This 500 Will Be Special

It was a little after 6pm Sunday afternoon, soon after qualifying had ended for the 105th Indianapolis 500, at home sitting in my favorite chair, reflecting on how much I enjoyed what had transpired over the previous six hours of my Sunday. I am never on-site for 500 qualifying, so this was a qualifying Sunday I had genuinely enjoyed more than I had in a very long time. Then a strange realization hit me.

My enjoyment illuminated something I hadn’t felt for a very long time, perhaps even before 1995. Gone was the weight of the past. Gone was my annual angst over ’33’ and how it ‘should be’. Gone was ‘the split’. Gone was the millstone of ‘sacred racing traditions’ that had hung around my neck for far too long. A growing feeling that, through all that had transpired over the recent months, and all we as a collective group of humans had endured, a guarded new hope and optimism began to emerge. It was as if the weather fell upon that lovely track last Sunday was to remind us that everything is again as it should be, just in the new way.

The track temperature waxed and waned, and the wind appeared just enough to be recognized. The conditions were a flirtatious reminder that, despite our western-worldly inclinations as humans that it is our destiny to grasp ‘control’ of the many things in our purview, sometimes it’s down to the subtly fickle and unknown origin of a generic Indiana Sunday in mid-May that surpasses the engineers and crew and drivers, to settle it’s final favor upon the field, just as it had at times in decades before.

I’ve not said much about it in the last few years, but to me Indycar, and especially the 500, has felt notably starched and a bit too manufactured to be rendered joyful. Even the greatest build-up in all of sports was metered-for-TV-ad-space, essentially draining all excitement of what was literally my favorite 30 minutes of the year. It sadly has been quite a long time since I’ve been surprised with chills up my neck watching Indycar either on-screen or in-person.

Mostly I recall only the in-person chills I’ve been fortunate enough to experience that only the crescendo of a hundred thousand cheering on the main straight can give. Notably when Michael and Rick traded unbelievable Turn 1 passes in 1991, or the amazing finish of the most otherwordly race in 1992, or Danica’s pass for the lead on Lap 190 in 2005 or Sam Hornish making a front-straight pass for the win in 2006. As I try to recall the most recent time, I think it may have been the last time Jim Nabors sang the first seven syllables of that glorious song, prior to the start of the engines in 2014, knowing it would be his last.

The day’s drama of the 2021 edition of last row qualifications was certainly tense and bittersweet but also gave way to the building tension of Fast 9 qualifying. As Tony Kanaan, Rinus VeeKay, then Ed Carpenter cracked the 232 miles-per-hour barrier with their first laps Sunday, the crowd noise through my TV was more than I’d heard in years and that magical feeling of chills long missing from my Indycar pleasure went up my neck once again. I can only imagine how great that must have felt in-person. With little left to write of the story of 2021 qualifying, the stage was set for the last two drivers and they also did not disappoint with two of the closest pole runs in history.

In spending much of my late-Sunday evening pouring over the field for this Sunday’s race, I can’t help but feel that this 500 will genuinely be special. For what reason, I cannot yet say. Let’s just say that it’s a feeling.

I find facets of this race intriguing already though:

  • The fastest average speed field in history.
  • One of the closest fields in speed in history.
  • Nine former winners.
  • A progressive team featuring a majority female ownership and crew.
  • 15 nations of origin represented in the field of 33.
  • The presence of the ‘Second Golden Era’ legends alongside the stunning emergence of ‘Generation Next’.
  • A new ownership and revamped facility awaiting what will once again be the largest single-day spectator sporting event in the world.
  • Generations of fans who appreciate the past, relish the present, and excite at the promise of the future of Indycar.

Much of what constitutes the essence of this race reminds me greatly of the race 30 years ago. A celebrated front row and field full of the First Golden Era legends, the current stars, barrier-breakers, and youth. During that race we saw things never-before seen, racecars still deemed aesthetically ‘perfect’ by many to this day, a competition of machine and driver and crew on the grandest scale, culminating in the crowning of the newest royalty at Indy.

Maybe the alignment is too perfect to be true, but I have to wonder if we won’t again crown 4-time royalty this Sunday in a legendary race for the ages. Perhaps it’s all too much to hope.

Regardless, I know I’ll need to go and find out first-hand. I hope to see you there too and we can share the experience of it all unfolding before our eyes.

The Middle of The Road

“the middle of the road, is no private cul-de-sac…”
– Chryssie Hynde, The Pretenders

As my tens of readers may or may not have noticed, there was no post last Tuesday. Due to a much-needed and enjoyable vacation week, I elected to enjoy my day at the beach and pool rather than stuff more content of questionable quality on the internet.

I found that, even on vacation, Indycar is never far from my mind. Road-tripping for 19 hours with my family to the sunny climes of Gulf-coast Florida, allows for copious driving time and the mind will wander, although auto-racing and Indycar is naturally very close to the surface.
The only major lament I’d have from this trip is that, while spending a vast majority of four days driving out of the last nine, a vast majority of people simply do not know how or do not care to know how to act while driving on a major interstate highway (RANT ALERT). There is ONE very simple rule on interstates that would ease SO many traffic woes:

It was observed that a goodly many of drivers from such great states as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, seem to be keenly unaware of the laws of most every state in the union with regard to interstate driving. 

Perhaps they’ve not heard the cautionary words of Chryssie Hynde.

Perhaps they’re unaware of the consequences of such actions.
Perhaps they simply do not care. 

Perhaps they’re rude and unchivalrous with regard to road etiquette.
I find it quite an unseemly commentary on our society actually.

Regardless, it is in the middle of the road, where you do indeed see the darnedest things, and yes, it is no cul-de-sac. Seemingly safe and comforting to be in the middle farthest away from those scary edges of the known. Unnecessary traffic snarls and semi-close calls belie that it’s actually a treacherous place filled with danger. 

Just ask Kevin Cogan. 

Or Ryan Hunter-Reay.

I cannot say to this day, with the highest degree of certainty that Hunter-Reay or Cogan were totally to blame.  The preponderance of evidence seems weighted against them however and often the precise facts of the matter rarely count in the court of public opinion. Both did harm to their reputations as drivers and both did damage to the image of the sport to some degree.

Even the sport of Indycar itself shows a proclivity for the safety in the middle of the road with its oft-compromised decision-making and white-washing of the history of the sport.

Maybe I’ve just become more sensitive or tolerant of the realities of life. As I get older, the middle of the road isn’t seen as a narrow balancing point but has come to represent a vast grey area that lies between the narrow lines of either extreme. For a great many days of our lives it is relatively safe there, but for the increasingly binary times in which we now live, for better or worse, it has come to represent a place lacking a sense of gravitas and especially at critical moments in time.  

Rick Mears’ famous outside pass into turn one at Indy in 1991, en route to his fourth and final Indy 500 victory, was in no way considered middle of the road.  The fastest race speed he would turn that day going into one, taking the most extreme line possible with no guarantee of coming out the other side cleanly is an example of not compromising at precisely the right moment in time.  

And such is the stuff of legend.