We’ll be returning to the usual topics we normally address later this week. But for now, imagine a sporting event, professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey—any of the big-time sports like that. Imagine thousands of people being allowed on the playing field before the big game, looking at the equipment, visiting with team personnel, team owners and managers, maybe spotting a celebrity or two. Then imagine the players being introduced and walking among the crowd to their positions before the crowd goes to their seats and the game begins.
That’s part of the crowd on the main straightaway at Indianapolis late Sunday morning. Not everybody who had a ticket could be there but thousands of people had obtained passes through various channels for this experience that doesn’t happen in stick-and-ball (or stick and puck) sports.
Imagine any of the stick-and-ball sports that have members of the competing teams seated at tables before the event and thousands of fans without passes lining up to get their autographs or their pictures taken with the athletes. Imagine retired players being assembled to give fans a chance to do the same with them.
Imagine a crowd of 200,000 or more watching the event on-scene and imagine that they generally quietly tolerate the traffic jams getting to the arena and leaving it afterwards.
That’s what happens each Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first race track to call itself a “speedway.” The climate and culture were similar at Charlotte, North Carolina that night where NASCAR held its longest race of the year—won by a Missourian this time, Carl Edwards of Columbia.
The past, the present, and the future—
All came together in one face Sunday at Indianapolis.
Your reporter was, maybe, ten feet from Juan Pablo Montoya when he turned to talk to Ryan Hunter-Ray and Graham Rahal, two men moments from trying to beat him to the end of the race that they and thirty others would run at speeds upward of 220 mph most of the time.
Montoya will be 40 in September. That’s starting to get up there for athletes at this level of competition (the oldest driver in the race Sunday was 42). He was 24 when he won the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt in 2000.
To his right, dressed in the yellow uniform, was Ryan Hunter-Reay, 34, who had won the great race last year in a wild closing-lap dogfight with three-time champion Helio Castroneves. And to Hunter-Reay’s right was Graham Rahal, who is 26, the son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal. His dad is the Rahal of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, the team for which Graham drives. Sunday was already his eighth 500 and a lot of folks are hoping that he or Marco Andretti (whose grandfather won in 1969) will someday win the 500.
Hunter-Reay, who was never a factor, finished 15th. Rahal was fifth. Montoya took home a $2.4-million paycheck for winning the race for the second time. Hunter-Reay is a representative of Indycar’s present. Rahal is clearly representative of the sport’s future. And Montoya has one foot in the past, is very much one of the dominating figures of the sport’s present, and don’t think he doesn’t believe he’s very much part of its future, too.
And speaking of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing:
Tolja he’d be there
David Letterman was in that crowd on the grid before the race. The biggest difference between him and others there is that he had a police escort and when his presence became known, photographers flocked around him. He was unruffled by the attention, chatting with keepers and tenders as he sat on the pit wall. Unfortunately, he later wound up with his face smashed against the wall on the main straightaway.
All of the team cars carried “Thanks Dave” messages on their rear fins but Oriol Servia’s car went further.
Unfortunately Servia and last year’s pole winner, Ed Carpenter tangled coming onto the main straightaway on the 113th lap and Servia’s car went side-first into the outer wall, giving Letterman a couple of interesting souvenirs of the race if he wants them—the side pod that scraped the wall or the one that didn’t. Regardless, he could have a couple of interesting wall-hangings for the den he might spend some of his new free time decorating.
Now, some of you who regularly check this scribe’s entries normally expect to read pithy things about politics, government, public policy, social commentary, history, and other things that stimulate the mind (we hope). But every now and then there are things that stimulate the soul, that render all that other stuff emotionally meaningless. Sports are those things. Your correspondent has been to World Series games, All-Star baseball games, NFL games in four Missouri stadia that have played host to three different teams, an NBA game (one is enough), a hockey game (worth another look someday), races at Churchill Downs (sorry, but something that only goes one lap and lasts for maybe a minute and a half, max, does not make this observer’s blood run faster). I’ve seen soccer and cricket and don’t know enough about either to develop the sophistication to appreciate them. Bowling is okay as a participant. We’ve watched arm-wrestling in Petaluma, cliff-diving from somewhere, curling during the Olympics (something about ice shuffleboard with big stones holds the attention, surprisingly), and bocce ball matches at a local restaurant.
But nothing does more for the pulse rate than the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (Wimbledon, by the way, is not something many would stay away from church to watch). Diehard NASCAR fans undoubtedly think the same way about the Charlotte 600-miler that runs the night after the 500—and NASCAR has its own noisy charm as we know from experience.
So let’s leave it at this: Get some earplugs. Get some tickets (there were plenty of available seats Sunday). Get to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend. Get to the track and to your seats. Soak up the pre-race atmosphere and then hang on and watch amazing things happen in front of you when the engines roar.
Beats the hell out watching the things that happened in front me while I was at the Senate press table all those years, I can guarantee you that.
Maybe I’ll see you at the place they call The Racing Capital of the World next year when the engulfing experience of this event happens for the 100th time. Look for me ‘n’ Dave. \
(pictures copyright by Bob Priddy)