The Greatest Race in the World

The Pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway looks quite worldly.
The Pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway looks quite worldly.

I come from a long line of promoters. My grandfather, “Big Sandy Bob,” has told me more than once that I make a good promoter because I have a lot of his blood in me. My dad says similar crazy things.

There’s a problem with promotion, however: the actual event you’re hyping rarely lives up to the hype.

Often times, I’ll start building up some race or game or girl or car or band or meal — it’s almost always one of these six things — to my friends and do a good enough job to convince at least a few people that this [insert race/game/girl/car/band/meal here] will be life-changing.

And then said event comes to pass. And it’s not quite as special as I built it up to be. Sure, my friends may be impressed, but few events ever live up to the expectations I’ve set through hours of internal/external dialogue and anticipation.

Then there are the bucket list items.

If you do enough poking around this site, you’ll find the list that I set for myself when I was 22 on things I wanted to see and do. The items I’ve crossed off have all exceeded even a promoter’s expectations.

Covering the Masters? As special as I thought it would be.

Covering the Daytona 500? As eye-opening as I thought it would be.

Playing Augusta National? Best day of my life, even if I had Long John Silver’s for dinner.

On Memorial Day weekend this year, I crossed another one off my list: Go to the Indianapolis 500.

I didn’t have anyone to convince to go with me on this trip — my uncle Dave in Bloomington, invited me — so all of the promotion and hype was done between my ears. Even so, my expectations were high.

I’ve loved racing since I was five years old, but Indy was the only race on my bucket list. For good reason, of course.

This race, now 98 years old, is America’s most notable gift to the motorsports world. Sure, the Daytona 500 and many other NASCAR races get better TV ratings than the Indy 500, but it’s not the race’s fault. Even though American open-wheeled racing has continually shot itself in the head to the point of irrelevancy over the last 20 years, the Indy 500 is still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 as a 2.5-mile rectangle for cars that ran 70 mph. Now, the cars travel near 240 mph. In more than 100 years, more drivers have died at the speedway than have enjoyed a celebratory glass of milk after winning the 500.

Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You can see the Yard of Bricks
Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You can see the Yard of Bricks

I thought that former number grew by one on the Friday before the 500. We had moved to turn 1 seats just in time for the Indy Lights race. At about the halfway point, one driver lost control of his car in turn 1 and started to spin across the track toward a protruding inside wall. His car hit the wall at such an angle that it split in half — the engine launched across the track while the rest of the car came to a quick halt after hitting the barrier.

My uncle and I were looking right at the crash, and we then looked at each other with a shared look that we had just seen a guy get killed.

Fortunately, the driver only suffered a broken wrist. The angels were certainly riding with him.

The track is as clean and proper as any modern speedway, even though the placement of grandstands make sight lines worse than any American oval — the towering trees that line the infield golf course don’t help. Most of the seats don’t even have backs.

I find these details charming. I still contend that people don’t go to sporting events to see giant jumbo trons or sit in a padded seat. They don’t go because they can get a nice prime rib sandwich. The nicest and most impressive of stadium amenities can’t compete with what people have at home. None of these things sell tickets.

(I’d like to point out that several NASCAR tracks have been upgrading their facilities with these fancy amenities, and crowds continue to dwindle.)

A quarter of a million people came to Speedway, Indiana, to see the 500, and most of them actually made it to the race. The scene was distinctly Midwestern.

On Sunday, we parked in a guy’s yard for $5. He owned a few pit bulls that used to fight, but he doesn’t believe in fighting dogs. The dogs didn’t seem too interested in me when I walked into his backyard to use the restroom — a crooked oak tree.

Soon we were joined by folks from Ohio, Florida and Iowa. The guy from Ohio gave us all Hudy Delights, a delightfully PBR-like beer from Cincinnati. The woman from Florida showed off a bong that she made out of an apple.

“I can make one out of an orange, too, but the apple is way better,” she explained. We all took her word for it and politely declined.

On the walk to the track, a kid — maybe about seven years old — was selling shortcuts through a fence for a dollar. This was the best dollar I spent all weekend. Soon, we were in the sea of humanity all trying to filter through the turnstiles into the turn 3 grandstand. The security team in yellow shirts shouted that only coolers with glass containers needed to be checked.

