Indy 500 special for all Hoosiers


Somewhere along the way, when the powers who supervise the Indianapolis 500 realized the cars could not keep getting faster and faster without achieving takeoff, speed began counting for less at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Oh, we still admire a vehicle that can rocket along at more than 200 mph. It’s just that we no longer expect the Memorial Day weekend race to deliver land-speed records. There is a awareness the race just can’t do that anymore because the Brickyard was not built and shaped to handle cars traveling at 250 mph or 275 mph.

For decades, there was a deep fascination with speed among watchers. Could a car break the 100 mph barrier? Could a car top 150? Could there some day be a race car accelerating beyond 200 mph?

Technology took us to those places. If unchecked, technology would have taken us far beyond those seemingly quaint barriers before now. We would be watching a race that to the human eye would be conducted as a blur. As it is, we have a 200-lap race on a two-and-a-half-mile long oval that stresses another sense — hearing — with its roaring engines. They produce external primeval noise and inner-body stirring rumbles.

Since 1911 in Indiana, the 500 has been the single-most revered sporting event on the calendar. It is the best-known, most prestigious automobile race in the world. If it was not, then drivers who specialize in other disciplines of motor-car racing would not take timeouts to spend May in Indy, at Indy.

For spectators and drivers alike, there is nowhere else to be at this time of year. The 500 is a cherished possession of the Hoosier State, the most loved event of the year. Indiana is a basketball state 364 days a year, but it is an Indianapolis 500 state for one holiday a year, a public property.

When life is normal, which isn’t quite yet following the COVID-19 pandemic, and fans truly flood the world’s largest sporting venue to the tune of about 400,000 witnesses, the Speedway is the center of buzz that transcends the building.

It is not completely clear just how many people will be inside the ‘yard for the 105th running. The Speedway previously announced 135,000 tickets would be sold and then overshot its selling goal by many thousand. Gov. Eric Holcomb should say, “What the heck?” and allow in anyone who has a genuinely purchased ticket, though clearly miscalculations were made.

Even if you were not one of the 400,000 inside for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, you were watching on television, or watching the newscast about the results. At the very least you would ask a friend, “Who won?”

Any champion of the Indianapolis 500 is an honorary Hoosier. The drivers, many who come to Indiana year after year, who climb into their tiny cockpits year after year, become almost adopted sons. Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Bobby Rahal, Scott Dixon, can dine out on their accomplishments at St. Elmo’s.

Where is A.J. Foyt more revered than in Indiana? Or Mario Andretti? Or anyone named Unser? Those who take the checkered flag are sporting heroes forever.

Anyone who was around for the celebration of the 100th running of the Indy 500 saw that. For days, those celebrity winners were in constant demand for autographs, to pose for pictures, to relive special moments. Thousands of fans came out to share history with the drivers who wrote it.

The race creates new stars each spring, launches careers, embellishes them. Many of the big racing names find it difficult to stay away. They are always welcome back, not merely on anniversaries. Many Hoosiers make it annual appointment tradition to claim a seat at the track, or inside the infield, when allowed.

Wherever I have lived at the time, including Alaska, I make sure I at least have access to a television set when at race time. Been watching since 1963 when Parnelli Jones won. Other times I have been in the press box, or in the spectator seats.

Those of us around now are not going to see any fresh barrier of 250 mph broken by a car at top speed. Yet we are content with 200 mph, or 230 on qualifying laps. That’s because we still think of 200 as fast. We can’t go like that, like the wind, in our Toyotas or Fords or Chevy sedans, and those who try to get pulled over by officers in blue questioning our sanity.

So if previous fans turned out at the Brickyard to see records set, now they turn out to see traditions observed. We want to hear officials say “Gentlemen, start your engines” and hear “Back Home Again In Indiana,” even if it is not crooned by the late Jim Nabors.

We want to see a clean result not too often interrupted by flying debris with drivers zipping along at speeds well above those attained on I-65. We want to see the winner sloppily chug milk and hear him gush about how the victory will change his life.

The trappings matter. We don’t ask for much. We want to be reassured the Indianapolis 500 is still the Indianapolis 500 after all these years.

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