With the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend, it seems impossible that it has been five years since we were at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Indy 500 is so much more than an auto race. It is pageantry. It is tradition. It is a history of more than a century and an opportunity to take part in an event along with more than a quarter million people. And having grown up in central Indiana, it will always hold a special place for me. Even though I had been to the 500 quite a few times before, this one was special to me. This was Debi’s first trip to the Indianapolis 500 and I also was able to share it with my father and my brother.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most famous racetrack in the world and this race saw some of the greatest racers in the world looking to add their image to the Borg Warner trophy that includes the profile of all past champions. The 2012 field included the always smiling Brazilian and three time 500 champion driver Helio Castroneves along his fellow countryman and always popular Tony Kanaan, who had not won it yet (although he would win the following year in 2013.) New Zealander Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner and Australian Ryan Briscoe would battle for the win. Young Americans Graham Rahal, son of former 500 champion Bobby Rahal and Marco Andretti, son of former racer Michael Andretti and grandson of the legendary 1969 winner Mario Andretti hoped to keep the title here in the US. The truly international field included other drivers representing Spain, Mexico, England, France, Canada, Venezuela, Switzerland, and Columbia. In the end though, it would come down to a battle between the hopeful Japanese driver Takuma Sato and the two time champion Scotsman Dario Franchitti. But more about that later.
The traditional events leading up to the green flag help build the suspense through the morning. There was Florence Henderson (Indiana native but best known to the world as Mrs. Brady of the “Brady Bunch’) singing “God Bless America,” Jim Nabors (best known as Gomer Pyle) singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” timed to the release of more than a hundred thousand biodegradable balloons, and on this Memorial Day weekend the playing of “Taps” paying homage to those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom. That lone trumpeter leaves a quarter of million people completely silent. And then there is the final tradition when those most famous words in auto sports are said. The simple call for “Drivers, start your engines” sends a chill through all those there. And then it begins.
The revving of the engines is just a precursor that will build to a roar in just a few laps, and as the cars pull onto the famed 2 1/2 mile oval they form into a perfectly aligned 11 rows of three for the parade lap. As they circle all the fans get their first look at the 33 drivers who all want the chance to have their name remembered in history as a 500 champion. As they approach turn 4, the pace car pulls off and at what appears to be a creep, but would be a good speed on the highway, the cars approach the starting line waiting for the green flag to wave. And then it does. With that simple gesture, 33 magnificent machines take off like rockets hurtling their occupants towards a 90 degree turn at speeds pushing 230 mph. The roar is a magnificent sound and sends a wave of electricity through the crowd and all eyes are on turn 1 to see if everyone will make it through safely. This year they did.
500 miles is a marathon, not a sprint. And after that first perilous turn to the checkered flag, it is a test of strategy and endurance. It is not possible to win on any of the laps in between, but a mistake can lose it. After nearly 498 miles it had come down to two drivers with the hope of winning. Takuma Sato passed the start line right on the tail of leader Dario Franchitti with the white flag waving, signifying one lap to go. Sato had never won the 500 and Dario had already won it twice. It is hard to tell who has a greater desire to win. Someone who has never won it, or someone who has tasted victory and wants nothing more than having that feeling again. On this day it would be determined in turn 1 of the last lap. While racing is about pushing the boundaries of science and technology, the two driver proved that the laws of physics are not breakable and two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. As they both fought for the same line in the turn the cars touched sending Sato spinning into the wall and sending Dario safely through to his third 500 victory.
It was a wonderful day. We had witnessed a thrilling race. Despite 33 men and women pushing the boundaries of themselves and technology, no one was injured. And I was able to add to my memory a day spent with my wife, my father, and my brother that I will remember throughout my days.
Speedway, Indiana May 2012