The Midwest is full of the most honest people I’ve ever met.

Honesty was on full display Friday night at Dinky’s Auction House in the Amish region of Indiana. You don’t have to be Amish to go to Dinky’s, but several in attendance did show up in horse-drawn carriages. The Mennonites drove up in cars.

An Amish auction isn’t much different than a flea market auction. In one room, goats and chickens went on the block. In another, the auctioneer stood over a 20-foot wide pile of knickknacks and assorted crap. He kept the action moving, pulling an item of said crap out of the pile and selling it quickly to the winner of the bidding war — many of these wars didn’t crack the $2 mark, but some items made it to double digits.

My uncle cast a winning bid of $2 for a used hard-sided cooler and a box of unpainted, wooden fish. He quickly sold the cooler for $1 and plans to get 50 cents each for the dozen wooden fish. That’s a 600-percent profit.

I doubt many Amish made it to the Indy 500 that Sunday. I suspect they’d be more into the Kentucky Derby to get their horsepower fix.

So who does go to the Indy 500? Two kinds of people.

The first is there for the party. You know these people — the fraternity bros, people who like to camp, people who can make a bong out of a piece of fruit. Many of them ended up in the infield, raging all day, many of them not stopping to take a look at the race.

Then there are the race fans themselves, the people who go to the Indy 500 because it is the greatest race in the world — just ask them. These people, for the most part, have gone for years, sat in the same seats for years and have their race day rituals set out in front of them.

My pork tenderloin sandwich came from a diner outside of Bloomington.
My pork tenderloin sandwich came from a diner outside of Bloomington.

These people don’t care much for change. They care a lot more about pork tenderloin sandwiches.

I had never had a pork tenderloin sandwich, but I’ve learned that it is the state sandwich of Indiana. It’s a simple thing, really, just a giant cut of pork deep fried and served with pickles and mustard on a bun. I had mine with tomatoes and mayo.

The sandwich aligns well with the rest of my thoughts about Indiana. It’s simple and endearing, approachable and easy to enjoy. It is the Jackson Browne of sandwiches. Indiana is the Jackson Browne of states — It probably isn’t your favorite state, but once you arrive, you find it quite enjoyable to hang around in.

The Indy 500, however, is Bob Dylan. It’s long been billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” and it’s true. The pageantry beforehand was enough to make me cry.

The singing of “God Bless America?” Nice. Add the playing of “Taps”? Gulp. Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the final time? Waterworks. For everyone.

And then the cars came to life. They’re much more quiet than stock cars. They sounded understated, but no less sexy — and still better than the weed eaters Formula One cars sound like.

Because of the grip and downforce these cars have, they whirled around the speedway at speeds I had never seen in person. They also darted in and out of line in frantic moves that kept the 500-mile race an edge-of-my-seat affair.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, a Floridian like me, drove his car nearly into the grass on the backstretch to grab the lead on the 198th lap of 200. After he lost it to Helio Castroneves on the penultimate lap, he made his winning move on the outside as the two yellow cars flew off into turn 1.

None of us in turn 3 could see the pass for the lead in the flesh, but we heard it over the PA. Ecstasy.

Everyone waved their arms, hats and/or children at Hunter-Reay as he drove by on his victory lap. An American had won America’s greatest race. This mattered greatly.

Here I am, writing this story a month after the 500, and I still can’t stop smiling about it. In 11 months, I’ll be smiling again, singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” with a tear in my eye at the 99th Indianapolis 500.

The Indy 500 may be crossed off my bucket list, but the race and the place is where I want to spend the rest of my Memorial Day weekends.

It really is the greatest race in the world.


4 thoughts on “The Greatest Race in the World

  1. What a nice tribute to our beloved Indiana. We will look for you next year!!!!

  2. 2015 race was amazing… Last nine laps, and the lead changes.. Mind blowing!
    Joe, your a great writer. You have heart. Will be looking for u in same spot next year! And I will bring my “A” game

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