One of my favorite aspects of spring every year is the build up to what I consider New Year’s Day – Memorial Day weekend at Indianapolis. If I had to simply stare at my calendar and check off the days until the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for business in May, I’d probably go slightly nuts (nuttier, I’m sure some of my friends would say!). Thankfully, here in the American sports world, the Indianapolis 500 is simply the conclusion of a build-up occurring over several months that serves as a great primer to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The lead-up begins in earnest near the end of January when the racing season kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I’m not even going to try to pretend that I’m a big sports car racing fan. I do watch occasionally (and enjoy the racing when I do), but to be honest, I truly just don’t have the time to invest in becoming a big fan of either ALMS or GRAND-AM. Nonetheless, after three and a half months without the IZOD IndyCar Series, I’m usually desperate for racing of any sort and would probably watch pygmy camels drag racing through the Siberian wilderness if it had a starting line and a checkered flag!
Following the Rolex 24 by a couple weeks is the Super Bowl. With the built-up hype and unending media coverage the Super Bowl receives each year, these two weeks go by quickly, which is good because the end of January and beginning of February are usually the darkest, longest weeks of the year! Sure, the game rarely ever lives up to the hype (although this year’s Super Bowl XLV definitely did), but the fact remains that it is one of the biggest sporting events, if not the biggest, on the American calendar.
Leaving the gridiron, the sporting world’s focus turns back to the track with the Daytona 500 in mid-February. I know, I know… IndyCar fans will probably write in by the dozens saying, “Don’t put the Daytona 500 on my calendar. I won’t watch NAPCAR!” Yes, you will -- at least, this race you will. At the risk of having my house burned down by sports car fans, I would say Daytona 500 represents the start of the major-league racing year here in the United States. Yes, it comes several weeks after the Rolex 24, but unless you have SPEED and are glued to your TV, you have to actively seek out news on the 24. With the Daytona 500, on the other hand, you have to activity seek out a place to avoid the news. Like it or not, the Daytona 500 is the most-viewed auto race of the year and one that most racing fans will tune in to watch.
In the years that we are lucky, the Daytona 500 falls right around the same time as the Winter Olympics. For two weeks, the game isn’t about New York versus Boston or Chicago versus St. Louis. It’s all about uniting as one people to root for the Stars and Stripes. The greatest American athletes in each sport compete against the best from around the globe, not for dollars and individual pride but for the honor of an entire nation. The events are four years in making, two weeks in executing, and a lifetime in reminiscing. We don’t always win, as evidenced by last year’s defeat in the thrilling hockey final versus Canada, but we unite, which in polar times like those we live in, is probably more important.
After the Daytona 500 and the Winter Olympics is the NCAA basketball tournament. For three weekends in late March and early April, the hopes and sanity of fans across the nation rest on the shoulders of 18-21 year-old boys whose every move is scrutinized across every possible media platform. It is said that the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA are the least productive and most costly work days of the year for American business -- unless, of course, your business is a sports bar with dozens of TVs showing every game in its entirety. Sure, the NCAA Tournament has been tainted by commercialism and fans are often more interested in their own personal brackets and wagers, but in the end, one team emerges above all others to claim the title of NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions.
One week removed from the Final Four is what I believe to be the second greatest tradition in all of sports: The Masters, held annually on the second weekend in April. Quite simply, there are few events or sporting venues more revered throughout the world than The Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club. The stunning beauty of the eastern Georgia landscape and the quietude broken by isolated chirping of birds and thunderous ovations of a roaring crowd make The Masters a must-see event, even for those not interested in the game itself. While many sporting events have tried to modernize themselves with loud rock music and in-your-face graphics, The Masters and its television partner, CBS, bask in the simplicity of its extraordinary presentation. The Green Jacket, Butler Cabin, Amen Corner, the Eisenhower Pine, Magnolia Lane, the Sarazen Bridge, and solo piano ballad composed by David Loggins all passively declare that spring has finally arrived. It doesn’t need to be flashy. It’s just that good.
With the passing of April, the first weekend of May brings speed as the best thoroughbreds in the world compete in the Run for the Roses. Run annually since 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States. Every year, nearly 150,000 spectators gather at Louisville’s Churchill Downs to partake in the Fastest Two Minutes in Sports and relive traditions that very nearly reflect those of the Indianapolis 500. As Indianapolis is well-known for its tenderloin sandwich, the Kentucky Derby is well-known for its mint julep. As Indianapolis has the Purdue University All-American Marching Band and “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the Kentucky Derby has the University of Louisville Marching Band and “My Old Kentucky Home.” As the Indianapolis 500 champion is greeted by a bottle of milk and a winner’s wreath, the winner of the Kentucky Derby is adorned with a blanket of roses signifying his accomplishment and place at the pinnacle of the sport. Separated by only 112 miles, the torch of speed is then passed directly up I-65 and settles in for two weeks at Indianapolis.
As we are now less than six weeks away from seeing the gates at 16th Street and Georgetown Road swing open, it seems like an eternity since Dario Franchitti won his second Indianapolis 500 last year. Thankfully, we sports fans have plenty to keep us occupied until that time, and this list hasn’t even touched on baseball’s opening day, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series season. The time will soon come for us to descend upon Indianapolis for two weeks that will again seem way too short. The impending hangover that will follow the 95th running of the great race will leave many saddened at the thought of facing another year before the engines fire again at Indianapolis. But once January comes, the whole routine will start over and Indianapolis will again be the culmination of five months of great sporting events.
Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com, your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.