sometimes four or even five abreast, their lives on the line every mile. All for that free glass of milk.
I’ll remember those laps, and my other trips to Indianapolis, this Memorial Day weekend. Because the 500 isn’t simply an auto race. It’s tradition, glory, tragedy, spectacle, loss, victory, and most of all impossible things imagined, yoked, and wrought real on the biggest stage in sports. For me, that’s a jones only Indy can fix.